- The Interior Department notifies Colorado River states that it might hold back more water in Lake Powell this year.
- Reclamation’s Klamath River basin irrigation allocation pleases no one.
- The USGS investigates groundwater depletion in southeastern Oregon due to irrigation and maps groundwater levels in New Mexico.
- The Bureau of Reclamation limits irrigation allocations in the Klamath River basin this year.
- The Department of Health and Human Services launches an online dashboard for tracking the federal water bill assistance program.
- DHHS also begins updating its environmental justice strategy.
- In Congress, a bipartisan bill targets sources of lead in public housing.
- The White House outlines infrastructure funds that are available to rural America.
And lastly, the GAO publishes a brief on the uses and open questions for tracking diseases through sewage.
“Given our lack of actual operating experience in such circumstances since Lake Powell filled, these issues raise profound concerns regarding prudent dam operations, facility reliability, public health and safety, and the ability to conduct emergency operations.” — Letter from Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary of the Interior, to water officials in the seven Colorado River basin states. The issues that concern Trujillo relate to uncertainties about how Glen Canyon Dam would perform if Lake Powell drops below elevation 3,490 feet. Hydropower would be shut down and water would be released from the dam via outlet pipes that are untested for an extended period of time. At 3,465 feet the reservoir would be below the water intakes for the city of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Currently the reservoir sits at 3,522 feet.
In context: The Colorado River Basin’s Daunting New Math
By the Numbers
24 Percent: Current storage, compared to full capacity, at Lake Powell.
More Colorado River Cutbacks?
Stating “profound concerns” over Colorado River water supply trend lines, federal officials are exploring the possibility of releasing less water than expected from Lake Powell this year, an unprecedented emergency move to store more water in the declining reservoir.
Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary of the Interior, laid out the department’s thinking in a letter to the top water official in each of the seven basin states. The proposal is to reduce releases from Lake Powell in 2022 by 480,000 acre-feet.
Trujillo asked the basin states to respond to the proposal by April 22. That would give Interior time to finalize a decision this spring, she wrote.
If it goes forward, the proposal would have a domino effect. Less water released from Powell means less water released downstream to Lake Mead, which is also shrinking.
Klamath Basin Water Allocations
The Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for irrigation in the Klamath basin of southern Oregon, and in another very dry year no one is happy as the federal agency attempts to balance farm demands and the needs of endangered fish and wildlife refuges.
Farmers will receive 50,000 acre-feet from the Klamath Project this year, depending on water level fluctuations in Upper Klamath Lake. It’s the second lowest allocation in the project’s history, behind the zero allocation last year.
The Klamath Water Users Association, a farmer lobby, criticized the decision, arguing that federal management has failed to help fish in the basin and that food production is a necessity in a time of rising global food prices.
The Klamath Tribes are not pleased with the operating plan, either. They castigated the plan as another blow to the basin’s ecology and to fish species they depend on.
Lead in Public Housing
In the House and Senate, representatives introduced a bill aimed at minimizing health risks from sources of lead in public housing.
The bill would establish testing and notification requirements for the entities that maintain public housing units. The requirements would apply to lead service lines and lead-based plumbing within the units.
In addition, the bill would establish a grant program to catalog and replace lead service lines in public housing, and test for lead water fountains or other public taps in the buildings.
Water Bill Assistance Dashboard
The Department of Health and Human Services launched an online dashboard for tracking the rollout of the federal government’s first-ever program to assist low-income customers with water bills.
Called LIHWAP, the program was seeded with $1.1 billion. The dashboard shows how states are implementing it: the maximum benefit per household, how eligibility is determined, state funding allocations, and other data.
Studies and Reports
Groundwater Depletion in SE Oregon
The U.S. Geological Survey investigated the groundwater dynamics in Harney Basin, an area of southeastern Oregon a bit larger than Connecticut where shallow wells have dried up in the last decade due to intensive pumping for irrigation.
The scientific assessment found a significant imbalance between water extracted in the irrigated lowlands and water recharged. Water extraction amounts to about 283,000 acre-feet per year, a volume that exceeds recharge by 110,000 acre-feet.
The resource is not easily replaced in the arid, hydrologically closed basin (meaning its streams do not drain toward the sea). The report notes that most of the groundwater being extracted in the Harney Basin was stored underground during the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago.
Groundwater Levels in New Mexico
Maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and a state agency show areas of groundwater depletion in New Mexico since 1980 are worst in three areas: the High Plains aquifer in the southeast region, the north-central Rio Grande Basin, and the northwestern Colorado Plateau.
The Government Accountability Office published a two-page brief on the benefits and lingering questions around wastewater surveillance as a public health tool for SARS-CoV-2 and other issues.
On the Radar
DHHS Environmental Justice Strategy
The Department of Health and Human Services is seeking public comment on the draft outline of its updated environmental justice strategy.
The strategy, which encompasses six priority areas, includes things like increasing outreach to low-income, Indigenous, and ethnic minority communities; providing technical assistance to these areas; and funding job training for careers in climate and environmental fields such as housing and water infrastructure.
Comments are being accepted through May 19 via OASHcomments@hhs.gov.
Infrastructure Funds for Rural America
How might the nation’s smallest communities tap into billions of dollars in federal funding made available through the infrastructure bill?
The White House published a guidebook to help rural areas identify funding programs and how to apply.
There are ample opportunities. The law provides $11.3 billion to clean up abandoned mines and their watersheds; $1 billion for community wildfire protection; $4.7 billion to plug abandoned oil and gas wells; and $3.5 billion for sanitation needs in Indian Country.
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