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.

In Malawi, the United Nations is helping residents return home in the wake of Cyclone Idai. The storm displaced 100,000 people in the southern African country, and many feel reluctant to go back due to shortages of basic amenities. In response, aid agencies are providing food, medicine, and other essentials.

The cyclone hit near the port city of Beira on March 14, and Oxfam estimates that 4,000 people living in rural areas are still cut off from aid. Idai killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated $2 billion in damages. 

Venezuela has begun receiving humanitarian aid from the Red Cross. The country has been in turmoil since January, when opposition leader Juan Guaido challenged the re-election of President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro blocked aid from entering the country until recently brokering an agreement with the Red Cross. The aid shipment included 5,000 liters of water, 14 power generators and three surgery kits meant to serve up to 30,000 people. A Red Cross commissioner said another shipment should be arriving May 8, and stressed that the organization’s impartiality and neutrality allowed it to operate in the rough political waters.

Iran shut down about a dozen oil wells in the flood-hit Khuzestan province last week, causing crude oil output to decline by up to 20,000 barrels a day. Iran has been enduring weeks of flooding – its worst in 70 years. It has sustained an estimated $2.5 billion in damage to roads, homes, businesses, and agriculture. At least 76 people have died and over 200,000 have been displaced.

In India’s drought-stricken Maharashtra state, farmer suicides are rising.

There were over 12,000 farmer suicides in India in 2015, – that’s the last year data was released. Maharashtra accounted for a large portion of the deaths, and a three-year drought has given farmers more to worry about. Widows and other distressed residents are calling on government officials for help in alleviating water shortages.

In Kenya, many people were surprised and delighted by downpours over the weekend, after warnings of a dry springtime. Last week, the Kenyan meteorological department reemphasized the likelihood of food and water shortages as the March-May “long rains season” faltered. A famine warning system created by the U.S. Agency for International Development blamed the disruption on Cyclone Idai, which struck nearby Mozambique on March 14. When the drops began to fall in Nairobi on Saturday, it was the first rain of the year.

Afghanistan continues to be lashed by torrential rains and flooding, as last week’s storms are expected to be followed by violent weather in the next few days. The formerly drought-stricken country has been hammered with heavy rains and flash flooding for weeks. Severe storms have killed over 100 people, and destroyed homes in Kabul and beyond.

In the Australian Outback, a key railway is set to reopen after sustaining flood damage earlier this year. In February, heavy flooding closed the Mount Isa rail line in Queensland, a strategic route for transporting zinc and lead across the Australian Outback. Queensland’s transport minister said the railway is scheduled to reopen on April 29.

A stream in Belgium has earned the distinction of being called the ‘most polluted in Europe’ due to a startling concentration of pesticides. 

Some 70 hazardous pesticides are found in the Wulfdambeek stream, a waterway in Ledegem, Belgium. Decades ago, the stream was used for drinking water, but now the concentration of pollutants is so high that researchers say the water itself would likely work as a pesticide.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has closed its public comment period for proposed revisions to the rule known as the Waters of the United States. The Trump administration proposed more specific and narrower language for describing which waters qualify for federal protection. The U.S. Geological survey estimates that under the new definitions, 18 percent of streams and half the wetlands now under federal oversight would lose federal protection. Agricultural and industry groups are largely in favor of the new definitions. Environmentalists and water quality groups support broader protections for watersheds. The EPA is expected to finish its revisions by the end of the year.

California’s Imperial Irrigation District is suing over being excluded from the Colorado River drought contingency plan. The legal challenge came the same day as President Trump signed legislation to implement the plan, which took years of negotiation between the seven river basin states. The agreement intends to protect major reservoirs on the Colorado River from falling so low that they cannot provide water or power. Imperial Irrigation District, the largest water user in the basin, refused to join the plan unless the federal government included $200 million to address health and environmental dangers at the Salton Sea, a saline lake southeast of Los Angeles. Other parties working on the Colorado River plan thought the Salton Sea demand would stall the process and worked out a way to exclude Imperial Irrigation District.

