The Year in Water, 2019
Natural hazards strengthen. Governments struggle to cope.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – December 3, 2019
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 Georgia outbreak was traced to a hotel’s cooling towers, while the likely source of exposure in the North Carolina incident, which sickened 139 people and killed four, was a hot tub exhibition at a state fairgrounds.
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 two decades 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.
Present in the natural environment, the bacteria flourish in these building plumbing systems, which are the front lines for controlling the spread of the disease. An expert group convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended approaches for minimizing the risk of infection.
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. Not yet in the depths of the southern hemisphere summer, when 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.
“Taken together, these changes show that the world’s ocean and cryosphere have been taking the heat from climate change for decades,” said Ko Barrett, vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific panel that produced the report. “The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe.”
What is the next center of population and commerce to be roiled by a severely constricted water supply?
It’s an urgent question. 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, advance warning of urban water crises — the failures that could arise in specific cities in the next few months or two years — has proved achingly elusive to forecast globally with analytical rigor and accuracy. The stakes for accurate assessments couldn’t be higher.
“It’s an existential question for cities,” Betsy Otto, director of World Resources Institute’s Global Water Program, told Circle of Blue.
But it is not only water scarcity that poses an existential water threat to cities.
The aftermath of the Camp Fire that burned down the town of Paradise, California, marked a new chapter in post-disaster recovery. Beneath the blast furnace heat that incinerated buildings and vehicles above ground, an intricate network of drinking water pipes below the surface became so contaminated with toxic chemicals that many of the pipes are unusable.
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. The only business to have reopened in the flooded downtown is the U.S. Post Office.
“The town is just in bad shape,” one resident told Circle of Blue.
To locate sufficient supplies of fresh water, the nation’s groundwater wells are being drilled deeper and deeper, according to an analysis of more than 10 million well records since the 1950s.
Not only are they being drilled deeper, wells 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.
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 compact, 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.
Combined with rising seas, subsidence can sink coastal areas 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 decline.
U.S. Water Utilities Grapple With Aging Infrastructure, Rising Costs, Affordability
The country’s metropolitan centers, by and large, are forging ahead on their own, not waiting on Beltway politics to be resolved before making investments to prepare their water systems for the decades ahead.
The largest increases in water prices last year among major U.S. cities were clustered in Arizona and California, states vulnerable to drought, climate change, and other natural hazards that are poised to constrain water supplies. To prepare, cities in these states are spending billions of dollars on water recycling facilities and distribution systems.
Such large investments, and the rate increases necessary to pay for them, are calling into question the ability of poor households to keep up with the rising cost of water. Cities continue to grapple with a water-utility trilemma: balancing infrastructure investment, financial stability, and 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. The intersection between water and energy, and the consequences for markets, policies, and ecosystems, is on full display.
With fossil fuel production in the Permian basin reaching ever greater heights, New Mexico lawmakers moved to clarify the legal status of the salty, chemical-laden water that gushes from wells in larger volumes than even the oil that is the object of the hunt. For every barrel of oil produced in the basin, between two and five barrels of “produced” water come out of the ground with it.
That salty water has to go somewhere. A burgeoning, multibillion-dollar industry is being constructed to dispose of that waste and, potentially, put it to use outside of the oilfields.
Not having a means for getting rid of produced water “could literally shut down the oil industry,” one industry observer told Circle of Blue.
Polluted Waters Take 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. Water pollution, as Richard Damania, the report’s lead author, told Circle of Blue, 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, argues a paper from a United Nations think tank that provides the first estimate of global brine production from desalination.
Water is both a source of tension and a casualty of war. In the end, it is the people who suffer.
Circle of Blue’s weekly HotSpots series highlights areas in which water access plays a role in civic upheaval and armed conflict.
A political standoff in Venezuela this year plunged a nervous citizenry deeper into misery and deprivation. Mismanaged infrastructure produced 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.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton