Federal Water Tap, February 24: Trump Visit Inflames California Water Tensions

The Rundown

Trump visits California’s Central Valley, directs his agencies to increase farm water deliveries, and is promptly sued by California. The EPA says it plans to regulate two PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and reaffirms a rural water partnership. The USGS surveys drinking water quality in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and finds declining Colorado River flows linked to global warming. And lastly, House committees discuss flood maps and the next Water Resources Development Act.

“Increasing risk of severe water shortages is expected.” — Abstract of a U.S. Geological Survey paper that describes how global warming is shrinking the Colorado River. The study was published in the journal Science.

By the Numbers

$300 million: Additional reimbursement that the federal government will provide to California for repairing the Oroville Dam spillway. The government had initially denied that amount. All told, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for $750 million of the $1.1 billion repair bill. (Sacramento Bee)

News Briefs

Central Valley Water Conflict
During a visit to Bakersfield, President Donald Trump and his associates signed documents that aim to increase water deliveries to farms and cities south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the waterbody that is ground zero in California’s perpetual struggle over water.

The Interior Department issued a final decision for coordinating the operation of state and federal canals systems. In short, the decision will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to base water deliveries on real-time conditions and give the bureau the flexibility to send more water south of the delta.

Alongside the operational changes, Trump signed a presidential memo that directs the agencies to take additional steps to divert more water to the Central Valley. Those steps include developing more water storage, capturing stormwater, and taking advantage of relaxed Endangered Species Act requirements.

State officials were ready, filing a lawsuit within hours to block the operational changes, alleging that the administration’s revisions do not adequately protect endangered and threatened fish.

David Bernhardt, the Interior secretary, was just as quick to respond to the lawsuit, asserting that department staff had done a thorough job and that legal action would open a can of uncertainty.

“The governor and attorney general just launched a ship into a sea of unpredictable administrative and legal challenges regarding the most complex water operations in the country, something they have not chartered before,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “Litigation can lead to unpredictable twists and turns that can create significant challenges for the people of California who depend on the sound operation of these two important water projects.”

Before leading the Interior Department, Bernhardt was a lobbyist for one of the water districts that stands to benefit from the water-delivery decision.

PFAS Regulatory Determination
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first step in a multi-year process toward regulating certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

In a draft decision, the EPA said that it will set national drinking water limits for PFOA and PFOS, the two most-studied of the roughly 4,000 chemicals in the PFAS family. Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, had said a year ago that the agency would eventually regulate those two substances as part of its action plan to address PFAS contamination across the country.

The EPA will be taking public comments on the draft proposal for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

Rural Drinking Water
The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines how the agencies will cooperate in assisting small water and sewer systems. Expanding their current collaboration, the agreement focuses on education, training, planning, and funding.

In context: In Louisiana, Officials Pursue Fixes for Indebted, Failing Water Systems

Studies and Reports

Shrinking Colorado River
U.S. Geological Survey researchers estimate that every 1 degree Celsius of warming has decreased the flow of the Colorado River by nearly 10 percent.

They found that reductions in snowpack are creating a downward spiral for river runoff. That is because snowpack declines also result in a loss of albedo, or reflectivity. Darker surfaces absorb more energy, which leads to warmer temperatures and more evaporation.

Any increase in precipitation will not be enough to offset the evaporation losses, they found.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Water Quality Sampling in West Virginia’s Coalfields
Groundwater contamination is one possible factor in higher-than-average cancer rates in the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

But because much of the region is served by private wells, there is little data on contaminants in drinking water and thus no easy way to link drinking water exposure to bad health.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in partnership with state and federal health agencies, is beginning to close the data gap. Researchers collected water samples from 46 private wells and 14 coal mine discharge pipes.

More than four out of five sites had corrosive water, which can leach contaminants like lead from pipes. Most of the samples, however, did not exceed EPA drinking water standards. The contaminants that most frequently exceeded standards for health or taste/appearance were: manganese, iron, sodium, and radon.

On the Radar

Water Hearings in Congress

  • As it prepares to work on new water resources legislation, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is inviting members of the House to share their views on Army Corps projects in their districts. The hearing will be held on February 27. The committee is the starting point in the House for the Water Resources Development Act, a piece of legislation that authorizes dams, levees, ports, and ecosystem restoration projects, and is typically renewed every two years.
  • Also on February 27, the House Science Committee will discuss federal flood maps in an era of climate change. Representatives from FEMA and NOAA will testify, as will the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain managers.

In context: Two Hurricanes, Two Floods: North Carolina Town Fights to Stay Alive

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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