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.
China’s premier says that water continues to be the greatest threat to the country’s growth, and is calling for more infrastructure and increased water diversions.
During a meeting with senior officials last week, Premier Li Keqiang advised that China’s water supplies are shrinking due to pollution, overuse and the increasing needs of a growing population. The government has worked to stretch supplies through efficiency programs and by cleaning up polluted sources.
Li pointed to chronic droughts and said the drag on growth underscored the need for new infrastructure. He recommended exploring new approaches to financing and he asked for water pricing policies that would encourage conservation.
Li also advocated more water diversion toward China’s dry northern regions. He commended the giant South-North Water Diversion project, which moves water from the Yangtze River north to cities like Beijing, where urbanization has overgrown local resources. The scope and the cost of the South-North Water Diversion project – some $100 billion so far – ranks it as the largest and priciest engineering effort of its kind.
The South China Morning Post reported last week that Beijing will see a nearly 50% increase in water when the latest section of the diversion project begins operation. The Beijing section, one of three routes in the design, is expected to make a trial run next month.
While the diverted water is vital to Beijing’s immediate needs, experts warn that less rainfall and more people pose an increasing threat for the long term. China’s official website reported that Premier Li wanted to open more channels to send water north of the Yangtze river delta. This, he was cited to say, would support both economic and social development and promote the national growth strategy.
The Yangtze is China’s largest waterway, and the national government has been working to improve its health. There is no more major development along its banks, and local officials are being pushed to remove dams and factories. There is even pressure to ban farming and fishing in ecologically vulnerable areas.
However, experts say that efforts to divert water from the Yangtze are continuing to threaten the long-term health of the river.
Ma Jun is the founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit research organization based in Beijing. He told Reuters news service that the Yangtze is supplying many cities that have polluted their local water sources. Beijing depends on the Yangtze for 70% of its water. But he said, but the capital has done little to conserve: water use per person is higher than many countries in the west.
Diversion has caused “so much suffering,” he told Reuters, and it requires so many dams which have further hurt biodiversity. Simply put, the demands of China’s thirsty cities are exceeding the Yangtze’s environmental capacity.
In the United States, a new report finds that race is the strongest predictor of who has access to clean water and sanitation. And it says, Native Americans are most likely to be left out.
The report is titled “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States.”
It was commissioned by George McGraw, the founder of DigDeep, a non-profit involved in building water systems in the Navajo Nation. McGraw knew that water access was a problem in Indigenous communities, but, he told National Public Radio, “No one could tell us, from federal to state agencies to other nonprofits, just how many Americans still don’t have running water or a working toilet where they live.” In concert with the U.S. Water Alliance, McGraw hired experts across the U.S. to gather and analyze the available data. They found that over 2 million Americans live without a water tap or a flush toilet. Native Americans suffer these privations more than any other group.
According to the study, three out of every 1,000 white households in the U.S. lack plumbing. That number is nearly 20 times higher for Native Americans. This access gap translates into other disparities: greater poverty, higher unemployment, and more deaths. The Environmental Protection Agency says that the greatest public health risk to the Navajo Nation is unregulated drinking water sources.
In some places in the Southwest, groundwater has been poisoned by abandoned uranium mines. The study reports that gastric cancer rates doubled in the 1990s in locations where uranium was mined. Officials have told residents that uranium and arsenic levels in some wells are too high for human consumption. Families travel long distances to buy bulk water, but some have to risk the groundwater for their livestock.
Historically, many Native Americans were passed over when the U.S. government invested in expansive modern water and sewer systems.
Mahrinah von Schlegel is an anthropologist from the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico. She told NPR that indigenous communities didn’t have access to the same federal and state funding. And, she noted, in the Southwest, tribal nations are remote and thinly populated. That means it’s more costly to build pipelines to reach people, and there are fewer people to bear those higher costs. “It’s been a struggle,” she said, “to get the access to that infrastructure capital.”
The Indian Health Service estimated that it would cost $200 million to provide basic water and sanitation access on the sprawling Navajo Nation, which is roughly the size of West Virginia.
The Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary, got a better-than-expected report after its annual “dead zone” review. Dead zones are areas of water so poor in oxygen that they don’t support life. Despite unfavorable conditions, scientists reported that the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zones stayed within the normal range in 2019. The high end of normal, but within the range seen over the past 35 years. That, experts consider, is relatively good news, because things could have turned out much worse. The result suggests that efforts to improve water quality in the bay have started to bear fruit.
