This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
Earth’s mountain water is vanishing, putting a quarter of the human population at risk. That’s according to a new international study warning of shortages as glaciers, snow-pack and alpine lakes succumb to warming temperatures and increasing demand for water.
The study is the work of 32 scientists, who published it in the journal Nature. It is the first assessment of high-altitude water sources, known as “water towers” because they collect and store frozen water in cold weather and release it during warm, dry seasons. This natural water supply system is vital for both environmental and human needs.
The study found that the Indus, one of the longest rivers in Asia, is at the heart of the most crucial and vulnerable water tower. Run-off from the Himalayan, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Ladakh mountain ranges pour into a basin in Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan. The basin is densely populated and heavily irrigated.
The authors of the study say the Indus will probably not be able to sustain the growing demands upon it by the middle of this century when temperatures and populations are expected to rise dramatically.
The scientists created a water tower index, which starts with an estimate of the volume of water in 78 mountain ranges using measurements of precipitation, snow cover, glacier ice storage, lakes and rivers. That calculation was then compared to the water consumption of communities, businesses and farms in the river basins supplied by the meltwater.
The analysis showed that, while Asian river basins face the greatest stress, the strain is growing worldwide. Bethan Davies of Royal Holloway University is one of the study’s authors. She told the Guardian “It’s not just happening far away in the Himalayas but in Europe and the United States, places not usually thought to be reliant on mountains for people or the economy.”
The study says that nearly two billion people would be harmed by declining mountain water supplies. It also said that half of the planet’s biodiversity “hot spots” would suffer damage from declining mountain water towers. The ability of the mountains to store water in winter and release it gradually through the summer is under threat. The Guardian reported “This buffering capacity is weakening as glaciers lose mass and snow-melt dynamics are disrupted by temperatures that are rising faster at high altitude than the global average.”
The report asserts that “Climate change threatens the entire mountain ecosystem,” and concludes that “Immediate action is required to safeguard the future of the world’s most important and vulnerable water towers.” In addition to local efforts, the study says that the best way to preserve water towers is to get international action to reduce carbon emissions. The UN’s climate panel reported that most high-altitude snow and ice can be saved if global warming can be kept to within 1.5 degrees Centigrade. But if the world continues on its current trajectory, by the end of this century most of the mountain snow and ice will be gone.
In southern Africa, Zambia’s withering drought has starved Victoria Falls, reducing the iconic waterfall to a trickle. The massive cascades on the Zambezi River have dwindled during the driest time in a century, in what Zambian president Edgar Lungu called “a stark reminder of what climate change is doing to our environment.”
The Victoria Falls are widely considered to be the largest in the world. They are more than a major tourist attraction. The waters that supply them go on to generate electricity. The low water flow means stretches of dry rock instead of water, and power cuts to Zambia and Zimbabwe, who are greatly dependent on hydropower. The Zambezi River Authority said that the river flow is at its lowest since 1995, and well below the long-term average. The Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa.
South Africa is suffering the painful consequences of a warming world: loss of municipal water supplies, and crop failures that have left some 45 million people needing food relief.
Reuters news service said that even with the stunning losses at Victoria Falls, scientists are wary of blaming climate change as the sole cause. They cite seasonal variation in water levels, and say it’s important to look at long-term patterns rather than individual years.
Harald Kling is a hydrologist and Zambezi river expert. He told Reuters that while climate models had predicted more frequent dry years in the Zambezi basin, he was surprised by the frequency of drought. The last drought was only three years ago. And as the river temperature goes up, he said, hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water evaporates every second.
In the United States, a global shoe manufacturing company has agreed to pay nearly $70 million to help clean up groundwater contaminated by its leather processing waste.
Wolverine World Wide is based in Rockford, Michigan, where the company’s leather tannery began using Scotchgard in 1958. Scotchgard is a water-repelling formula that was developed by the company 3M and contains PFAS chemicals. Some sixty years later, in 2017, Michigan authorities found evidence of these chemicals in the wells of homes near a Wolverine waste dump. The contamination was traced to Wolverine’s old tannery, where toxic sludge had worked its way into the aquifer.
PFAS chemicals have been associated with cancer, thyroid disease and other chronic health damage. Their presence in northern Kent County triggered investigations that found the chemicals in the groundwater at over 70 locations in Michigan, as well as in municipal systems serving nearly 2 million people.
In the Wolverine case, some 1,500 homes were affected by PFAS in their drinking water, and state and local governments sued the shoe manufacturer. For two years, the parties debated the details of a how to permanently resolve the contamination of residents’ drinking water.
Last week, Wolverine, and the state of Michigan and Plainfield Township jointly announced a tentative agreement. MLive.com reported that Wolverine’s $69.5 million settlement would fund the expansion of public water to homes with contaminated wells, along with other water system improvements.
The Plainfield Township water plant would get advanced filtration capacity. Last year, it began using granular activated carbon to reduce the presence of PFAS to levels that regulators consider to be safe.
The expansion of the water system is anticipated to start next year, but to take at least five years to reach the majority of homes affected by the contamination. Wolverine’s waste dump leached PFAS into an area of 25 square miles. The township said that neighborhoods with the worst contamination would be prioritized. All homes with PFAS in their wells will be required to connect to the new system.
Those hooking up to the new mains would receive monthly water bills, but would not have to pay for connecting to the water system.
