Federal Water Tap, September 18: Survey Data Shows Households Behind on Water Bills

The Rundown

  • Interagency working group recommends changes to federal mining laws.
  • EPA drinking water infrastructure report to Congress includes new data on lead service lines.
  • CDC researchers use wastewater to track influenza and RSV.
  • NOAA expects El Niño to extend at least through March 2024.
  • Senate hearings this week on drought and water, and tribal water infrastructure.
  • EPA finalizes a rule to restore state authority to protect water resources in permitting large infrastructure projects.

And lastly, Tropical Storm Hilary damages a wastewater treatment plant along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Tropical Storm Hilary exacerbated the vulnerabilities of an already at-risk treatment plant, accelerating damage through excessive flows and incoming debris.” — Maria-Elena Giner, commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission, U.S. section. The commission operates the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, a facility on U.S. soil near the Mexico border that treats sewage from Tijuana. The commission estimates that rehabilitating the facility will cost $8 million.

By the Numbers

5 Percent: Share of customers who had water service shut off in 2022 because they were late paying their water bill. Another data point: 16 percent of customers received a shutoff notice last year. The numbers come from a Department of Health and Human Services survey of water utilities nationally. Some 1,882 utilities participated. DHHS says the full survey results will be published in October.

In context: Millions of Americans Are in Water Debt

$629 Billion: Estimated capital need, over the next 20 years, for the nation’s drinking water systems. That’s according to a report submitted to Congress by the EPA. The Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey determines how federal drinking water infrastructure funds are distributed to states and tribes. The survey included new data on the number of lead service lines. The estimate: 9.2 million nationally. The cost of replacing these is estimated between $50 billion and $80 billion.

News Briefs

State Water Quality Permitting
Section 401 of the Clean Water Act allows states, tribes, and territories to intervene in large-scale infrastructure projects in order to prevent the pollution and degradation of waterways.

The EPA published a final rule that reaffirms those authorities after they were curtailed by the Trump administration.

A point of contention among Republicans was the use of Section 401 to deny permits to fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project, a gas pipeline proposed for New York, and Millennium Bulk Terminals, a coal export facility eyed for Washington state.

The new rule sets out clear timelines and parameters for reviews, not allowing them to assess impacts beyond water quality.

Studies and Reports

Potential Changes to Federal Mining Laws
An interagency working group published a final report that recommends ways to expand mining on federally managed public lands without wrecking air, land, and water.

Demand for minerals to power low-carbon energy and new technologies is growing and yet the main federal mining law dates has seen few changes since first passed in 1872. The working group acknowledged those facts and sought ways to accommodate growth and environmental protection.

The report recommends more funding for agency staff to process permits and analyze impacts. It encourages agencies to identify critical areas for water and wildlife, and Congress to withdraw those lands from mineral exploration if harm is unavoidable.

It also recommends a transition to a lease system and royalty payments. To prevent taxpayer-funded cleanups of abandoned mines, it suggests barring entry to companies with unresolved violations.

Wastewater Surveillance Beyond Covid
Many things – delivery services, home offices, GameStop stock – were trendy during the pandemic. Toilet flushes, too. Viral loads in wastewater turned out to be leading indicators for Covid outbreaks.

Now researchers are applying those tracking methods to other illnesses.

CDC researchers contributed to a study that monitored influenza and RSV, a respiratory disease, in wastewater in three Wisconsin cities.

They found an association between virus particles in wastewater and an increase in emergency department visits, suggesting that the method could be used as an early-warning indicator.

On the Radar

Senate Hearings on Water
On September 20, a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee will discuss how drought affects drinking water access and supply.

In a case study of poor planning, a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee will hold a hearing on drinking water infrastructure for tribal communities – on the same day at the same time as the other hearing.

Fortunately, all hearings are recorded and can be viewed after the fact at 2x speed.

Colorado River Meeting
On September 20, the International Boundary and Water Commission will host a discussion of restoration efforts in the Colorado River delta.

White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council Meeting
On September 26, the council will hold a public meeting to discuss a number of issues: a climate and justice screening tool, impacts on Indigenous groups, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge into decision making.

National Drinking Water Advisory Council Meeting
On October 11, the expert council that advises the EPA on drinking water will hold a public meeting. On the agenda: disinfection byproducts. Registration details have not yet been posted but will be available here.

El Niño Forecast
NOAA expects that water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean will remain high through at least March 2024 and strengthen over the northern hemisphere winter.

The ocean influences the atmosphere. The global average air temperature should approach or exceed a record high this year. Australia usually sees hot and dry conditions during El Niño.

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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