The Year in Water, 2019

Natural hazards strengthen. Governments struggle to cope.


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. 
With the close of this calendar, we’d like to offer you a review of major issues over the last 12 months. The Year in Water 2019 saw natural hazards intensifying and governments struggling to cope. The last year provided ample evidence of fundamental societal vulnerabilities. Few communities and governments are adequately prepared for a future in which water supplies rapidly shift from abundance to scarcity. And in many places, that threat is already a reality as economies, cultures and ecologies are heaving from disruption.
Water infrastructure, policies, and institutions were rarely designed with historical climate variability in mind, much less the dizzying swings in weather that are becoming more frequent and severe on a warming planet.
Warnings about the dangers came from all quarters: the United Nations rang the alarm over melting glaciers; the World Bank called attention to the health and environmental damage of contaminated water; academic researchers say that even more people are at risk from rising seas. In the midst of it all, millions of citizens filled the streets, demanding that their leaders take action on the planet’s most consequential long-term threat.
For this year’s Circle of Blue roundup – twelve themes over twelve months.
Life At The Extremes
Swollen rivers and dry reservoirs helped to illustrate the story in 2019. Towns in the American Midwest were submerged for months after several seasons of historically wet conditions. Flooded and sodden fields prevented farmers from planting nearly 16 million acres of corn and soybeans, mostly in the intensively cultivated Mississippi River watershed. In all, U.S. farmers were unable to sow nearly 20 million acres, a record high. The deluge disrupted lives long after the rains stopped.
On the opposite side of the world, Australia’s largest and most economically important river system, the Murray-Darling, testified  to terrifying heat and aridity. Brutal bushfires are torching New South Wales and Queensland, while tanker trucks deliver water to rural inland communities whose reservoirs are dry.
Millions of people in Caracas, Chennai, and Harare are among those that suffered last year. They were afflicted with dry taps and inadequate water because of ineffective policies or corrupt managers. Disease outbreaks were often close at hand, especially in Venezuela, where water, sanitation, and healthcare systems are decaying under the Maduro government.
In Chennai’s case, unchecked urban development in recent decades paved over wetlands and lakes. The water crisis was also spurred by a disregard for the land’s natural contours, which is also a problem in other rapidly growing megacities. In June, after poor monsoons for three years in a row, the city’s main reservoirs were empty. Then the weather took a dramatic and devastating turn. Days of heavy rain put several districts underwater, recalling the horrendous flooding in 2015 that displaced more than a million people.
No Where to Go
One response to water hazards is to flee. In August, Indonesian president [JOE-koh WE-dodo] Joko Widodo announced a plan to move certain government departments out of the capital, Jakarta. Home to more than 10 million people, Jakarta is slowly sinking due to excessive groundwater withdrawals. Its harbor is already below sea level and the only barrier to flooding is a tenuous barricade.
But worldwide, not everyone nor everything can be moved. And the politics of migration are fraught as ever. At the climate marches this fall, a familiar refrain was seen written on posters from Seattle to Stockholm. There Is No Planet B.
Legionnaires’ Disease Continues to Grow
It was a record-setting year for Legionnaires’ disease, America’s deadliest water-borne illness. Georgia and North Carolina experienced the largest Legionnaires’ outbreaks in state history while the number of cases reported to the CDC reached a new high.
The pneumonia-like disease is spread by inhaling droplets contaminated with Legionella bacteria. And it is spreading rapidly. According to CDC data, the number of reported cases in the United States is now more than six times higher than it was twenty years ago.
Hand in hand with the rising number of cases is a corresponding increase in legal actions against negligent building owners who allow the bacteria to multiply within their plumbing.
While the bacteria are present in the natural environment, they flourish in plumbing systems, which are the front lines for controlling the spread of the disease. Experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have recommended approaches for minimizing the risk of infection.
Rural U.S. Water Systems Struggle to Survive
The cost of treating municipal sewage is rising, due to inadequate infrastructure and heavy rainfall. It is driving small, rural communities towards bankruptcy.
In North Carolina, dozens of small towns are running chronic budget deficits in their sewer system operations. Many of the towns have similar risk factors: aging and declining populations, leaky pipes, low incomes, and sewer rates that are already some of the highest in the state. State officials took the historic step last summer of revoking a town’s charter because of an indebted sewer system.
North Carolina and other states are looking for solutions, not only for sewer systems but for drinking water as well. One potential remedy is to merge failing systems with a those in neighboring community whose finances are on firmer ground.  California has tried this option and demonstrated the hopes and the hurdles involved in these mergers.
Global Water Disruptions
Where will the water come from? The people of New South Wales are asking that question as the southeast Australian state suffers its worst drought on record, and that, even before the summer in the southern hemisphere has reached its peak. As temperatures soar and rain is negligible, some communities are already trucking in water due to dry reservoirs and rivers.
Even where water should be plentiful, or at least sufficient, there is scarcity. For Chennai, which saw its two main reservoirs all but dry up in June, the drought crisis is compounded by a self-inflicted wound. Rapid urban development in southern India’s IT hub has damaged water-storing wetlands and lakes.
Natural systems are degrading elsewhere, as the UN’s climate panel warned in a report on mountain and polar regions. Melting ice is resulting in diminished water for irrigation and unstable mountain terrain while also increasing the risk of destructive flooding.
Ko Barrett is vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific panel that produced the report. She said: “Taken together, these changes show that the world’s ocean and cryosphere have been taking the heat from climate change for decades. The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe.”
