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Congressional Testimony, 2005

Statement of Leslie Holland-Bartels
United States Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
Before the Subcommittee on Water and Power, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
on S. 1338, "Alaska Water Resources Act of 2005" and S. 49, "Alaska Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission Act of 2005"

July 12, 2005

Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Dr. Leslie Holland-Bartels, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Alaska Science Center, located in Anchorage, Alaska. I thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior (Department) on S. 1338, the "Alaska Water Resources Act of 2005" and on S. 49, the "Alaska Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission Act of 2005."

The Department agrees that the goals of each bill are commendable and the needs that could be addressed are real; however, we have concerns with these bills, including the availability of funding for the work proposed in the context of overall funding for the Administration's priorities. I will address each bill independently in my statement and will begin with S.1338, the "Alaska Water Resources Act of 2005."

S. 1338, The "Alaska Water Resources Act of 2005"

S. 1338 directs the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, to conduct a study on ground-water resources in the State of Alaska. The role identified for the Department in this bill is consistent with BOR and USGS's leadership role in monitoring and assessing ground-water resources.

The bill requires a study that includes a survey of accessible water supplies (including aquifers on the Kenai Peninsula, in the municipality of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough), and a review of the need for enhancement of the streamflow information collected by the USGS in Alaska relating to critical water needs.

The USGS has a long history of conducting ground-water assessments on both a local and regional scale. In the 1950s and 1960s studies were conducted across the nation to provide a basic understanding of geohydrologic conditions at a county-level scale and, in the 1980s, 25 regional aquifer systems were studied in detail. However, Alaska was not covered in these studies. As a result, basic geohydrologic information is needed in Alaska so that specific resource management questions can be addressed. Congress directed the USGS in their fiscal year 2002 appropriation to "...prepare a report to describe the scope and magnitude of the efforts needed to provide periodic assessments of the status and trends in the availability and use of freshwater resources." That report, USGS Circular 1223, states that ground-water levels should be based on repeated observations at relatively large numbers of observation wells in a wide range of representative hydrogeologic environments, and we continue to work toward that goal.

Many Alaska citizens depend on good quality ground water for domestic consumption and other uses. However, reliable assessments of ground-water availability and quality are limited for expanding population areas such as the Municipality of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Fairbanks-North Star Borough, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. In many of these areas, individual wells supply homes and businesses with drinking water, and wastewater is disposed of through onsite septic systems. As populations and development activities on the surrounding landscape increase in these areas, additional consumption and demand on these aquifers is coupled with an increased risk of ground-water contamination. Specific knowledge of the aquifer properties will support proper planning to protect the ground water from potential contamination and to ensure there is an adequate supply and recharge needed for both domestic and industry related consumption.

For example, recent observations have been made of elevated nitrate concentrations in drinking water in parts of the Municipality of Anchorage and the Fairbanks-North Star Borough. Arsenic concentrations in some shallow aquifers in the Fairbanks-North Star and Kenai Peninsula Boroughs exceed the new EPA maximum contaminant level standards. The information collected under this legislation would allow for the determination of sources of water to these wells, and for the identification of geochemical conditions that may contribute to these elevated concentrations and provide a basis for mitigation.

Ground water is also important to sustaining streamflow during times of low precipitation and surface runoff. Alaska's world-renowned salmon fisheries are economically important to the State and to local communities. Salmon that spawn in streams throughout the State incubate eggs in the streambed gravels where infiltrating ground water sustains eggs during dry periods. Activities that disrupt the interaction between ground water and streams may have adverse effects on these fisheries. For example, increased withdrawals of ground water may lower water tables sufficiently that the connection to the streambed is lost. A lowered ground-water table in Juneau through natural geologic processes is likely responsible for the dewatering of some small streams that formerly supported significant runs of salmon. Current information on the interaction between ground water and streams is lacking for important salmon spawning areas in the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Boroughs.

Moreover, Alaska has abundant energy resources, including oil, natural gas, coal, and coalbed methane, the development of which may require the use or disposal of large amounts of ground water. Recent interest in the development of coalbed methane in the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula Boroughs highlights the need for detailed knowledge about ground-water resources. Resource managers need to understand the connections among aquifers to assess consequences of large scale dewatering of the coal aquifers. The USGS has conducted detailed studies related to development of coalbed methane in Wyoming and Montana, but not yet in Alaska.

