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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intends to impose significant limits on the research used for public health policy. The agency says it is fostering transparency, but critics say the move will limit the science that supports regulations and would hinder protections related to clean air and water.
The controversy centers around the disclosure of information. The EPA draft proposal would require scientists to share all the raw data that informs their research. The agency says that this would allow it to independently verify the conclusions. However, many academic studies include health data protected by confidentiality agreements. These types of studies have been used for decades to shape policy. For example, the nation’s air quality laws were founded upon studies at Harvard University that tied air pollution to premature deaths. The researchers got access to medical and biographical information because they agreed to keep it confidential.
The fossil fuel industry and some Republican legislators have complained about this study, saying that the data used for it, and a similar study by the American Cancer Society, was not made public, preventing independent analysis. The new proposal, writes the New York Times, “is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking.” The administration has sought to restrict the number of scientific advisory boards and has blocked government scientists from presenting research at conferences.
The EPA proposal is under fire from leading public health organizations and scientists, some of whom argue that the proposed process violates the core values of research. This proposal would require access to the raw data for nearly every study that the EPA would consider, so the EPA could “reanalyze” the research. The politically-appointed EPA administrator would have the authority to make determinations on whether to accept scientific findings.
The proposal had a broader reach than a version that the EPA delayed earlier this year. The current proposal would apply retroactively to research like the Harvard air pollution study that the agency has already used as a basis for regulation. The EPA refused to comment on draft proposals that are under review, but the Times did get a statement from Steven Milloy, a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team. Milloy operates a website that questions both climate change and the health hazards of smog. He said the goal of the proposal was to stop the EPA from relying on the Harvard and American Cancer Society studies unless the data was made public. While he didn’t think the new rule could void current regulations, he said he did anticipate it to prevent pollution rules from getting stricter. EPA officials said they hope to finalize the measure next year.
Thousands of dams in the United States threaten communities with deadly floods. That’s the warning from the Associated Press. Last week it released a sobering report on the risks posed by aging, insufficient and often unregulated dams that face increasing stress from extreme weather.
The news organization spent two years reviewing federal and state data for 44 states and Puerto Rico. It found that, as of last year, over 1,600 dams capable of deadly damage are rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition. That number, notes the AP, is an undercount. Some states would not provide the condition of their dams, claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others, said AP, didn’t have the funding, staff or authority to rate the condition of all their dams. A dam specialist told the AP that thousands of people in the U.S. live downstream from dams that are unlikely to meet current safety standards.
Dams are the royalty of water infrastructure: impressive, powerful and costly. They rein in floods, supply water for irrigation and municipal use, generate energy and offer recreation. Some store industrial waste. But all are aging: America’s dams are, on average, over 50 years old. And some are no longer up to the challenge of extreme rain and flooding caused by a shifting climate and urban development.
The factors at play in this portrait of vulnerability include regulations, privatization, money and weather.
There is no national standard for inspecting dams. Different states, therefore, have different regulations. Some inspect the dams with most potential risk to human life every year, while others inspect every five years. Some states never inspect dams that are categorized as unlikely to cause human fatalities, even though their threat can increase as development brings new housing into their paths.
Even when dams are inspected, the ratings are subjective. They vary from state to state and inspector to inspector. And they are not always made public. Since the terror attacks of September 11, the federal government has refused to include the condition of dams in its inventory, citing national security concerns. But the AP said it used public records requests to get information on over 25,000 dams across the country. The number includes high-profile federal structures such as Hoover Dam, but the majority of dams are privately owned.
The National Inventory of Dams database has three categories for a dam’s potential threat to life: high, significant, or low. A high hazard dam is likely to cause fatalities if it fails. A significant hazard dam is not likely to kill people if it fails, although there is the potential for economic and environmental damage.
The AP looked at inspection reports for hundreds of high-hazard dams that were judged to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition. The reports listed a range of concerns: leaks that suggest internal failure, erosion caused by water spilling over the dam wall, spillways that wouldn’t be able to deal with major flooding, and destabilization from burrowing animals and tree growth. Some of the dams were so covered with vegetation that they could not be fully inspected.
Of the states for which it had data, AP found that Georgia had the most high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition. Among the 200 dams in this risk category is Reservoir No.1 in Atlanta. It dates back to the late 1800s and is currently not operating due to leaks. But the water it holds could swamp over a thousand homes, dozens of businesses, a railroad and a highway.
