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.
The Bahamas is beginning the long search and rescue, cleanup, and recovery process in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Tied for the strongest storm to make landfall in the Atlantic, Dorian and its fearsome wind and rain obliterated tens of thousands of homes and key infrastructure on the Caribbean island chain. The UN’s humanitarian agency reports that the damage is especially severe on the Abaco Islands, where running water, sanitation, and electricity are limited, or altogether absent.  Many household drinking water wells were also ruined and at least 70,000 people are homeless, according to the UN.
Bahamas officials reported on Sunday that the storm had killed 44 people. That number is expected to rise as search teams begin closer inspections of the rubble left behind from the storm. The World Health Organization warns of the risk of diarrhea and other waterborne diseases spread by sewage-contaminated flood waters.
The destruction in the Bahamas was so severe in part because Dorian moved so slowly. The storm stalled over Grand Bahama Island, pounding the country’s most populated area for 40 hours.
The stalling phenomenon is something that scientists are looking at more closely. A recent study from U.S. government scientists revealed that tropical storms have been moving slower over the last seven decades. One direct effect of stalled storms, like Dorian and Hurricane Harvey, in 2017, is an increase in precipitation. The tendency to stall may be connected to changes in wind patterns that could in turn be linked to global warming. Timothy Hall of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies discussed the research with Science News, saying  “One of the obvious suspects is that in a warmer climate, the large-scale wind patterns in the atmosphere may slow down. It’s very hard to tease out that signal from direct observations. It’s really at the edge of what we understand right now.”
In Somalia, delayed rains have caused the country’s worst harvest since 2011. As a result, over 2 million people are facing severe hunger through the end of the year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the poor yield was caused by erratic weather and “climate shocks.” In some locations, harvests have plummeted to 70 percent below average.
UN News says the current crisis dates back to last fall, when the October through December rains were subnormal, leading to parched conditions in the dry season that followed at the start of the year. In April and May, the rains that traditionally nourish the peak agricultural season were unpredictable, and the resulting drought meant that by July, crop and livestock production was down profoundly. The July harvest represents some 60 percent of Somalia’s production of cereal grains, according to the UN food agency. The UN called the disrupted weather patterns “climatic shocks,” and stated that “coupled with widespread poverty and vulnerability,” they are “key drivers that have trapped millions of Somalis in severe hunger and malnutrition.”
Over two million people in Somalia are considered to be severely food insecure. That number has risen markedly since the start of this year, as over 2 and a half million people are displaced within the country, seeking shelter in informal settlements near urban areas. The UN warned that if aid is not increased, a million children in Somalia could be acutely malnourished over the next year.
The Somali government joined the humanitarian community in creating a Drought Response Plan to cover needs from this June to December, but thus far the funding that has been received is less than half  what is required. Officials are urging donors to step up, and watching the forecasts for the fall season. Predictions call for about a 50% chance of above average precipitation. More rain, said the UN, “will be crucial to avoid a deterioration of the food security situation in Somalia.”
In England, the Thames River is seeing new signs of health, with a report of 138 seal pups born in its waters. The Thames has been central to life along its shores, supplying water for drinking, industry, transportation and sanitation. But it has been long-suffering in that role, and sixty years ago, the Guardian reported that “the tidal reaches of the Thames constitute a badly managed open sewer,” adding “No oxygen is to be found in it for several miles above and below London Bridge.” Efforts to revive the river included repairing sewers, and restricting the runoff of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers. Those measures got results, and were supplemented by changes in industrial trends, which meant less chemical pollution and toxic metal waste.
Today the Thames is home to over 120 species of fish, including shark, seahorse, and the endangered European eel. Its mammal species include porpoises, dolphins, a beluga whale, Grey seals and Harbour seals. Grey seals feed in the Thames, but Harbour seals breed there as well. The Zoological Society of London released the first comprehensive count of Harbour seal pups, based on analysis of a visual study. The pups rest on the banks and shallow creek areas downstream from London during the summer, shortly after they’re born. Conservation biologist Thea Cox told the Guardian about last year’s results. “We were thrilled to count 138 pups born in a single season. The seals would not be able to pup here at all without a reliable food source, so this demonstrates that the Thames ecosystem is thriving and shows just how far we have come since the river was declared biologically dead in the 1950s.”
Seal populations as a whole have been rising since the Society began counting in 2013. Researchers are unsure if this is because of reproduction or if it’s due to adults relocating from outside, such as eastern Scotland, where seals are getting fewer.
Although the increase in seal pups is encouraging news that the Thames is recovering as a body of food and life, challenges remain. Raw sewage still seeps from housing developments with bad plumbing. Three years ago, a study found that 75% of the flounder caught in the estuary had consumed micro-plastics, and the broader effects of this are yet unknown.
