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.
In India, last Friday, residents of Chennai welcomed the first train bringing water to the parched city. Chennai is one of India’s largest metropolitan zones, and has not had significant rainfall for about six months. People have been relying on water from tankers run by the government or hired from private services. Officials are promising a regular water train for as long as it’s needed, bringing 10 million liters of water a day from a dam in Jolarpettai, some 360 kilometers away. The four main reservoirs supplying Chennai are effectively dry, and although recent rains have given some relief, the monsoon that generally refills the reservoirs does not come until November. India has suffered widespread droughts, due to disrupted weather systems and vanishing groundwater that in turn are caused by climate change and poor water management policy. CNN reports that despite the government’s assurances that it is working to supply water to every district, skepticism is common in Chennai, where residents re-use water in their households as many times as they can.
Across the country in India’s northeast, the situation is vastly different: heavy rains causing floods and mudslides have killed over a dozen people and displaced more than a million residents. The Brahmaputra River has burst its banks in some areas, and water levels are expected to rise with more rain forecast for the next few days.
Extreme rainfall in China forced nearly 80,000 people to evacuate in southern and eastern parts of the country. It is the heaviest rainfall in decades and it has caused an estimated 2.69 billion yuan (392 million dollars US) in damages thus far, with more precipitation expected.
Across Indonesia, dry conditions are affecting more than 100,000 hectares of rice fields. Over a hundred regencies and cities are struggling with drought after more than a month without rainfall. Officials s ay that some 9,000 hectares have produced no crop at all. East Java has been the hardest hit. A member of Indonesia’s agricultural ministry said that the drought might be an opportunity to expand farming fields into marshy areas.
In Ethiopia, as drought intensifies food insecurity, the government of Addis Ababa is providing schools with meals for thousands of children in the capital city. In recent years, the government has given free food to rural areas in dry conditions, but skyrocketing food prices prompted officials to begin a meal program in the city as well. Reuters news service described what it called “the indirect effect of climate extremes on education” when climate-induced drought leaves students too hungry to attend school or unable to leave families who need their help to find food. Ethiopia’s rural meal program helped to stabilize school attendance in the countryside, and officials are hoping to have similar success in the city.
In Eastern Ukraine, a recent series of disruptions to water and sewer services have prompted UNICEF to call for a stop to attacks on civilian infrastructure. Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed separatists have sparred since 2014, and the conflict has damaged water and sanitation facilities scores of times. In some areas, residents have gone without water for months or even years. In the last week of June, there were five incidents, most notably near Horlivka, where exploding shells damaged water pipelines supplying more than 3 million people. The incident affected both sides of the contact line, which separates government and non-government-controlled areas. UNICEF urged an immediate end to what it called “the indiscriminate shelling of vital civilian infrastructure” and it called for the protection of water workers who, it said “risk their lives to make sure children and families have access to clean water, a fundamental human right for all.” Despite recent talks between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, there is still no foreseeable end to the conflict.
Of England’s nine private water and sewage companies, only one is performing at acceptable levels, according to a report by the country’s Environmental Agency. Only Northumbrian Water was judged as meeting standards. Four of the companies, Severn Trent, Southern Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water – had more serious pollution incidents last year than the year before. Southern Water is being investigated by the Agency for lapses at a sewage treatment plant that fouled rivers and shorelines in southern England. The Environmental Agency intends to respond with more stringent inspections and audits of the water firms.
In the United States, Tropical Storm Barry, the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2019 season, was downgraded to a tropical depression over the weekend, slowing to a crawl across Louisiana, and dumping plenty of rain along the way. New Orleans was spared the worst as the storm surge there did not overwhelm its levees. The storm system is expected to move slowly north over the coming days, bringing heavy rain along the Mississippi River. The National Hurricane Center warns that Barry is expected to bring isolated rain accumulations of up to 10 inches across eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, southeast Missouri, and northwest Mississippi. And the storm still threatens millions with floods that could be deadly.
In a related story, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality said last Saturday that it was too soon for them to speculate on what effect Hurricane Barry would have on the state’s coastal algae bloom. It said they will be monitoring the coast as soon as possible after the storm, and that it is their understanding that any algae that washes ashore will likely dry out and die. Mississippi closed all its Gulf Coast beaches to swimming due to the widespread toxic algae bloom. The algae can cause rashes, diarrhea, and vomiting. The bloom has also killed off the state’s oyster beds, which officials say could take years to recover. Over the fourth of July holiday, local tourism suffered economic losses that were compared to those of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The algae bloom was fed by a flow of freshwater from the Midwest rains which collected nutrients and carried them downstream into the Gulf of Mexico. There the well-nourished algae grew into a foam, scum, or thick mat. Warmer waters may also increase algae growth, and the Centers for Disease Control warns that “Climate change also might increase the frequency and number of blooms or cause them to be more severe in both fresh water and marine water.”
