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.
There are increasing quantities of antibiotics and other medicines in rivers and lakes worldwide. That’s according to a study led by Radboud University in the Netherlands. Researchers estimated pharmaceutical concentrations with the aid of computer models. One factor hampering a global analysis is the uncertainty of pharmaceutical consumption data by country. When compared with measured concentrations of two medicines, the model fairly predicted concentrations of an anti-epileptic drug but underestimated concentrations of an antibiotic.
In Brazil, a major mining industry group has issued a response to a tragedy at a waste dam. After the January collapse of a tailings dam that killed hundreds of people and polluted rivers, the International Council on Mining and Metals says it will develop global standards for the design and inspection of waste impoundments as well as requirements for emergency planning. The mining group said that its members, which include the largest mining companies, would be held to the standard and that others could sign on.
Northern India has the world’s largest groundwater deficit, according to research from an Indian Earth science group. Researchers know that much more groundwater is pumped from beneath India’s northern states than filters back into the aquifers. But they do not know how much accessible groundwater is still remaining.
In Zimbabwe, farm groups are predicting that drought could shrink the maize harvest this year by 40%. The UN has requested $234 million in emergency aid.
In South Africa, more than half the wastewater treatment plants are in poor or critical condition. The Department of Water and Sanitation recently warned that the country will face severe water shortages within the next decade unless there are repairs to water infrastructure, restoration of river corridors, and investments in water reuse.
Members of the Carry the Kettle First Nation, in Canada’s Saskatchewan province, will not have running water until this week at the earliest. A fire on February 25 destroyed the community’s water treatment plant. Residents are relying on bottled water and using portable showers and toilets. A temporary treatment plant is planned, but the quality of the water it will produce is uncertain. Building a new treatment plant could take up to two years.
In a related story, the leader of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations called for investment in water infrastructure and new national laws to secure safe water for indigenous communities. At a national symposium on indigenous water issues he said that the “situations many First Nations are facing would not be tolerated anywhere else in this country,” and added that indigenous communities have the solutions.
After a series of storms, California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack is significantly above average. This is good news for water reserves, but it has also caused severe flooding and evacuations north of the Bay Area.
Elsewhere in California, a water wholesaler for its southern cities hopes to break gridlock on negotiations for water conservation in the Colorado River basin. The Metropolitan Water District proposes to leave additional water in the dwindling Lake Mead reservoir. It’s a move that would potentially clear a final obstacle to a basin-wide deal. The Imperial Irrigation District was holding out in hopes of leveraging aid for the Salton Sea, which is also shrinking. Metropolitan’s proposal would cover both its obligations under the drought plan and Imperial’s. The irrigation district’s board, however, threw cold water on the idea, unanimously opposing it and calling it “unworkable.”
In South Carolina, Google has asked regulators to triple its groundwater allowance. Google would like to pump 1.5 million gallons per day to cool an expanded data center in Berkeley County. Google proposed this plan last year, but withdrew it after public outcry. It has resubmitted the application to the state.
In Michigan, officials released the results of statewide drinking water testing for PFAS chemicals. Sixty-four water systems in Michigan had PFAS levels above 10 parts per trillion. Only two systems tested above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health guideline of 70 parts per trillion. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested over a thousand community water systems, in addition to 629 schools and childcare providers having their own wells.
A New Mexico dairy faces financial ruin following PFAS contamination of its herd. Art Schaap, a dairy farmer in Clovis, says PFAS chemicals that flowed underground from nearby Cannon Air Force Base contaminated his wells and then his herd. He is dumping 15,000 gallons of milk a day and plans to cull his herd of 4,000 cows. “This has poisoned everything I’ve worked for and everything I care about.” He said, “I can’t sell the milk. I can’t sell beef. I can’t sell the cows. I can’t sell crops or my property. The Air Force knew they had contamination. What I really wonder is, why didn’t they say something?”
In New York, the state water quality council recommended that regulators set a drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane. New York would be the first state in the nation to regulate the chemical that is used as a solvent for removing paint and grease. It has been found in groundwater on Long Island near an aerospace manufacturing facility operated decades ago by the Navy and its contractor Northrup Grumman. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems it a likely carcinogen.
In Ohio, Toledo residents approved a “rights of nature” ballot measure by a large margin. The measure grants “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve,” and “a right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo.”
Toledoans for Safe Water, the group that led the campaign for the lake’s rights, said they were frustrated by the toxic algal blooms that foul the lake each year. Although the legality of the measure is sure to be challenged in court, it adds to the growing recognition of the legal rights of nature.
And that’s the world water roundup.
We focus this week on Mexico, where the government has approved exploratory fracking wells in pursuit of energy independence. Water will be a major factor in the decisions ahead: will there be enough for drilling, and how will fracking affect the water for everyone else?
Mexico is eager to reduce its reliance on imported natural gas, which is a vital resource for its industrial sector. Dependence on the United States for natural gas is seen as politically risky.
For months, Mexico’s new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pledged to increase domestic production of natural gas, but without using hydraulic fracturing, which is common north of the border. Last fall, he stated that there would be no fracking in Mexico during his six-year term.
But, as Bloomberg News reported, the energy industry has assumed that a boost in domestic production will include non-traditional drilling practices such as fracking. Last month, Mexico’s national oil company got approval to use hydraulic fracturing for up to eight exploratory natural gas wells in northwest Veracruz, a state that borders the Gulf of Mexico.