In Kenya, the government is evicting thousands of settlers in the Mau forest, in what it calls an effort to protect a key watershed for the country. The Mau Forest Complex is nearly 100,000 acres of government-owned land. It is the largest indigenous mountain forest in East Africa. Rainfall there is some of the highest in Kenya, and it’s called the country’s “water tower.”
Since Kenya achieved independence in 1963, the Mau forest has lost nearly 37% of its expanse to unregulated settlements, illegal logging and charcoal burning. Land has long been a contentious issue in Kenya, especially where influence is concerned. Corrupt officials have given away large pieces of land for political favors, especially in the southwestern Rift valley where the [MAO] Mau forest grows. Now authorities say they are taking steps to remove thousands of settlers they consider illegal, and who have cut down trees to clear farmland. Some of the settlers have said that they have legal claim to the land through title deeds.
George Natembeya is the Rift Valley Regional Commissioner. He told Reuters news service that about 10,000 people were being evicted. Human rights organizations say that up to 60,000 people are being targeted in the controversial attempt to prevent further damage to a water source for a dozen major rivers and lakes. Natembeya said that about 200 Forest Service officers were helping settlers to move, and that the process has been without violence. He told Reuters “It is a very fragile ecosystem and we are encouraging people to leave. Some people are leaving voluntarily and there has been no reason to use any force.” Environmentalists have long pressed for stricter protection of Kenya’s public forests, but previous attempts to reclaim land from settlers have been stymied by political wrangling and disputes about corrupt land sales. Human rights advocates stress that those who are evicted in the name of environmental protection should be compensated by the government for their loss.
Circle of Blue reports on Houston’s recent agreement to protect water quality with a massive refit to its sewer system.
The City of Houston and the federal government have finalized a 15-year, $2 billion consent decree to curb the discharge of sewage into local waterways. The agreement ends a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Houston’s sewer system serves about two million people. It’s one of the nation’s largest, with more than 6,000 miles of sewer mains, 390 lift stations, and 39 treatment plants. The system is expansive but vulnerable, especially in a humid region where downpours are increasingly common. A storm that dumped more than 3 inches on April 17, 2015, led to a surge of water into the Greenridge treatment plant. Untreated solids mixed with treated water and violated the terms of the plant’s discharge permit.
Greenridge and other facilities will be getting a refit in order to better handle those situations. The settlement targets three major components of the sewer system: lift stations that move sewage across the city’s relatively flat topography, pressurized sewer mains, and 10 of the city’s treatment plants. Remedial measures include a program to chip away at the pipe-blocking buildup of fats, oils, and grease, and an assessment of the system’s flow capacity. The goal, according to the consent decree, is to eliminate overflows from the sanitary sewer system and to eliminate or treat all discharges from the three facilities that hold stormwater.
Erin Jones is a spokesperson with Houston Public Works. Jones told Circle of Blue that fixing aging sewer lines and upgrading infrastructure “will help Houston keep pace with the growing population and provide better service to the community.”
As in other cities, the process will not be cheap. Consent decrees generally result in repair bills that run into the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. The Metropolitan Sewer District of St. Louis, for instance, signed an agreement in 2012 that stipulated at least $4.7 billion in modifications to its sewer system.
Houston is one of dozens of medium- and large-sized cities, including Atlanta, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Seattle, Scranton, and Toledo, to sign a federal consent decree aimed at upholding the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act. It may also be one of the last, at least in the near term, to enter into one of these agreements. The EPA has focused on sewage overflows for more than two decades, and says that the most severe problems have been addressed. The agency intends to remove municipal sewage and stormwater from its enforcement priority list next year and pursue a more collaborative approach.
As a result of the consent decrees, sewer rates often soar to pay for new pipes, expanded treatment capacity, and underground reservoirs to hold runoff during a storm. That will be the case in Houston, too, where the cost of the projects will be shouldered by residents and businesses. Houston Public Works is reassessing its rates and expects them to rise in April 2020.
The rate increases that are required to pay for these projects contribute to growing concerns about the expense of water and sewer service. Affordability is an acute anxiety for the poorest households. Houston officials say that their rate increase will not raise the average bill more than 2 percent of the median household income in a given service area. That’s the standard used by the EPA for gauging affordability.
It’s a misleading claim. The EPA metric — 2 percent of median household income — is a way to gauge whether infrastructure projects might be too costly for a utility. It does not speak to whether rate increases will be a burden for specific ratepayers. Last April, a coalition of water industry groups suggested that the EPA modify its affordability criteria. They, like other researchers, recommended looking at households not just in the median, but in the bottom fifth of the income distribution. These families are most likely to find rising rates beyond their means.
When asked whether its analysis would look at affordability beyond median household income, Jones of Houston Public Works said the agency would.


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