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Congress Moves on Covid-19 Needs Signaling the New Normal; April Might Indeed Be the Cruelest Month

This week, after limited debate, the Senate and House made fast work of an emergency spending bill, sending a funding package to address Covid-19 to the president that he signed into law.  The $8.3 billion spending focuses on supporting the healthcare community’s needs ranging from the procurement of facemasks and other protective measures, assistance to support the Centers for Disease Control activities, and assistance to help low income citizens pay for testing and vaccines.  By comparison, in 2009, Congress appropriated $7 billion for the Swine Flu pandemic.  And, in the case of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a total of $5.4 billion was appropriated.  Given the yet-to-be determined magnitude of the Covid-19 threat, it remains to be determined if additional funding will need to be appropriated in the coming months.

In the coming weeks, as the prospect that the virus’ impacts will stretch across the nation, April truly could be the cruelest month.  With the uncertainty over the breadth and extent of how the virus will spread, the challenge for Washington will be conducting business as usual, moving legislation through the two chambers and to the president for enactment. From a regulatory approach, the impacts may be less direct since rulemakings and guidance development often develop through electronic reviews and comments.

The public health impact from Covid-19 is obvious.  From a policymaking vantage point, the impacts are more nuanced.  The growing exposure to the virus could, ironically, have an impact upon transparency in the development of legislation, regulations and guidance.  Just this week, the virus’ first impacts influencing the policymaking process were seen.  Congressional hearings into the Administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request and other economic matters, that are traditionally routine activities, leading up to decisions in the fall on spending priorities, were consumed by questions over the handling of the federal government’s response to growing health threats from Covid-19.

With an eye to a worst-case scenario, until the virus runs its course, or a vaccine is developed, the potential looms that person-to-person meetings with congressional office and federal agencies and departments could be curtailed or outright prohibited.  The business of governing would, in turn, rely upon internet communications (Skype/Facetime), and telecommuting.  Clearly a premium would be placed upon those that have established relationships with policymakers to ensure that issues are effectively and clearly communicated.  If Covid-19 runs its course in a matter of six to eight weeks, that is reportedly the case in China, an already tumultuous political season ramping up to the November elections could be impacted.  Should the policymaking process become further bogged down due to the virus’s impacts, the normal challenges of legislating in a presidential election cycle could become a swirling vortex of complications with the potential of a Lame Duck Session packed with must do legislation.  Among such matters would be fiscal year 2021 spending bills to energy policy to water resources.  As an outlier of opportunities, should the economy falter, Congress and the White House may finally decide that enacting a national infrastructure policy could be just the medicine required to restore the nation’s economic health.   For this week, the business of Washington continued.

Years of Effort Culminate in Funding Agreement for Land and Water Conservation Fund

Bipartisan efforts to resolve annual spending impasses concerning funding the national program that supports conservation efforts and address the maintenance backlog of the needs of national parks proved successful when the Administration reversed course and endorsed the proposal to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (Fund).  Last year, the Fund was provided $400 million.  The Fund is authorized to receive $900 million annually.  In a parallel effort, funding to address the national parks’ backlog maintenance needs would be derived from on and offshore energy production royalties, providing $6.5 billion.  Despite opposition from conservatives in Congress who object to permanent funding of programs, the overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, bolstered by the president’s support, makes enactment all but certain.

Congressional Committees Review FY2021 Agency Budget Requests

This week congressional committees heard from the officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI) to review the Administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget request for the agencies.

USEPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testified before the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies and emphasized the agency’s commitment to “reducing lead exposure, taking action on PFAS, address critical water issues, including reducing harmful algal blooms (HABs) and ocean pollution, investing in the Nation’s water infrastructure, improving the Nation’s recycling system, and reducing food loss and waste.”  Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) asked Wheeler to explain the agency’s process for determining public health standards for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  Wheeler said that the agency is working diligently to develop standards and USEPA scientists are researching the analytics, ecological and human effects, contamination and exposure sources, and remediation tactics for PFAS.

The House Committee on Natural Resources heard from USDOI Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget Susan Combs.  Combs testified to the request’s strengthening of USDOI’s Wildland Fire Management activities by including $1 billion in funding.  Additionally, Combs stated that it also includes $109 million for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Observing Systems program, that includes streamgages, which maintains a nationwide network of streamflow and water-level information data systems.

