Thursday, July 25, 2013

EPA approves state's revised drinking water plan

 By Emily Foxhall

July 24, 2013

After threatening to cut off funding to California earlier this spring because the state had been so slow to improve its drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the state’s revised spending plan.

“I think as a result of this process, Californians can be more assured that their infrastructure needs are being met,” said EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld.

In April, the EPA issued a noncompliance warning to the California Department of Public Health, amid complaints that funds were not being distributed promptly or efficiently. Californians in many communities have suffered from a lack of potable water while the state left $455 million in federal funds unspent and failed to pursue an additional $260 million in loan repayments, EPA officials found.

Meanwhile, many residents in low-income communities were forced to buy bottled water or drive many miles to get safe tap water.

The state submitted its “corrective action plan” on June 24. The EPA requested that the state revise and clarify various aspects, and a new plan was submitted on July 12.

Under the new commitments approved Tuesday, the state must distribute at least $878 million to projects by mid-2016. That would be more than double the amount of funding disbursed during the past four years.

In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the department plans to distribute $200 million.

Blumenfeld said funding commitments were better spelled out in the new plan, and the state will be able to account for and track the money more closely. But the EPA’s continued support of the state’s programs depends on the department’s ability to follow through on its promises, Blumenfeld said.

The revised plan will pay for water system projects of all sizes in the state, Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the state Department of Public Health and state public health officer, said in a statement Wednesday.

Safe drinking water advocates are hopeful that the state’s renewed attention to the funding problems will help smaller, disadvantaged communities, said Omar Carrillo, a policy analyst for the Community Water Center, an advocacy group that works on behalf of low-income people.

The department identified 183 small systems in 2012 that merited assistance.

Assemblymember Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who introduced a bill that would transfer drinking water programs from the department of public health to the state water board, said the EPA approval does not mean all problems have been solved.

In a statement, he said the drinking water program should still be under different governance to ensure increased transparency and greater public participation, among other things.


 State stops waiting for FEMA to help

•  Will repair about 90 miles of levees

Nearly 90 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are to be rebuilt to one degree or another to provide protection against flooding, the state Department of Water Resources says.

The 14 separate reclamation district projects will receive a total of nearly $30 million under what’s called the “Delta Special Flood Control Projects’ Hazard Mitigation Plan Levee Repair and Improvement Project Solicitation Package.”

The projects include landslide levee repair, all-weather road construction, erosion repair and other improvements, along with mitigation for any habitat damage.

The largest grant is $7.2 million, the smallest $348,000. Negotiations continue with eight other districts that could add 39 miles of levee improvements and $13.9 million in grant funds to the funding package, says DWR.

Funding for these projects has been on hold since December when the Federal Emergency Management Agency withdrew from an agreement that would have assured FEMA flood assistance to reclamation districts that met FEMA’s levee criteria. These grant funds are made available for the purpose of improving levees to meet the HMP criteria.

Negotiations with FEMA for a new agreement have been unsuccessful in restoring the HMP criteria, says the state. “However, DWR considers the projects selected for funding critical to the Delta and all of California and seeks to proceed without further delay,” the department says.

Agreements with the districts sponsoring approved projects should be signed no later than December, with funding made available in time for construction to begin early next year, DWR says.


» A list of all applicants and their projects is here :


Friday, July 19, 2013

Federal agencies reviewing draft for proposal to re-plumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta call it 'insufficient' and 'biased.'
By Bettina Boxall
July 18, 2013

Federal agencies reviewing draft environmental documents for the state's proposal to re-plumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are criticizing the work as "insufficient," "biased" and "confusing."
The federal comments suggest it's going to be tough for the state to meet its self-imposed deadline of releasing the draft this October for official public comment, an important step in moving the project forward.

In what would be the biggest water supply project constructed in California in half a century, the state is proposing to build a large diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta and send the water through two 35-mile tunnels to aqueducts serving the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

By adding the diversion point and restoring more than 100,000 acres of delta habitat, the south-of-the-delta urban and agricultural water contractors who have promised to pay for much of the project are hoping to get relief from environmental restrictions on their deliveries.
The project, estimated to cost about $24 billion, must pass muster with federal fishery agencies that oversee endangered species protections for migrating salmon and the delta's imperiled native fish.

In response to previous federal comments, the state reduced the number of river intakes and agreed to propose initial operating rules for the project that would increase flows in the delta — giving contractors less water than they want. If the restoration efforts succeed in improving conditions for delta fish, the rules could be changed to allow for more water exports under the project's adaptive management program.
But judging by the latest round of comments, posted online Thursday by the state Natural Resources Agency, federal biologists still aren't satisfied.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees protection for salmon that migrate through the delta, called the environmental draft "currently insufficient" and said it "will need to be revised."
The fisheries agency faulted the draft for arriving at "seemingly illogical conclusions" in some sections or lacking analysis to back up a conclusion.

In one part of the lengthy draft, "both the language and the content … are advocating for the project and could be perceived as biased," the fisheries service wrote.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees protections for the delta smelt and other native fish, also
spotted pro-project bias in the draft, which was prepared by a consultant and is supposed to present an objective overview of the proposal's environmental effects.

Citing one paragraph, fish and wildlife said the wording amounted to "unjustified advocacy." Other comments called the document "very difficult to read" and cited "factual and analytical errors."
Repeating earlier criticisms, federal biologists also said the assumed benefits of restoration were unproven.
In a statement, Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Jerry Meral said his agency was confident "that all the issues raised in the comments can be successfully resolved in the coming months."

