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.
India’s monsoon was late to arrive, and is late to depart, disrupting agriculture and bringing danger through flooding and destruction. The rains are the heaviest to hit India in 25 years, and thousands of people have been killed as a result.
India’s monsoon season generally starts in June and ends in September. But this year, it did not arrive on time, leading to drought in central and southern India, where farmers faced the failure of their early planting season. Now, the concern is that the extended monsoon is causing summer crops to rot in the fields, which will lead to food shortages and high prices. The rains, instead of receding in early September, kept on through the month with 10 percent more rain than has been seen in a 50-year average. The rains are not expected to ease off until early this month. While the rains have replenished stressed water supplies and helped the later plantings of winter crops, the heavy precipitation has been debilitating and dangerous.
The extreme downpours have been particularly hard on the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Al Jazeera reported last week that some two million residents of Patna, Bihar’s capital, were contending with waist-deep water. In nearby Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s most populated state, over 800 homes have collapsed in the rains and vast areas of farmland are underwater. Authorities say that nearly 17 hundred people have died this year because of the rains and flooding. Many were killed by collapsing walls and buildings.
Experts say that India’s ability to forecast and prevent flooding hazards is failing. Efforts are hampered by the pressures of urbanization and a shifting climate, even as the risk increases because of deforestation, watershed degradation and extreme weather. Yale Environment 360 reports that intense rainfall events will become more common in large parts of India, with increasing threats to people and resources.
Pumping groundwater not only lowers the water table, but it is altering river flows, posing an added threat to water systems around the world. That’s the conclusion of a study just published in the journal Nature. The authors of the study, from universities in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and the United States, looked at how groundwater withdrawals affect the larger watershed, which includes streams, rivers and other water bodies. Groundwater is a major supplier for agriculture and for drinking water, and it is well known that it is being used at a rate far greater than it can be replenished. From the American West to South Asia, groundwater has been vanishing. The news is that diminishing groundwater is linked to falling levels of surface water as well, adding to the stress on supplies needed for human consumption, and the production of food and energy.
The study delineated a threshold for river stress: diminished stream-flow for at least three separate months, for two years in a row, or the point at which the flow can no longer sustain animal and plant life. It said that this threshold has already been passed in up to 21 percent of watersheds where pumping is common. This water stress is evident in hotter locations that must depend on groundwater because the rivers don’t meet the need. These locations are often prime land for agriculture, the primary consumer of groundwater.
The study has significant implications about how aquifers support rivers, lakes, springs and wetlands. It finds that it only takes a relatively small groundwater withdrawal – reducing the level by a half-meter – to cause a loss of water in streams. This level of aquifer recession is already happening in many places around the globe, and the study’s authors warn that their estimates of groundwater recession and its impact on surface water don’t account for the increasing demands of global population growth and economic development.
They are pressing governments to determine the point at which groundwater removal begins to affect their surface water, in order to ward off further damage to their systems.
Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center told Bloomberg News that it is important to draw attention to this subtle but serious problem. He said that current water management policy is not offering much hope of a rapid response. “Even where groundwater depletion poses an existential or economic threat,” he said, “governments aren’t managing to do much.”
In Ethiopia, a major hydroelectric dam on the Nile has been delayed by poor workmanship. The Grand Renaissance Dam is central to Ethiopia’s ambition to become Africa’s leading power exporter, but the $4 billion dollar project has been set back five years, according to officials, in part because engineers have had to redo portions of the construction. The original work, which was evaluated as substandard, was done by an Ethiopian military-industrial conglomerate. The conglomerate was pulled from the project in August 2018, and its former head, among others in the company, was arrested on corruption charges. Reuters News reports that it is unclear how much the bad workmanship was responsible for the setbacks in the dam’s schedule. It was supposed to have been ready in 2018, but the first two turbines are now expected to start generating 750 megawatts each by December 2020. Ethiopia’s water minister said that the entire dam, designed to deliver 6,000 megawatts, should be ready by 2022.
The Grand Renaissance Dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and Egypt since it was announced in 2011. Egypt views the hydropower project on the Nile as a fundamental threat because it relies on the river for almost 90 percent of its water for drinking, agriculture and industry.
Last Saturday, Egypt said that its talks with Ethiopia and Sudan regarding the dam had reached a deadlock, and it called for international mediation. Egypt blamed Ethiopia for its “inflexibility” after the water ministers for the three countries met in Khartoum. Ethiopia’s minister said Egypt’s call for a mediator was a delay tactic. Last month, Ethiopia refused a proposal by Egypt to operate the dam. Discussion points also included minimum water releases and timeframes for filling the dam’s reservoir. The Sudanese water minister did not speculate on details, saying only that agreement had been reached on many things, with some aspects requiring further work.
In the United States, New Hampshire set new limits on chemical contaminants in its drinking water on October 1st, and was sued over those limits the same day.