The tentative agreement between Wolverine and the state and local governments requires approval by a U.S. District Judge. The settlement avoids a trial, and appears to resolve a conflict over long-term solutions for the water contamination. MLlive reported that Wolverine at one point refused to fund new water mains unless 3M, the maker of Scotchgard, pitched in as well. Wolverine has brought suit against 3M.
Wolverine’s CEO said he believes the settlement will improve its legal position in other pending lawsuits. Wolverine is facing hundreds of civil cases filed by people who hold it accountable for damage to their health and property values.
This week, Circle of Blue continues its focus on water debt in the United States, with a look at what Louisiana is doing to address the problem proactively.
To ward off water crises in rural areas, Louisiana officials are surveying their state, identifying small water distribution systems with financial troubles, old infrastructure, or bad management.
The Rural Water Infrastructure Committee, which advises the governor, published a “watch list” last year of public, private, and non-profit water systems that they judged to be at high risk of failure. There were ten systems on the list, six of which are run by municipal governments.
Leslie Durham, is the committee’s chairperson. She said these water systems are “a hiccup from shutting down.” Those hiccups have many forms: ineffective leadership, an unexpected repair bill, or chronic budget deficits.
Durham told Circle of Blue. “It’s just like children. Each one is different. They have a different set of needs, different set of issues.”
For example, there’s Clarence, a northern Louisiana community of fewer than 500 people. It’s a case study of what can go wrong in a small town with few resources.
Clarence buys its municipal water from Natchitoches, a larger town, some 7 miles west. It fell behind in payments. At the start of this year, Clarence owed nearly $30,000 in past-due water payments to Natchitoches. But it had other bills to contend with as well. There were the unpaid salaries for the police chief and three aldermen. And Clarence still owed some $15,000 to the Louisiana Department of Health for sewer system violations. Including other charges, the town’s past-due bills added up to at least $68,000. That amount was five times the cash in its bank accounts.
Things were about to get worse. Natchitoches was frustrated with the late payments, so it threatened to cut off water to Clarence. Natchitoches officials relented only because the state promised to step in.
The struggles of rural water systems in the United States are well-documented.
Studies repeatedly show that smaller systems have distinct challenges. They have higher costs per person served, less skillful operators, fewer financial resources, and more health violations. There are nearly 50,000 community water systems in the country, but 80 percent of them serve small towns, with under 3,300 residents.
Those challenges intensify when a community is small and shrinking. That is the case in Clarence and many of the towns on Louisiana’s watch list.
Brad Cryer is the director of local government at the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office. He told Circle of Blue “Large parts of northern Louisiana have seen a migration from rural communities to cities. Many are much smaller than they were forty or fifty years ago. They have a smaller tax base for a similar amount of infrastructure.”
Towns can dodge the problem for a while, Cryer explained. Some raid their water and sewer revenue to plug holes in their general operating fund for immediate needs like street repairs and staff salaries. “We see a lot of that,” Cryer continued. “It eventually reaches a critical point. It happens over many administrations and may not catch up to a town for 15 or 20 years.”
When it caught up to Clarence, Louisiana’s Fiscal Review Committee recommended a path of last resort: the appointment of a fiscal administrator to take over budget decisions and get the town back on track. A district court must now approve the appointment.
Louisiana has had to step in and appoint a fiscal administrator six times in the last three years. Two of those administrators — in St. Joseph and Sterlington — were appointed for water-related financial problems. The state wants to head off this type of intervention by anticipating financial problems and resolving them before the crisis stage.
For water systems, there is strength in numbers. California and Kentucky are two states that have invested in fixing rural water infrastructure. Like them, Louisiana is aiming to merge small, struggling systems with larger neighbors that are more financially stable.
To encourage those mergers, the state is dangling carrots. The Louisiana Department of Health is offering grant funding for the full capital cost of consolidation. A department spokesperson says that thus far, two systems have applied for consolidation grants.
Louisiana’s Rural Water Infrastructure Committee was established as an advisory body to the governor’s office this June. The 17 members of the committee include the state directors of federal agencies as well as the heads of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality.
The committee now has a formal charter, but it started with a desperate attempt to restore running water to a rural community in time for the holidays.
In December 2016, on the Tuesday before Christmas, Leslie Durham, the committee’s chairperson, got a call from the Robeline-Marthaville Water System. The system, which served two towns in west-central Louisiana, had a hole in its pressure tank and could not deliver water. There were no emergency funds to pay for repairs.
When she received the call, Durham was standing on the streets of downtown St. Joseph, her hometown. She was watching the National Guard truck in bottled water because her town’s drinking water system had been diagnosed with lead contamination.
When the lead was discovered, the state of Louisiana poured more than $8 million into St. Joseph, rebuilding the water treatment plant, replacing old pipes, and installing new meters.
Durham worked her connections to bring similar relief to Robeline-Marthaville. She called leading rural water funders and advocates: the Delta Regional Authority, Louisiana Rural Water Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Delta Regional Authority, an economic development agency, stepped up in the time of need. After getting approval from representatives of the seven other states, it released the funds. By Thursday afternoon, two days after receiving the call, Robeline-Marthaville was pumping water again.
Durham said the immediate response was celebration. “Our group, we were all high-fiving,” she said. But soon after, they started thinking more strategically. She continued “And then we said, ‘You know what? This is just a band-aid. This little community needs more help.’”
The mad dash to secure funding and line up contractors was a learning experience, says Durham, one that informs her work on the rural infrastructure committee to assist other struggling water systems. As she told Circle of Blue, “We saw, if we collaborate, how well that works.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
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.