Federal Water Tap, March 18: Spy Agencies See Water, Climate as National Security Risks

The Rundown

  • U.S. spy agencies release global threat assessment, highlighting water and climate.
  • Eight states broke heat records during a warm winter.
  • U.S. and Canadian governments ask a binational commission to intervene on worsening water pollution from mining in a cross-border watershed.
  • EPA watchdog recommends a more thorough review for overseeing water infrastructure dollars sent to the states.
  • Rio Grande water lawsuit heads back to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

And lastly, CDC publishes new data on U.S. disease outbreaks linked to drinking water.

“The accelerating effects of climate change are placing more of the world’s population, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, at greater risk from extreme weather, food and water insecurity, and humanitarian disasters, fueling migration flows and increasing the risks of future pandemics as pathogens exploit the changing environment.” – Excerpt from the Annual Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community.

By the Numbers

8: States, mostly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, that marked their hottest winter on record, according to NOAA. It was also a record-hot December-January-February for the Lower 48 states.

News Briefs

Global Threat Assessment
U.S. spy agencies released their annual public report on national security threats. Yet again, they identified water, climate, and environment as risks that could inflame conflict, causing social and political instability.

The report called out water shortages in Iran as a potential flash point in that country. Citizens have protested en masse in recent years over inadequate water supplies. The country is also mining its groundwater at unsustainable rates and its largest lake – Lake Urmia – is shrinking.

This is not the first time the threat assessment has highlighted water. Environmental risks have been a staple of the report since the Obama administration, now 15 years ago.

In context: HotSpots H2O

Cross-Border Water Pollution
In response to worsening watershed health, Canada and the United States have asked a binational commission to assist with curbing water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai/y watershed, which spans British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana.

Selenium pollution in the watershed has been rising for decades. The toxic metal leaches from coal mining sites.

The International Joint Commission will help federal, state, and tribal governments develop an entity to manage the watershed, according to the proposal. The commission will also undertake a two-year study of the watershed to build a common base of knowledge on water pollution impacts and opportunities.

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 states that cross-border rivers and lakes “shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.”

Studies and Reports

Drinking Water-Related Disease Outbreaks
Legionella bacteria continue to be the largest source of disease outbreaks, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. linked to drinking water.

The finding comes from a new CDC report with data from 2015 to 2020. Ninety-seven percent of hospitalizations and 98 percent of deaths linked to drinking water were from Legionella. The largest number of illnesses came from pathogens like norovirus that cause digestive problems.

Legionella bacteria cause Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness spread by inhaling contaminated water droplets. The bacteria proliferate in biofilms, the slimy coatings inside of water distribution pipes. Researchers reckon that the vast majority of Legionnaires’ cases go unidentified or unreported.

In context: As Legionnaires’ Disease Cases Surge, Lawsuits Pile Up

Oversight of Water Infrastructure Funds
The EPA’s internal watchdog recommends that the agency improve its annual water infrastructure fund reviews so that money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is not wasted.

The act provided an extra $12.7 billion over five years for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a low-interest loan program that is run by the states but largely seeded with federal dollars.

On the Radar

Rio Grande
A long-running dispute over water use from the Rio Grande will return to the U.S. Supreme Court this week, Courthouse News Service reports.

The court will hear arguments on March 20. Texas filed the initial suit, contending that groundwater extraction in New Mexico was robbing it of water. The states agreed to settle the lawsuit last year. But the federal government objected, arguing that it has the final say because it operates dams on the river. Colorado is also party to the litigation.

Senate PFAS, Climate Costs Hearings
On March 20, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing to discuss PFAS as hazardous substances. Representatives from industry, state government, and environmental groups will testify.

That same day, the Senate Budget Committee will hear testimony about how climate change affects recreation economies.

House Climate Disclosure Hearing
On March 18, the House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on the SEC’s climate disclosure rule, which was announced earlier this month.

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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