This week’s edition of What’s Up With Water includes stories on:

  • The capital of the Philippines is undergoing rotating water shutoffs to conserve supplies in its main reservoir.
  • In Australia, many towns are evaluating options for averting “Day Zero” as their water supplies dwindle.
  • In the United States, proposed legislation in Florida intends to address the dangers of harmful algae blooms
  • This week Circle of Blue looks at water issues on state and local ballots in November elections.

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue


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.
The capital of the Philippines is undergoing rotating water shutoffs to conserve supplies in its main reservoir. Angat Dam provides over 90 percent of Manila’s domestic water, and water levels there are falling steadily. Two utilities in the city began rolling service interruptions last Thursday that were planned to last four to ten hours at a time.
The utilities urged customers to plan their water use around availability – to store what would be needed during outages, but also to conserve. A utility spokesman said that hoarding water could worsen the effects of low flows on water pressure and availability. Residents, meanwhile, lined up to fill containers while hospitals and businesses bolstered backup supplies.
The utilities said the interruptions are needed to assure that limited water supplies would last beyond next summer.  Angat Dam is vital for Manila, but there has been very little rain in the watersheds that feed it. There is concern that the dam may not be sufficiently replenished by the end of this year.
Critics blame Manila’s water utilities for shortages affecting over 15 million residents. They say the municipal suppliers should have been more prepared for this latest crisis. Last March, millions of water customers lost service and President [do-TERRR-tay] Duterte threatened firings and cancellations of contracts. Recently, Senator [EYE-mee] Imee Marcos told the Philippines Star that despite this, “they still don’t have a solution to the water crisis. They already know the shortage of water supply, why do the people need to bear the brunt of this problem?”
Others point to a sizable increase in rates a year ago, and plans for a further rate hike this January. They say the prices are “unconscionable” under the present conditions and demand to know what is being done to alleviate water shortages. They ask if the utilities expect, as has been suggested, that service interruptions to continue for many months to come.
A utility spokesman told CNN that his company is looking to alternative water sources such as deep wells. Officials may try cloud-seeding again, in an attempt to induce rainfall around the dam.
Philippine environmental experts say that the watersheds feeding the dam are stressed by a growing population and the disruptive effects of climate change. They also blame illegal logging and charcoal-making operations. A local environmental officer told the Philippines Star that the government is making a national effort to “re-green” watersheds, to improve their water-retaining capacity. She said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will promote the planting of bamboo as an alternative money source to the informal settlers who often turn to illegal logging. Bamboo, she said, not only boosts water capacity, but it reduces carbon dioxide and mitigates climate change.
In Australia, many towns are evaluating options for averting “Day Zero” as their water supplies dwindle. Over 97 percent of New South Wales is in drought. Officials reported that across the state, supplies in 40 water storage sites will not last six months in a worst-case scenario. In Sydney, millions of residents depend on the Warragamba Dam, which is more than half empty. The city is using a desalination plant to make up the difference. In regional hubs such as Tamworth, Orange and [DUB-oh] Dubbo, other measures are intended to avert municipal water collapse, including bore wells, water diversions, pumps, pipes and weirs.
Tamworth received state funds to build a new weir in the Peel River, intended to keep the town’s largest dam from running dry until June of 2021. A new pipeline might make the water there last until 2022.
Orange has secured money to connect to Wyangala Dam, which is 20 times larger than its hometown dam. The Wyangala has more water to offer, although it itself is only at 25% capacity.
Dubbo gets its drinking water from  Burrendong Dam, which at present is down to 5% capacity. It is expected to run dry in May. [DUB-oh] Dubbo will tighten water restrictions even further next month and is pinning its hopes on groundwater. It’s also considering rainwater capture, and the treating of effluent for reuse. Dubbo’s mayor, Stephen Lawrence, expressed confidence that the town could avoid a Day Zero, but acknowledged it would not be easy.
Groundwater may be an option for some towns, but it’s more of a stretch in the higher altitudes. In the New South Wales upland is the town of  Armidale. If Australia’s drought persists, Armidale’s dam will run dry next year, and its leaders are looking at options. Mayor Simon Murray said that they haven’t found enough groundwater to supply everyone. He estimated that each day, hundreds of trucks would have to transport water to homes and businesses. “Trucking water is going to be the only water solution,” he said, “But where do you truck it from?” Hauling water not only requires a supply source, but roads capable of handling the freight traffic. And making that water last requires a mindset change. As Murray told the Herald, “We’re trying to get people to realise that we’ve got this limited amount and it’s running out very quickly.”
In the United States, proposed legislation in Florida intends to address the dangers of harmful algae blooms, but critics say that it lacks teeth to get the job done.
Governor Ron DeSantis recently promoted what he called “a comprehensive piece of water quality legislation” for Florida’s 2020 legislative session. The bill is derived from the work of a task force that the governor convened in response to major algae outbreaks on the state’s waterways last year. Algae blooms are the result of nutrient pollution. Experts on the task force identified the main sources of nutrient pollution as agricultural runoff, leaky septic systems, wastewater overflows and poor management of stormwater. The bill has provisions for each of these problems, but stops short of tightening regulations on major sources of algae growth.
For agricultural runoff, the major source of nutrient pollution, the bill addresses best management practices for farmers. The idea is to use water, fertilizer and pesticides in ways that minimize their impact on the state’s waterways. Current standards are set by the agricultural industry, and compliance is voluntary. The bill would not change that. Other than proposing regular verification of the standards, the bill does not aim to make them enforceable. Environmentalists say this is not enough to protect water bodies, such as Lake Okeechobee, which now suffers toxic cyanobacteria blooms nearly every year.
