Federal Water Tap, October 25: Warming Planet Threatens Global Political Stability, U.S. Intelligence Agencies Warn

The Rundown

  • EPA releases a PFAS plan with timelines for regulatory action.
  • EPA identifies clean water priorities in a draft five-year plan.
  • U.S. hydropower generation is projected to drop 14 percent this year, EIA says.
  • More water utilities ask the EPA to intervene to secure chemicals needed for water treatment.
  • The U.S. Forest Service resumes its process to prohibit mining near a wilderness area in northern Minnesota.
  • Financial regulators say they need a better understanding of climate risks to the U.S. financial system.
  • A federal district court strikes down Trump-era Clean Water Act rule related to state reviews.
  • The EPA’s internal watchdog will begin investigating whether states are providing enough subsidies to poor communities via a major drinking water loan program.

And lastly, U.S. intelligence agencies again sound the alarm that a warming planet poses serious threats to national security and international stability.

“Outside the Arctic, we judge that transboundary tensions probably will increase over shared surface and groundwater basins as increased weather variability exacerbates preexisting or triggers new water insecurity in many parts of the world.” — Excerpt from a National Intelligence Council report on climate change and national security.

By the Numbers

14 Percent: Forecasted decrease in annual U.S. hydropower generation in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The projected decline is due to low reservoirs in the western states, which have been sapped by hot, dry weather. Power generation halted completely this summer at Oroville Dam, California’s tallest, due to record-low water in the reservoir.

225,378 Acres: Land in northern Minnesota that the U.S. Forest Service to requesting to be withdrawn from mining and geothermal leasing for a 20-year period. The land is near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was withdrawn from leasing during the Obama administration but reinstated during the Trump administration. Biden officials want to protect the area from environmental damage due to the potential for sulfide mining. Damage to tribal cultural resources such as wild rice beds are also a concern.

News Briefs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already had a PFAS “action plan,” released in 2019. Now it has a PFAS “strategic roadmap.”

Last week, the agency published its latest outline for addressing the health and environmental consequences of the thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family.

The document, complete with expected actions and timelines for completing them, indicates where the agency will use existing powers to clamp down on the so-called forever chemicals.

A top priority is preventing more of the chemicals from entering lands, waters, and bodies. This includes stiffer regulation of new chemicals and stricter controls on their disposal from industrial facilities.

Outside experts note that the EPA already has the authority to do many of these things. As Jennifer Peters of Clean Water Action notes, the agency could strengthen effluent discharge permits and require industries that send their waste to a municipal sewer to “pre-treat” it.

The plan indicates a Fall 2022 timeline for a draft rule to limit PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

Federal Court Tosses Trump Clean Water Act Ruling
A federal district court struck down a Trump administration ruling that limited the scope of state review under the Clean Water Act.

At question is Section 401 of the act, which allows states to review major projects within their boundaries that could pollute waterways. If states do not certify the project, then it cannot move forward.

The Trump administration thought Democratic-leaning states were using the rule to halt fossil fuel infrastructure. So it narrowed the scope of these reviews and limited the time in which to conduct them.

That brought a legal challenge from 20 states, tribes, and conservation groups. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed with them, finding that the rule is inconsistent with statute and court precedent.

In sum, Judge William Alsup wrote, the rule “contravenes the structure and purpose of the Clean Water Act.” Alsup was appointed by President Clinton.

Water Utilities Petition EPA for Access to Treatment Chemicals
Three drinking water providers and a wastewater treatment operator, all in Florida, notified the EPA that they are beset with supply chain problems.

Specifically, the utilities said they are having difficulty securing certain treatment chemicals, including liquid oxygen, which is in high demand from hospitals due to Covid-19 patients. Without adequate treatment chemicals, treatment plant operations could be scaled back or shut down.

This is the second time this year that utilities have petitioned the EPA to use its authority to force chemical suppliers to prioritize water treatment over secondary uses. If the agency issues the Certification of Need, it would require those suppliers to provide the chemicals.

Besides liquid oxygen other chemicals mentioned in the petition include sulfur dioxide, gaseous chlorine, and sodium hypochlorite.

The petitions were submitted by Tampa Bay Water, City of Tampa, and treatment facilities in Pinellas County.

Studies and Reports

Climate Change and National Security
The National Intelligence Council’s report on climate change says that a warming planet poses risks to national security and international stability.

The report, one of many recent intelligence agency activities to document these risks, underscores the complexity and deep reach of climate-water-social-political interactions. People will leave their homes due to rising seas, depleted water sources, unbearable heat, and repeated storms. Dam-building will strain relations. Rogue actors or countries may attempt to unilaterally cool the climate.

The report identified two regions of concern (Pacific Island states and a swathe of Africa from the Sahel to Congo to Somalia) plus 11 countries where climate change will have the greatest influence on U.S. national security interests. Those countries include the Central American trio of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as Iraq, India, Pakistan, and Burma.

In context: Water Advocates View Upcoming UN Climate Conference as Moment of Relevance

Financial Risks of Climate Change
Financial regulators released their report on the risks of a warming planet to the nation’s credit and insurance systems as well as to its physical and equity assets.

The Financial Stability Oversight Council recommends actions that would enable a clearer picture of the challenge. Those actions include more data, more risk disclosures from public companies, and more scenario-based assessments.

“Current data, measurement tools, and expertise are not sufficient to fully assess these risks,” the report states.

On the Radar

EPA Publishes Draft Five-Year Plan
Clean water, environmental justice, and climate change are three of the top priorities listed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s draft five-year plan. The plan covers 2022 to 2026.

The draft includes numeric targets. The agency aims to reduce the number of community water systems that are violating drinking water health standards from 3,508 to 600. It aims to reduce the number of such systems in Indian Country from 110 to 70. And it intends to provide basic sanitation to at least 31,500 Alaska Native and Indian homes.

The agency also wants to clean up 36,500 underground storage facilities that leak petroleum products into groundwater and soil.

Other priorities are clean air, enforcement/compliance, cleaning up hazardous sites, and chemical safety.

Public comments on the draft plan are being accepted through November 12. Submit them at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OA-2021-0403.

EPA Drinking Water Assistance Investigation
The EPA’s internal watchdog will begin an investigation of whether a drinking water infrastructure fund is assisting disadvantaged communities.

The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund is a federal fund that is administered by the states. A portion of the funds are supposed to subsidize infrastructure in poor communities, either through principal forgiveness or zero-interest loans.

The Office of the Inspector General will investigate whether states are meeting their subsidy goals.

Winter Outlook
According to NOAA’s three-month forecast, this winter is likely to be warmer than average in the South and wetter and colder than average in the Pacific Northwest. Mt. Baker skiers, rejoice!

Those probabilities are due to the influence of the La Nina weather pattern, which typically delivers such conditions.

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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