Federal Water Tap, December 18: White House Signs Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative

The Rundown

  • EPA proposes water quality standards to protect aquatic life in the Delaware River, and it proposes stricter water pollution limits for slaughterhouses.
  • FEMA releases a report identifying gaps in the nation’s readiness for disasters.
  • EPA submits two PFAS rules – on drinking water and hazard substances – to the White House for review.
  • White House provides funding for Columbia River fish restoration and promises to study the future of four Snake River dams.
  • Pacific Northwest senators ask the White House not to delay negotiations over an updated Columbia River Treaty.
  • Alabama and Georgia reach an agreement with the Army Corps about managing the shared Chattahoochee River.
  • California water agencies get paid to conserve Colorado River water.
  • Water bills in Congress address nutrient pollution, water data, and PFAS.

And lastly, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council briefs the president on infrastructure challenges.

“Because it’s not just about building infrastructure, it’s about building better infrastructure, stronger infrastructure – infrastructure that can withstand 21st century challenges from climate change to cyberattacks to natural disasters to foreign threats and so much more.” — President Joe Biden, speaking before a briefing from the National Infrastructure Advisory Council. The council delivered two reports to the president this year: cross-sector collaboration and preparing critical infrastructure for water crises. Last week, the council released a draft report on challenges to expanding electric infrastructure.

By the Numbers

$295 Million: Payments to California water agencies to implement conservation plans for saving water in Lake Mead through 2025. Arizona, California, and Nevada agreed to be compensated for conserving 2.3 million acre-feet in the lake. Arizona agencies and tribes have already been promised $378 million. The public funds come from the Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed last year.

News Briefs

Columbia River Basin Agreement
The White House announced new investments in clean energy and ecosystem restoration in the Columbia River basin.

The agreement – called the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative – is with Oregon, Washington, and the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes. It provides $300 million for fish and habitat restoration. It pledges clean energy projects that could offset the loss of hydropower from breaching Snake River dams.

The Biden administration will also study the consequences of breaching the four Snake River dams that block the upstream movement of salmon, steelhead, and lamprey. The studies will inform Congress as it decides the fate of the dams.

Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses
The EPA is proposing stricter pollution limits for water discharged from meat and poultry processors, which are significant point sources of river-damaging nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

The rules – for nitrogen, phosphorus, oil and grease, organic matter, and total suspended solids – would apply to about 850 facilities.

Public hearings will take place on January 24 and 31. Times and locations will be added later at the above link.

Chattahoochee River Agreement
Alabama and Georgia reached an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers on a plan to manage the shared Chattahoochee River.

The agreement, which sets flow objectives for two points on the river, will stay a lawsuit that Alabama filed over management revisions that the Corps made in 2017. Those changes allowed for more water withdrawals upstream, in metro Atlanta.

The Corps will study the agreement to ensure that it will settle the legal challenge. The Atlanta Regional Commission expects the review, with public comment, to take 12 months.

Water Bills in Congress
Bills introduced or acted upon in the last week include:

  • The PFAS Action Act would require the EPA to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law, something the agency is in the process of doing. It would require the agency to determine, within five years, whether all PFAS should receive such a designation. It would also force the agency to place limits on industrial discharges of PFAS into waterways.
  • The OpenET Act passed out of Senate committee. The act seeks wider collection and distribution of data on water use from evaporation and transpiration. It authorizes $55 million over five years for the program.
  • The Healthy Farms Healthy Watersheds Act would use carrots to persuade farmers to reduce nutrient pollution into waterways. The carrots, of course, are dollars for pilot programs to cut discharges of dissolved reactive phosphorus.

Delaware River Water Standards
To keep fish from suffocating, the EPA is proposing stronger water quality standards for a 38-mile urbanized section of the Delaware River along Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The standards apply to the amount of dissolved oxygen in the river and are aimed at protecting the river’s aquatic life, including endangered Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon.

Two public hearings on the proposal will be held in February. See the above link for details.

Studies and Reports

National Disaster Readiness
FEMA published an annual report outlining what the country needs to do to prepare for natural hazards like droughts, hurricanes, fires, and floods.

The report focuses on key areas: investment in emergency care and logistics; improved government coordination; and better planning before disasters, especially in high-risk areas.

The report laments that current building codes that reduce risk are not more widely adopted. The federal government, outside of federal buildings, does not have the power to enforce new codes. That is the domain of state and local governments.

On the Radar

EPA PFAS Decisions
The White House’s regulatory office has received two hot-button EPA rules proposals for review.

In the last two weeks, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received the agency’s proposal to regulate PFOA, PFOS, and four other PFAS in drinking water. It also received the proposal to list PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law.

Both rules, if enacted, would change the playing field for water utilities, both in drinking water treatment costs and potential legal liability for contaminants.

Columbia River Treaty Negotiations
Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and James Risch (R-ID) asked the White House and Ottawa not to delay negotiations over an updated Columbia River Treaty.

Diplomatic talks between Canada and the U.S. began five years ago, but a final deal has not been delivered. The senators want a sense of urgency because provisions in the treaty become less certain in 2024. Congress will need to authorize changes, and because of the election next year lawmakers will have competing legislative demands and little time.

The treaty, originally negotiated in the 1960s, focuses on hydropower and flood protection. An updated treaty is expected to address climate change, ecosystem health, and fisheries.

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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