Environmentalists also criticize the proposed bill’s approach to leaky septic systems. Florida is home to 10% of the country’s septic systems. The governor’s task force made the case for greater oversight, and for more research on upgrading systems, as well as regular inspections. Currently in Florida, the only time a septic tank requires an inspection is when it is installed. The bill gives the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority to inspect septic tanks. But it does not call for mandatory inspections. Alex Gillen is executive director of Friends of the Everglades. He told the Miami Herald “A proposal to address the environmental impacts of septic tanks without mandatory septic tank inspections is unquestionably a half-measure.”
The proposed bill also includes increased oversight and maintenance for wastewater systems. Under it, utilities would have to provide plans for inspections and upkeep of their infrastructure. The bill would also give the Department of Environmental Protection the ability to inspect and intervene before harmful discharges occur.
This week Circle of Blue looks at water issues on state and local ballots in November elections.
Voters in Colorado, Texas, New Orleans and Oregon have a chance to weigh in on water infrastructure funding.
In Colorado, the question is whether to legalize sports gambling and use a portion of the revenue to support the state’s water plan.
If approved, Proposition DD will legalize sports betting in Colorado and charge a 10 percent tax on the proceeds. Most of the tax revenue will go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to fund projects outlined in the state water plan.
Revenue from legalized sports betting will be small at first – quite small compared to the budget for the state water plan, which could be as much as $40 billion. Most of that is covered by existing funding, but not all. The water plan is underfunded by roughly $3 billion over 30 years.
Colorado expects to get about $16 million a year from sports betting, averaged over the first five years. About 15 million of that would go to water projects. The maximum amount of tax revenue the state can draw is $29 million per year.
The proposition has wide appeal. Eighty-five of the state’s 100 lawmakers voted to put measure on the ballot. Many environmental groups have signaled their support, including American Rivers, Environmental Defense Fund, and Trout Unlimited. Urban water utilities like Denver Water are also on board.
A few environmental groups, however, oppose the sports betting proposal. They see the water plan as a covert way to fund unsustainable projects like dams and water diversions. They say river systems are already overused, and new approaches are needed to address warmer and drier conditions. They are also skeptical about the absence of specific plans for the money. Jen Pelz of WildEarth Guardians told the Colorado Sun “This is socially and environmentally irresponsible, and we stand firmly against it.”
In Texas, voters will weigh in on a flood infrastructure fund and bond funding for water projects in poor communities.
Proposition 8, the state flood prevention and recovery fund proposal speaks to fresh memories of flooded highways and ruined homes during Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda. Proposition 8 will amend the state constitution to create the flood infrastructure fund, and it would get started with nearly $800 million from the state’s surplus revenue.
Republican Representative  Dade Phelan introduced the measure. He said the fund will help develop regional solutions for flood protection. He said one of the advantages of the fund, which is directed at local governments, is the ability to allocate money quickly to worthwhile projects. Phelan told the Texas Tribune “When it takes the feds years to even get your money, and the state’s going to do it in a matter of months — I mean, it’s pretty impressive how much quicker we’re going to move.”  The funds will be administered by the Texas Water Development Board and cannot be tapped by the Legislature. The board will score and rank project proposals before handing out funds.
Proposition 8 has widespread support, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The editorial boards of all the state’s major newspapers have endorsed it, as well.
Another Texas water issue on the ballot is Proposition 2. This would expand the Economically Distressed Areas Program, a water infrastructure program that was established in 1989 but has now run out of money. The measure also allows new types of projects to be funded, such as drainage systems to deal with flooding.
Under the measure, the Texas Water Development Board could issue up to $200 million in bonds. Communities would be eligible for funds if they met certain household income criteria and if they lack adequate water and sewer service.
The low-income water program has less political support than the flood program. A substantial percentage of Republicans in the Texas House and Senate opposed it. But the measure had unanimous support from Democrats.
And public opinion seems to be aligning in favor of the Economically Distressed Areas program. The editorial boards of all the state’s major newspapers have endorsed it.
In New Orleans, flood response is also a cornerstone issue. City voters will consider a ballot measure on public works projects, including drainage and stormwater management.
In a special election on November 16, New Orleans voters will decide whether to issue $500 million in bonds to upgrade infrastructure. Improving antiquated stormwater drainage is a significant component, but funds will also go toward affordable housing, bridges, libraries, and parks.
The initiative is part of a package of spending proposals from Mayor LaToya [can-TRELL] Cantrell that she calls the “fair share.” She wants to invest more tourism revenue into repairing the city’s worn out public works.
In Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, the question is whether to put protections for watersheds in the city charter.
Portland’s city code already restricts land use within the Bull Run watershed, which is east of the city, in the Cascade Mountains. For example, there are limits on public access, logging, and development. But environmental groups worry about a potential vulnerability: the protective code can be rewritten by the City Council.
The measure on the ballot would add the watershed protection rules to the city charter, which can only be changed by a public vote.
Portland is one of the few large cities that does not filter its drinking water. For decades, state health officials have granted the city a waiver, due in large part to the protected watershed. But after finding the parasite cryptosporidium in the watershed, that exemption has ended. The Portland City Council voted two years ago to build a $500 million filtration plant that is scheduled to be completed in 2027.
The watershed rules proposition has overwhelming support, with endorsements from The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, and environmental groups. The [mult-NO-mah] Multnomah County Elections Division has received no arguments in opposition.
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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.