What’s Up With Water for December 3, 2018

I’m Eileen Wray-McCann, for Circle of Blue, and here’s What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water.

Cape Town Officials Are Cautiously Easing Water Restrictions

In South Africa, Cape Town is emerging from one of its worst droughts on record, and officials are cautiously easing water restrictions with an eye toward an uncertain climate.

Cape Town will roll back mandatory conservation from Level 5 to Level 3 on December 1. Per person water allotments will rise from 70 liters per day to 105 liters, and ratepayers will pay significantly less per liter.

The city has been under Level 5 restrictions since October, when they were relaxed from level 6B. Earlier this year, Cape Town faced a “Day Zero” scenario, when the city threatened to shut off water to most homes and businesses. Residents, businesses and farmers averted the crisis with stringent conservation that hurt near-term economic and agricultural productivity.

The water-use decisions for Cape Town reflect a conservative approach to recommendations by the national Department of Water and Sanitation. The Department proposed that Cape Town and the surrounding areas using water from six major dams cut water use between 10 and 20 percent next year. Cape Town opted for 30 percent, which is still considerably better than the 45 percent cut imposed for this year.

The City said that in an effort to help business, industry and tourism to recover from water shortages, the prior 40% reductions imposed in these areas will be lifted on December 1, although water efficiency and conservation is being encouraged.

Agriculture is likewise seeing a reprieve from the severe restrictions of 2018, when farmers coped with 60% less water. This cost thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in productivity. The Water and Sanitation department says that farmers using the Western Cape water supply system will only need a 10 percent cut next year.

As a whole, the plan is for a shift in water allocations, with Cape Town households taking on a larger share of cuts so that revived agricultural, business and tourism sectors can help the economy recover.

Cape Town’s deputy mayor said that municipalities, water boards and users worked out the allocations with the national department on November 19.

One agricultural CEO said the drought had brought competing water users together to find new and better ways to share scarce resources. He described it as not just a learning curve, but a change of mindset. In an attempt to diversify water sources, many businesses invested in water-saving devices, grey water use, rainwater collection and borehole wells.

The deputy mayor said the city was staying conservative with water use in view of climate change. The Western Cape is predicted to be increasingly hotter and drier.

The province’s tourism, trading and investment agency said the easing of restrictions would announce that Cape Town is “open for business.”

Kevin Winter from UCT’s Future Water Institute told News 24 that the time was right for lowering the restrictions. 

“It makes sense,” he said. “The world is watching to see what happens next. The big difference now from 2017 is that there is transparency about the water issue, and everyone will make sure the city keeps in line. The restrictions can be pulled back very quickly if necessary.”

Toxic Waste Contaminating Water Sources Near 22 Coal Plants In The United States

In the United States, a new analysis shows that toxic waste is contaminating water sources near 22 coal plants in Illinois and threatening the drinking water in a number of communities.

The analysis comes from the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club. It is based on industry-supplied reports from 24 coal plants.

The Chicago Tribune said last week that the report “highlights how federal and state officials have failed for decades to hold corporations accountable for the millions of tons of ash and other harmful byproducts created by the burning of coal to generate electricity.”

The Tribune reported that most of the waste in Illinois was mixed with water and sent into unlined pits. Testing revealed that harmful levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and other heavy metals were seeping through the soil toward lakes and rivers.

One of the coal plant sites is the Waukegan Generating Station on Lake Michigan, with two unlined ash ponds and an unlicensed landfill. Another is a Joliet quarry once used by coal companies to dump ash.  The Joliet site is one of ten that threaten drinking water in neighboring communities, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental groups are pressing the state’s incoming governor for action. They want Democrat J. B. Pritzker to force coal-plant owners to stop polluting protected waters in Illinois. They also want the companies to designate funds for cleaning up their coal ash pits.

Because the state’s energy system is deregulated, and energy is sold on the open market, shareholders, not ratepayers, would have to pay for remediating the coal ash dumps.

Previous attempts to tighten regulations have met firm resistance from energy lobbyists and political interests on the state level. On the federal level, progress has been slow as well.

In August, a federal appeals court sharply criticized Obama-era regulations that it said were too weak and did nothing to prevent leaks at many ash pits near closed coal plants. It ordered the U.S. EPA to create new rules that would protect both people and wildlife. However, the Trump administration is pushing the other way, seeking to weaken the Obama-era rules.

Most of the coal plants in Illinois are owned by two companies, NRG of New Jersey and Vistra Energy of Houston. They told the Chicago Tribune that they are still reviewing the analysis. An NRG spokesman questioned the report’s methodology and suggested that some of the contamination could be from other sources, not the company’s coal ash pits. An attorney for Earthjustice said the company’s own testing shows higher levels of metals in groundwater flowing through the ash pits compared with that found in background wells.

NRG has submitted plans to move some of its coal ash out of local flood plains, but critics say the plans  are not enough to remove the danger.

Vistra Energy owns a site with unlined pits in the floodplain for the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the only national scenic river in Illinois. State regulators and industry experts fear the stream is eroding its banks so swiftly it could cause a coal ash spill like ones in North Carolina and Tennessee, where waste dumps collapsed and caused millions of dollars in environmental damage.

Vistra wants to avoid excavating the pits, and proposes creating a waste pile protected by stacks of giant rocks along the riverbank for about 600 yards. Local groups say that this demands careful scrutiny and public hearings.

Advocates for stricter cleanup standards point to Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, where coal ash has already been removed from the closed Crawford coal plant. “It can be done,” Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel told the Tribune, “We just need our leaders to hold these companies accountable throughout Illinois.”

Farmers in New Delhi Marched to India’s Parliament Demanding Relief From The Water Crisis.

In New Delhi, tens of thousands of farmers, agricultural workers and supporters marched to India’s Parliament last Friday, demanding relief from a crisis that has been growing for decades.

Organizers said about 80,000 joined in the two-day protest, which will include a petition to India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind. The three main demands are debt waivers, higher prices for produce and a special parliament session on the farming crisis. In the past two decades, more than 300 thousand farmers have killed themselves due to poor irrigation, crop failure or the inability to repay loans. And every year, millions of small farmers try to cope with water insecurity that threatens them with diminishing returns and a spiral into debt and despair.

Al Jazeera reported that the rights of farmers and indigenous people have become a focus in assembly elections in a number of states.

Analysts say the dissatisfaction could hurt the Hindu nationalist party  of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the ongoing state elections.

“My farm is a wasteland.” One farmer told Agence France Presse.  “There is hardly 10 percent produce. Modi promised to double our income but we can’t even feed ourselves.”

A farmer in another village was frustrated by the lack of support for agriculture, which is the primary source of livelihood for half of India’s population. In 2016, the central government changed the definition of drought, which greatly lowered the drought statistics, and the aid that went with them.

“We want the government to declare our region as drought-affected, which it is unwilling to,” he said. “The rains have failed our crops continuously in the past two years. But when the government itself denies there is a problem, how will it help us?” he asked.

Sudhir Kumar Suthar, a political studies professor, told Al Jazeera that the “March to Delhi,” with its support from the urban population, is pointing to a new trend.

“People’s perception of the rural and urban is changing,” he said, “Living in our cities with its pollution and shrinking job prospects, people want to reimagine the rural. Therefore, rural distress is not just the farmer’s problem, it is everyone’s problem.”

And that’s What’s Up With Water…We’d like to know how we can serve your water news better – Tweet us with your suggestions @circleofblue #whatsupwithwater.

Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.