August 21, 2023 11:48 pm

Sometimes there’s a little to say about a lot of things. Welcome back to Variable Flow.

Cat in rubber boots taking water sample

i can haz clean river?

Tribal ripple effects

Since the late 1980s, tribal governments in the United States have had the option of taking primary implementation authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA), just like state governments. My past research shows that water quality enforcement in Indian Country is more rigorous when tribes take charge of their own water quality programs.

Water quality regulation also gives tribes potential leverage to modify or block upstream pollution that might threaten water quality on tribal lands. The latest example to hit my desk comes from Northern Minnesota, where White Earth Nation authorities used their authority over water to stymie massive dairy and hog operations that would have impacted tribal waters  and threatened wild rice cultivation. What’s especially interesting about this case is that the White Earth Ojibwe don’t yet hold CWA primacy. Instead, the tribe’s control of a dam that regulates river flow frightened off the corporate livestock operation.

Nutrient pollution from industrial-scale agriculture is wreaking havoc on water quality in much of the Midwest. Meanwhile, federal and state environmental regulators continue to offer only ineffectual voluntary best management practices, evidently politically hamstrung by the polluters that they’re supposed to control. With federal politicians cowed and state regulators captured (looking at you Iowa), tribal governments armed with CWA primacy and/or governing other water resources offer a promising new venue for tackling agricultural pollution. Water quality advocates and surface water utility leaders take note.
Two cats in suits smoking cigarettes in a dark room

teh room where it happenz

In startling development, politicians act politically

Water sector advocates celebrated when the 2021 Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) promised more than $55 billion for the nation’s water systems. That money was channeled through the State Revolving Funds (SRF), with preference for disadvantaged communities. That’s more or less what happened in Fiscal Year 2021.

But in FY2022, Congress started directing water infrastructure funds to particular projects to satisfy members’ favored places and interests. This practice of assigning federal funds at Congress members’ behest is called earmarking, and it’s been staple of congressional politics for most of American history. Earmarks are wonderful legislative lubricants: reluctant Representatives and Senators quickly become enthusiastic supporters of new laws when they come with  pork support for projects back home.

The trouble is that earmarks go to projects favored by powerful, well-connected members of Congress—not necessarily to the projects that would do the most good. This is a zero-sum game: a federal dollar spent on an earmarked project is a federal dollar not spent on a project that might deliver greater health and environmental benefits.

Apparently more than half of FY2023’s federal drinking water spending went to earmarks. All these earmarks have state water administrators irked* and national water sector organizations wringing their hands over the politicization of water infrastructure money—especially as a Republican House of Representatives eyes funding cuts.

None of this is astonishing. Budgetary politics is a high-stakes game that the American water sector is ill-suited to play. If you look to federal politicians for money, it shouldn’t surprise you when federal politics drives spending. Handouts from Uncle Sam are great when you get them, but funding for water/sewer systems is most sustainable when it comes from the communities that they serve.

The real surprise here is that Congress waited a whole year to start earmarking water funds, or that they left anything at all for the SRFs.

That escalated quickly

Cost estimates for tackling PFAS keep getting higher—especially if you start looking at the wastewater side. Minnesota puts the price tag for removing PFAS from wastewater at $14-28 billion over the next 20 years for just the North Star State. Extrapolated nationally, that’s a lot more than the annual drinking water $3.2 billion cost estimate from Black & Veatch/AWWA and a far cry from EPA’s estimated $772 million annually. As is so often the case, our attention is mainly on drinking water, but the largest cost drivers are likely on the sewer side.†

One clear finding from the Minnesota report is that removing PFAS from the environment is hard, but safe destruction and disposal of those chemicals is even harder. They’re called “forever chemicals” for a reason.


Speaking of PFAS, it’s likely—bordering on certain—that the nation’s most severe PFAS drinking water contamination challenges will be in very small ground water systems. Centralized filtration for PFAS will be economically infeasible in many of those cases, which can make point-of-use (POU) filtration (e.g., refrigerator or faucet mounted units) a more sensible technology.

But as readers of this blog know, all policy is implementation. The trouble with POU is that residents who rely on POU devices may not maintain them properly. Whatever absorbent a filter uses, it eventually becomes saturated. If not replaced on schedule, a saturated filter can actually raise the risk of contamination. And then there’s the problem of disposal: homeowners can’t just drop a PFAS-saturated filter in their trash cans. For these reasons, it's not clear whether POU devices that work beautifully in labs or field demonstrations will work so well in the real world for the long term. To be sustainable, decentralized filtration for PFAS must ensure that filters are installed correctly, replaced regularly, and disposed of properly.

The answer might be centrally managed point-of-entry technology (POET). POET systems provide filtration for an entire home or building, and could facilitate centrally managed, scattered site PFAS filtration. A nascent effort in Yakima, WA suggests how this arrangement might work in small systems nationwide. In that case, a groundwater system that serves 79 households found high PFAS concentrations in several wells due to military activity nearby. The U.S. Army is developing a plan to install POET systems in these homes, with the Army responsible for ongoing monitoring and maintenance.
cat with orange work vest running water test

i catchez teh PFAS for u

Just spit-balling here, but it seems that POET could be operated on a centralized utility model. A utility organization could install POET and monitor PFAS concentrations on an ongoing basis via telemetry. Utility personnel could maintain the systems, replace filtration media, and dispose of saturated filters regularly. With careful design, POET can even be integrated in a way that allows the system to be maintained without a technician entering the home. The utility would bill customers just as they would with any other customer. Investor-owned utilities running POET would operate under regulatory commissions, and government utilities could bring POET customers into the general customer base. POET costs would thus be spread across the entire customer base or subsidized by government revenues and/or legal settlement funds. It's an organizational model worth exploring as POET for PFAS continues to roll out.


A long-running Wisconsin water drama is coming to an end, as Waukesha is about to switch its water source from radium-contaminated wells to Lake Michigan water, with an impressive website dedicated to educating their customers about the change. Maybe a model for public communications on major projects?  //  Some state attorneys general pump the brakes on a $10.3 billion PFAS settlement. This could get ugly.  //  The USGS study that sparked sensational PFAS headlines turns out to be based on sketchy science. Unfortunately, Brandolini’s Law remains in effect.  //  EPA just dropped a fresh tranche of unregulated contaminant data from the UCMR5 program. I'll dive into those data when I get a chance.  //  More desal drama in San Diego.

*See also this letter.

†In most of the U.S., sewer prices are far higher than drinking water prices. Stay tuned for some affordability updates in the next few months.

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