Federal Water Tap, February 3: Early Flood Warnings in the Upper Midwest

The Rundown

The Army Corps sounds an alarm over flood risks in the upper Mississippi River basin. House Democrats outline a $760 billion infrastructure package that includes some money for water projects. Bernie Sanders introduces bills on PFAS chemicals and a fracking ban. Other water bills advance out of a House committee. U.S. Geological Survey researchers find pharmaceutical compounds in smaller streams. And lastly, the New Mexico delegation awaits a response from the Defense Department on paying for PFAS contamination in that state.

“We’re seeing flows we might normally see in late spring. And it doesn’t seem to be wanting to slow down.” — Dan Fasching, Upper Mississippi River water manager for the Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul District, told the Star Tribune about high river flows in Minnesota. The upper Midwest is still exceptionally waterlogged. Water managers are concerned about early-season flooding in a region that experienced record floods last year.

In context: U.S. Water Data, Refreshed Daily

By the Numbers

$760 billion: Five-year infrastructure package outlined by House Democrats. More than half the sum goes toward roads and bridges ($329 billion) and public transit ($105 billion). Wastewater treatment and reuse ($50.5 billion), drinking water ($25 billion), and flood protection ($10 billion) would see much less. The money for wastewater and drinking water would be routed through the state revolving funds, the federal government’s main loan program for water infrastructure.

News Briefs

Sanders Introduces PFAS, Fracking Bills
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced bills on two hot-button issues.

One bill is the Prevent Future American Sickness Act, which would take a number of actions to address PFAS contamination. It would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate all PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund Act. That move would facilitate cleanups by holding polluters financially responsible. But it is a provision that failed in recent legislation and does not have the support of water industry groups, which worry about liability for wastewater treatment plants.

The bill would also allow state revolving fund dollars to be used for purchasing filters for homes with a private well that has been contaminated with PFAS chemicals. It goes on to authorize the EPA to run a grant program to aid community water systems with the cost of installing treatment systems.

The other bill is the bluntly titled Fracking Ban Act. It would do just that: ban hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas on all onshore and offshore land in the country, starting in 2025.

There’s more. The bill would prohibit any federal agency from issuing a permit for expanding infrastructure related to fracking. That includes pipelines, natural gas power plants, export terminals, and facilities that turn natural gas into the material basis for plastics.

It would also require all fracked oil and gas wells operating within 2,500 feet of a school, home, or other inhabited building to stop operating immediately.

Water Bills Advance in the House
A House committee approved several water bills, sending them to the full House for consideration.

Those bills include: the Climate-Ready Fisheries Act, which would require an assessment of what federal fisheries management agencies are doing to prepare for climate impacts, and the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment Act, which would order federal agencies to coordinate on a national conservation strategy focused on climate change.

Studies and Reports

USGS Tracks Pharmaceuticals in Headwater Streams
Pharmaceutical residues in streams are a “nationwide environmental concern” that extends into the headwaters of urban and more isolated streams, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study.

Most investigations of medicines in rivers come from urban areas, where wastewater treatment plants are a common discharge source.

In this study, published in the journal PLOS, federal scientists looked farther upstream. Between 2014 and 2017, they tested 308 streams that were less than 10 meters wide and 1 meter deep. They looked for 111 pharmaceutical compounds and found them frequently, generally with multiple pharmaceuticals occurring at once. The most common compounds detected were nicotine, caffeine, and metformin, a type-II diabetes drug.

Many of the pharmaceuticals were detected in areas without a wastewater treatment plant discharge, affirming conclusions from earlier research that there are other contamination pathways — septic tanks, sewage overflows, stormwater runoff — beside centralized treatment plants.

The researchers argue that the study results demonstrate the need for a “whole watershed” approach to reducing pharmaceutical contamination of rivers.

On the Radar

State of the Union
President Donald Trump gives the annual address to Congress on February 4.

New Mexico Representatives Await DOD Response to PFAS
New Mexico’s congressional delegation is still waiting on the Defense Department to say how it will remedy PFAS contamination stemming from Cannon Air Force Base.

On January 13, the state’s House and Senate representatives — all five of them Democrats — sent a letter to Mark Esper, the Defense secretary.

The letter asked Esper to outline steps the department would take to address the contamination. The representatives requested three actions that were authorized by recent legislation: provide clean water to affected residents, reimburse filtration costs, and purchase contaminated dairy land.

A dairy farmer near the base whose herd is now producing PFAS-laced milk says that he has been financially ruined by the ordeal.

Ned Adriance, a spokesperson for Sen. Tom Udall, one of the letter writers, told Circle of Blue that the Defense Department said it will respond to the letter by mid-February.

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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