What’s Up With Water – Microplastic Pollution in Rain

  • Somalia faces deepening drought.
  • Villagers in Pakistan’s Thar Desert are being forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods as a fourth year of drought grips the region.
  • Dangerous levels of antibiotics are inundating hundreds of rivers worldwide.
  • Officials in Zacatecas, Mexico, offered to mediate a water-related dispute between a mining firm and villagers.
  • Along several parts of the Mississippi River, water levels have been at flood stage for nearly 4 months.


Full Transcripts:

In the Philippines, tens of thousands of people still have not returned to their homes in a southern lakeside city, two years after attacks by Islamic State. During and after the five-month siege, aid groups worked to provide food, water, medicine, and shelter to the people of Marawi. Humanitarian efforts have continued, but residents are growing restless and say that some essential needs – including reliable access to clean water –are going unmet. As rebuilding lags, some fear that militants will strike the city a second time.

Islamic State also tormented residents in Syria and Iraq where militants torched fields just as crops began to thrive after a long-awaited wet winter. After decades of drought, good growing conditions had farmers anticipating high yields of wheat, barley, and other crops. In many areas, however, fields are being ravaged by the intentional fires.

Somalia faces deepening drought, as the April-to-June rainy season has been a disappointment for a second consecutive year. A million Somali children could be malnourished by the end of the year if current conditions persist, according to the International Relief Committee. The humanitarian group warns that people have not recovered from pre-famine conditions two years ago, and the water table has not replenished enough to sustain wells for long.

Villagers in Pakistan’s Thar Desert are being forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods as a fourth year of drought grips the region. Residents say the situation is worsening by the day, and dry conditions are killing off their cattle and crops. They are appealing to their government for help, on behalf of their livestock, and their families, who suffer from malnutrition.

Dangerous levels of antibiotics are inundating hundreds of rivers worldwide, according to a new study. Iconic rivers such as the Thames and the Danube are among those with unsafe levels of antibiotics. Scientists warn that even low levels of contamination could be detrimental to human health, as the widespread presence of antibiotics gives way to drug-resistant bacteria. A recent UN report warned that an increase in such bacteria could lead to the deaths of 10 million people by 2050. The Guardian reported that researchers also plan to assess the environmental effects of antibiotic pollution on wildlife such as fish, invertebrates and algae. They already know that the drug concentration in some Kenyan rivers so intense that no fish can live there.

A study from the University of California-Davis suggests that thinning trees and using prescribed fire treatments can improve forest resiliency. The management techniques reduce water stress during drought and improve resistance to insects. The research was based on data comparing managed and unmanaged sites in Sierra Nevada in 2017. While pointing to the benefits of forest intervention, the study also warned that present management efforts will not be enough to compensate for hot droughts, or increased insect outbreaks.

Australia’s sweltering, dry weather is expected to continue for at least three months, according to weather forecasters. The Bureau of Meteorology predicts just a 30 percent chance that the east coast will receive normal rains by the end of August. The risk of low rainfall is coupled with a 70 percent chance for  above-average temperatures over the next three months. Sydney is implementing water restrictions for the first time 10 years. The city’s 11 dams together are at 53.5% capacity, and water levels have been dropping faster than anticipated. The state water minister said dam inflows are some of the lowest since the 1940s, and city officials say they are bracing for continued dry conditions. Their desalination plant, restarted in January when dam levels fell below 60%, has been ramping up ahead of schedule and is expected to reach full capacity by August, producing about 15% of Sydney’s drinking water.

Officials in Zacatecas, Mexico, offered to mediate a water-related dispute between a mining firm and villagers. Zacatecas state is where Mexico’s largest gold and silver mine Penasquito is located. Operations have been blocked by villagers for two months over claims that mining activities caused the area’s water supply to dry up. Residents are demanding $442 million in compensation from mine owner Newmont Goldcorp. A representative for the company says it is willing to consider the mine’s environmental impact but is not willing to give into what it termed “extortion disguised as a social issue.”

In the United States,

High water overwhelmed levees on three major rivers in Arkansas and Oklahoma last Friday, the latest incident in a series of record-setting floods in the Mississippi River watershed. An unusually wet winter and spring has sent unprecedented flows down the Arkansas River, and reservoirs in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are full. The Army Corps of Engineers began water releases from dams in several states. The Corps was scheduled to open an emergency spillway on the Mississippi River this week, flooding rural Louisiana in hopes of preventing worse damage to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Army Corps is under increasing scrutiny, following vast floods in the Midwest this March. Legislators of both parties say the Corps has mismanaged the nation’s waterways by allowing infrastructure to decay, and by focusing less on flood-control and more on protecting commercial and recreational interests along with wildlife habitat. The Army Corps says that some things are simply beyond their control. Others have praised the agency for making tough choices to avoid the truly catastrophic effects of flooding. Scientists suggest that climate change could be making floods more severe and more frequent.