Representative Grace Napolitano (D-CA) stated her concern that the budget request cuts funding for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Title XVI program by 95%.  Napolitano stressed the importance of the program for western states to address water security and supply needs, as well as countering impacts from droughts and asked Combs to explain why the Administration is requesting cutting the program’s funding.  Combs stated that water recycling and reuse are important tools, but the Administration believes storage is the primary tool for ensuring water security and countering droughts.  Napolitano responded that there is already over $1 billion in approved Title XVI projects and stated that it is intolerable that the request cuts the funding.

House Committee Explores Recycling Practices; Disposable Wipes’ Impacts on Water Infrastructure Highlighted  

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a hearing this week entitled “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reform: Addressing America’s Plastic Waste Crisis” to examine the issues related to the nation’s recycling and waste management systems and what the Federal government can do to address the systems shortcomings.

During the hearing, Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) explained that, while not common knowledge, single-use wipes contain plastics and adversely impact water treatment infrastructure when flushed, which the local water agency must then bear the costs to repair the impacted infrastructure.  Matsui noted that often times these wipes are advertised as flushable, which only compounds the problem.   Matsui asked Enrique Zaldivar, P.E., General Manager, Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Bureau, what impacts wipes have on water treatment systems.  Zaldivar agreed that flushing disposable wipes causes adverse impacts to treatment infrastructure, which in turn can impact public health and the environment when spills occur. He stressed the need for truthful and consistent labeling on wipes packaging, as well as finding alternative products that are soluble.

Witnesses testifying before the subcommittee included: Jenna Jambeck, Ph.D., Professor, College of Engineer University of Georgia; Enrique Zaldivar, P.E., Genreal Manager of the Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Bureau, City of Los Angeles; Lynn Hoffman, Co-President, Eureka Recycling; Denise Patel, U.S. Program Director, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives; Keith Christman, Managing Director, Plastic Markets, American Chemistry Council; and William Johnson, Chief Lobbyist, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc.

Senate Committee Reviews Invasive Species and Impacts to Water Resources

On March 5, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing to examine the impact of invasive species on Bureau of Reclamation facilities and management of water resources in the West.

Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ) highlighted the threat caused by invasive plants, such as the saltcedar plant, that are harmful to native plant species, lowers the water table and increases fire frequency.  McSally noted that according to data compiled by the National Invasive Species Council, invasive species cost the U.S. approximately $120 billion annually. McSally is a co-sponsor of S. 2862, the Drought Relief through Innovative Projects Act, which would establish a competitive grant program to remove and replace non-native plants.

Ranking Member Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) emphasized the success of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which authorizes funding to protect Lake Tahoe’s water quality and has enabled the deployment of smart technologies to prevent invasive species from entering the Tahoe Basin.

Julie Regan, Chief, External Affairs & Deputy Director for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) highlighted an eradication effort in the Tahoe Keys, a lakeshore community with a series of lagoons, that are infested with invasive milfoil and curleyleaf pondweed.  Regan noted that TRPA is working with the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association and Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to develop solutions that are science-based and effective at controlling aquatic weeds.

Scott Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Management and Budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior testified to the impacts of invasive species, such as quagga and zebra mussels on Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) reservoirs, water intakes and power plants. Cameron noted that USBR’s FY 2021 budget request includes $5.6 million for the prevention, early detection and monitoring, containment, and control of invasive mussels.

Additional testimony was provided by Jackie Meck, Mayor for the City of Buckeye, Arizona; Stephanie Criswell, Invasive Species Program Manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources; and, Mike Preston, Manager of External Relations for the Dolores Water Conservancy District (CO).

New Legislation

H.R. 6084, To provide for a program of hydropower, pumped storage, and marine energy research, development, demonstration, and commercial application, and for other purposes. – Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)

H.R. 6113, To establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Water, and for other purposes. – Rep. John Katko (R-NY)

S. 3413, A bill to direct the Director of the Bureau of Land Management to study the effects of drone incursions on wildfire suppression, and for other purposes. – Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)

H.R. 6057, To prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in western waters, and for other purposes. – Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT)

H.R. 6053, To direct the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a household well water testing website, and for other purposes. – Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI)

Reports and Regulation

Bureau of Reclamation Completes First Group of Congressionally-Mandated California Central Valley Project Contract Conversions

Congress Next Week

March 10, 2020

House Committee on Natural Resources – Hearing on Examining the Spending Priorities and Missions of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management

House Committee on Natural Resources – Hearing on Examining the Policies and Priorities of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology – Hearing on Reauthorization of the National Institute of Standards and Technology

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – Hearing to Examine the President’s FY 2021 Budget Request for the Department of the Interior

March 11, 2020

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – Nominations Hearing