Infrastructure expansion is also necessary to support expanding populations. Gravel used in construction material may be available locally, but removal of gravels may alter ground-water flow patterns in shallow aquifers. Gravel extraction and its potential effect on ground water has been a focus of attention for citizens in the Municipality of Anchorage, in the Homer/Anchor Point area of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and in the Fairbanks-North Star Borough. Shallow gravel deposits are often the aquifers that provide drinking water for individual residents and small communities, yet little information exists on the extent of these aquifers or alternative water supplies.

Other types of resource extraction, such as development of world-class mineral deposits are ongoing or planned in Alaska. Newly discovered deposits, such as the Pebble gold-copper project near Iliamna, Alaska are in areas where minimal information exists on water resources. The Pebble gold-copper project is in the headwaters of salmon and trout fisheries important to subsistence users. An assessment of water resources that results in predictive models describing interactions between ground water and surface water will allow developers and regulators to evaluate alternative designs for development and operation of the project. The USGS has extensive experience in conducting detailed studies of hydrologic and water-quality conditions on such a scale. The National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program has provided valuable information on major river basins and aquifer system in the nation. One NAWQA study area was located in Alaska and included the Municipality of Anchorage and parts of the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Boroughs.

S. 1338 also requests "a review of the need for enhancement of the streamflow information collected by the USGS in Alaska relating to critical water needs." The USGS's program review process focuses on program relevancy, quality, and performance.

The USGS has a program in place that can assist in developing data for this task. National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP) is currently operating 18 gages to provide surface water information. In 2004, 6.4 million acres of land, an area about the size of New Hampshire, were consumed by fire. While the four streamgages operated by the USGS within the burn area provided critical information, local land managers realized that they lacked sufficient credible stream data to assess watershed effects of fire on hydrologic response and recovery. This information will also assist in protecting life and property from flooding events caused, for example, by outburst floods on glacier-dammed lakes, and would allow the National Weather Service to do river and flood forecasting statewide with an appropriate level of certainty.

The USGS in Alaska also works closely with a broad spectrum of partners, including other federal agencies, State and local agencies, and Alaska Native villages. Over $1.2 million dollars in federal cost share funds were used to partner with State and local agencies in jointly funding critical hydrologic information for their specific agency needs in 2005. For example, the USGS has a long-term relationship with most of these partners such as the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. We expect these relationships to continue.

Finally, also within the Department, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Science and Technology Program finds solutions to complex water management challenges through research and development of state-of-the-art technology.

Reclamation operates a network of automated hydrologic and meteorologic monitoring stations located throughout the Pacific Northwest. This network and its associated communications and computer systems are collectively called Hydromet. Remote data collection platforms transmit water and environmental data via radio and satellite to provide cost-effective, near-real-time water management capability.

The expertise of these two Departmental bureaus is highly relevant to the tasks contemplated by the legislation. However, the Department is concerned with the funding requirements that accompany S. 1338. We note that there are no funds in the Department's FY 2006 budget to implement the legislation, and any future funding would have to compete with other priority projects for funds.

S. 49, The "Alaska Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission Act of 2005"

I also appreciate the opportunity to provide the Department's views on S. 49, the "Alaska Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission Act." We have concerns about the proposed commission and the potential cost of the legislation. As a result, we cannot support the legislation in its current form, but offer to work with the Subcommittee to develop mutually acceptable legislation.

Background

In December 2003, the then-General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office, issued a report (GAO-04-142, December 12, 2003) titled "Alaska Native Villages: Most Are Affected by Flooding and Erosion, but Few Qualify for Federal Assistance." That report provides background on the problems associated with flooding and erosion in Alaska Native Villages and recommended, among other things, that Congress direct the relevant federal agencies (the Department was not listed as such) and the Denali Commission, a federal-state partnership designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska, to assess the feasibility of alternatives for responding to flooding and erosion. We assume that this legislation is a response to that report.

In sum, the GAO report found that 6,600 miles of the State of Alaska's coastline, and many of the low-lying areas along the State's rivers, the areas where most of the Alaska Native villages are located, are subject to severe flooding and erosion. The GAO also found that approximately 86 percent of Alaska Native villages experience some level of flooding and erosion, and identified four villages -- Kivalina, Koyukuk, Newtok, and Shishmaref -- that were in imminent danger from flooding and erosion and were making plans to relocate. The report also indicated that small and remote Alaska Native villages often fail to qualify for assistance under federal programs addressing these issues because they often do not meet program eligibility criteria.

