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. 
Venezuela’s water system is collapsing.”  That’s according to the New York Times, which just published the results of its independent research on the country.
This past weekend, the Times outlined the effects of Venezuela’s unstable economy and infrastructure on the country’s water. It pointed to unreliable water supplies and a precipitous rise in infant mortality from diarrhea, which is linked to water quality. The Times described Venezuela’s drinking water as “an increasingly risky gamble,” and it said that the country has not released official public health data for years. So the news organization hired researchers at the Central University of Venezuela to duplicate the water studies they had done in the past for the water provider in the capital, Caracas.
The study, said the Times “showed a significant decline in the city’s water quality over the last two decades.”  It found that about a million people there had gotten contaminated water, exposing them to potentially deadly waterborne viruses. Samples were taken from the capital’s main water system and tested for bacteria and for chlorine, which is used to purify water. Samples were also taken from alternate water supplies used by residents when the municipal system was dry. One-third of the samples did not meet national standards for quality. This, said the Times, should have triggered a public alert. But, it said, “Venezuela’s government has not issued any alerts at least since President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party took power 20 years ago.”
Maduro’s failed policies proved disastrous for his country, which began a plunge into economic chaos in 2014 when oil revenues tumbled. Since then, Venezuela has lost two-thirds of its gross domestic product, and has suffered repeated shocks to its social structure. The head of the International Federation of the Red Cross told reporters “The biggest health risk that we see there right now is water — water and sanitation.” That risk is especially keen to those who lack food and medicine, and those who cannot afford water from private suppliers and must turn to nearby creeks or improvised watering holes. In cow-cah-GWEE-tah Caucagüita, a working-class neighborhood, there is no running water for months at a time. In terr-AHH-zah el ah-VEE-lah Terrazas del Avila, a middle-class neighborhood, the tap water was contaminated by fecal bacteria. A doctor living there told the Times “This is not drinking water. It’s a public health hazard.”
When the oil export industry thrived under previous governments, the municipal water system in Caracas was impressive. It pumped five million gallons of water a second, up thousands of feet and brought it to the city through aqueducts and hundreds of miles of pipes. The water system reflected a progressive approach to public infrastructure. But, said the Times, “while the rest of South America made dramatic improvements in drinking water access in the past two decades, Venezuela’s advances were instead hollowed out by underinvestment, mismanagement and six straight years of a spiraling economy under Mr. Maduro.”
In the last couple of years, water services have disintegrated due to power outages, pipeline disruptions, chemical shortages and the loss of trained staff. The Inter-American Development Bank believes that only 30 percent of Venezuelans have regular access to safe drinking water. That’s half as many as 20 years ago.
The Times said that although authorities have not released any health data since at least 2017, local health groups have information showing a link between the worsening water supplies and the increasing cases of waterborne diseases, such as hepatitis A.
The study commissioned by the Times found high bacterial loads in most of the samples from alternative water sources used in Caracas, including mountain springs, cisterns, and water from vendors. But the municipal water system is vulnerable as well. The researchers believe that the high levels of bacteria in tap water are due to a lack of maintenance, management and money. Power interruptions or equipment breakages leave pipes empty, and bacteria build up. Staff leave and funds run out so facilities and even entire reservoirs have been abandoned.
Near Venezuela’s capital, in the city of La Guaira, a water treatment plant was hit by a mudslide in 2013. The plant had originally purified water using five stages, but the damage reduced it to just one – adding chlorine. No repairs were attempted, and eventually, said a former manager at the plant, they gave up even testing the quality of the water. She told the Times “We were no longer treating the water, just sending it out.
In northeast Syria, water is in short supply as aid agencies try to cope with people fleeing violence. The Turkish military offensive against Kurdish forces has displaced up to 200,000 people, according to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. A UNICEF representative said that a water station that supplies 400,000 people in the city of Hasaka was put out of commission by the fighting there. UNICEF is trucking water to shelters, but called the situation a “critical concern.” Both residents and refugees are under mounting stress, and some aid agencies have been forced to retreat due to safety concerns. Doctors Without Borders has suspended much of its work and evacuated its foreign staff. It no longer provides water and sanitation to some 13,000 displaced persons in the Ain Issa camp.  An emergency manager for Doctors Without Borders in Syria told Reuters News that there was “massive concern about water there.”
