EPA Administrator Wheeler answered questions about key water issues during a Senate hearing. President Trump orders federal agencies to consider relaxing regulations to boost the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic. NOAA forecasts an active Atlantic hurricane season. Senate Democrats press the EPA for details on PFAS contamination at Superfund sites. An Army Corps of Engineers research institute reports on underground storage of water for Corps projects. USDA report examines dietary shifts and water use. A California senator introduces a bill to provide $600 million in federal funds to repair sinking canals in the Central Valley. EPA science advisers weigh in on agency’s novel coronavirus research agenda. And lastly, the latest Lake Erie algal forecast raises the floor on the expected severity of this summer’s bloom.
“The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our nation is profound. However, our nation is ripe for investment in public works projects that will put people back to work and stimulate our economy, as was done with the New Deal.” — Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) speaking in the Senate about the benefits of infrastructure investment by the federal government.
By the Numbers
60 percent: Chance of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season. A federal science agency is forecasting between three and six major hurricanes (those that are category 3 or higher). Though hurricane season typically begins on June 1, there has already been one named storm — Arthur — which passed by the North Carolina coast a week ago. (NOAA)
$600 million: Federal funding for canal repairs in California’s Central Valley, in a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Groundwater pumping in the region has caused the land beneath the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota and Friant-Kern canals to buckle, reducing their carrying capacity in the process. The canals carry water to farms and cities in central and southern California. The bill includes $200 million to restore salmon habitat. A companion bill has already been introduced in the House.
In context: Sinking Land Causes California Water Chokepoint
Wheeler Testimony to Senate Committee
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not be able to meet a deadline proposed in Congress for setting a national drinking water standard for two PFAS chemicals.
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, made that comment during testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 20.
“I don’t believe that the agency can set an MCL on their own following the Safe Drinking Water Act within a year,” Wheeler said, using the technical abbreviation for drinking water standards.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked Wheeler about the agency’s stance on groundwater regulation, given the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Maui case. Wheeler said that the agency is reviewing the case to see whether it will issue new guidance or rules.
“We were hoping for more clear-cut direction, quite frankly,” Wheeler said about the court’s decision that provides a new test for determining when groundwater pollution requires a federal permit.
In response to a question about states not being on track to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup targets, Wheeler called a potential lawsuit against the EPA “frivolous.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and partners in Maryland and Virginia notified the agency earlier this month that they planned to sue over slow progress in New York and Pennsylvania.
Covid-19 Executive Order Aims at Federal Regulations
President Trump directed federal agencies to consider rescinding regulations to help the country’s economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
The executive order states that: “Agencies should address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery, consistent with applicable law and with protection of the public health and safety, with national and homeland security, and with budgetary priorities and operational feasibility.”
Senate Democrats Press EPA for PFAS Details
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works are asking the EPA for more information about PFAS contamination it has identified at 180 Superfund sites.
Democrats want to know which chemicals are present and in what concentrations.
Nutrient Pollution in Lakes and Reservoirs
The EPA published draft guidelines for nutrient concentrations in lakes and reservoirs.
States and tribes can use the guidelines when revising their nutrient criteria, but they are not required to do so.
Public comments are being accepted through July 21, 2020. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2019-0675.
Studies and Reports
Novel Coronavirus Research
The EPA Science Advisory Board submitted a draft review of the agency’s research agenda for Covid-19.
The advisers recommend that the agency lead or assist with a national program to monitor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater, and to decontaminate buildings.
To analyze the virus in wastewater important questions need to be answered: how quickly the virus degrades (important if there are long intervals between home toilet flushes and sewage sampling), the rate at which the virus is shed in infected persons, who will conduct sampling and how often.
The advisers recommend that EPA researchers work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to assess the prevalence of the virus in wastewater workers. The virus could be aerosolized during the sewage treatment process.
They also suggest monitoring sewage overflows for potential virus transmission.
Managed Aquifer Recharge
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expand its efforts to understand and incorporate underground storage of water as part of its water supply and planning missions, according to a report from the agency’s Institute for Water Resources.
The Corps is already employing or evaluating managed aquifer recharge in 17 states, the report notes. That includes the proposed Western Hillsboro aquifer storage project in South Florida, which is part of a water supply plan, and a pilot project in California’s San Joaquin Valley to keep salt water from intruding into irrigation wells.
Freshwater Use and the U.S. Food Chain
Shifting all American residents from a typical diet to a healthy diet would increase freshwater use within the food supply chain by 16 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
The projected increase for the healthy diet is due to consuming a larger portion of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and dairy products. Water use in the supply chain includes growing, processing, transporting, and home preparation. The typical diet is based on 2007 data.
On the Radar
Lake Erie Algal Bloom Forecast
Heavy rains last week in the Lake Erie watershed have raised the floor for the expected severity of this summer’s harmful algal bloom.
The weekly forecast from NOAA and Heidelberg University provides a range of potential outcomes. The low end of the range was lifted last week because of the rains, which are the key variable for algal growth. The rains wash nutrients into the lake’s shallow western basin.
The bloom is expected to rate between a three and a five on a 10-point scale. The bloom last year was rated 7.5.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on May 27 to discuss the heavier impacts of Covid-19 on communities of color.
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