Federal Water Tap, October 12: Supreme Court Begins October Session with Interstate Water Dispute

The Rundown

The nation’s highest court has several water-related cases on the horizon, starting with the Pecos River. House Democrats want the CDC to halt water shutoffs during the pandemic. The House passes a bill to clean up plastic pollution in waterways. A bipartisan group of lawmakers ask three federal agencies to protect schools from PFAS contamination in drinking water. The EPA surveys water utilities to learn Covid-19 financial and operational impacts. The number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters in the first nine months of the year tied an annual record. Federal scientists release a review showing the toxic effects that fluoride has on infant brains. And lastly, lawmakers and the White House still cannot agree on a coronavirus relief package.

“The heart of the matter is: can we allow the virus to rage on and ignore science as the Administration proposes, or will they accept the scientific strategic plan in the Heroes Act to crush the virus. We have other differences in terms of who benefits from the spending. But in terms of addressing testing, tracing and treatment, what the Trump Administration has offered is wholly insufficient.” — Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, in a note to Democratic colleagues on October 11. The administration and House leadership “remain at an impasse” in their quest to negotiate a Covid-19 relief bill, Pelosi said.

By the Numbers

16: Weather-related disasters through the first nine months of the year that caused more than $1 billion in damages. That ties the annual record, which was set in 2011 and 2017. Fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, and hail storms are included. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Water at the Supreme Court
Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court began the October session by hearing arguments over sharing water from the Pecos River.

The issue at stake is an accounting claim: whether the river master who oversees water allocations from the river correctly deducted evaporation losses from a reservoir in New Mexico to Texas’s side of the ledger. Texas claims that it should not be penalized. (For an in-depth legal analysis, see Scotusblog.)

Besides the Pecos River dispute, two other water cases are on the horizon: Mississippi’s claim that Tennessee is stealing groundwater and Florida’s assertion that Georgia should let more water flow into Apalachicola Bay.

In context: SCOTUS Takes On ‘Very Technical Stuff’ in State Water Dispute

House Democrats Want CDC to Halt Water Shutoffs
Two Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform asked the federal government’s top public health agency to suspend water service disconnections nationwide as a means of slowing the spread of Covid-19.

To protect public health, Reps. Harley Rouda of California and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan want the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use its authority under the Public Health Service Act to prohibit water utilities from shutting off service to customers who are behind on their bills.

In their letter to Robert Redfield, the CDC director, the two representatives cite the CDC’s September 4 order that halted most residential evictions through the end of the year. In that decision, which is being challenged in federal court, the CDC determined that keeping people sheltered, even if they are behind on rent, is a tactic for fighting the coronavirus.

In context: House Democrats Ask CDC to Halt Water Shutoffs during the Pandemic

PFAS in School Drinking Water Letter
A bipartisan group of representatives asked the heads of three federal agencies to do more to protect school drinking water systems from PFAS contamination.

Thirty-seven lawmakers signed the letter to the leaders of the U.S. Environmental Protection, Department of Education, and Department of Health and Human Services. They made eight requests, including: finalizing federal PFAS standards, providing support to schools and daycares for water testing, studying PFAS exposure at schools, and advising schools on preventative measures.

An Environmental Working Group analysis of EPA data found at least 27 schools and daycares that operate their own drinking water systems and are located less than a mile from an industrial facility that probably discharges PFAS.

House Passes Plastics Bill
The House passed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, a bill that focuses on plastic waste in waterways and oceans.

The bill, which the Senate already approved, does a number of things. It requires the EPA administrator to develop a strategy for reducing plastic waste in waterways. It provides grants to local governments and utilities to remove microplastics from drinking water and wastewater. Both grant programs — for drinking water and wastewater — would be authorized at $50 million over five years.

The bill also requires the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to evaluate plastic pollution in drinking water sources.

Critics of the bill say that it does not address the root of the problem: the existence of plastic packaging in the first place.

Green Infrastructure to Mitigate Floods
FEMA issued updated cost-benefit guidance that will make it easier for communities to get federal funds for nature-based projects that reduce flood risks.

Studies and Reports

USAID Water Program Report
The U.S. Agency for International Development released details of its water-related activities during fiscal years 2018-19.

In those two years, the agency provided $835 million for water, sanitation, and hygiene projects in 51 countries.

Covid-19 Water Utility Survey
The EPA is sending a survey to selected water and wastewater utilities to gather information on the effects of the pandemic.

The survey questions focus on four areas: finances, supply chain disruptions, staffing, and operational challenges.

On the Radar

Fluoride Toxicity
On October 19, an expert panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will hold a meeting to discuss a federal agency’s review of the toxicity of fluoride.

The National Toxicology Program reviewed existing scientific studies. It found evidence that exposure to fluoride in drinking water at concentrations more than double recommended levels is harmful to the brains of infants and young children, and results in lower IQ. The review did not consider dental health benefits of fluoride.

Several prominent scientists, including Linda Birnbaum, argue that the review should prompt a reevaluation of fluoride exposure for pregnant women and infants. Birnbaum is the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program.

The first hour and a half of the meeting is open to the public.

Budget Extension
President Trump signed a continuing resolution that will keep the federal government operating through December 11.

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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