Dangerous dams in other parts of the country demonstrate other problems. The most common is insufficient spillways, which allow dam operators to relieve pressure on the structure by releasing excess water. Older dams, by design or decay, don’t have spillway capacity to cope with intense rainfall caused by climate change. If operators can’t release water quickly enough, it could rise behind the dam and flow over the top. This “overtopping” can cause rapid erosion that can lead to collapse. The Willett Pond Dam near a Boston suburb can only handle a fraction of the flow from a major flood before it is overtopped. If the dam failed, it could send hundreds of millions of gallons of water into a city of nearly 30 thousand people, including shopping centers and two elementary schools. “We are not talking of just flooding someone’s house,” said a resident lobbying for action on the spillway, “We are talking about covering their house.”
A local emergency management director said there was no imminent risk of the Willett Pond Dam failing, but acknowledged that the spillway needed to be rebuilt. But, he said, “there is no money in the system for that.”
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it would cost over $70 billion to repair and update the dams in the U.S., which number more than 90 thousand. It’s important to note that, unlike many other types of infrastructure, most of the nation’s dams are privately owned. That, said the Associated Press, “makes it difficult for regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs.”
California runs the country’s leading dam safety program, and South Carolina has invested heavily after over 70 dams there failed in recent years. But, said the AP, some states have slid backward. Thirteen states and Puerto Rico are spending less today on dam safety than they did eight years ago.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials said that nearly every state needs to put more into programs for inspecting and addressing dam problems. It pointed out a further challenge: dam owners can’t be held to account when regulators don’t know who they are. In Rhode Island, the dam safety office listed 32 dams with safety concerns that posed a high or significant hazard. Because the owner can’t be identified, repairs cannot be enforced.
In some states, dams are not even inspected because of legal exemptions. For example, in Texas, laws about size, location and hazard categories mean that about 45% of dams there aren not regulated.
In Missouri, height, use and and federal oversight are factors that limit safety inspections to 13% of its roughly 5,000 dams.
Last year, the White House released a National Climate Assessment that acknowledged a trend toward more frequent and more intense storms as the climate shifts. Many dams were never designed to deal with conditions this extreme. Craig [FEW-gate} Fugate, former administer of FEMA, said that even if well-maintained, thousands of dams might not hold against what nature has in store. He told the AP “These are like ticking bombs just sitting there, waiting for the wrong conditions to occur to cause catastrophic failure.”
The city of Cleveland boasts the nation’s tenth largest water system, with over 1.4 million customers. Over the past twenty years, those customers have occasionally been annoyed by their tap water looking yellow or brown. It has stained fixtures and loads of laundry, and the water has had an off smell or a metallic taste. Officials have assured people that this is a nuisance, not a threat and that while they should hold off on doing laundry, the water is safe to drink.
But recent reporting by the Chicago Tribune suggests that the discolored water may be a sign of something serious, linked to the deteriorating health of Lake Erie, the source of the city’s water.
Lake Erie, the shallowest body of the Great Lakes suffers from an extensive “dead zone,” a layer of deep water that is so oxygen depleted that many organisms can’t survive there.\
The dead zone is caused by a biological process that overwhelms the lake’s ecological balance. It starts when agricultural runoff and urban wastewater flow into Lake Erie. The nutrients and summer warmth feed massive blooms of algae and associated bacteria. When the billions and billions of microbes die, they sink to the lakebed and decompose. In the deep places of Erie’s central basin, this process sucks the oxygen from the water.
This oxygen-poor water reacts with the nearby sediments and clay in the lakebed, pulling heavy metals such as manganese and iron into the water. When oxygen levels plummet, fish and other life near the lakebed suffocate or move away, leaving a liquid dead zone.
Lake Erie’s dead zones don’t disperse until the cooler weather of fall. Once the surface waters chill and become more dense than the water underneath, a mixing action begins, and oxygen is restored – until the warm weather once again spurs the microbes into a frenzy.
Lake Erie’s troubles are part of a global trend. The Tribune reported that between the 1960s and the 2000s, the number of dead zones on the planet has doubled every decade. This is due to a combination of human activity and a warming atmosphere. There are over 400 ocean dead zones, and freshwater equivalents are found throughout the Great Lakes. Besides the central basin of Lake Erie, there are dead zones in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, Lake Ontario’s Hamilton Harbour.
Climate studies show heavier rainfall in the Midwest. More rain means more nutrients washed into coastal waters, which leads to larger algal blooms and further oxygen depletion. As the climate warms the dead zones worsen, lasting longer and raising the stakes for communities who draw their drinking water from offshore. About ten years ago, levels of heavy metals in untreated Lake Erie water led scientists to consider the potential impact of dead zones on coastal drinking water. They, and water treatment experts, are still evaluating the possible risks, and the many variables.
The commissioner of Cleveland’s Division of Water told the Chicago Tribune that for many years, utilities focused mostly on treating and distributing water. “Source,” he said, “we didn’t think about it for decades and decades. In the last 15, 20 years that has dramatically changed. We have focused on what goes on in the lake. What surprised me, as much as anything, is how complex Lake Erie is as an ecosystem; the biology, chemistry, the physics of what goes on is incredibly complicated.”
