See what legislative developments have taken place over the last month.

Congressional Hearing
Addresses Water Standards

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) and representatives of state and local governments testified at a recent Congressional hearing on the need to update water quality standards.

Water quality standards are established by states which determine designated uses for all respective state waters and then adopt criteria to protect those areas. The criteria used by states to protect designated uses largely are criteria developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which must approve states’ designated uses and criteria.

The GAO reviewed the water quality standards process earlier in the year. When it reported its findings at the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing, it stated that almost all states reported a need for changes. Many states added they need additional EPA assistance to clarify the circumstances in which use changes are acceptable to the EPA and the evidence needed to support those changes.

U.S. Representative John J. Duncan, chairman of the subcommittee, said the EPA estimates that it will cost states between $670 million and $1.2 billion a year over the next 15 years just to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads.

Duncan added, “Given the magnitude of this investment, I find it very troubling that, according to the GAO, 30 states think different waters would be identified for TMDL development if improvements were made to the process of modifying standards. This means that unless states can update water quality standards, we face the prospect of wasting billions of dollars by focusing on the wrong problems.”

Court Upholds
Arsenic Standard

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the EPA’s 2001 arsenic-in-drinking-water rule and ruled that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act is constitutional.

The justices ruled in the face of a vigorous challenge from the state of Nebraska and several water systems represented by an advocacy group.

The court rejected the arguments of the advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute and the state of Nebraska that the arsenic rule and Safe Drinking Water Act are unconstitutional. The panel of judges held that Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution to regulate poisonous chemicals like arsenic in water systems that sell water across state lines.

The Court ruling confirmed that the Safe Drinking Water Act is consistent with the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which restricts federal government regulation of states, because the law does not compel states to regulate arsenic in tap water, though they may cede that authority to the EPA.

This was the third time Nebraska has unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the Safe Drinking Water Act in court.

Minnesota Starts
Clean Water Cabinet

In a recently delivered speech, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty outlined a vision for improving the state’s water quality and took the first step toward reaching the goal by forming a clean water cabinet.

Pawlenty indicated that protecting lakes, rivers, streams and ground water is one of his top environmental concerns. The cabinet will include the commissioners from the Pollution Control Agency, the Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Health and the executive director of the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

The priorities of the clean water cabinet include keeping Minnesota’s waters clean by protecting them from present and future threats, ensuring safe water to sustain healthy communities and maintaining an accurate picture of the condition of Minnesota’s waters so citizens and policymakers can respond effectively.

Budget Cuts Affect Drinking Water

Wisconsin will scale back some enforcement of rules and testing requirements for 12,000 public water systems that serve 4 million people because of staff and budget cuts, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In addition, municipal water utility managers and private well owners will receive less assistance from the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau, as the agency cut more than 10 percent of its 115 workers.

The staff reductions started with six positions in the state budget repair bill approved last year to address the growing state deficit.

State funding for the bureau is expected to drop from $3.6 million in 2001 to $2 million in the upcoming fiscal year, cutting roughly $1.6 million from the agency’s total annual budget of $10 million, the paper stated.

Sen. Robert Welch said the cuts are justified reductions in the DNR bureaucracy. Fewer workers should be able to provide the same level of water quality enforcement, while local municipalities handle the responsibility of running the utilities safely.

But Don Swailes, chief of the drinking water quality section and a 20-year DNR veteran, said the cutbacks erode the state’s ability to ensure safe drinking water.

EPA Requests Public Opinion

The EPA recently held a meeting in Tampa to discuss sewage that is gradually migrating into portions of the Florida aquifer that surrounding areas tap for their water supplies, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported.

The sewage is a violation of current federal regulations governing drinking water. Officials from the EPA were in Tampa to get public opinion about a controversial proposal to relax those rules and allow what’s called deep-well injection of sewage to continue, even if the treated effluent is mixing with drinking water.

The changes are opposed by environmental groups, but utilities, mainly in South Florida, want the regulations altered.

Under its proposal, the EPA is considering two options. Both would allow utilities to inject sewage underground, even if it migrates to where drinking water is withdrawn.

Option 1 would let the wells operate but with more thorough treatment and disinfection of the wastewater first, and studies to prove the sewage is not harming drinking water supplies would be done. Option 2 would let individual utilities do studies to show the water in the aquifer where the sewage was injected continued to meet drinking water standards. Also, all utilities would have to improve their treatment and disinfection by 2015, regardless of what the studies showed.

Bush Approves Water Deal

President Bush has signed a law that resolves years of disputes between the Zuni Indian Tribe and other water users in eastern Arizona, according to the Associated Press.

The deal provides $19 million in federal funds to buy water rights for the tribe in the Little Colorado River Basin, the AP reported.

Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said the new law is a fair settlement of a longstanding water rights dispute. The law will protect access to water for rural Arizonans while also respecting the Zuni Tribe’s religious beliefs.

The Zuni’s ancestors have lived in the area along the New Mexico-Arizona state line since 500 B.C. But since the late 1800s, communities upstream began using all the available water, causing conflicts between the tribe, farmers and irrigation districts.

Lawsuits were filed in 1979, and although the parties reached a settlement agreement a year ago, the settlement had to be approved by Congress.

Alternative Water Plan
Proposed for California

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has sent Governor Gray Davis an alternative proposal to the Colorado River sharing deal that will shift funding for the deal from taxpayers to water users.

The cornerstone of the deal remains unchanged. Farmers in the Imperial Valley in California’s southeastern corner would sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for up to 75 years. Representatives of the water boards in Imperial and San Diego counties said they had not seen the deal and would not comment.

Metropolitan’s proposal calls for a $6 fee assessed on every acre-foot (about 325,000 gallons) of Colorado River water used in California. About $880 million would be generated over 35 years to pay the environmental costs associated with the Salton Sea, according to Metropolitan’s estimates.

The majority of those costs would be borne by the Imperial Valley, the state’s biggest user of the Colorado River. Imperial’s water board has fought to cap the region’s environmental liability to a maximum of $30 million, spokeswoman Sue Giller told the Associated Press.

At the same time, Metropolitan is calling for a three-year study to determine whether the Salton Sea, California’s biggest lake, can be shrunk and brought back to health. Some of the Imperial Valley farm runoff flowing into the sea then can be desalinated for use in urban areas.

Metropolitan’s main objection is that taxpayers were being asked to pay more than $500 million to subsidize a voluntary water transfer.

Colorado Water Bills Signed

Colorado Governor Bill Owens recently signed four water bills relating to water and called the legislation the most important step in decades to address Colorado’s continuing water crisis.

The central element of the package is SB 236, which will ask voters in November for as much as $2 billion in bonds for water storage and infrastructure repair projects.

The other bills signed were HB 1318, a statewide water-banking bill, which expands water banking to seven other major river basins and allows those with surplus water to deposit their excess supply into the water bank and be reimbursed as the bank leases it to other users; HB 1320, a temporary in-stream flows bill, which protects the environment during drought emergencies by allowing water owners to temporarily donate water into rivers and fisheries; and HB 1334, an interruptible supply contracts bill, which permits cities to contract with farmers and ranchers for water in times of declared drought without having to permanently buy the water rights.