As noted above, the GAO recommended that Congress direct the relevant federal agencies and the Denali Commission to assess the feasibility of alternatives for responding to flooding and erosion, and listed a number of possible alternatives, including expanding the role of the Denali Commission; directing federal agencies to consider social and environmental factors in analyzing project costs and benefits; waiving the federal cost-sharing requirement for such projects; and authorizing the "bundling" of funds from various federal agencies.

The Alaska Floodplain and Erosion Mitigation Commission Act of 2005

Presumably in response to this recommendation, this legislation would establish a seven-member federal-State commission co-chaired by the Governor of Alaska and an appointee of the Secretary of the Interior. Additional provisions allow the commission to hire staff. The commission is tasked with, among other things, studying flood and erosion processes and the planning needs associated with those processes and the establishment of procedures to obtain the views of the public on land use planning needs. The commission is also to develop recommendations on control and mitigation solutions; budgets and programs of federal and State agencies responsible for administering floodplain management authorities; changes in law and policy necessary or desirable to provide integrated erosion and flood management authority; and other measures designed to ensure coordination, cooperation, the achievement of sustainable Alaska Native communities.

The legislation further directs the Secretary to evaluate and prioritize specific flood and erosion circumstances that affect life and property in Alaska and examine the most cost-effective ways of carrying out flood and erosion control and mitigation solutions devised by the commission for the 9 Alaska Native villages specified in the GAO report -- including the 4 villages previously mentioned. The Secretary is authorized to make grants to the State or local governments using the remainder of funds appropriated for flood and erosion control and mitigation solutions, and may take any action necessary to mitigate the loss of structures and infrastructure from flood and erosion using the most cost-effective means practicable to provide the longest-term benefit.

Given the Department's role in Alaska land management and its relationship with Alaska Natives through the various Alaska-specific land management laws, we believe that the Department and its bureaus should be a part of any process intended to develop solutions to these problems. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey's existing science efforts and capabilities have the potential to be key inputs in some of the processes envisioned in S. 49. The USGS carries out coastal and river erosion modeling and assessment, various land form imagery and mapping projects, provides integrated geospatial information access, and offers critical datasets, such as the National Hydrologic Dataset.

However, the Department has a number of concerns with S. 49. Several officials representing federal agencies would be members of the commission. Therefore, any recommendations by the commission could be misconstrued as representing the views of the Executive branch. In this regard, we are particularly concerned by subsections 102(d)(2), 102(d)(4), 102(d)(7), and 105(b)(2), which involve budgetary and legislative recommendations, and recommend deleting these provisions.

Federal programs that address flooding generally require the satisfaction of a cost-benefit analysis to qualify for federal funding, therefore the Administration objects to those provisions of title II that would potentially require or authorize the Secretary to implement solutions if the costs are greater than the benefits, albeit using the "most cost-effective" technology or means. We also have concerns about the costs of implementing this legislation. There are no funds contained in the Department's fiscal year 2006 budget to fund the commission, and future funding for such a commission or to implement its recommendations would have to compete with potentially higher priority programs. As a result, we cannot support S. 49 in its current form. We do believe that our agencies have a role to play in this process, however, and offer to work with the Subcommittee to develop mutually acceptable legislation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Alaska is a state experiencing significant changes in its water patterns both in quantity and timing of flow, challenging both Alaska Native and state and federal agency management efforts. Such water changes can and do affect infrastructure stability (e.g. road bridge scour), fishery productivity, and accelerated river erosion and flood patterns.

Establishing a viable and reliable core of federally funded streamgages and enhanced funding to support ground-water research, monitoring and assessment would allow the public and resource managers to make science-based decisions on allocation of water for the competing interests. We also support a process for evaluating the options for those Alaska Native villages that are most subject to a risk of flood damage.

However, funding for the activities in S.1338 and S. 49 would remain subject to available resources within the Administration's priorities. In addition, for the reasons discussed above, we cannot support S. 49 in its current form, but offer to work with the Subcommittee to develop mutually acceptable legislation.

Thank you, Madam Chairman, for the opportunity to present this testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions you and other Members of the Subcommittee may have.

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