Australia is pledging to invest millions in dams in New South Wales, but skeptics insist there are better ways to build drought resiliency.
New South Wales has struggled with a severe drought for several years. Virtually the entire state has fallen into one drought category or another, and wildfires have added to the stress on residents, their livelihoods, the economy and the environment. Officials said earlier this month that the federal and New South Wales governments will invest a billion Australian dollars in rural and regional projects. Major funding would go toward upgrading an existing dam in New South Wales and building a new one.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “We want to get these projects under way because this is about water supply and security. These projects don’t happen overnight but we’re working as quickly as possible to get all the necessary work done so we can start digging.”
The state’s premier called the announcement “historic,” since there hasn’t been a dam built in New South Wales in over 30 years. She said that “dams and other water infrastructure are an important part of the mix when it comes to increasing supply and reliability.”
The Australian Broadcast Corporation reported that “Dams have long been a part of the National Party psyche and its members believe they’re what their constituents want, expect and demand.” But, it noted, dams are controversial and take a long time to build because of assessments, approvals, and contracts.
Critics of the dams say that they are expensive, ecologically damaging, and don’t really offer water security. The Nature Conservation Council warned that careful evaluation of infrastructure projects is vital to preventing ecological disasters such as the massive fish die-offs in earlier this year. The council responded to what it perceives as a growing willingness of the Australian government to overlook the economic and ecological impacts of plans in a rush for a quick fix for water stress. The federal government is considering an agreement with the states to accelerate environmental reviews for water projects.
Chris Gambian, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council, said this is the opposite of what’s needed. He told The Guardian “Bypassing proper environmental checks will compound the ecological and social disasters the New South Wales government has already helped to create.”
Gambian echoed the concerns of experts who say that humbler options such as efficiency and conservation efforts are more powerful, affordable and ecological than grand dams, especially now. He said “Governments stopped building dams 30 years ago for a very good reason. Dams fail to provide water security for local communities, they degrade river systems and cause a host of environmental problems. And in the era of climate change and higher evaporation, new dams are unlikely to fill.”
In the United States, California regulators announced new rules to protect some of its most vulnerable groundwater from nitrate pollution. The Central Valley is one of the most bountiful food producers in the world, but its aquifers are contaminated and they are used unsustainably. Much of the pollution is due to runoff from agriculture – the industry that is the primary consumer of water.
Earlier this year, California legislators dedicated over a billion dollars to improve drinking water, and now officials are joining with farmers on a plan to cut nutrient pollution. Last Wednesday, after over ten years of negotiations, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a framework which requires management plans for salt and nitrate discharges in the Central Valley. Those who discharge pollutants will have to get permits, and in some cases, will have to provide nearby residents with alternate water sources until their groundwater meets state standards.
Nitrate is one of the most common contaminants in California’s water supply, and it’s a problem statewide, posing risks to human health. Many of the wells with the worst nitrate pollution are in the Central Valley, often near major farming sites. Nitrate contamination is tied to fertilizer and irrigation runoff, as well as leaking septic tanks and manure spreading. All those nutrient-rich materials seep into the water table, and can end up in drinking water wells. Besides the nitrate problem, irrigation also contributes to the buildup of salt, which has made hundreds of thousands of acres in the valley unable to sustain crops.
California’s immediate goal is to provide safe drinking water to communities in the area. In the long term, it aims to restore aquifers to create safe groundwater. The agreement with farmers gives nitrate dischargers 35 years to meet state standards. Some of the commissioners noted that nitrate mitigation is still not an exact science and not readily accessible to farmers. They suggested that the timeline could be changed in the future. The vice chair of the water board said she was worried about burdening farmers with more regulations when they are already trying to prepare for a major groundwater-monitoring law.
