- House lawmakers try to slow down federal flood insurance premium increases.
- The House passed an infrastructure package that includes a historic federal investment in water systems.
- Congressional Republicans introduce a bill that would narrowly define the scope of the Clean Water Act.
- The Bureau of Reclamation will not conduct a flood release this month from Glen Canyon Dam due to low water levels.
- The EPA orders officials in a Michigan city to address lead-contaminated drinking water.
- The Senate confirms a new leader of the Army Corps of Engineers.
- National research labs release a report with data on the hydropower licensing process.
- NOAA awards grants for harmful algal bloom research and forecasting.
And lastly, Biden administration officials traveled to Glasgow for the UN climate conference in order to lobby for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have and will continue to use every agency and every tool at our disposal to marshal a climate response that isn’t about sacrifice; it’s about opportunity and possibility — to create millions of good-paying union jobs, give our kids clean air and clean drinking water, tackle racial injustice and economic inequality, and lead the world on new industries and innovations.” — Gina McCarthy, the national climate advisor, speaking with reporters before COP26 in Scotland. The White House released a plan for helping low-income countries adapt to climate change.
By the Numbers
$15.2 Million: Harmful algal bloom grants awarded by NOAA. The grants are for research as well as expanding observational networks that provide forecasts and early warnings of algae outbreaks.
92 to 5: By that margin the Senate voted to confirm Michael Connor to lead the Army Corps of Engineers. Connor is no stranger to leadership roles in federal agencies. During the Obama administration he was in charge of the Bureau of Reclamation and then deputy secretary of Interior. In leading the Army Corps, Connor will face a number of pressing issues, from flood risks due to a changing climate to a re-write of the Waters of the United States rule.
Infrastructure Bill Clears Congress
The House passed the infrastructure bill late Friday night, joining with the Senate to approve a historic federal investment in the nation’s water systems.
Though large, the funding doesn’t come all at once. It’s $550 billion over five years. One-tenth of that — $55 billion — goes to clean water and drinking water, including about $15 billion for lead service line removal. Separately, there is $8.3 billion to respond to drought in the western states, $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, and $16 billion to clean up polluted sites such as abandoned wells and mines.
As for the other piece of the supposedly yoked bills on infrastructure and social spending, House members agreed to vote on the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act the week of November 15, after its budget impact is judged by a nonpartisan office.
Plenty of Sand, Not Enough Water
The Bureau of Reclamation says it will not proceed with a flood release from Glen Canyon Dam.
The high-volume flow is meant to stir up sediment and rebuild beaches downstream in the Grand Canyon. There is enough sand in the river for beach-building, but Lake Powell, which is impounded by the dam, is considered too low to release the water.
Technical staff with Reclamation and other agencies were unanimous that a 192-hour release should not occur. They were divided on the fate of a shorter 60-hour release. In the end, Reclamation leadership decided that it had to preserve water in Powell. Two reasons stood out.
First, the agency had just conducted emergency releases of water from reservoirs higher in the watershed in order to boost the elevation of Powell. Drawing down Powell immediately afterward might reduce support for future emergency releases. Second, the drawdown from the flood release would cut into hydropower generation. That would decrease earnings from power sales, introducing more financial strain.
WOTUS in Congress
House and Senate Republicans introduced a bill to define which waterbodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act, offering a narrower definition than traditional practice.
The Defense of Environment and Property Act would exclude many waterbodies from protection. It excludes streams that flow seasonally or only after rainfall. It excludes wetlands that do not have a surface connection to a waterway that will float a boat. It excludes groundwater.
The bill would also prohibit the use of the “significant nexus” test to determine whether a waterbody has a connection to regulated waters and is thus itself subject to regulation. The test has been around since a Supreme Court decision in 2006.
The Biden administration is currently working on its own definition of waters of the United States. A federal court struck down a Trump-era attempt in August.
Congress Tries to Slow Down Flood Insurance Increases
In legislation to reauthorize the federal flood insurance program, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers is attempting to rein in insurance premium increases.
On October 1, FEMA put in place Risk Rating 2.0, a system to better match flood insurance payments with flood risk. That system allows insurance premiums to increase annually by as much as 18 percent.
The House bill would cap those increases at 9 percent.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), one of the bill sponsors, said that for the flood insurance program to work, it “must be both affordable and fair.” Flood policy experts, on the other hand, say that accurate insurance pricing most effectively communicates risk.
EPA Orders Action in Michigan City with Lead Problem
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered officials in Benton Harbor to immediately respond to high levels of lead in residents’ drinking water.
Benton Harbor is a majority Black city of just under 10,000 people.
The order requires that the city take several actions: inform residents when tests for lead exceed legal limits; do a better job controlling water chemistry so that pipes do not corrode; repair water treatment plant filters; and assess long-term options for the treatment system.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told WXYZ last week that the state is committed to replacing all of the lead service lines in Benton Harbor within 18 months.
Studies and Reports
Climate Adaptation Plan
As part of the Biden administration’s climate push, the White House released a plan for helping low-income countries adapt to a chaotic climate that they had little hand in creating.
The highlight of the PREPARE plan is money: the administration wants $3 billion annually by 2024 to finance adaptation projects and will allow local governments to define what those are. But…the administration will have to work with Congress to appropriate the funds.
The plan has roles for various government agencies, from data gathering and skills building to mustering private sector support.
Hydropower Licensing Report
Two national research labs published a technical report with data on the hydropower licensing process.
Some findings: the average length of the licensing process, start to finish, was 6.7 years.
Relicensing a hydropower project had higher costs than obtaining the original license, in part because legacy sites had more environmental impacts.
Hydropower licensing in the U.S. requires the involvement of more agencies and stakeholders than other infrastructure projects.
On the Radar
GenX Toxicity Report Webinar
EPA staff will discuss the agency’s recent report on the toxicity of GenX chemicals. The webinar, using the Microsoft Teams platform, is scheduled for November 12 from 11:00 a.m. to noon Eastern.
Harmful Algal Blooms Research Meeting
A subcommittee of the Board of Scientific Counselors, the group that advises the EPA on research matters, will hold a series of public meetings in December to discuss research into nutrients and harmful algal blooms.
The meetings are on December 1, 2, 14, and 20. Registration is open to the public and available via this link.
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