Federal Water Tap, January 30: Valuing Nature: White House Publishes Natural Capital Accounting Strategy

The Rundown

  • The White House publishes a strategy for incorporating natural assets into economic accounts.
  • A climate scientist is appointed to a White House intelligence advisory board.
  • EPA watchdog says the agency should better track municipal efforts to control sewer overflows.
  • Federal officials will hold a public session this week to gather input on the first National Nature Assessment.
  • The EPA will work with communities in four states to accelerate replacement of lead drinking water pipes.
  • The EPA intends to halt coal waste from polluting groundwater at six power plants.
  • The Interior Department prohibits new mining leases near a Minnesota wilderness area for 20 years.
  • A federally sponsored study recommends expanding wastewater surveillance to protect public health.

And lastly, this week is the deadline for the seven Colorado River basin states to present a water conservation plan.

“Investment in this national system is important for strengthening public health, but sustaining that investment requires clearly communicating how wastewater surveillance benefits our communities while addressing privacy concerns.” — Guy Palmer, professor of pathology and infectious diseases at Washington State University. Palmer is the chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that released a report on the public health value of wastewater surveillance during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

By the Numbers

225,504: Acres of Superior National Forest, in northern Minnesota, in which new mining and geothermal leases will be prohibited for 20 years. The Interior Department withdrew the publicly managed lands from mining claims due to proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A permanent withdrawal can only be authorized by Congress.

6: Number of power plants where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to prevent groundwater contamination from coal waste. The agency intends to prohibit the power plants from continuing to dump coal ash into unlined pits. The plants are:

  • Belle River Power Plant (Michigan)
  • Coal Creek Station (North Dakota)
  • Conemaugh Generating Station (Pennsylvania)
  • Coronado Generating Station (Arizona)
  • Martin Lake Steam Electric Station (Texas)
  • Monroe Power Plant (Michigan)

News Briefs

Faster Lead Pipe Replacement
The EPA will work with 40 communities in four states — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — to accelerate the replacement of lead drinking water pipes.

The agency will provide technical assistance such as mapping the location of lead pipes, developing a replacement plan, and helping officials apply for federal aid.

Climate Scientist Appointed to White House Intelligence Board
Kim Cobb, a professor and director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, was appointed to a White House panel that advises the president on information-gathering and national security.

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board is an independent voice within the executive branch that assesses the performance of the nation’s intelligence agencies. Those agencies have issued warnings in recent years that water shortages and rising temperatures should be considered national security issues. President Biden delivered an executive order in January 2021 stating that climate change is “an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.”

Cobb, an environmental scientist, was a lead author for the IPCC’s sixth climate change assessment report, which was released in 2021.

Studies and Reports

Natural Capital Accounting. Or, The Money Value of a Standing Tree
What is the economic value of a functioning wetland? Or a healthy forest?

The Biden administration published a new strategy for including natural assets into the national system of economic accounting, including a proposal for a new measure to accompany GDP: the annual change in natural asset wealth.

The strategy is a step forward in the recognition that nature — as a source of minerals, recreation, pollination, clean air, carbon capture, and flood protection — underpins the economy.

“The challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution, and environmental injustice carry implications for the economy and the environment, and society cannot effectively or efficiently confront those challenges if economic and environmental accounting and policy proceed on two separate tracks,” the strategy states.

The strategy lays out a plan for incorporating environmental-economic statistics into national accounts. A priority is ensuring that data is tracked systematically in order to facilitate long-term comparisons.

Combined Sewer Overflows
The EPA’s internal watchdog says the agency should keep better data on municipal efforts to control combined sewer overflows.

About 40 million people in the country live in cities that collect stormwater and wastewater in the same sewer system. The Government Accountability Office argues that the EPA ought to track progress on control measures that cities are taking to reduce sewage overflows from combined systems.

The report analyzed combined sewer plans in 11 cities. There are 681 cities with combined sewers. Forty-five percent of those are in Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

On the Radar

Colorado River Deadline
The seven Colorado River basin states have a January 31 deadline to cut water use from the distressed river by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet this year. Without an agreement, the federal government has said it will step in.

National Nature Assessment Listening Session
Federal officials are holding a public listening session to gather input for the government’s first report on the status of nature.

Yes, the status of nature. President Biden asked for the National Nature Assessment in a 2022 executive order. It is expected to be completed in 2026.

The session is on January 31 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Registration is free but required.

Implementing WRDA
The Army Corps of Engineers will hold three public listening sessions through March 1 to discuss implementing the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress passed in December.

Public comments on implementing any provision in the act are being accepted for 60 days at www.regulations.gov using docket number COE-2023-0002.

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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