Federal Water Tap, November 1: Build Back Better Act Directs Billions for Lead Pipes and Other Water Concerns

The Rundown

  • The compromise on the federal spending bill still includes significant water investments.
  • The White House releases a report on international climate migration and the role of the U.S. government.
  • Under a draft consent decree, the EPA agrees to a deadline for issuing new consumer confidence report rules.
  • An EPA report finds that GenX, which are chemicals used in the production of PFAS, are more toxic than previously thought.
  • The EPA plans to classify four PFAS chemicals as hazardous wastes, which would increase producer responsibility for them.
  • Watchdog report says that FEMA needs flood maps that take climate change into account.
  • A USGS study estimates a steep decline in groundwater flowing into the Colorado River if hot, dry conditions continue.

And lastly, the federal government, states, tribes, and conservation groups agree to operating changes for Columbia River dams.

“While it is important to balance the region’s economy and power generation, it is also time to improve conditions for Tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial.” — Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, commenting on an agreement to change operating plans at Columbia River basin dams in order to kill fewer fish. A federal judge granted a stay in a lawsuit so that the sides could negotiate.

By the Numbers

$6.2 Million: Funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to five research projects to study human viruses in sewage that is intended for wastewater reuse. The goal is to protect human health when water is recycled.

News Briefs

Build Back Better
The House Rules Committee released the text of the Build Back Better Act, all 1,684 pages of it.

Beyond the topline climate numbers, here are some other highlights. Many of these items directly respond to President Biden’s pledge to spend money in poor areas and communities of color that are burdened with legacies of pollution.

  • $9 billion for disadvantaged communities to replace lead service lines, acquire lead filters for schools and day cares, and replace drinking water fountains in schools.
  • $970 million for replacing lead service lines in rural communities.
  • $225 million to assist low-income households with water bills and past-due balances.
  • $1.77 billion for energy and water conservation and air quality improvements in affordable housing.
  • $550 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to construct drinking water projects for communities without reliable water.
  • $100 million for water reuse projects.
  • $100 million for mitigating reduced inflows to inland water bodies in basins with a Reclamation project. (This seems directed at the Great Salt Lake and Salton Sea, especially.)
  • $25 million to study, design, and pilot the covering of canals with solar panels.
  • $1 billion for Pacific salmon restoration projects.
  • $500 million to the EPA for stormwater reuse and sewer overflow grants.
  • $150 million for replacing septic systems or installing them in homes without sewer or a functioning septic system.

EPA Plans to Add Four PFAS to RCRA
Acting on a petition from New Mexico’s governor, the EPA said it plans to add four PFAS chemicals (PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, and GenX) as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the federal law for managing such things.

A hazardous waste designation would establish ground rules for overseeing the chemicals from production to use to disposal — “cradle to grave” in RCRA-speak.

Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, said the agency would proceed with two rulemakings. One would list the four as hazardous waste; the other would clarify that the agency has the power to do so.

California’s House Republicans Request Hearing
The California Republican delegation asked a House Natural Resources subcommittee to hold a hearing on how the Bureau of Reclamation made the decision to change its operations plan for two main canals in the state.

Studies and Reports

Climate Migration Report
The White House released a report on international climate migration and how the U.S. government can respond.

The report lays out several options and their hurdles. Foreign aid can build local capacity to withstand climate shocks. But the report acknowledges that current funding is inadequate. For people who choose to leave, the report says that the U.S. government should advocate for their protection. But, existing legal tools need to be sharpened.

All in all, the challenge is too great for the U.S. to address on its own. For this reason, the report calls on strengthening partnerships with governments, aid organizations, and civil society groups.

In context: Droughts Push More People to Migrate Than Floods

How Toxic Are GenX Chemicals? More So
The EPA published a toxicity report on GenX, which are chemicals used in the manufacturing of PFAS. The report looked only at exposure via drinking water. It found that GenX chemicals are more toxic than an earlier draft assessment and are particularly damaging to the liver.

The report has consequences beyond establishing toxicity levels. It sets the stage for a GenX drinking water health advisory, which the agency expects to release next spring. A health advisory is not an enforceable standard.

FEMA Needs Better Flood Maps
According to a Government Accountability Office report, FEMA flood maps do not accurately depict flood risks because they do not take into account climate change.

The analysis also found that though FEMA focuses its mapping efforts on areas with the highest flood risk, it does not give as much attention to communities that are poorer, older, and have more non-white residents.

Colorado River Flows
The amount of groundwater that flows into the Colorado River, known as baseflow, will shrink in the coming decades if warm temperatures and a drier climate persist, a U.S. Geological Survey study found.

The largest decrease is expected to come from the basin’s headwaters, the study found. This could mean about a 30 percent decline in baseflow to the lower basin by the 2050s if conditions continue to be hot and dry. A warm-wet scenario found little change in baseflow by mid-century.

In context: The Colorado River Basin’s Daunting New Math

On the Radar

Consumer Confidence Report Deadline
Under a draft consent decree, the EPA will agree to a March 2023 deadline for proposing new draft regulations for consumer confidence reports. These are the annual reports that water utilities are required to send customers about contaminants found in their drinking water. The final rules are due by March 2024.

The consent decree stems from a complaint filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council because the EPA missed an October 2020 deadline to issue new rules to improve the “readability, clarity, and understandability” of the reports.

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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