Federal Water Tap, June 13: Biden Mentions Watershed Protection Before New Mexico Fire Briefing

The Rundown

  • President Biden, while in New Mexico, notes the harm that forest fires can wreak on a watershed.
  • The House passes a $25 billion water resources bill.
  • Commodity futures regulators want more information on climate change and financial risk.
  • An EPA report outlines strategies for reducing the destruction of coastal wetlands.
  • NOAA forecasts an average Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.”
  • The Army Corps develops a loan program for dam safety repairs.
  • A joint state-federal report estimates the cost of replacing the benefits of four Snake River dams.

And lastly, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory identifies the most suitable spots for pumped storage hydropower.

“With this map, people who live in Wyoming could zoom in on a mountain range and see where some of the best sites are. Nobody is producing a product with this scope and granularity for the United States.” — Stuart Cohen, a model engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Cohen is a co-author of a new report that identifies the most technically suitable U.S. sites for pumped storage hydropower. Pumped storage uses a higher and lower reservoir that, in tandem, act as a battery — storing energy at periods of low demand by pumping water to the higher reservoir and then releasing it during peak demand. The most technically suitable sites are in the western U.S., which benefits from sharp elevation changes.

By the Numbers

95 Percent: Share of U.S. energy storage capacity that is currently provided by pumped storage hydropower. No such large facilities have been built in the country since the 1990s.

5,364 Square Miles: Forecasted size of the annual Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” NOAA says a low-oxygen area of this size — about equal to Connecticut’s land mass — would be roughly average when compared with measurements taken over the last 35 years. The dead zone is a consequence of excess nutrients from farm fields and other sources in the Mississippi River basin.

News Briefs

Biden Touts Water When Touring New Mexico Fire Sites
During a briefing in New Mexico to learn about damage from forest fires in the state, President Joe Biden noted the harm that fires can wreak on streams.

“For the longer term, but beginning right now, we have to help with the combined impacts of drought and wildfires and — which threaten your vital watershed,” Biden said.

The administration offered $22 million to protect the state’s watersheds from post-fire debris.

House Passes Water Resources Development Act
By a large margin of more than 10 to 1, the House of Representatives passed a $25 billion water infrastructure bill.

An every other year event, the Water Resources Development Act authorizes Army Corps of Engineer projects related to ports, levees, dams, coastal protection, and environmental restoration.

Studies and Reports

Snake River Dams Report
What if four dams on the Snake River were breached? It would help endangered salmon and restore culturally important lands for the region’s tribes. But what about the services the dams provide: moving grain harvests to market, irrigation, recreation, and hydropower?

A joint state-federal report estimates the cost of replacing those benefits: between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.

Achieving this outcome is possible, but would require “significant work,” the report notes. Congressional authorization, feasibility studies, community outreach, new governance bodies, funding, and dedication.

The draft report was produced by the State of Washington and the office of Patty Murray, the state’s senior Democratic senator. They will use the report’s findings to propose a course of action for the dams.

Protecting Coastal Wetlands
An interagency work group led by the EPA submitted a report with recommendations for protecting and restoring coastal wetlands.

What to do? Use existing authorities to prevent damage to wetlands, invigorate local management zones, and collect data.

The biggest loss of coastal wetlands from erosion, dredging, draining, and subsidence has occurred along the Gulf of Mexico.

Founded in 2009, the work group’s report is more than a decade in the making and based on four pilot studies.

On the Radar

Climate and Financial Risk
The Commodities Future Trading Commission is calling for information to help its commissioners understand the impact of climate change on financial markets.

The request, however, drew some internal criticism. Commissioner Summer Mersinger, a Biden appointee, argued that some of the questions in the request exceed the commission’s authority, amounting to “mission creep.” Among these, she said, are questions about commodity markets, which the CFTC does not regulate.

Mersinger was struck by questions that were not asked: how drought and extreme weather will affect agriculture futures contracts, an area in which the CFTC does have authority.

The CFTC is accepting public comments through August 8 via https://comments.cftc.gov/.

Dam Safety Financing
The Army Corps of Engineers proposed rules that would govern a new dam safety financing program.

Under the program, the Corps would provide loans and loan guarantees to local and state governments, public utilities, and privately owned dams for safety upgrades.

To be eligible, projects must cost more than $20 million.

More than 14,000 non-federally owned dams are classified as “high hazard,” meaning people could die if they fail.

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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