Federal Water Tap, January 2: USGS Finds Steep Groundwater Declines in Rural Nevada

The Rundown

  • The U.S. Geological Survey finds declining groundwater levels in agricultural valleys in Nevada.
  • The EPA finalizes a new definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act.
  • New data shows the number of households receiving federal water bill assistance rose last summer.
  • The EPA misses its self-imposed, end-of-year deadline for issuing draft drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS.

And lastly, President Biden signs budget and defense spending bills that fund water systems.

“Looking at groundwater, streamflow, and climate data from over half a century, it is clear that we are running into a water deficit. Groundwater is like a bank account, and when you take more out than you are putting in, at some point the account runs dry.” — Gwendolyn Davies, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist and lead author of a report on groundwater declines in two agricultural valleys in western Nevada.

By the Numbers

140,748: Number of households who received help from the federal government’s water bill assistance program from July through September last year. It is an increase of nearly 50 percent over the numbers through June. The program helps to restore home water service that was shut off, prevents a shutoff from occurring, or reduces monthly bills for low-income households.

In context: Slow to Start, Federal Water Bill Assistance Program Ramps Up

News Briefs

Waters of the United States
The back-and-forth over federal water pollution policy continues.

Reversing Trump’s course, the Biden administration finalized new rules that expand the number of waterways that are protected by the Clean Water Act. The rules largely use guidelines that were in place before 2015, when the Obama administration issued its own interpretation. The new rules maintain exemptions for farm ditches and wetlands that were already turned into cropland.

The rules, which go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, might not last. The U.S. Supreme Court will issue a ruling this year in Sackett v. EPA, a case that could substantially limit the federal government’s oversight of wetlands.

Studies and Reports

Nevada Groundwater Declines
Groundwater levels in two western Nevada valleys are dropping due to farm irrigation, a long-term aquifer depletion that is reducing river flows and lake levels in a threatened river basin.

That’s the conclusion of a U.S. Geological Survey study of groundwater trends in Mason and Smith valleys. The two farming areas are part of the Walker River basin, which drains into Walker Lake, a shrinking water body in the arid Great Basin that has no outlet. The lake has dropped 166 feet in elevation since 1882.

In the two valleys combined, the aquifer lost some 556,000 acre-feet of water between 1970 and 2020. Less water in the aquifer means less water reaches the river and the lake.

On the Radar

Tribal Consultation for Inflation Reduction Act
The Bureau of Reclamation will hold a public meeting with tribal representatives regarding how to spend billions of dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act.

The meeting will take place on January 24 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mountain time. Dial-in information is in the above link.

In context: The Bureau of Reclamation’s $4 Billion Drought Question

PFAS Regulation
The EPA did not make its end-of-year deadline to publish draft drinking water standards for two PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. The rules are still being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

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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