The Trump administration threatened to veto a bill addressing PFAS contamination in the U.S. The president’s advisors oppose the yearly defense authorization bill, in part because of its attempts to address PFAS contamination in and around military bases where PFAS firefighting foam was used. They argue that some of the bill’s PFAS-related provisions are too far-reaching. They do not support a provision to supply non-contaminated water for agricultural use in areas where PFAS is above the EPA advisory limit, saying the limit was not designed with agriculture in mind and that it would be too costly. The Detroit Free Press noted that PFAS has been linked to concerns at dairy farms.
The president’s administration also objected to the bill’s provision for phasing out military firefighting foams using PFAS by 2029, saying it had concerns about meeting the deadline. Last year the Pentagon identified 401 military sites around the country where PFAS is suspected to have been released. Of those, about 160 show contamination above the EPA health advisory limits. The defense authorization bill is being considered by the House of Representatives, and, if passed, would still have to be reconciled with the Senate before being sent to the president for signing.
California’s legislature agreed to allocate $130 million a year over the next decade to improve inadequate water systems. The proposal is part of the state’s $213 billion budget, and intended as a compromise with Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom wanted to finance the massive drinking water fund with a 95-cent tax on most water bills, but legislators feared the political heat of adding a new tax this year. Instead, they propose to pay for drinking water improvements u sing money from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Some environmentalists say the move forces a choice between clean water and clean air. Lawmakers had varying opinions of the interconnections between climate change and water, but agreed to take most of the money from the agricultural industry’s share of the greenhouse gas fund. The reason: farming’s huge impact on watersheds through chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. The president of the Agricultural Council of California told KTLA news that the compromise was “a creative solution for the drinking water crisis.”
Higher sea levels are already causing more floods at normal tides, and the situation is probably going to get worse. That’s according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s high tide flooding report looks at how often coastal communities see high waters that occur on normal days – days without major rainfall or hurricanes. Researchers said that this type of “sunny day” flooding is already more common because sea levels are rising. Residents of the East and Gulf coasts are most likely to be affected, as floods take their toll on infrastructure, roads and septic systems. High-tide flooding hit coastal areas an average of five days last year – in a decade, that could triple. NOAA warned coastal communities to prepare for a “floodier future,” and said the threat is “tightly coupled” to climate change, with sea levels rising at about an inch every eight years.
In Alaska, more than 80% of the state’s residents live in areas that are abnormally dry or in drought. That’s according to the latest report by the National Integrated Drought Information System. Early July’s record-setting heatwave across Alaska followed a June that was much warmer than average, and plagued by wildfires. This past spring, and the winter before it, reflected an overall shift that is decidedly warmer. Experts say it’s part of a pattern across the Arctic, caused by climate change. The Washington Post reported that sea ice around Alaska is at record lows, which has raised ocean temperatures, which has affected weather patterns. The forecast for Alaska calls for warmer-than-normal temperatures for the rest of July and into August.
In Washington, D.C., a downpour on July 8 was the heaviest ever to hit the U.S. capital. The deluge, which amounted to an estimated 3 billion gallons of water, caused flash flooding and high water levels across the city. The Washington Post said the situation was due to a classic combination of intense air mass humidity, a stalled weather front, unstable air and a disruption along the front. The Post note that “Storm environments with these exceptionally high amounts of atmospheric water content are expected to increase from climate change-induced rising temperatures.” And, it added it’s plausible that the record rainstorm “was intensified by the climate warming that has already occurred.”
The mayor of Chicago, Illinois, halted a water meter installation program after high concentrations of lead were found in the tap water of metered homes. Chicago’s water commissioner said that “Out of an abundance of caution, Mayor Lightfoot decided to take immediate action upon reviewing the latest information.” Testing revealed elevated lead levels in 22 percent of homes where a new meter had been installed. Chicago is also facing a revived lawsuit calling for the city to replace lead service lines.
In Michigan, the city of Detroit is responding to continued flooding with emergency measures. This spring, volunteers in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood piled 50 thousand sandbags after high river levels flooded communities. Now, with water levels in Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River continuing to rise, the city is leading the effort, with 100 thousand new sandbags. Detroit’s far-east side, near the waterfront, could face flooding for several more weeks, as water levels are still high.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that three U.S. Great Lakes set record levels last month. Lake Superior, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are three to four inches higher than they have ever been in June. Lakes Michigan and Huron were less than an inch below their June record. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the water continues to rise, flooding lakefront areas, swallowing beaches, and creating hazards with large waves, strong currents and submerged debris. The unusually high water also affects wildlife habitat, such as the nesting areas for the endangered piping plover. A wetter than average spring caused the high lake levels, and the weather in the next few weeks will determine how fast the water recedes. Each of the Great Lakes has a seasonal decline after a peak in July.
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.
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.