"It is important to remember that regulatory agencies by their nature do not give out 'gold stars' for work, but road maps for improvement," Meral said. "We will continue to follow that map."



JPMorgan may settle California energy market manipulation case

JP Morgan may has been negotiating a settlement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over its role in trading electricity in California.
(Source LA Times)
Andrew Tangel and Marc Lifsher
July 18, 2013

NEW YORK — California utility customers could one day split more than $100 million if federal regulators settle with JPMorgan Chase & Co. over allegations that the nation's biggest bank manipulated the state's energy market.
JPMorgan has been negotiating a settlement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over its role in trading electricity in California, according to a source familiar with the matter.
It was unclear how much of a settlement would wind up going to the U.S. Treasury and how much might be returned to California ratepayers. JPMorgan could wind up paying around $500 million including civil penalties, said this person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
JPMorgan caught regulators' attention in 2011. That year the California Independent System Operator, which manages much of the state's wholesale power market, suspected that JPMorgan was manipulating the power market.
Cal-ISO alleged that the bank was involved in placing deceptive bids to profit from energy trading and inflated payments. The scheme resulted in more than $100 million in unjust profits, Cal-ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle said.
As part of a potential settlement, the disgorged profits could go first to utilities and then to ratepayers through a California Public Utilities Commission proceeding, she said.
Spokespeople from FERC and JPMorgan declined to comment.
The looming possible settlement with JPMorgan comes as FERC this week ordered the British bank Barclays and four of its traders to pay $453 million in civil penalties in a separate case of alleged market manipulation. They were accused of gaming electricity markets in California and other markets from late 2006 through late 2008.
FERC's order also called for Barclays to disgorge $34.9 million, plus interest, in "unjust profits." Those funds would go to energy-assistance programs for low-income residents of California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
Barclays, for its part, has pledged to fight FERC's order: "We believe that our trading was legitimate and in compliance with applicable law," the bank said in a statement.
In January, German banking giant Deutsche Bank settled a market-manipulation probe by agreeing to pay FERC a $1.5-million civil penalty and disgorge profits of $172,645.
Consumer advocates believe that Wall Street market manipulation is more widespread than these recent cases.
"FERC has managed to catch a small fraction of the very complex manipulation schemes engineered by sophisticated banks, and we're just seeing a tip of the iceberg," said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at the advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. "The manipulation is so widespread that FERC is simply catching what it can."
Even though a $500-million settlement with JPMorgan would be a record for FERC, Slocum said the amount would not be enough.
He called on FERC to calculate how much JPMorgan's manipulation might have cost individual customers. "A company stole money from California consumers, lied about it and they're going to get a slap on the wrist," Slocum said. "That's not justice."
News of the settlement negotiations with JPMorgan was earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for a San Francisco ratepayers advocacy group, the Utility Reform Network, said customers should be repaid in market-manipulation cases.
"The bottom line is we don't want to see any energy traders treat California as a source of easy profits," Spatt said. "We do need strong oversight to ensure traders are not taking advantage of us. No one knows better than California how much manipulation can hurt consumers."


Friday, July 5, 2013

Safe water: Public health is at risk with proposed California legislation

Special to the Mercury News
Posted:   07/03/2013 03:00:00 PM PDT
Updated:   07/04/2013 11:57:04 AM PDT

For local water managers, nothing is more critical than delivering safe drinking water. There is a tremendous amount of work involved, from monitoring supplies and distribution systems to extensive sampling and testing to verify the safety and quality of water before it enters customers' homes. Thousands of samples are analyzed in laboratories to ensure that water is safe. Wells and hundreds of miles of water mains also must be tested and maintained.
In most parts of California, this happens like clockwork -- but not in some rural communities. Recent studies have found small, economically disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin, for example, where drinking water sources are contaminated and there are no alternatives readily available.
Action is needed, but the solutions we choose must not create new problems.
One proposal moving through the Legislature is raising concerns: Assembly Bill 145 by assemblymen Henry Perea and Anthony Rendon is well-intended but takes an approach that could undermine public health protection.
The challenges facing these communities are complex. They need targeted solutions and collaboration to address a range of technical, administrative, financial and governmental issues.
One problem has been the state Department of Public Health's management of a critical revolving fund to provide grants and loans to communities for drinking water projects. The department acknowledges shortcomings that have caused delays in disbursing funds, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the program out of compliance with federal requirements.
Instead of dealing with the fund directly, however, AB 145 seeks to move the entire drinking water regulatory program to the State Water Resources Control Board. The state board has an important mission in protecting water quality and regulating wastewater and stormwater discharges, but it is not a public health agency, and it is not led by public health experts.
That matters because the drinking water regulatory program must focus first and foremost on protecting public health. Moving the entire program out of the Department of Public Health could undermine its public health focus and weaken emergency response to waterborne illnesses and other water security threats. What's more, it would lead to disruptions that could impede key activities such as monitoring and permitting the state's 7,500 drinking water systems and providing 24-hour emergency response to protect public health.
It would be a mistake. The dangers are too great. That's why water agencies and public health groups around the state believe AB 145 in its current form is not the solution.
A better approach is to focus on correcting problems with the revolving fund. The Department of Public Health submitted a corrective action plan to the EPA on June 24. Read more...