Along several parts of the Mississippi River, water levels have been at flood stage for nearly 4 months, the longest stretch of time since the Great Flood of 1927. Meteorologists say the situation could get worse before it improves. They anticipate more episodes of rain throughout the first week of June, and note that runoff from heavy rain over the middle of the U.S. can take a month or more to flow to the Mississippi Delta.

U.S. property owners in flood-prone areas are getting frustrated by the federal buyout program. Over the last 30 years, federal and local governments have spent billions of dollars buying and demolishing tens of thousands of homes in areas regularly threatened by flooding. The idea is to encourage residents to relocate in less vulnerable areas, rather than rebuild in hazardous places. An analysis by the Associated Press shows the buyouts are getting more expensive, the process is slowing down as record flooding adds more demand, and areas at risk are expanding. The National Institute of Building Sciences calculates that for every dollar of federal funds spent to buy or demolish buildings in flood zones, society saves seven dollars in costs avoided. But individuals who take buyouts and leave their homes can suffer their own financial, social and emotional burdens.

New Hampshire is suing eight companies for damages caused by PFAS contaminants. PFAS substances have been used in coatings for many consumer products including food containers and in military applications such as firefighting foam. Studies have linked PFAS to health effects including cancer, high cholesterol and pregnancy problems. They do not easily break down in the environment, and have contaminated groundwater throughout the U.S. New Hampshire estimates that PFAS contamination could end up affecting 100,000 state residents, with damages reaching several hundred million dollars. In the lawsuit against companies including 3M and DuPont, New Hampshire is not seeking a specific dollar amount, but wants the companies to pay for investigating and remediating PFAS damage to groundwater, surface water and other natural resources.

U.S. lawmakers are set to spar with the Trump administration over PFAS legislation. Congress has introduced 20 bills this session addressing the toxic chemicals that are cropping up in water systems across the country. Bipartisan lawmakers are pushing for tighter restrictions on PFAS, but are facing pushback from certain agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pentagon. The EPA said it will determine by the end of the year whether it wants drinking water standards for PFAS. But critics say this is footdragging, and eight states have already passed their own PFAS limits for drinking water. Many of them are stricter than the recommendations made by the EPA.

Florida’s first-ever Chief Science Officer, Dr. Tom Frazer, says that water quality issues will be his priority. Republican governor Ron DeSantis created the position just after he took office earlier this year, and it’s the first such state-level job in the nation. This reflects a major shift in approach to the environment from Florida’s previous governor, Rick Scott. Frazer, formerly director of the University of Florida’s school of natural resources and environment, says he seeks to inform policy with accurate and immediate data. Besides water quality, global warming and rising sea levels are also top concerns. In the weeks ahead, Frazer will work with a new taskforce on the algae blooms threatening Lake Okeechobee and Florida’s inland waterways.

California extended the closure of the Imperial Beach coast due to more sewage-contaminated runoff from Mexico’s Tijuana River. An estimated 110 million gallons of tainted water have flowed from Mexico to the California coastline since April. Officials say the beach will remain closed until testing verifies the water’s safety. California and two of its cities sued the Trump administration over repeated toxic inflows from Mexico. The suit aims to force the federal government to upgrade management of the wastewater.

Stories on Circle of Blue last week looked at oil and gas wastewater and microplastic pollution in rain.

U.S. oil and gas companies are setting production records, while also pumping up enormous volumes of salty, chemical-laden water that’s part of the extraction process. The question now: What to do with the noxious water? As it weighs giving states, tribes, and fossil fuel companies more leeway in how they handle rising volumes of oilfield wastewater, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have to balance regulatory flexibility with the potential for harm to the environment and human health. That’s one conclusion from a draft study the agency released on May 15. The study describes current industry practices for managing wastewater, assesses the need for additional options, such as discharging water into streams or treating it for use in agriculture, and outlines impediments to reuse. EPA officials interacted with a wide range of stakeholders to gather information for the study. During eight months of conferences, webinars, and phone calls they met with tribal officials, regulatory agencies from at least 10 oil and gas states, industry groups, wastewater treatment operators, environmental organizations, and academics. The study will be finalized later this summer.

In Colorado, researchers have found microscopic plastic particles in rainwater. More of the tiny plastic fibers and pieces were in study samples from urban areas, but they also appeared in those taken some 10 thousand feet up in Rocky Mountain National Park. Researchers have theories on the source of the plastic, from residential clothes dryers to car tires, but for now have more questions than answers. Those questions include: how much microplastic is carried by rain, where, when and how is it concentrated, and what are the health and environmental consequences of widespread plastics that are as small as human hair or grains of salt? Study continues with an evaluation of snow-season deposition of microplastics across the U.S. Rockies, from Montana to New Mexico.

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


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