Water treatment managers in coastal areas must respond to rapid and dramatic changes in their water supply. A shifting wind can move water from the dead zone toward the municipal intake pipes. Operators must adjust chemical levels to deal with the influx of heavy metals and an altered pH. Metals such as manganese can be a neurotoxin in excessive amounts. Acidic water can corrode lead and copper service lines, poisoning the water within the pipes. Getting the right chemical balance in treated water is difficult. Adding too little of one antidote for manganese can actually raise the levels of the metal. Adding too much of another can make the water acidic enough to corrode the pipes. And some treatments for heavy metals increase other chemical byproducts.
When water from the dead zone surged through Cleveland’s water system in 2006, it was the first, and worst challenge of its kind. Water officials learned as they went along. Now they have a network of buoy sensors that monitor wind, and the temperature and oxygen levels of water. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled a modeling system to help predict dead zone water movement, so that water treatment can be adjusted as needed. The experimental system has issued eight warnings of hazardous conditions in coastal waters. Last August, despite the advance notice, and rapid response, a quarter of Cleveland Water customers once again got discolored water.
This week, Circle of Blue looks at how water connects climate to health.
On a warming planet, health and disease risks are growing more severe. That’s according to an international assessment of the health effects of climate change.
The Lancet Countdown report is a collaboration between 35 UN agencies and academic institutions. They joined seven years ago to track the connections between human health and planetary upheaval. The fifth edition of the report came out last week. It frames the risks of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in terms of the changes that could be experienced by a child born this year.
Nick Watts is executive director of the Lancet Countdown. He said in a statement that “The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.” He added that “Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”
Kristine Belesova [bella-SO-vah] co-authored the report, and told Circle of Blue that climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children. She said “With business as usual, a child born today will face threats to health at every stage of life.”
Business as usual means continuing to consume more fossil fuel and to emit more carbon. Doing so, warns the report, “will result in a fundamentally altered world.”
The changes to the climate, argue the authors, will be reflected in more illness and disease, especially for children, elders, and those in poorer regions. The changes are already happening today, faster than governments are willing or able to respond.
Belesova is deputy director of the Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The link between climate and water is particularly obvious when it comes to disease. She said that water-related health effects fall into three main categories.
One is the risk of malnutrition due to failed harvests.
Globally, hunger and malnutrition have declined in the last two decades, benefiting hundreds of millions of people. The worry, Belesova said, is that heat and water stress are reducing crop yields. This could reverse the gains made so far in combating childhood malnutrition. There is some evidence in sub-Saharan Africa that malnutrition in recent years has slightly increased, according to the Global Hunger Index.
A second category of water-related health effects relates to infectious disease outbreaks. Conditions ripe for bacteria and mosquitoes are expanding, both in time and space. Half of the world is now within the range of dengue fever, which is carried by mosquitoes and spreads quickly.
Vibrio bacteria, another indicator species in the report, cause cholera, intestinal illness, tissue death, and blood poisoning. There were 107 days last year on the Baltic Sea coast with ideal growing conditions for Vibrio. That is double the number of such days in the 1980s. The bacteria prefer warm, brackish water, and are thriving in a rapidly warming Baltic. Their range is expanding in the increasingly feverish northern latitudes.
Although the conditions for disease are expanding, preventative measures can control the rate of disease transmission. Over the last two decades, Researchers and public health officials have successfully reined in malaria mortality in Africa. The report points to this as an argument for more investment in public health services.
The third factor in water-related health effects is extreme weather, which heightens the other risks. Floods destroy homes, uproot families, and spread contaminated water that can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and bacteria. In the last couple of decades, South America and Southeast Asia saw the highest increase in days with extreme rainfall.
Droughts, meanwhile, reduce the water available for sanitation and hygiene. They shrink crop yields and inflate food prices.
The disease burden will not be shared equally, the report found. The poorer the country, the greater the suffering. The younger the person, the higher the risk of harm. The elderly, too, are particularly exposed to the deadly consequences of extreme heat, as are those who labor outdoors.
Some health outcomes are difficult to translate into standardized data and might be addressed in future editions of the report. Mental health is one such area, Belesova said. Media reports from Australia and India note the prevalence of suicides in farming communities during periods of severe drought.
Though mental health is not included in this edition, The Lancet Countdown report does look at 41 broad health indicators across five categories. The indicators touch on climate change vulnerability and health risks. Health outcomes are just one component. The indicators also explore how governments consider health assessments, the economic costs of pollution, and public engagement with climate science and action.
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 circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.