Transcript

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.

We begin with a quick survey of water stories around the globe:

Starting with the Americas:

In Canada, members of the First Nations in Manitoba are seeking more time to file claims for damages from flooding that occurred in 2011. A lawsuit against provincial and national governments resulted in a 90 million dollar settlement last year, but roughly seven in 10 claims did not have the proper documentation.

In the United States, the federal government shutdown, now the longest in its history, has halted pollution inspections by the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump, meanwhile, nominated acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to run the agency. 

New testing in Newark, New Jersey shows increasing lead levels in water systems, while in Georgia, tests of groundwater around U.S. military bases show extensive contamination from toxic firefighting foam.

Texas began 2019 with its highest water supply since 1993.  And Michigan’s former drinking water regulator pleaded “no contest” to a misdemeanor charge related to the Flint water crisis.

In South America, Chile approved a 25 million dollar compliance plan by lithium miner SQM after an investigation by authorities found the company had overdrawn lithium-rich brine from the Atacama basin.

In Europe:

The European continent continues to be hit by severe snow, burying the Austrian Alps, the Apennine Mountains in Italy and parts of Poland, Greece and Turkey. The first storm surge of the year flooded river areas in Germany and pushed water levels in some parts of Denmark to the highest point in two decades.

In Asia:

The same system causing heavy snow in Europe has swamped parts of Lebanon with heavy precipitation. Syrian refugee camps are also suffering from the extreme weather.

In China, the Three Gorges Corporation, operator of several hydropower plants in China and abroad, announced plans to move away from domestic projects amid rising costs and overcrowded rivers. It says it will focus on South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

In Africa:

Farmers in Zimbabwe are urging authorities to implement cloud seeding to fend off an early-season drought that is disrupting crops and withering cattle pastures.

In Australia:

The annual climate statement noted that 2018 was Australia’s third-warmest year on record.

Local officials in Queensland called for more government relief as the state entered its seventh year of drought.

And Australia’s cotton industry denied responsibility for the mass deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish in the Darling River, which some are blaming on over-extraction of water by irrigators.

That’s the world water roundup. We focus this week on China, where government officials released a new water pollution report:

China’s environment ministry announced last week that the quality of the country’s surface water is improving. It said that sampling over the past year showed that more of its river and lake water had reached standards fit for human use.

China’s government has focused on taming the pollution associated with massive economic growth, and is working to address foul waterways in cities and upgrade the quality of its natural water reserves.

Overall, the report is positive, but in some places, water conditions are worsening. Most of China’s major waterways improved in 2018, including the Yellow, Huai, Yangtze and Pearl rivers. But those in China’s northeast have gotten worse over the past year, including the Liao and the Songhua, which flow into the Bohai Sea.

The Bohai Sea is said to be “almost out of” large fish due to pollution and overfishing, according China’s Caixin Media which added that small fish populations there are also down significantly. “Some heavily polluted areas of the Bohai Sea now show no trace of marine life at all,” it said. This is based on an assessment made by a sub-committee of the National People’s Congress, which points to an exploitation of resources, despite state initiatives to protect the ecosystem.

China has pledged to “significantly reduce” industrial wastewater entering the Bohai Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most contaminated shipping routes. The Sea borders provinces known for heavy industry, and it suffers from sewage, heavy metals, plastic waste and fertilizer run-off. It also hosts ports for coal, iron ore and crude oil. In 2011, large areas of the Bohai were affected by spills from an oilfield run by a U.S./China partnership.

Reuters News recently reported that China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment pledged to make roughly three quarters of Bohai coastal waters fit for human contact by 2020. It said it would establish and enforce restrictions to development, and would use inspection teams to assure that regulations were in force to limit oil spills and other environmental risks.

Officials say the major pollutants in China’s water are phosphorus and ammonium nitrate, commonly found in industrial wastewater, pesticides and organic fertilizers.

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The latest coverage from Circle of Blue includes the California Water Board’s proposed Bill Assistance Program, as the state looks for ways to help with the increasing cost of drinking water.

To subsidize drinking water bills for poor households, California regulators recommend new taxes on bottled water and on incomes above $1 million a year. That’s according to a draft proposal released by the State Water Resources Control Board.

If the $606 million proposal, or an alternate version, is accepted by the Legislature, California would be the first state in the country to run a water bill assistance program. The affordability of water and sewer service is a hot topic nationally and utility aid programs are either underfunded, non-existent, or handcuffed by state laws, so other states will be watching this new approach to see how it works.

Across the country, the cost of drinking water is rising faster than inflation as utilities replace worn-out distribution pipes, invest in new sources of supply, and respond to stricter state and federal water treatment requirements. Utility analysts say that trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

California’s proposal aims to bridge the gap between utility resources and customer needs. It was prompted by legislation passed in 2015, but also informed by the state’s landmark human-right-to-water law of 2012. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey of utilities nationwide found that more than seven out of 10 did not have a bill assistance program for poor customers. California, meanwhile, has the nation’s highest poverty rate, when factoring in housing, food, and other costs of living.

California lawmakers have to answer four main questions when designing the aid program: Who is eligible? How large will the benefits be? How will benefits be distributed? And how will the program be funded?

The Water Board’s proposal suggests the following answers: Eligibility would be restricted to households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Most eligible households would receive a 20 percent discount on their bill. That discount would be based on the cost of 9,000 gallons of water per month in each utility service area. Regulators are still considering the most effective way to distribute benefits, either as a credit on a water or electric bill or via an existing state aid program.

Public comments are being accepted on the proposal through February 1. The water board plans to submit a final recommendation to the Legislature sometime this year.

For the full story by Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton, visit circleofblue.org.

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 hash tag whatsupwithwater.

Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.