Federal Water Tap, May 4: EPA Officials Provide Update on Covid-19 Response

The Rundown

Democrats aim to aid water utilities and their customers in the next coronavirus relief bill. California officials and the Interior Department continue to exchange criticism of water actions. USGS researchers find limits to a river’s nitrogen removal capacity. The CDC acknowledges virus-tracking capability of sewage. And lastly, a Senate committee discusses two draft water infrastructure bills.

“I know many utilities right now are distressed. They’re seeing a major reduction in revenues, and we’re hopeful we can do something directly to utilities also in future legislation.” — Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) addressing an April 29 webinar for Water Week, the water industry’s annual D.C. lobbying event, which took place remotely this year. Though neglected in legislation so far, emergency aid for utilities and their customers is a Democratic priority for the next round of coronavirus relief, he said.

In context: Water Utilities Want a Bailout. Will Congress Listen?

By the Numbers

$889.7 million: Lifecycle cost of NASA’s PACE satellite mission, which is scheduled to launch in January 2024. Instruments onboard the satellite will allow scientists to track coastal water quality and harmful algal blooms. A separate mission that will measure changes in the levels of oceans and inland waters is scheduled to launch by April 2022. (GAO)

1 million: Cloth masks secured from FEMA through EPA for water and wastewater workers. The masks were distributed to states according to the extent of their Covid-19 outbreak.

News Briefs

EPA Officials Provide Update on Covid-19 Response
Two representatives of the EPA Office of Water addressed a webinar for Water Week, a lobbying event for the water industry.

Andrew Sawyers, the director of the Office of Wastewater Management, said that his office is following many issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sawyers said the agency is working with farmers to address surplus milk, which, if it is dumped, must be handled like a pollutant because of its high nutrient content.

The agency is working with the CDC and external agencies to understand virus disinfection and its fate in wastewater.

Sawyers also noted that the agency is working to complete a revision of its affordability guidance, but he does not yet have a timeline for publishing a draft version.

“It will likely speak very clearly to some of the concerns that you expressed in terms of making sure that the poorest within communities are considered,” Sawyers said. Current EPA guidance is based on the median household income for a utility’s entire service area, even though affordability problems are most acute for those at the bottom of the income distribution.

Jennifer McLain, the director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, said that her office is working with the Department of Homeland Security to secure water treatment chemicals. There had been reports that a few utilities were having trouble acquiring carbon dioxide because of the shutdown of ethanol plants. Carbon dioxide is used in balancing pH.

The agency also helped secure cloth masks for water and wastewater system workers through a FEMA emergency program.

PFAS Request
With Congress moving closer to discussing an infrastructure bill, groups are lobbying for their areas of interest.

Eighty-three representatives sent a letter to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership asking that they consider including provisions that would restrict industrial discharges of PFAS. Those provisions passed the House in January.

Tracking SARS-CoV-2 in Sewage
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged in a statement to Politico that it is considering ways of tracking the virus in sewage, but it is not currently doing any such testing.

BioBot, a Boston-area startup, is testing sewage samples in the United States for the virus. Groups in Australia and the Netherlands are among those tracking the virus in sewage in other countries.

In context: Virus Hunters Find Coronavirus Clues in Sewage

Interior Department Responds to California Representatives
David Bernhardt, the Interior secretary, sent letters to California representatives in response to their concerns about coordination of state and federal water projects in the state.

Bernhardt noted that the water projects continue to operate in a coordinated manner, but he objected to recent lawsuits filed by the state against federal permits and biological opinions about endangered species.

The state believes that the permits do not protect the ecosystem, but Bernhardt claimed that the opinions are “strongly grounded in the best available science” and that the state’s actions are “ill-founded and potentially unlawful.”

Studies and Reports

Limits to Nitrogen Removal
Excess nitrogen in rivers from farms and urban runoff has plagued estuaries and coastal ecosystems with algal blooms and dead zones. Some of that nitrogen is removed by the river ecosystem. But there are limits.

A U.S. Geological Survey study of watersheds in the northeastern United States found that rivers have a tipping point: when nitrogen concentrations reach a certain level, the ecosystem’s ability to remove the nutrient rapidly diminishes.

Beyond these tipping points, more nitrogen is delivered downstream, worsening water quality problems.

By extension, reducing concentrations below the tipping point provides a boost in removal capacity.

“In the Northeastern United States, agricultural activity and urban development have caused long-term nitrogen concentrations above the saturation threshold throughout nearly half of the river network,” the authors report.

On the Radar

Senate Water Infrastructure Bill Meeting
On May 6, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will discuss two water infrastructure bills that were released in draft form at the end of April.

Together, the bills would authorize some $19.5 billion for water systems, ports, flood management, and drinking water.

The discussion will be livestreamed.

Coronavirus Response Hearing
On May 6, the House Appropriations Committee hosts a hearing on the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Slated to testify are Tom Frieden, a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The discussion will be livestreamed.

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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