A House Committee advances a water infrastructure bill, while the Trump administration cuts down the federal environmental review process. The EPA finalizes a rule restricting state water quality reviews under the Clean Water Act. NOAA report finds more high-tide flooding on the coasts. The EPA announces funding for a low-interest water infrastructure loan program. Federal hydropower regulators introduce a hiccup to Klamath dam removal. And lastly, the GAO assesses federal spending in high-poverty areas and notes that the Trump administration has minimized the cost of carbon emissions in its regulatory accounting.
“Sea level rise flooding of U.S. coastlines is happening now, and it is becoming more frequent each year. This flooding typically occurs when ocean waters reach 0.5 meter (m) to 0.65 m above the daily average high tide and start spilling onto streets or bubbling up from storm drains. Evidence of a rapid increase in sea level rise related flooding started to emerge about two decades ago, and it is now very clear. This type of coastal flooding will continue to grow in extent, frequency, and depth as sea levels continue to rise over the coming years and decades.” — Introduction to a NOAA report on high tide flooding in 2019.
By the Numbers
$5 billion: Loan assistance that will be available in the fiscal year 2020 round of the WIFIA program, a water and sewer infrastructure loan program. WIFIA provides low-interest federal loans that can cover up to 49 percent of project costs. (EPA)
Substantial Changes to Environmental Review
The Trump administration finalized the most comprehensive overhaul to federal environmental review policy in more than four decades.
The revisions change the definition of major terms in the National Environmental Policy Act, in effect limiting the number of projects that require an analysis of their consequences to land, water, air, cultural resources, and people.
The revisions set a time limit and a page limit on the reviews. They eliminate a distinction between direct, indirect, and cumulative effects, instead centering analysis on the “affected environment.”
The administration argues that the environmental review process is needlessly complex and protracted, but opponents worry that less thorough analysis is a gateway to more pollution.
The changes go into effect on September 14.
Clean Water Act Permitting
The EPA finalized its rule that restricts state review of projects under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.
The rule limits the scope of state reviews, requiring them to look at direct water pollution discharges from the project. They are not to take into account things like climate effects and water withdrawals. In justifying the rule, Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, said that states had “abused” their authority when they used Section 401 reviews to reject natural gas pipeline and export terminals in New York and Oregon, respectively.
The rule, which also prohibits reviews from taking more than one year, goes into effect on September 11.
Hiccup in Klamath Dam Removal
Federal hydropower regulators made an unexpected move last week that could interfere with the removal of four dams on the Klamath River.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is requiring PacifiCorp, the owner of the dams, to remain a co-licensee with the nonprofit group that will oversee the demolition. PacifiCorp had anticipated transferring the license, paying $200 million from customer surcharges to assist with removal, and then walking away from the aging dams.
Partners in the project, which would be the largest dam removal in U.S. history, said they will reconvene and discuss next steps, the Associated Press reports.
House Water Resources Development Act
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced a water infrastructure bill that funds Army Corps of Engineers projects, including dam safety, flood protection, navigation, and ecosystem restoration.
A related bill in the Senate has moved out of committee but has not received a full vote.
The House expects to vote on the bill the week of July 27.
Studies and Reports
Federal Government Lowers Its Estimate of Cost of Carbon Emissions
The Trump administration, by changing two key assumptions, has decreased the estimated social and environmental cost of carbon pollution, the Government Accountability Office reports.
The result of the change is that a key variable used in federal regulatory decisions is now about seven times lower than it was during the Obama administration.
To minimize the impact — on paper — of carbon emissions the Trump administration made two adjustments: it looked only at U.S. damages from climate change and it increased the discount rate, which minimizes the importance of future damages.
More High-Tide Floods
The number of days with flooding during high tide in the United States is now double what it was in the year 2000, according to a NOAA report.
Last year the national median number of such flooding days was the second highest year on record. They were especially pronounced along the Texas Gulf Coast and in Miami, Savannah, Charleston and Annapolis.
In 2020, the report anticipates that these trends will continue. The highest number of high-tide flood days is expected along the northeast Atlantic Coast and western Gulf Coast.
Federal Spending in High-Poverty Areas
The Government Accountability Office tallied spending by federal programs in high-poverty areas.
Eleven percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural water and wastewater loans in 2017-19 went to high-poverty counties, according to the report. A quarter of the household water well grants was spent in those counties.
Members of Congress asked the office to conduct the analysis. A bill introduced in the House in 2019 would require federal economic development programs to direct at least 10 percent of their funding to high-poverty counties. The bill, introduced by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) adds requirements for high-poverty Census tracts.
On the Radar
DOE Desalination Research
On July 22, the Department of Energy will host a webinar outlining research goals and funding opportunities linked to a water-energy R&D hub that was launched last year.
The hub is part of DOE’s Water Security Grand Challenge, an initiative to lower the cost of clean water and recover energy and other resources from wastewater.
Registration for the webinar is free but required.
Bureau of Reclamation Prize Competition
No county fair this summer but still want to compete for prizes?
The Bureau of Reclamation’s latest prize challenge (“Guardians of the Reservoir”) seeks a better way to keep sediments from building up in reservoirs and to remove them once they are there. Sedimentation is bad: it decreases storage capacity.
The submission deadline is October 1. Up to $550,000 in cash prizes are available. That’ll buy a lot of ring toss throws at the next fair.
Western Water Bills
On July 22, a Senate subcommittee will hear testimony on five bills related to water resources in the American West.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton