Federal Water Tap, June 5: Debt Limit Deal Changes Environmental Permitting

The Rundown

  • The debt limit standoff opened the door to changes in project permits.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation has up to $40 million for projects to reduce salt in the Colorado River.
  • There is little change in the latest Lake Erie harmful algal bloom forecast.
  • Federal wildfire forecast shows significant fire potential this summer in Cascades, Great Lakes states.
  • Water bills introduced in Congress include regulating water rights sales and extending water infrastructure repayment terms for western farms and cities.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation begins studying options for relocating a section of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico.

And lastly, at least one senator recommends a permanent federal program to assist low-income residents with their water bills.

“In this moment we need a unified approach from the federal government to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable, clean drinking water.” — Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), speaking at a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing about water affordability and small water systems. Padilla said that temporary federal water-bill assistance, which was put in place during the pandemic and expires at the end of 2023, ought to be replaced by a permanent program, which the federal government has for energy bills.

In context: High Cost of Water Hits Home

By the Numbers

$40 Million: Funding the Bureau of Reclamation will distribute to projects that prevent salt from entering the Colorado River. Projects, which typically involve converting unlined canals to pipelines, are capped at $10 million in federal funds. Entities in the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming can apply. The application deadline is September 27, 2023.

News Briefs

Permitting Changes
To clinch a deal on raising the debt limit, the Biden administration conceded to changes in the environmental permitting process that are intended to make reviews shorter and quicker.

The bill caps the number of pages for certain environmental reviews, pushes agencies to coordinate reviews, and sets timelines for reviews based on the anticipated project impact.

There could be unintended effects, though. Because the bill was quickly drafted, it was also “badly written,” argues Dan Farber of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Farber points to the definition of a “major federal action” — the sort of thing that is supposed to trigger analysis of environmental impacts. The language is so garbled, Farber writes, that “it may not actually mean anything at all.” He foresees litigation, which would slow the very processes that the bill was supposed to quicken.

Other changes in the bill are more specific. At the behest of the West Virginia delegation, the deal ordered approval for the contentious Mountain Valley Pipeline, a conduit for natural gas that has been held up because of permits related to building across streams.

Western Water Infrastructure Repayment
Seven House Republicans sponsored a bill that would reauthorize a program that allows irrigation districts and municipalities to pay off their share of federally funded water projects ahead of schedule.

Capping the Price of Water Rights Sales
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) introduced a bill that would regulate water rights transactions in the western states.

The DROP Act would require the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit the sale or lease of water during a drought at an “excessive price.”

The rules would be targeted, though. Federal, state, and tribal governments would be exempt. So would businesses with less than $100 million in gross revenues in the United States in the year before the proposed transaction.

Studies and Report

Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Forecast
The forecast for toxic algae on Lake Erie has not changed.

The latest bulletin from NOAA and Heidelberg University still says that a small to moderate bloom is most likely. The forecast is influenced by spring precipitation, which flushes algae-feeding nutrients into the lake’s shallow western basin, where blooms are most prevalent.

Wildfire Potential
Washington, Oregon and the northern Great Lakes region have above-average potential for wildfire activity this summer, according to the latest three-month outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Warm, dry weather and dry fuels are associated with higher fire risk.

Eastern Alaska also has above-average fire potential in June and July. The northern reaches of New England have a greater likelihood of fire in July and August.

In context: In New Mexico, Partners Collaborate to End Siege from Megafires

On the Radar

National Infrastructure Advisory Council Meeting
The council, which advises the White House on infrastructure matters, will hold a public meeting on June 21, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

On the agenda is a council report on water security.

To attend, send an email to NIAC@cisa.dhs.gov before June 15.

Moving the Rio Grande
No, it’s not a Carmen Sandiego scheme.

The Bureau of Reclamation, in fact, is starting to analyze options for relocating a section of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico.

The goal is to improve water flows and habitat for endangered fish and bird species.

Construction work to move the river channel would take place within a 20-mile section of the Rio Grande known as the Lower San Acacia Reach.

Comments on the scope of the analysis are due by June 30, 2023 and can be emailed to bor-sha-aao-lsari@usbr.gov.

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.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply