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 Europe, record-breaking temperatures are broiling the continent for the second time this summer, with the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands hitting all-time highs last Thursday. The heatwave, along with dry conditions, is prompting water restrictions in several countries. The history-making heat is also curtailing transportation and stressing infrastructure in places never designed to operate at such temperatures. In Paris, where the high last Thursday neared 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the French meteorological service compared the weather to Baghdad in July. Water use is now restricted in 73 of the country’s administrative departments, up from 61 the previous week. The UK’s weather service advised that though extreme weather does occur naturally, the changing climate is likely to make such heat events more common, perhaps as often as every other year. Dr. Peter Stott from the Met Office told the BBC “What we have at the moment is this very warm stream of air, coming up from northern Africa, bringing with it unusually warm weather. But without climate change we wouldn’t have hit the peaks that we’re hitting right now.”
The Rhine River is a key conduit for commerce in Europe, and it is once again facing a traffic shutdown due to low water levels. Last year, boat traffic on the Rhine stopped for the first time in living history as low glacier melt and drought made the shipping lanes too shallow. Bloomberg News reports that such conditions could be repeated in the coming weeks. There are already restrictions on the largest barges, and water levels are dropping markedly. The Rhine, which flows through industrial areas of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, is vital for moving everything from coal to car parts. Last year’s low water levels were partly to blame for a contraction in Germany’s economy.
Europe is keeping an anxious eye on the Rhine’s water levels. Companies along the river are making contingency plans, but barge transport is much less expensive than rail or road, and some fear that there is no workable alternative. The head of one of Germany’s major steel companies told Bloomberg News “the Rhine is a question of survival.”
A related financial struggle is playing out in France, which requested a billion Euros in subsidies from the European Commission to aid the country’s farmers, who are dealing with a second consecutive year of drought. Unusually hot temperatures, followed by dry weather, are withering France’s crops and pastures. Farmers are struggling to water and feed their livestock and using up the forage they had put aside for winter.
In Australia, the Natural Resources Commission of New South Wales, declared that the Barwon-Darling river system is “an ecosystem in crisis” in a recent review of the waterway. Management of the Barwon-Darling, which is part of the larger Murray-Darling river system, has been mired in controversy, including problems with water theft and mass fish kills. The commission says urgent reforms and government measures are needed to save the waterway, which it described as on path to collapse. The commission pointed to failings in current water management such as a lack of ecological targets, and pumping rules that are based on incomplete environmental data. It also criticized the pumping rules themselves, which allowed for increased water extraction when river levels were low, often to the extent that the water was used up before it could flow to lower reaches of the river. “These provisions” the commission said, “benefit the economic interests of a few upstream users over the ecological and social needs of the many.”
The Natural Resources Commission report also took the Australian government to task for its failure to allocate river water to Indigenous communities. These communities had alerted the commission for years about low water levels and the harm to water quality, aquatic life, and social and cultural cohesion. The commission encouraged the New South Wales government to look beyond the narrow view of extraction for irrigation when considering the economics of water management. It said that tourism, pastoral livelihoods, and recreation are all degraded by water shortages and pollution. It also pointed to residents and ratepayers who must bear the added costs of trying to improve bad water or having to pay for alternate sources.
In the United States, Dr. Mark T. Esper, who was sworn in last week as the new Secretary of Defense, pledged to address PFAS chemicals released by all national defense units, including the National Guard and Reserves. Esper announced a PFAS task force to investigate the presence of toxic chemicals at hundreds of military bases across the country. PFAS represent a collection of thousands of chemicals, several of which are linked to illness and disease. The chemicals are used in industry and consumer products, but also associated with firefighting foam used on military installations. At least 400 military sites are known to be contaminated with the toxic chemicals, which in many cases are leaching into ground and surface water and threatening drinking water.
On his first day in office, Esper wrote that his department “must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DoD-wide approach to the issue.” His PFAS task force is to focus on health aspects, standards for exposure, clean-up and performance, finding alternatives to PFAS use, and interagency co-ordination. Esper said the PFAS Task Force will report on its initial setup within a month, and will deliver an update within six months.
The state of California will allocate $1.3 billion over the next decade to assist communities that are struggling to operate their water systems. Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on the bill last week, calling the state’s ongoing water issues a “moral disgrace.” The funds could also be used to consolidate smaller water systems. Many of the residents with failing systems and polluted water live in California’s Central Valley, an area prominent for agriculture, which is a major source of water contamination. The governor’s office connected declining water availability and quality to climate change, the effect of which is especially harsh for disadvantaged communities. Governor Newsom originally proposed financing the massive drinking water fund with a tax on most water bills, but legislators favored a different source: diversions from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. That move prompted both praise and condemnation. For more perspective on the plan, listen to Circle of Blue’s “Speaking of Water” with Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the California’s Pacific Institute, at circleofblue.org.
Our Circle of Blue story this week looks at water that’s hard to see, and increasingly hard to get as well drillers race to the bottom.
To locate sufficient supplies of fresh water, America’s groundwater wells are being drilled deeper and deeper. That’s according to an analysis of millions of well records kept since the 1950s.
Debra Perrone is a co-author of the study, and assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California. She told Circle of Blue “No matter how you slice it, we’re drilling deeper across the United States.”
The assessment of nearly 12 million well logs from 46 states “stitches together a comprehensive map,” Perrone said. The study was published online last week in the journal Nature Sustainability. It’s the latest in a series of recent research papers to reveal worrisome trends for U.S. groundwater.
Perrone and co-author Scott Jasechko caution that simply drilling deeper is not a winning strategy for the long term. Deeper groundwater tends to become saltier. Pumping from such depths requires more energy. Deeper wells can cause nearby shallower wells to fail, which is a major cost risk for homeowners who may be unable to afford drilling a new well. And deeper waters might need to be called on as a “strategic reserve” for times of extreme drought when streams dry up and reservoirs shrink. The study authors say unchecked well deepening is “an unsustainable stopgap” to the problem of groundwater depletion.
The researchers started their project by mapping three data points: well depth, location, and the purpose of the well, whether for irrigation, industry, or domestic use. The data, gathered from state and local agencies, included new wells and the deepening of existing wells.
They found a persistent trend toward deeper wells. Depending on how the data were analyzed, for every area in which wells showed a shallower trend there were 1.4 to 9.2 other areas that showed a deepening trend.
The study did not examine the causes of deeper wells. But Perrone and Jasechko did suggest several factors. Groundwater near the surface may be polluted by farm runoff or road salts. In other cases, regulations may require that certain aquifer formations be tapped, some of which may be deeper than layers previously used. Most obviously — and most distressingly — deeper wells may be a signal of depletion, that shallower groundwater is being used up and an arms race of sorts is occurring underground.
The consequences of falling groundwater levels are not isolated within wells. A study published last month from researchers at the University of Arizona and Colorado School of Mines used computer modeling to simulate the effect of 20th-century groundwater withdrawals on streams and wetlands. Groundwater depletion increased aridity because plants lost access to water in the soil. Groundwater supplies watersheds, which then supply streams. When the smaller waterways dry up, the larger streams continue the trajectory of loss. Another study, published last week by scientists at Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, looked at “megadroughts” that occurred in the American Southwest several centuries ago. It found that a series of decades-long droughts in the past was caused by factors that will be magnified by global warming. If those conditions return today, they would drastically reduce the amount of water available to recharge aquifers that are already under stress.
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.