Friday, July 24, 2009

Massachusetts hears testimony on sustainble water resources

This past Wednesday, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture heard testimony on the Sustainable Water Resources Act. This act would require the Department of Fish and Game to develop stream flow standards for the streams and rivers of the state and will allow communities to establish sustainable water resources funds by charging a fee for new water withdrawals or increased sewer use. The act also makes changes to the dam safety statute that help to promote dam removal and protect rivers.

This legislation will ensure that the ecosystem needs of streams and rivers are weighed equally with competing water withdrawals and supply needs. It is critically important that we put these standards in place now to provide important ecosystems with the ability to adapt to changes in our climate and hydrological regime. Summer low-flow periods coincide with increased water demand due to lawn watering and other irrigation uses, and we can no longer afford to see stream habitats entirely dry during these critical periods.

In Southeastern Massachusetts and the Blackstone Valley, increasing growth and water demand are putting added stress on critical ecosystems that are home to rare and endangered species. The establishment of a Sustainable Water Resources Fund will provide communities with ways to offset these added burdens by providing funds for projects that enhance local recharge of stormwater and wastewater and achieve water conservation through retrofits and water reuse. Protection of public water supplies will also be enhanced by removal of inflow and infiltration and land acquisition.

The proposed changes to the dam safety statute bring a larger number of dams under state jurisdiction and will increase the potential fines for dam safety violations, providing added safety and oversight for this critical infrastructure. The impact of dams on our aquatic ecosystems is significant, and efforts should be made to make dam removal a viable alternative for both dam owners and the commonwealth when managing decrepit, unused or abandoned dams.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Federal Climate Legislation Passes the House

Last Friday's vote on the floor of the US Congress was certainly historic, but it may not have been the victory environmentalists have hoped for. The fact that climate legislation including a cap and trade provision even passed at all symbolically represents what is already a shift toward a new energy economy in America. It was very important for President Obama to get legislation passed to show the rest of the world that we are making progress, and he certainly pushed hard right up to the vote. The House leadership helped out by refusing to allow strengthening amendments that would hurt chances for passage. Concessions were made to almost every group that needed them.

While Congressman Langevin and others worked hard to strengthen the bill, their efforts were put on hold by the House Speaker while each member's yes vote was negotiated. Much has been said about the fact that so much was added at the last minute no one read the bill they finally voted on. Putting the politics aside and looking at the science, there are some serious flaws with the legislation.

The most eggregious is that it preempts the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act, a recent ruling that would have prevented the development of many new coal fired power plants that now may move forward. The coal and oil industries will get billions in free allowances and money for unrealistic carbon capture technology. The renewable energy standard was weakened to 15% by 2020, and 85% of carbon allowances will be given away.

With a weak cap on carbon and additional offsets, the bill barely keeps us at a business as usual position when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. So, maybe the vote was just a symbolic victory, but it was important and historic. The next step is to work to strengthen the bill in the Senate, which will certainly be very difficult, but we have dedicated champions in Senators Whitehouse and Reed.

The new EPA under the Obama administration is obviously a much stronger and more threatening agency, because much of the climate bill was used to undue and remove its authority. That should tell us where the battle will be. Industries do not like to be regulated. The dying fossil fuel sector is grasping at straws to prop itself up, but it won't stand the test of time. This is more evidence that we have reached peak oil, and a new energy economy needs to take its place. Unfortunately, we are not doing enough to make it an easy transition. Onward we march.

The RI General Assembly - taking a break

Happy New Year (fiscal year that is!) The Rhode Island General Assembly went into recess for the upcoming holiday with several issues left on the table. Their major concern was passing a budget for the new year which begins today. The Governor has now signed that budget, but the session is not over. The Assembly will likely come back either in late July or September to vote on bills that they have reconciled with the Senate, and the Senate will do the same.

One of those important bills is legislation that we have championed through the Coalition for Water Security, the Water Use and Efficiency Act. The House and Senate are in agreement, but each version of the bill has to pass through one more time before it is signed by the Governor.

The CRMC is on better legal footing due to the Senate providing advice and consent for the Governor's previous appointments of four sitting members and a fifth new member. The CRMC debate is not over, however, since this is a temporary measure designed to shore up the council. It still leaves several vacancies and an undetermined process for moving forward.

A bill we have been watching that would establish a saltwater fishing license is also up for consideration in the Senate. Read more about all these bills and those that did pass this session on our legislative agenda page, and stay tuned for more!