Summer dead zones are a major challenge for the Chesapeake. They form when fertilizers and wastewater flow into the bay, bringing a feast of nutrients to the algae there. The algae population explodes, and when it dies, the decomposition process pulls oxygen from the water. So much oxygen, there is not enough for much else. Until cooler water temperatures or shifting winds mix the waters, those dead zones persist as barriers – or burial places – for the ecosystem.
This trouble in the Chesapeake Bay, on the mid-Atlantic coast, reflects a global trend. The Chicago Tribune reported that between the 1960s and the 2000s, the number of dead zones on the planet has doubled every decade. This is due to a combination of human activity and a warming atmosphere. There are over 400 ocean dead zones, and freshwater equivalents are found throughout the Great Lakes.
Dr. Marjy Friedrichs is a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a co-author of this year’s Chesapeake Bay “dead zone” report. The institute’s approach is founded on 35 years of water-quality data compiled by the Chesapeake Bay Program. It also includes wind data from NOAA and river data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The researchers use the data to evaluate the oxygen status of the bay’s waters and provide comparisons to previous years.
Springtime flows into Chesapeake Bay were at record highs this year, so scientists anticipated the added nutrient runoff would mean a big year for algae and dead zones. Increasingly warm summer temperatures and weak winds also favored a prediction for severely low oxygen, a condition called hypoxia.
But, overall, the reporting team estimated that the total hypoxia for this year kept within the high end of the normal range, as measured over the last 35 years. The bad news is that the 2019 dead zones are at a five-year high, and they have lasted longer than in recent years.
But the good news is it could have been worse. It suggests that efforts in recent decades to lower nutrient pollution have worked. Friedrichs told Science Daily “If the record-breaking river flows we saw last year had occurred back in the 1980s, we would more likely have seen a record-breaking dead zone in 2019. The fact that the 2019 dead zone was within the normal range is a positive sign for Bay restoration.”
This week, Circle of Blue continues its focus on water rates, as Baltimore officials confront the pressures on their communities.
The Baltimore City Council has taken a bold step to relieve the anxiety of high water rates. The council faced public uproar over rising water and sewer rates and over billing errors. It responded by approving a discount program for its poorest residents that ties their monthly water bills to their annual household income.
The wide-ranging legislation behind the discount program also includes ways to eliminate customer water debt and to settle billing disputes.
Baltimore Mayor Jack Young introduced the bill last December when he was council president. In his official statement he said, “I am looking forward to signing this historic piece of water justice legislation.”
The council’s bill is a direct reply to financial pressures on Baltimore residents. Earlier this year, city officials approved rate increases of 9 percent each year for the next three years. This, to some, added insult to injury: water rates had already more than doubled in the last decade, in order to maintain an expensive and aging municipal water system.
On the sewer side, city has settled a dispute with the federal government and Baltimore has agreed to spend $1.6 billion by 2030 to reduce sewage overflows and leaks.
The City Council bill orders the Department of Public Works and the Department of Finance to establish an income-based discount program called Water-For-All.
Rates tied to income have been used by electric utilities for years. But they are rare for water providers. Philadelphia was the first large U.S. city to offer income-based rates, which were mandated by its City Council two years ago.
In Baltimore, the benchmark will be set at incomes that are twice the federal poverty level. Residents and tenants who earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for the discount. The discount has three tiers of assistance.
The most assistance will be given to households earning less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. The water and sewer bill for those households will be 1 percent of their annual income.
The second tier of assistance is for those who have incomes between 50 and 100 percent of the federal poverty level. They will pay 2 percent. And those earning at the federal poverty level and up to twice that level will have water and sewer rates of 3 percent of their annual income.
The Department of Public Works did not support the legislation. It worried about how much the program would cost to run, and the changes it would demand to the billing system. Water-For-All will replace Baltimore’s current assistance program, which began this summer, and offered a 43 percent discount to eligible households.
The new assistance program also offers a way for households to erase past-due balances. For those who participate, every payment that is made on time eliminates a corresponding amount from what they previously owed to the Department of Public Works.
In addition to the assistance program, the legislation helps resolve billing issues. The Department of Public Works will establish the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals. The new office is to act as a neutral party for investigating and intervening in billing disputes, service shutoffs, and customer complaints. The office’s administrator will be appointed by the mayor.
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
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