Federal Water Tap, September 7: New Federal Office Connects Climate Change and Health

The Rundown

  • A federal judge overturns the Trump administration’s Clean Water Act definition.
  • Bureau of Reclamation contributes $19 million for a Colorado River water conservation program.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing a notorious species from the threatened list.
  • The CDC tallies emergency room visits due to harmful algal blooms.
  • USGS researchers find that groundwater pumping during drought in California can increase nitrate pollution in groundwater.
  • USGS researchers also find that water use for fracking in the Permian basin climbed in the last decade.
  • A DOE-funded collaborative publishes a roadmap for desalination technology research.

And lastly, the federal government opens an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.

“The past few days of Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the West and the unprecedented flash floods in New York and New Jersey is yet another reminder that these extreme storms and the climate crisis are here.” — President Joe Biden discussing the barrage of disasters across the country in the last week.

In context: Constant, Compounding Disasters Are Exhausting Emergency Response

By the Numbers

321: Number of emergency room visits in the U.S. from 2017 through 2019 for illnesses related to harmful algal blooms. According to data compiled by the CDC, respiratory problems were the most common, followed by stomach ailments. The number is an undercount because the data set does not include all emergency room visits nationally and illnesses might not have been recorded if they weren’t being reimbursed by insurance.

32 billion gallons per year: Water use for hydraulic fracturing in the Permian basin, averaged across the years 2010 to 2019. The U.S. Geological Survey totaled water use in unconventional oil and gas development in 60 counties in New Mexico and Texas. Water use for fracking rose during the period, peaking in 2019 in Texas at 72 billion gallons.

News Briefs

Federal Judge Throws Out Trump Administration’s WOTUS Rule
Before the EPA could act, a federal judge stepped in.

A U.S. district court judge in Arizona overturned the Trump administration’s definition of which waterbodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

The Biden administration had already stated that it would repeal the current law and replace it with something more expansive.

According to E&E News, the court’s action — if upheld on appeal — simplifies things for the EPA. It would no longer need to repeal and could proceed to replacement.

The ruling leaves many questions swirling in its wake. Does it apply nationally or only in the court’s district? And if the rule is overturned, what guides permitting decisions until the EPA writes a replacement?

All told, this branch of environmental law has been a back-and-forth tussle between the courts and the executive branch for decades. It’s enough to make legal observers like Jeffrey Porter of Mintz law firm wish that Congress would clarify matters.

“In the meantime, one might hope Congress would act to resolve the longest running dispute in environmental law so that we might, once and for all, have a consensus on the reach of the Clean Water Act,” Porter wrote.

Colorado River Conservation
The Bureau of Reclamation is joining with regional water agencies and an irrigation district to conserve water in the Colorado River system.

Reclamation will contribute $19 million to a land fallowing program in California that will reduce water use by 180,000 acre-feet over three years. Water saved by not irrigating crops in Palo Verde Irrigation District will be stored in Lake Mead, potentially adding 3 feet of elevation to the reservoir. Called “system water” for propping up Mead, the water would not be credited to any party.

The other partners are Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Central Arizona Project.

Climate and Health
The Department of Health and Human Services said it will open an office focused on human health in poor areas and communities of color that are most vulnerable to the threats from a warming planet.

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity will identify and support communities at risk from wildfires, floods, heat, and other climate hazards. The office will also conduct trainings and develop partnerships across federal and local agencies.

The connections between health, wealth, and climate are stark. Poorer urban areas have fewer trees and therefore less shade to protect people against the hottest days. Droughts can cause wells to dry up and concentrate pollutants in groundwater.

Studies and Reports

Drought and Groundwater Contamination in California
The intensive pumping of groundwater during dry periods leads to more polluted groundwater, a U.S. Geological Survey study finds.

When farmers turn to well water for irrigation during droughts, contaminants like nitrate that are present in shallow groundwater can be pulled deeper underground, according to the research. This puts the contaminated groundwater at the level from which cities pump their water. The study used data from 6,000 municipal water wells.

The authors say that this is the first study to show these links between groundwater pumping and groundwater quality at regional scales.

Desalination Technology Research
A Department of Energy-funded collaborative published a roadmap for desalination technology research in order to increase the nation’s supply of fresh water.

Key sectors that need to purify salty water for reuse include power generation, mining/oil/gas, industry, municipal, and agriculture.

The goal of the collaborative, which counts national laboratories, universities, and companies as partners, is to lower the cost of removing salts and chemicals from ocean water, brackish groundwater, oilfield wastewater, farm drainage, and other sources.

On the Radar

Endangered Species Act Removal
What a long, strange journey it’s been. After nearly four decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove the snail darter from the threatened species list.

The small fish was at the center of political controversy in the 1970s when its presence in the Tennessee River held up construction of Tellico Dam. After a Supreme Court ruling, Congress eventually exempted the dam, already under construction, from the Endangered Species Act. The snail darter was transplanted in other rivers and moved to threatened status in 1984.

FWS now says it is delisting the species because new populations have been discovered and its range has expanded.

EPA Advisory Group Meeting
The Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises the EPA on research matters, will discuss PFAS and safe drinking water assessments. The discussions will take place over five days of meetings in September and October.

Registration details are here.

Chemical Risks of Sewage Waste
Another EPA advisory group is looking for experts to review a white paper on the risks of chemicals in the solid bits of sewage waste, which are also known as biosolids.

Nominations are due September 22.

In context: EPA Watchdog Flags Unregulated Pollutants in Treated Sewage Sludge

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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