Federal Water Tap, October 4: Supreme Court Starts October Term with Groundwater Case
- For the first time, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over a groundwater dispute, in this case between Mississippi and Tennessee.
- Congress adds $28.6 billion in disaster aid, plus money for drought response and California water projects, to a bill that keeps the federal government operating through December 3.
- The U.S. Geological Survey develops a screening tool for harmful algal blooms in the eastern United States.
- The EPA’s internal watchdog says the agency needs a comprehensive strategy to address human health and environmental consequences of harmful algal blooms.
And lastly, an Oregon senator introduces a bill to bring more analytical rigor to watershed restoration projects.
“We need that erosion control to happen immediately, especially on the heels of the Beckwourth fire, the Dixie fire, so that we don’t have our streams, our rivers, our lakes, plugged up with ash, with soil that makes it impossible for our water supply this coming year to be delivered to people in agriculture.” — Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) speaking in the House about the risks that remain after wildfires are extinguished.
In context: The ‘Burn Scars’ of Wildfires Threaten the West’s Drinking Water
By the Numbers
$500 Million: As part of a larger $3 billion aid package to the farm industry and school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $500 million to help farmers respond to drought and conserve water.
Groundwater Case at the Supreme Court
It’s not often that groundwater gets a day at the nation’s highest court. The nine justices heard a groundwater pollution case last year, but today interstate groundwater use is in the docket for the first time.
The Memphis Sand Aquifer runs beneath Mississippi and Tennessee. Mississippi claims that its northern neighbor’s use of the aquifer is siphoning water that would ordinarily flow to Mississippi. The state wants rights to the water, plus $600 million in damages from Tennessee.
Robin Craig, a law professor, argues that the case could result in significant legal changes – or simply be a flash in the pan. If the justices rule in favor of Mississippi, the case “could fundamentally restructure interstate groundwater law.” Or, the case might fizzle out and be “dismissed immediately” for lack of evidence.
A legal specialist assigned as a fact-finder by the court suggested in a report last year that Mississippi’s claim should be dismissed. We’ll see if the justices agree.
We’ll Deal with It Later
Unable to agree on a budget, Congress passed a continuing resolution that keeps the federal government operating through December 3.
Lawmakers found common ground on a few items. They included $28.6 billion in disaster aid for hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts that occurred since 2019.
Smaller expenditures in the bill: $200 million to the Bureau of Reclamation for western drought response, $205 million for reservoir storage projects in California, and $21 million for nine water recycling projects in the state.
Data for Watershed Restoration
Allocate federal funding to watershed restoration projects that provide the biggest benefit for the investment. That’s the intent of a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
The Watershed Results Act would direct pilot funding to up to five watershed projects that deliver certain outcomes: less nutrient or sediment runoff, less heat in rivers, more dissolved oxygen, or more water for fish and wildlife. Payments will be based on how well the projects achieve their intended outcomes.
The bill would authorize $15 million a year over six years for each pilot project, and $2 million annually for three years to do the foundational analysis.
Studies and Reports
Harmful Algal Bloom Management
The EPA’s internal watchdog says the agency needs a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the human health and environmental consequences of harmful algal blooms.
The Office of the Inspector General report recommends that the agency update nutrient criteria for rivers and streams, and develop a national system for tracking the blooms.
The report also recommends that the agency determine whether drinking water standards for algal toxins are warranted. The agency currently has an unenforceable health advisory for two such toxins.
In context: Toxin Levels Spike, Prompting Drinking Water Emergency in Northern California
Tribal Drinking Water
The Office of the Inspector General also published a report on how the pandemic affected the EPA’s oversight of tribal drinking water systems in the West.
The pandemic meant that EPA staff had trouble accessing homes to take water samples. Water system operator trainings were delayed. Inspections and surveys were reduced.
The EPA oversees 294 community water systems on tribal lands in Regions 9 and 10 (the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington).
Which Water Bodies Might Develop Harmful Algal Blooms?
The U.S. Geological Survey developed a method for evaluating the likelihood that a lake, reservoir, or river in the eastern and southeastern U.S. will nurture harmful algal blooms.
The screening tool is intended to guide the allocation of funding for water management agencies that have limited funding to address a widespread problem.
On the Radar
Maryland Water Affordability
On October 5, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights advisory committee will hold a public teleconference to discuss its investigation into water affordability in Maryland.
The Massachusetts advisory committee already produced a report on water affordability and access in that state.
National Drinking Water Advisory Council Meeting
On October 12, the group that advises the EPA on drinking water matters will hold a public virtual meeting.
On the agenda is a review of the annual drinking water quality reports that utilities are required to send to customers.
Environmental Financial Advisory Board Meeting
On October 13, the group that advises the EPA on how to pay for it all will hold a public virtual meeting.
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.
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
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