Post-Disaster “Recovery”
Climate change is loosening the bounds of the possible, for both flood and drought. Cities are growing at breakneck pace. And yet, according to water researchers, it’s very hard to predict urban water crises, the failures that could arise in specific cities in the next few months or years. The ability to forecast with analytical rigor and accuracy has been elusive, and the stakes for accurate assessments could not be higher. Betsy Otto, the director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Water Program, told Circle of Blue “It’s an existential question for cities.”
Water scarcity is not the only existential water threat to cities. When the Camp Fire burned down the town of Paradise, California, it marked a new chapter in post-disaster recovery. The blast furnace heat that incinerated buildings and vehicles above ground also damaged an intricate network of drinking water pipes below the surface. They became so contaminated with toxic chemicals that many of the pipes are unusable. The roots of an entire community are gone.
The people of Fair Bluff, meanwhile, are wondering what recovery really means in an era of powerful storms. The small town on the North Carolina coastal plain was flooded by hurricanes twice in three years. One-third of its residents have not returned. As of last spring, the only business that had reopened in the flooded downtown was the U.S. Post Office. One resident described the situation to Circle of Blue in simple and stark terms, saying “The town is just in bad shape.”
U.S. Groundwater
To locate sufficient supplies of fresh water, America’s groundwater wells are being drilled deeper and deeper. That’s according to an analysis of more than 10 million well records since the 1950s.
Not only are wells going deeper, they are being drilled in new areas. Federal data shows the continued eastward expansion of irrigation, as farmers hedge against the variability of weather and the detrimental financial repercussions of drought.
While farmers search for more underground supplies, the Clean Water Act’s role in groundwater oversight has come into play. A pollution permitting case before the Supreme Court holds national implications for cities, industries, and ecosystems.
Global Groundwater
Asia’s growing cities and vast agricultural sector are contributing to a groundwater crisis that is unsettling the very land on which they sit.
Some of the most dramatic land alterations are a result of local and regional water use. Locally, groundwater pumping can cause the land to settle, lowering its elevation. This subsidence is occurring in coastal megacities across Asia, including Bangkok, Dhaka, and Jakarta, where a sea wall protects land that is already below sea level.
When combined with rising seas, subsidence can sink coastal areas even more quickly. The number of vulnerable people on Asia’s coasts is higher than previously thought, according to a Climate Central assessment.
Groundwater depletion is wreaking havoc in areas beyond the coasts. The farming districts in India’s northern Punjab state have seen groundwater levels drop precipitously in recent decades. Researchers worry, however, that a government scheme to promote solar-powered irrigation pumps, if not judiciously implemented, could worsen the groundwater decline.
U.S. Water Utilities Grapple With Aging Infrastructure, Rising Costs, and  Affordability
Most of America’s metropolitan centers are not waiting on Washington politics, but are investing in their water systems to prepare for the decades ahead.
The largest increases in water prices last year among major U.S. cities were clustered in Arizona and California. These states are vulnerable to drought, climate change, and other natural hazards that are poised to constrain water supplies. Cities there are spending billions of dollars on water recycling facilities and distribution systems.
Such large investments, and the rate increases necessary to pay for them, mean that more people can not fford the rising cost of water. Cities continue to grapple with a water-utility trilemma: balancing infrastructure investment, financial stability, and the affordability of their services.
Oil and Gas Developments Confront Water Challenges
The Permian basin, which spans New Mexico and Texas, is the hottest play in oil these days. It is also an arid region where fossil fuel development is putting immense pressure on water resources. It’s a classic case of the intersection between water and energy, and the consequences for markets, policies, and ecosystems. As fossil fuel production in the Permian basin booms, so, too, do the toxic byproducts. Water is a vital part of the process. For every barrel of oil produced in the basin, between two and five barrels of salty, chemical-laden water come out of the ground with it. New Mexico lawmakers moved to clarify the legal status of this “produced water.”  A burgeoning, multibillion-dollar industry is being constructed to dispose of that waste and, potentially, find uses for it outside of the oilfields. One industry observer told Circle of Blue that a failure to get rid of produced water “could literally shut down the oil industry,”
Polluted Waters Take Their Toll on Health and Environment
Polluted waters are an underestimated and underappreciated global scourge. That conclusion comes from a recently released World Bank report, whose authors claim water pollution is an “invisible crisis” that will worsen as the planet warms. Richard [dah-MAIN-ee-aah] Damania is the report’s lead author. He told Circle of Blue that water pollution is “bad all around.”
Many of those pollution problems have developed over decades. In farming communities, the culprit is nitrate concentrations, which are rising in private wells. Elsewhere in the United States, the health risks from toxic “forever” chemicals, known collectively as PFAS, are forcing regulators to consider new drinking water standards.
Attempts to meet water challenges have unleashed their own set of perils. The waste product from desalination is growing too large to ignore. That’s according to a United Nations think tank that provided the first estimate of global brine production from desalination.
Water HotSpots
Water is both a source of tension and a casualty of war. In the end, it is the people who suffer. A political standoff in Venezuela this year plunged a nervous citizenry deeper into misery and deprivation. Mismanaged infrastructure caused power outages, disease outbreaks, and unreliable water service.
Allegations of mismanagement and corruption were also leveled in Zimbabwe, where two reservoirs that supply the capital Harare went dry during a drought, cutting municipal water service to an estimated two million people.
These are among the challenges facing our water future. Next week, we’ll begin the new year with a look at what people are doing to make that future better. And, as always, What’s Up With Water comes to you from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. You can do one more good thing for 2019  – or give 2020 a great start  – by visiting and making a difference through your tax-deductible donation.