Executive Summary for June 30th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including federal rulings affecting California’s massive water-tunnel project and Trump administration plans for clean water enforcement. We also look at groundwater overdraft along the international border in New Mexico.

Published on June 30, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Wildlife Agencies OK California Water Tunnel Project

On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service released final biological opinions that conclude a massive California water diversion project will not harm endangered fish.

Those findings are crucial to starting construction of the $17 billion project, which would divert a portion of Sacramento River flows into two 35-mile-long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“We feel this is a momentous step toward the future,” said Michelle Banonis, assistant chief deputy director at the California Department of Water Resources, according to the Sacramento Bee.

But this is by no means the last approval the project needs. The State Water Resources Control Board is in the midst of a lengthy hearing process to consider new diversion permits for the project. And the federal wildlife agencies aren’t done either. As the Los Angeles Times notes, they’re in the midst of a separate review of how State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project operations will operate in conjunction with the tunnels – which could result in further restrictions.

Monday’s news also puts the pressure on the state’s largest water agencies to decide whether to pay for the tunnels. They have pledged to decide by September.

Environmental groups were highly critical of Monday’s federal actions, which came after draft biological opinions suggested the tunnels could have serious impacts.

“It sure seems like politics is trumping science in the Delta again,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In those draft opinions, the Fish and Wildlife Service found the tunnels would destroy vital Delta smelt habitat that will be increasingly important as climate change alters the estuary. The National Marine Fisheries Service concluded the tunnels would worsen water temperatures and flow patterns vital to winter-run Chinook salmon.

In their announcement Monday, the agencies conceded project construction and operation would adversely affect imperiled species – but not to the point of jeopardizing their existence.

Trump Moves to Kill Clean Water Rule

The Trump administration announced Tuesday it will withdraw the “Waters of the United States” rule, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to control pollution of wetlands and tributaries that run into the nation’s largest rivers.

Testifying before Congress, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency would “provide clarity” by “withdrawing” the rule and reverting standards to those adopted in 2008, the Washington Post reported.

The 1972 Clean Water Act gave the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers control over navigable rivers and interstate waterways, but a series of court rulings left the extent of that power ambiguous. The Obama administration sought to end a decade of confusion by finalizing the WOTUS rule, which took effect in August 2015,

The rule triggered protests from a variety of real estate development, agricultural and industrial interests.

“By tossing out years of scientific study and public input, Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are muddying the very waters the Clean Water Rule sought to clarify,” said Jo Ellen Darcy, who co-authored the Obama-era rule as assistant secretary of the army for civil works and now sits on the board of the advocacy group American Rivers.

New Mexico Border Aquifer May Have Only a Decade Left

A binational groundwater aquifer serving both Mexico and New Mexico is being rapidly depleted. That’s partly because the nearby Rio Grande River is governed by strict regulations on water extraction in both countries, but not groundwater.

Known as the Mesilla Bolson on the U.S. side and Conejos Medanos on the Mexican side, the freshwater aquifer is the source upon which southern New Mexico has anchored its hopes for its own economic future. Experts say the best drinking water in the aquifer may last for only another decade.

There are multiple water users on both sides of the border – cities, industry, farms. New Mexico has long been the largest user. But that changed when a massive pipeline went in just south of the border less than a decade ago. Overnight, it created demand equal to the second-largest city in New Mexico.

“It’s a race to the bottom. There is no doubt about it,” said Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University and expert on U.S.-Mexico water policy


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