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 Australia, New South Wales officials have announced a $10 million rescue effort for native fish in the region’s most important river system. Last summer, Australians were shocked by massive fish die-offs in the Lower Darling River, part of the huge Murray-Darling Basin. Hundreds of thousands of fish died near the town of Menindee. Scientists pointed to low flows due to drought and over-extraction of the river’s water. Fluctuating temperature extremes contributed to a chain of events causing the fatal deoxygenation of the water. This year, experts are predicting another punishing summer, and dire effects for an ecosystem facing collapse. Officials plan to move fish from vulnerable locations to safer waters before high temperatures and low river levels stress them again. Adam Marshall is the agricultural minister for New South Wales, and he told the Guardian “We’re staring down the barrel of a potential fish Armageddon, which is why we’re wasting little time rolling out this unprecedented action.” He described it as “a lifeline for key native species ahead of an expected summer of horror fish kills.”
The plan is to catch as many fish as possible from priority sites and move them to a more southern area of the Darling river where the water is still flowing. Authorities say the aim is to save fish in waters that are expected to be dry by the end of the summer. The fish include Murray cod, some of which are over 25 years old, golden perch, and other rare species.
A Menindee community spokesman told the Guardian the plan is a “photo-op rather than a real deal,” noting the vast numbers of fish at risk and the difficulty of catching a species already listed as vulnerable. The Guardian said that the government has not numbered how many fish it would relocate, but said that one source hoped it would be in the hundreds. The Guardian noted that this represented a mere fraction of the river’s fish population, and doubted that the measure would forestall mass die-offs in the months ahead.
The Guardian called out the New South Wales government for appearing to be in denial about the possible causes of last summer’s river crisis. The state’s water minister was critical of her independent adviser, the Natural Resources Commission, which said that upstream irrigation extractions may have accelerated drought in the Lower Darling. The Commission pressed for changes in the rules governing water extraction when river flows are low. It advises raising the threshold at which irrigators must cease taking water, in order to keep more water in the river.
Fran Sheldon, a professor at Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute, contributed to the National Resources Commission report on water extractions. She acknowledged the contentious issues surrounding human use of the Darling River, and said that while the fish rescue program would preserve some genetic diversity, it’s not enough. She said if high water stress causes the surrounding ecosystem to collapse, the fish, once returned to their waters, will not survive without the support of species such as invertebrates, mussels, and riverside trees, all of which are at risk as well.
In Turkey, a hotly contested hydroelectric dam is nearing completion, and an ancient city is weeks away from disappearing under the water it will contain.
The Ilisu dam will become the fourth largest in Turkey, generating electricity and storing water. First proposed in the 1950s, construction began in 2006, but the dam has been contentious along the way. Environmentalists warn of environmental destruction and the loss of habitat and biodiversity. Neighboring Iraq says the dam will cause water shortages by reducing the flow of rivers upon which it depends. And in Turkey, the dam will flood 199 settlements in the region, displacing an estimated 80,000 people. The flooding will consume the ancient city of Hasankeyf, on the banks of the Tigris River.
Hasankeyf is considered one of humanity’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. It dates back some 12,000 years and is the site of thousands of cave dwellings, churches, tombs and artifacts. Only a fraction of the remote settlement has been explored by archaeologists, and despite the pleas of residents and environmental and cultural heritage advocates, the Turkish authorities have ordered the city to be evacuated by October 8th.
Eight historical monuments have been moved to a new location, and the government has built new homes for some of the dislocated families. But residents say that the process has not been fair to many who have been forced to leave their homes, their lands and their livelihoods. And Turkish authorities have moved to quash protests.
Despite the fear of imprisonment, and the prospect of their city lost beneath the water, residents say they will continue to speak out about Hasankeyf and its history. One man, who was born in the city, told the Guardian that if they are silent, “when we die, our children will come and spit on our graves and say, why didn’t you save Hasankeyf?”
In the United States, the Trump administration finalized the repeal of an Obama-era rule that sought to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act. Repealing the controversial rule will revert the definition of protected waters to determinations that were made in 1986.
Repealing the Obama-era rule is step one for the Trump administration in its attempt to restrict the protections of the nation’s landmark water pollution law. The administration’s second step is to write its own definition. The EPA and the Army Corps published a draft rule in December that will dramatically reduce the number of protected waterways, especially in the American West, where rivers that flow only in response to seasonal rains would not be covered. A less restrictive rule is favored by the farm lobby, energy companies, and developers. It would give those industries more leeway to pave over wetlands and discharge pollutants.
The administration’s maneuvering is part of a decades-long battle over key phrases in the Clean Water Act that neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has adequately defined. The main question is what constitutes “waters of the United States?” Waters of the United States are protected, but the definition remains unsettled.
The Obama rule was subjected to legal challenges from state attorneys general and industry. Similarly, legal experts anticipate that the Trump administration’s actions will also be taken to court.
