Federal Water Tap, June 22: EPA Decides Not to Regulate Perchlorate in Drinking Water

The Rundown

The EPA reverses a regulatory decision that it made nine years ago for the chemical perchlorate. House Democrats refocus on infrastructure. The Senate passes a land, water, and parks conservation bill. Colorado River use drops to 33-year low in three lower basin states. Michigan representatives seek to extend Flint Lead Registry and expand federal disaster funding to include household drinking water. A New York representative introduces a bill relating to septic system grants and taxes. The federal government states its position in a Keystone XL permitting case before the Supreme Court. And lastly, NASA satellites track environmental changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“So, we think that this will be non-partisan, very bipartisan. And we look forward to working together: House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and with the White House. The president really wants, we understand, he really wants an infrastructure bill. He talks about it quite a bit. And so, now, let’s get down to what that means for the 21st century.” — Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, discussing the Democrats’ infrastructure package, which they will bring up for a vote before the July 4 recess. Pelosi added that because of the coronavirus “so many of the needs have been magnified in terms of water needs.”

By the Numbers

$5.8 million: Grant funding for 22 desalination research projects. The projects focus on a range of applications, from reusing irrigation drainage water and treating oil and gas wastewater to removing PFAS and nitrate. (Bureau of Reclamation)

$900 million: Amount that the Great American Outdoors Act allocates annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Money for the fund, which supports parks, trails, and conservation, comes from offshore oil and gas royalties. The act also establishes a fund for national parks maintenance. Capped at $1.9 billion a year over five years, the maintenance fund would draw revenue from fossil fuel and renewable energy leasing on federal lands. The act passed the Senate last week by a vote of 73 to 25.

News Briefs

No Regulation for Perchlorate
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially decided against setting federal drinking water standards for perchlorate, a chemical used in explosives and rocket fuel that has been shown to interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland.

In a reversal from a determination it made in 2011, the EPA argues that perchlorate does not meet the criteria for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and that levels are not high enough nationally to require a federal standard.

Environmental groups questioned this interpretation, noting that perchlorate does have known health effects.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which had sued in 2016 to compel the agency to finalize the rule, blasted the decision as “illegal, unscientific, and unconscionable.”

Flint Lead Registry Bill
A bipartisan coalition of Michigan lawmakers is asking Congress for $50 million to extend the Flint Lead Registry.

Established in 2016, the registry is a tool for understanding health outcomes from the city’s lead contamination crisis and for tracking the impact of social and economic programs meant to address the health burden.

Water Access in Emergencies Bill
House Democrats from Michigan introduced a bill that would amend federal disaster-response law to allow states to use FEMA funds to provide water and hygiene services to individuals during emergencies.

The Water for Public Health Act would allow states to use federal funding for actions like reconnecting water service to homes where service had been shut off; suspension of service disconnections; installation of handwashing stations; and provision of bottled water.

In context: As Cities Suspend Shutoffs, Water Access and Hygiene at Front of Coronavirus Response

Taxes and Septic Systems
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY) introduced a bill that would reverse an Internal Revenue Service decision earlier this year that homeowners who receive a state or local grant to replace their septic tanks must pay taxes on the grant amount.

Suozzi notes that that bill does not sound exciting, but it will affect people’s wallets. He expects that it will be included in the House Democrats’ infrastructure package.

Suffolk County, on Long Island, is partially located in Suozzi’s district. Septic systems are one of the county’s biggest water pollution problems, and the county launched a grant program in 2017 to help homeowners with upgrades.

In context: Ecosystems Are Dying As Long Island Contends with a Nitrogen Bomb

Studies and Reports

Colorado River Conservation
Use of Colorado River water in the three states of the river’s lower basin fell to a 33-year low in 2019, amid growing awareness of the precarity of the region’s water supply in a drying and warming climate.

Arizona, California, and Nevada combined to consume just over 6.5 million acre-feet last year, according to an annual audit from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the lower basin. That is about 1 million acre-feet less than the three states are entitled to use under a legal compact that divides the Colorado River’s waters.

The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.

In context: Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use a Sign of Climate Adaptation

Keystone XL Court Case
The federal government’s lawyer to the Supreme Court argued, in a case with national implications, that the justices should put on hold a lower court’s ruling regarding a crucial permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The Army Corps of Engineers employed a national general permit when it authorized the oil pipeline project’s dredging and filling of wetlands. The lower court invalidated the general permit — not just for the pipeline but altogether, arguing that the Corps should have looked more closely at potential harm to endangered species.

The general permit is used frequently to authorize infrastructure projects such as pipelines and transmission lines.

The U.S. solicitor general, who argues the federal government’s position, wrote in a brief that the Supreme Court should issue a stay and that the lower court’s decision to invalidate the permit was not warranted for the particular case (Keystone XL), let alone for the entire country.

On the Radar

NASA To Discuss Environmental Monitoring During Pandemic
Representatives from NASA and the European and Japanese space agencies will release data showing the environmental impact of economic shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The press conference will be streamed online at 9 a.m Eastern on June 25. Graphics will be available on this website, starting about an hour before the conference.

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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