Also in California, scientists say that cases of West Nile Virus will likely fall as the state moves out of drought. West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne illness that appears to spread more quickly in dry conditions. In 2015, the height of California’s recent drought, severe cases of the virus peaked. Since then, cases have declined as drought has eased.

In Alaska, several rivers experienced record-early thaws following a warmer-than-average winter and spring. The Tanana River in central Alaska broke up at the earliest date in 102 years of record-keeping, and other waterways have seen similar early thaws. Researchers say the phenomenon reflects long-term climate change in the state. 

In Michigan, the city of Flint received nearly $80 million in federal funding for water infrastructure projects. The funds are the remaining part of a $120 million interest-free loan granted to the city in 2017. The funding will help improve pipes, pump stations, water meters, and water quality monitoring. Flint officials say the city’s water system will need at least $300 million more in capital improvements over the next 20 years. Flint’s infrastructure has been a government concern since its drinking water crisis and scandal. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the switch in the city’s water source that resulted in raised lead levels, leading to public health concerns and criminal investigations.

Our featured story from Circle of Blue reports from the United States, on geographical changes in irrigated agriculture.

Irrigated farmland in the United States climbed to a record-high 58 million acres in 2017, according to new federal government data. That represents a 4 percent increase from 2012.

Steve Evett, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist, said that, more striking than the increase itself, is where much of that growth occurred.

Irrigation, originally the domain of arid regions in the west, is steadily being adopted in the humid eastern states. Farmers — and their bankers — in places like the Mississippi delta, Corn Belt, and southern Georgia, are getting into irrigation. They want the ability to supplement rainfall that is increasingly erratic. They consider this essential for their 21st-century business model.

The acreage being irrigated has increased in every state in the Midwest and in most southern states, as well. This data was part of the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which is published every five years. The department’s statistical service released the 2017 update on April 11.

Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, and Minnesota registered significant increases in irrigated land. At the same time, irrigated acreage decreased in several places that have long been big irrigators: California, Kansas, and Texas.

The shift in irrigation patterns “tells a story about economic pressures,” Evett told Circle of Blue. But the shift is also about changes in urban development, growing seasons, precipitation, temperature, and the competition for water. And, he said, “I could also step out there and say that it tells a story about climate change.”

The decline of irrigation in the American West is part of a long-term trend that is linked to more competition for increasingly scarce water. That is due in part to demographic patterns. Urban growth has led to the conversion of cotton and alfalfa fields to subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. But it’s also a result of inadequate water. In Texas, for instance, where the Ogallala aquifer, a prime water source, is slowly being drained, irrigated acreage is down 25 percent since 1997. In California, which is in the process of putting restrictions on groundwater use, the decline is 12 percent over those two decades. The rise of irrigation in the eastern states is a response to chaotic precipitation patterns, hotter summers, and economic motivations. A steady supply of water allows for more predictable yields and higher profits.

The shift is not without risks, though. In states where irrigation has clustered, water conflicts are rising and groundwater tables are falling.

In Wisconsin, increased irrigation in the Central Sands region has resulted in the shrinking of lakes and wetlands. In Michigan’s Ottawa County, with a rapidly growing wealth of orchards and flower nurseries, farmers found their groundwater becoming salty, while shallower domestic wells began to dry up. Florida and Georgia, meanwhile, have fought in court since the late 1990s over water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. The Flint River watershed, in southwest Georgia, is a hotspot for irrigation.


Despite the increased stresses, irrigation in the U.S. continues to expand eastward, as weather disruption and financial pressures make it risky to depend on rain. “One of the obvious things is that people irrigate to protect against the vagaries of weather,” said Evett, “Those vagaries are becoming more extreme.”

And that’s What’s Up With Water…we’d like to know what’s up where you are – Tweet us with your water news @circleofblue hashtag whatsupwithwater.