Elsewhere in the U.S., the City of Chicago is installing shoreline barriers to guard against the threat of serious flooding during the fall storm season. The risk in the coming months is higher than usual because of Lake Michigan’s high water levels. Lake Michigan, like all the Great Lakes, has been brimming this summer because of record amounts of rain and snow over the last year. Lake Michigan’s average water level this August was about 15 inches higher than at the same time last year. The lake is nearly six feet higher than its record low point in 2013.
Chicago is bracing for the water along its vulnerable transportation corridors, including its signature Lakeshore Drive, a major travel artery curving past beaches, parkland and entertainment and cultural attractions. The Chicago Department of Transportation said it will place hundreds of yards of concrete barriers at eight locations. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that the threat of flooding isn’t new to the city, “in fact,” she said, “high lake levels have been an ongoing issue that historically have caused serious damage to our lakefront infrastructure and beaches while also posing a continuous threat to pedestrian and traffic safety.” The Department of Transportation expects to have all the barriers up by the end of the month, but warns drivers that northbound Lake Shore Drive may have some lane closures until then.
Besides the concrete flood barriers, sandbags will be placed to protect lakeshore paths in the city that are at risk when the rain and winds whip up the high water of the big lake. As a South Side resident told NBC5 Chicago “I don’t know if they can stop Mother Nature, but it’s going to be interesting.”
Circle of Blue looks at a new report that highlighting the critical impacts of an under-appreciated threat to the world’s water.
The world’s water challenges, messy as they are, can be neatly summarized: Too much, too little, too dirty. An eye-opening World Bank report argues that the “too dirty” part isn’t getting enough attention, and warns of the stealthy yet widespread scourge of water pollution.
It calls contaminated water an “invisible crisis” that will worsen as the planet warms. And it argues that this trend is far more damaging to health, ecosystems, and economies than people realize.
Richard Damania is the top economist in the World Bank’s water program and the report’s lead author. He and his team based their work on original research and a battery of existing studies and mined health, economic, and water pollution data sets . “Dirty water is “bad all around,” he told Circle of Blue. It stunts children’s growth, shortens lives, and shrinks the economy.
Thousands of pollutants, from arsenic and fluoride to pharmaceuticals and industrial solvents, foul the world’s waters. This report focused on the “lowest common denominator” pollutants: those that the United Nations has targeted in its efforts to reduce poverty, improve health, and revive ecosystems. Those common denominator pollutants are nitrogen and salinity. The report includes something called “biological oxygen demand,” which is a general indicator of pollution and is a measure of organic matter, including untreated sewage, in water.
The report has four key findings.
First, dirty water harms children. In India, long-term exposure to nitrates during childhood results in stunted growth and lower earnings when the children enter adulthood. In Bangladesh, high salinity levels in drinking water are responsible for 20 percent of infant deaths. And the bacteria in sewage continue to be a public health menace. Globally, three out of five diarrheal deaths of children under age 5 are linked to contaminated water. The Lancet Commission estimated in 2017 that 800,000 deaths a year are tied to water polluted by sewage.
Second, dirty water diminishes and taints food production. The report says that salty water is decimating harvests. Saline irrigation water reduces agricultural output globally each year by enough to feed 170 million people, according to the report. “That is equivalent to a country the size of Bangladesh,” Damania remarked. Water sources can increase in salinity for a number of reasons: irrigation practices in dry areas, urban runoff, and the intrusion of seawater through geologic changes tied to over-extraction of groundwater.
The report says that over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged untreated. That number rises to 95 percent in developing countries. In India, where groundwater is being depleted, untreated sewage and industrial waste are alternate sources of irrigation water. This introduces heavy metals and bacteria into the nation’s food supply. In one study, researchers tested 22 vegetable varieties at a market in the Delhi region and found nickel and lead concentrations above recommended health standards.
Third, dirty water poisons ecosystems. Algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zone are caused by excessive nutrients and they now plague rivers, lakes, and oceans in nearly all corners of the globe. An analysis of satellite data that the World Bank commissioned looked at algal blooms worldwide between 2002 and 2012. It found 222 that were larger than the record-setting bloom in Lake Erie in 2011 that grabbed headlines and sharpened focus on nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes region.
The chemicals that boost crop production and fuel algal blooms come at a high price to human health, the environment, and the broader economy. Though a precise comparison is difficult, the report suggests that the damage to health and ecosystems from excessive fertilizer use may outweigh the benefits of higher yields. The authors caution that fertilizer policies and subsidies “require careful scrutiny.”
And fourth, dirty water impedes economies. The report found that increasing pollution within a river basin hinders productivity downstream. The research team attempted to measure the effect by combining water pollution measurements with economic data at the local level. In areas downstream of high river pollution, economic growth dropped by one-third, when measured by biological oxygen demand. The pollution penalty is worse when considering middle-income countries, a diverse group that includes Nigeria and Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey. There, pollution cut downstream economic growth by half.
Damania said that this data supports an argument to prevent pollution before it occurs. Keeping chemicals out of waterways is easier than removing them after the fact, or, as he put it, “Prevention is cheaper and better than the cure.”
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.
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