The state had tightened restrictions on PFAS compounds, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances in municipal water, representing some of the strictest standards in the country. They require water utilities to test for four types of PFAS once every quarter of the year. If they find levels exceeding the new limits, the utilities must find a new water source or invest in expensive treatment methods. The Associated Press reported that the state allocated $6 million to the Department of Environmental Services to help small municipal systems meet the stricter requirements during the initial year. Some towns, it said, were considering opposing the law in court or refusing to cooperate without more financial support.
This turned out to be the case the day the new limits went into effect. The state of New Hampshire was sued by a group that included the Plymouth Village Water and Sewer District, a farmer in Center Harbor, and a fertilizer company in Holderness. Also joining the suit was the 3M company, which first manufactured PFAS chemicals.
The lawsuit says the new rules are an unconstitutional unfunded mandate. It argues that the state did not adequately consider the costs of complying with the stricter standards when it went through its public input process. The Plymouth water district said it hoped for a “do-over” leading to what it called “environmental protections that we all want at a price that we can all afford.”
PFAS exposure has been connected to a number of serious health effects, and it is an emerging issue for water quality across the country. New Hampshire’s new PFAS standards for public water are the toughest in the U.S, where there are no hard regulations on the federal level. According to New Hampshire Public Radio, “This means some wastewater treatment plants and the fertilizer they generate could be affected. Community and municipal water utilities will face new costs as well.”
New Hampshire officials said the primary expenses for the law over the coming year relate to testing the water. Systems out of compliance may have to pay for pricey treatment systems, and officials have indicated they will help raise more funding to compensate for the costs of meeting the new standards.
This week, from Circle of Blue: A showdown at the Supreme Court over the Clean Water Act might be avoided…maybe … and for now.
A Hawaii lawsuit with broad implications for the country’s waterways might be resolved out of court, avoiding, at least for now, a ruling by the nation’s highest court on the scope of the Clean Water Act.
The suit was brought against the County of Maui by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Surfrider, and West Maui Preservation Association. It involves a sewage treatment plant on Maui’s west coast which injects effluent into four wells. The fluid in those wells migrates underground until it enters the Pacific Ocean, where the nutrients in the effluent have contributed to algal blooms. Dye tests that trace the underground movement of water have proven the hydrological connections between wells, groundwater and ocean. The environmental groups who brought the suit argue that, under the Clean Water Act, the sewage treatment plant needs to have a federal pollution permit to dispose of its treated waste.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the environmental groups, and so the County of Maui appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court agreed to hear the case, possibly to set a new interpretation of the Clean Water Act, given divergent rulings by lower courts on the matters of groundwater pollution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sided with Hawaii Wildlife Fund when the lawsuit began during the Obama administration. But it changed tack under President Trump. In April, the agency released a guidance document that reversed its earlier, longstanding position. EPA officials say the agency now interprets the Clean Water Act to “exclude all releases of pollutants to groundwater” from water pollution permitting.
The EPA acknowledged that pending a Supreme Court reversal, the lower court ruling holds and the Maui treatment plant does need a federal permit. But the understanding is that should the Supreme Court side with Maui County, it would set a precedent for removing groundwater pollution from federal oversight.
If the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the environmental groups, it could establish federal involvement in regulating what is called “conduit pollution,” and more facilities that introduce nutrients or chemicals into groundwater that connects to surface waters would require federal permits. Coal ash ponds, for instance. Or pipelines. These permits can be used as leverage to compel reductions in pollution. For those reasons, industry groups and municipal government groups filed briefs in support of Maui County and against the environmental groups.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case, which seeks clarification of the Clean Water Act, on November 6th if there is no settlement by then. That settlement may be in progress. The Maui County Council voted on September 20th to withdraw its appeal, and to settle with the environmental groups. But lawyers for the county’s executive branch say that the mayor is not bound by the council’s decision, and must independently approve the agreement. His decision is still pending.
The settlement, as approved by the Maui council, requires several actions. The county would seek a federal permit for the waste treatment plant, it would invest at least $2.5 million in projects that recycle wastewater in order to reduce reliance on injection wells, and it would pay a $100,000 fine. The environmental groups agreed not to pursue additional penalties or legal action as long as the country is making a “good faith effort” to fulfill its obligations.
David Henkin is an Earthjustice lawyer who argued the case for the organizations that sued Maui County. He told Circle of Blue “We represent Maui County residents who are eager to see their county government focus its time, energy, and money on fixing the environmental problems that were the genesis of the lawsuit. They would rather not see their government lead the charge to weaken the Clean Water Act.”
Does the Clean Water Act cover discharges of pollutants that come from a given source and then flow through groundwater? That is the legal concept on trial, not only in the Maui case but in at least a half dozen cases that have reached federal district or appeals courts.
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