Federal Water Tap, September 25: Army Corps Begins to Raise Underwater Barrier in Mississippi River to Hold Back Saltwater

The Rundown

  • Army Corps responds to low Mississippi River levels in Louisiana that threaten drinking water.
  • EPA announces WIFIA water infrastructure money for 2023 and technical assistance funds for disadvantaged communities.
  • The National Park Service endorses a swamp in southeast Georgia as a potential World Heritage Site.
  • The Justice Department limits attorney’s fees for Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuits.
  • A bipartisan House bill focuses on water, sanitation, and hygiene in healthcare facilities abroad.
  • This week marks the end of a 2023 water year that saw Colorado River reservoirs rise.

And lastly, the Treasury Department outlines how local governments can use pandemic relief funds to respond to environmental disasters.

“Over time we’re going to increase our capacity to deliver, and their needs are going to increase.” — Col. Cullen Jones, New Orleans District commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps is preparing to barge water supplies to areas in southern Louisiana whose drinking water could be spoiled by salt water moving upstream from the Gulf of Mexico. As the saltwater wedge moves upstream, more towns will be at risk.

By the Numbers

$7.5 Billion: Low-cost financing available through the EPA’s WIFIA program for large water infrastructure projects in 2023. For selected projects, the program can cover up to 49 percent of costs. Focus areas for this round of financing are economically distressed communities, lead pipe removal, drought preparation, resilience, and PFAS contamination.

The Army Corps of Engineers is now accepting applications for a similar loan program designed for dam safety projects. That program also can finance $7.5 billion.

25 Percent: Limit the Justice Department has placed on attorney’s fees for Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuits, Reuters reports. Settlements would be capped at 20 percent. Service members and their families were exposed to toxic water at the marine base from 1953 to 1987. Exposure has been linked to cancer and other health problems.

News Briefs

Drought Again Weakens Mississippi River
In a repeat of last year, dry conditions again threaten drinking water and shipping in the lower Mississippi River.

The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to barge millions of gallons of water this week to communities in southern Louisiana whose drinking water intakes are along the river and could be compromised by salt water that is moving upstream. Usually the river’s flow is strong enough to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. Not this year.

An underwater dam that the Army Corps built in July to impede the saltwater wedge was breached last week. The corps is now raising the barrier by 25 feet to buy more time until rains return, CNN reports. The higher barrier will buy perhaps two weeks.

This is the second consecutive year in which the barrier was needed – the first time that has happened in the Mississippi delta.

Carbon Accounting
The White House told federal agencies to incorporate the social cost of greenhouse gases into their budget and procurement decisions.

The social cost figure estimates, in dollar terms, the damage to society from a unit of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

WASH Bill in Congress
House representatives introduced the bipartisan Global WASH in Healthcare Facilities Act.

The bill is an indirect remedy. It would ask the U.S. Agency for International Development to write a plan to help national governments improve water, sanitation, and hygiene in hospitals and clinics.

Water For All
The EPA announced $500 million to assist disadvantaged communities assess their water systems, develop improvement plans, and apply for federal funds. The assistance program will be a collaboration with nonprofit and academic partners.

New Uses for Pandemic Relief Funds
The Treasury Department finalized a rule that gives local, state, and tribal governments more options for using pandemic relief funds.

The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in 2021, provided $350 billion to these governments for a variety of purposes. The list included water and sewer investments.

Now these governments can use the funds for emergency relief after environmental disasters.

All funds, regardless of purpose, must be obligated by December 31, 2024, and spent by December 31, 2026.

In context: Billions Flow to Water Systems from Federal Pandemic Relief Funds

Studies and Reports

Dam Safety and Aging Infrastructure
The Interior Department’s watchdog issued a report on how the agency is planning to spend $3.7 billion in infrastructure act funds on dam safety and aging infrastructure in the western states. In two years, the agency has allocated $925 million, or one-quarter of the funds.

September Climate and Health Report
The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity published its monthly outlook on climate threats to health.

Drought, wildfire smoke, hurricanes, and infectious disease are among the topics the report covers.

On the Radar

Happy Water New Year!
This is the final week of the 2023 water year. The calendar for water managers turns over on October 1 each year.

The past 12 months will be remembered fondly in the Colorado River basin. Water storage in the basin is about 30 percent higher than a year ago.

Potential World Heritage Site in Georgia
The National Park Service requests that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nominate Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The U.S. boasts 25 such sites, which are recognized for their ecological and cultural importance.

Twin Pines Minerals, a mining company, is seeking a permit from the Georgia regulators for a titanium mine near the refuge.

State Revolving Fund Audits
The EPA’s internal watchdog will investigate whether the states and Puerto Rico have properly tracked expenditures for water and sewer infrastructure loan funds.

The Office of the Inspector General says annual financial audits are necessary for good governance, especially as these funds have seen an influx due to the federal infrastructure bill.

Senate Water Hearings
Three hearings happen on September 27:

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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