Others, however, felt the plan gives nitrate polluters too much time to tighten their operations, allowing them to continue degrading groundwater for decades. Farmers sought consideration, saying that they have been working on improvements and that they have been partners in the plan’s development for over 10 years.
Tim Johnson is president of the California Rice Commission. He told Courthouse News that farmers are eager to follow the plan. He said “This is our chance to make the future different.”
Courthouse News says the new rules go to California’s office of administrative law and then to federal regulators for approval. The plan could be finalized by 2021.
This week, Circle of Blue looks at the underground threat to rural economies: failing sewer systems.
Rising sewer bills, a result of inadequate infrastructure and heavy rainfall, are driving small, rural communities in North Carolina toward bankruptcy.
Dozens of small towns are running chronic budget deficits in their sewer system operations. Many of these communities have aging and declining populations, low incomes, and sewer rates that are already some of the highest in the state.
North Carolina officials look at fragile economics, infrastructure and systems management and see the stirrings of a rural financial crisis rooted in municipal sewer failures.
The Local Government Commission, a state agency that oversees local finances, took a historic step this summer. It suspended the charter of Eureka, a town of 197 people on the coastal plain. The suspension is for a period of five years, and it means that all money and assets of the town will be held by the state treasurer. It’s a way of giving the North Carolina government the power to step in and address the sewer problem.
Sharon Edmundson directs the fiscal management section of the State Treasurer’s State and Local Government Finance Division. She told Circle of Blue that Eureka has run annual deficits in its sewer fund for at least a decade. Transfers from the general fund kept the sewer system afloat, but now even the general fund is running out. Edmundson says that, to her knowledge, it’s the first time that the commission has suspended a town charter because of chronic sewer system debt.
Eureka’s crisis springs from the juncture of economics, engineering, and hydrology. Residents pay their monthly sewer bill based on the amount of water they use at home. But the pipes that carry sewage to the treatment facility are vulnerable to infiltration of groundwater and rainwater, through cracks in the lines. This water does not go through a customer’s meter, so it doesn’t generate revenue. But it comes to the treatment plant, and must be processed along with the rest. So the town ends up treating water without getting paid for it, and that loss adds up.
In Eureka’s case, infiltration can be massive, especially when it rains. Budget numbers illustrate the crippling imbalance. In a really dry month, said Edmundson, sewer revenue comes close to covering the costs of sewage treatment. In a really wet month, costs can be over four times the revenue.
The hydrological pressures on rural sewer systems are not likely to relent. North Carolina is expected to see more severe downpours and higher overall precipitation as the planet warms, according to a federal climate change assessment.
The short-term fix for Eureka is to patch budget holes through a variety of cash swaps. The town’s 2019-20 budget includes a transfer of roughly $90,000 from the general fund to the sewer fund. These transfers are frowned upon for budget managers, Edmundson said. But they can be an option of last resort.
Sewer system budget deficits have caught the eye of North Carolina’s authorities and legislators. They are using grant funds to rescue Eureka and to head off problems for other small towns and service providers on the edge of financial viability.
Kim Colson is director of the Water Infrastructure Division at the Department of Environmental Quality. He told Circle of Blue that some of these small communities are extremely vulnerable. “There’s just no margin of error financially,” he said, “They don’t have the customer base to not have everything go exactly right and to stay financially sustainable.”
While Eureka might be the first town in the state to lose its charter over sewer debt, it is not the only small community where inadequate water infrastructure is breaking the budget.
One hundred towns are on a state financial watch list, according to Edmundson. Roughly two-thirds are on the list because of indebted sewer systems, and 37 of the sewer systems are rated a high financial risk. Many have shrinking populations and struggle to survive on their own. FAIR Bluff, which landed on the list because of frequent sewer deficits, is relying on state and federal grants to repair its aging and    leaking system. The town was flooded by hurricanes twice in three years and its population is down by a third since then.
Said Edmundson “Eureka is definitely not a one-off situation.”