In the United States, Michigan’s new governor is questioning a controversial fossil fuel infrastructure deal signed by her predecessor. The lame-duck deal commits the state to replace aging oil and gas pipelines beneath the Great Lakes with new ones in a tunnel, rather than simply closing the old lines and not replacing them.
Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed her attorney general to review the arrangement, concerned that it was initiated and approved without the process required for legislation with such enormous impact on the people and the economy of Michigan.
Whitmer, a Democrat, campaigned on a pledge to close the pipeline system known as Line 5. Line 5’s twin pipelines run from Wisconsin to Ontario and cross northern Michigan. They move about 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids each day beneath the Straits of Mackinac, the point where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan converge. Critics have long considered the 65-year-old pipelines an environmental disaster waiting to happen in a vital shipping channel and one of the world’s largest bodies of freshwater.
Michigan’s outgoing governor, Republican Rick Snyder, supported a plan to replace the aging pipes with new ones housed in a tunnel drilled into the lakebed. The tunnel wouldn’t be ready until about 2024, and in the meantime the existing pipes would remain in use. The pipes would be 90 years old by the time they were replaced. Environmentalists warn that for some 25 years, they would continue to pose a threat of leaking millions of gallons of crude oil into the Great Lakes. While the owner of the pipelines, Enbridge, vouches for their safety, its reputation has suffered in recent years from disclosures of wear and damage to Line 5.
Gov. Whitmer questioned the tunnel deal before taking office last week, and she requested a legal opinion from her attorney general on the matter. “Such opinions,” noted the Associated Press, “while not the same as legal rulings, are considered to bind state agencies unless reversed by a court.”
Line 5 is not the only water conflict between the new governor and the old one. During the last days of his administration, Gov. Snyder acted on hundreds of other measures, a number with significant consequences for water and health in Michigan. These include changes to regulatory standards, wetland development, and toxic cleanup.
Gov. Snyder signed a bill making it harder for state agencies to impose regulations that are stricter than comparable federal ones. The bill prohibits new rules that exceed federal standards unless there is a “clear and convincing” need because of “exceptional circumstances.” Supporters say this creates a uniformity of regulation that aids businesses. Critics say it has a chilling effect on innovation and encourages lawsuits against agencies. Some call the law an attempt to curb the new governor’s power to address problems such as water pollution. This is particularly significant for PFAS contamination, being found in many areas of Michigan. There are currently no federal EPA standards regulating these chemicals, which raises questions about how the new bill will apply to limits the state may put on them.
Outgoing Governor Snyder also signed a bill revising the standards used for cleaning up toxic sites in Michigan. It requires the Department of Environmental Quality to use an EPA database for evaluating toxicity, or else go through a long process with public notices and meetings of interested parties. Industry groups hailed the bill as providing clarity for cleanups. But 82 DEQ staffers issued a rare public statement of opposition, saying the measure would help polluters at the expense of the people of Michigan. In their letter they said the revised standards for evaluating toxic sites will give citizens “a false sense of security at best and at worst, their health and environment will be impaired and the cost of the cleanups in the future will become their burden as well as the burden of their children and great grandchildren.”
Snyder also approved a bill removing protection from some wetlands. The original bill would have allowed development on as many as 550 thousand acres of wetlands in Michigan and over a third of its lakes. But the bill changed considerably before it was signed, and fewer wetlands could now lose protection.
Environmentalists had some good news. Bridge Magazine reported that the incoming administration should be able to avoid a funding crisis for toxic cleanups. The former governor approved 69 million dollars for pollution remediation and recycling. The “Renew Michigan” program replenishes money from a 20-year old bond that has now been spent. The new law allocates 45 million dollars each year for toxic remediation, and 24 million annually for recycling and landfill oversight.
Former Governor Snyder also approved a 1.3 billion dollar supplemental budget that earmarks about 20 million dollars to address PFAS contamination. That includes infrastructure for drinking water, mapping affected sites and public health studies.
In other Michigan water news, appellate court judges ruled last week that a federal water crisis lawsuit could continue against the city of Flint as well as a number of current and former state officials.
Flint faces a suit by residents who charge that the city exposed them to lead-contaminated water and hid that this was happening. The city appealed for an exemption from the suit under the 11th Amendment, which grants a state immunity from litigation in federal court by individuals. It argued that it qualified for this because state-appointed emergency managers were in control when the city’s water supply was switched. The lead contamination was linked to the change in the city’s water source.
The court ruled that Flint had no such immunity and was acting as its own body during the water crisis. It dismissed claims against some state employees for other reasons, but allowed the suit to proceed against a number of city and state officials, including the former Flint Department of Public Works Director, former emergency managers and former DEQ officials.
In Ethiopia, officials announced last week that a mammoth dam on the River Nile will begin to operate in December of 2020. The 4 billion dollar Grand Renaissance Dam is a central part of Ethiopia’s plan to become the largest energy exporter in Africa. But the project has suffered construction setbacks and stiff opposition from Egypt. Egypt fears the dam will constrict the Nile’s flow, limiting the supply that will reach its farms and reservoirs.
Progress on the dam was uncertain since last summer, when Prime Minister [ah-Bee ACHHGH-med] Abiy Ahmed terminated a state-run corporation’s contract to build the turbines. He accused the Ethiopian military conglomerate of failing to get a single turbine working after seven years. Reuters news service reported that dozens of senior officials from the conglomerate, including its head, were arrested during a corruption crackdown launched by the reformist Prime Minister.
State media said last week that the government has signed a contract with GE Hydro France to expedite the completion of the dam. Ethiopia’s water and energy minister announced that the project is on schedule to open in two years. The plan is for the dam to begin operating with two turbines at 750 megawatts, with the full 6,000 megawatts in production by 2022. That would make it the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the seventh largest in the world, changing the energy equation for an entire region.
In the Sierra mountains, the California Department of Water Resources took its first official snow survey for 2019.
Snow researchers gathered data with measuring poles and electronic sensors in the first stages of estimating water supplies for the coming year.
The snowpack measurements are updated daily for the first half of the year. They are an important indicator of how much runoff will flow into California’s reservoirs, which serve water districts across the state. Snow from the Sierra and the lower Cascades accounts for up to a third of California’s irrigation and drinking water.
The first measurements show that the water content in the state’s mountains at 67 per cent of the long-term average for this time of year. It’s described as “Just adequate, at best.”
California’s climatologist told the LA Times that the numbers are below average, but within reason given that the state is growing warmer. Last winter was the third driest on record.
Snow in lower elevations has dropped over the last decade and climate modeling shows that the trend will continue. The National Climate Assessment, released last November, predicts warmer average temperatures, less snow and more extreme weather in the next few decades unless carbon emissions are reduced.
California’s water regulators, concerned about supply, have cut the 2019 water allocations to dozens of communities, including San Francisco. The Bay Delta Plan could require households to cut consumption by 20 per cent or more. It aims to revitalize stressed waterways and fish, starting with the San Joaquin River basin.
Experts note that it is early days yet for a definitive picture of snowmelt water supplies. The Department of Water Services samples snow depth and water content at 260 mountain locations and electronically surveys over 100 other sites. This happens during the start of each month from January to May. After that, the official estimate is calculated.
So a slow start to the snow, like this year, still leaves much up in the air, even if the trends are clear. A pacific storm moving across Northern California has been dumping snow over the weekend.
“The season is still early,” snow surveyor John King told the LA Times, “anything is possible from now until May.”
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 #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.