While some debate the semantics of President Obrador’s fracking ban, others in the oil industry say they don’t see greater productivity without fracking. Some close to the new administration say the government has no clear position on fracking, and that it is watching to see what happens with the exploratory wells to inform its next steps.
The National Hydrocarbons Commission, which oversees fossil fuel exploration and production, says there are enough natural gas reserves in Mexico to supply the country for 120 years. Over half of those shale deposits are in the drier north, in areas not far from a major producing site across the border in Texas.
The approved exploratory wells would be the first time the technique would be used to get to shale gas in what’s called an “unconventional play.” But Mexico has used fracking before in other ways, and may again do so.
A former senior energy official said that fracking would likely be used to tap new sources of light crude oil. Mexico currently produces heavy crude oils, but last December, the new administration detailed plans for an $8 billion refinery in Tabasco. This production facility on the Gulf Coast would depend on fracking for its raw materials.
Mexico needs investment and infrastructure to support hydraulic fracturing, but a great challenge, and an even greater concern, is access to water.
Hydraulic fracturing is a water-intensive process. Each well would use three to five million gallons of water that is mixed with chemicals and injected under pressure deep into the earth, breaking up subterranean shale formations and releasing the gas. Conagua, Mexico’s water agency, estimates that fracking’s water demand would be a small portion of the water budget allocated to industry – about 5% of the total industrial consumption.
But Mexican law puts industry behind agriculture and ranching when it comes to access to public water. So fracking companies would be vulnerable during periods of water stress, especially in places near the border that are prone to drought.
Researchers at the University of Texas noted in a 2017 study that “the areas with the larger recoverable shale reserves coincide with less water availability in Northern Mexico.” The study recommended new ways of managing and using water so that current users and the environment are not affected.
Energy companies starting up a new project often buy water from those who have existing water claims, such as farmers. Daniel Gomez Ramirez, an environmental attorney told Bloomberg News that even if companies buy their water supply, they have to answer for it.
“You are still going to have to prove to Conagua that the process that you do is safe for the aquifer and the environment,” Gomez said. “The obvious concern about fracking is the risk of contamination in the aquifers; it is difficult to know what is going to happen with the liquids.”
The Hydrocarbons Commission says companies will observe stringent international standards, including a requirement that the wells keep at least 600 meters from any aquifers.
Environmentalists are skeptical. Claudia Campero is from Mexico Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit opposed to fracking. She told Bloomberg News, “The question is not ‘if’ but when and where will this activity affect water sources and the people that depend on them..Six percent of new wells leak,” She said “ but this percentage increases in time to 40 to 60 percent of wells. This is an unacceptable risk for underground and surface water.”
Both Environmental groups and mining companies are worried about what they see as a disconnect between the regulatory bodies that are responsible for Mexico’s water. Both Conagua and the Environmental Agency for the Hydrocarbons Sector have jurisdiction over various aspects of drilling activities, but a lack of coordination between the two has frustrated both permissions for fracking, and protections from it.
This week’s other featured story comes from the United States. Officials in Los Angeles recently announced an ambitious goal for water resilience: to recycle all of the city’s wastewater by the year 2035.
Los Angeles, a city of 4 million people, has been known for importing water from northern California, the Owens Valley, and the Colorado River to satisfy its needs. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration says the city can source more than one-third of its water locally if it stops releasing treated effluent into the sea and instead redirects it into nearby groundwater basins for later withdrawal. Currently only two percent of the city’s wastewater is recycled.
The water recycling plan would require a large investment, perhaps $8 billion over 16 years. That investment includes massive equipment upgrades, new groundwater wells, and a 15-mile stretch of pipeline.
Much of the focus is on the Hyperion water reclamation plant. It’s LA’s major water treatment facility, and one of the largest in the United States.
Hyperion treats about 80 percent of the city’s water and recycles about a quarter of what it treats. LA’s three other treatment plants already recycle 100 percent of their wastewater.
City officials are hopeful that the public will support the recycling goals. Some 18 years ago, residents quashed a project that would have used treated sewage to replenish the San Fernando Valley aquifer. But there have been many years of drought since then, and the publicity of a similar program in Orange County has broken ground.
For the last decade, Orange County has sent purified wastewater into a regional aquifer that supplies drinking water. It’s not alone: some districts in southeastern L.A. County have been doing this for nearly 60 years.
The main impediment is the money. But Richard Harasick, senior assistant general manager at the L.A. Department of Water and Power, was confident that bonds, grants and low-interest government loans could finance the program. He also predicted that, by 2035, recycled water supplies would cost about the same as imported water. Right now they are markedly more expensive than imported water.
The standard recycling practice is to direct treated wastewater into aquifers or reservoirs, where it mixes with other sources that then go on to supply municipal systems. Current California policy prohibits recycled water from going directly into city water systems. But the state is considering new rules that would allow water agencies to skip the diversions.
Harasick said if that is the case, some of the reconditioned wastewater would go to replenish groundwater supplies, and some would be directed right into the city’s water distribution system. Los Angeles is also considering ways to recharge aquifers using the massive amounts of urban runoff that now pour into the ocean during storms.
Environmental engineering expert Josué Medellín-Azuara told the LA Times that southern California cities are leading the way in diversifying their water sources. Los Angeles’ goal is ambitious, he said, “But I think it is achievable.”
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.