I’m Eileen Wray-McCann, for Circle of Blue, and here’s What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water.
We begin with a quick survey of water stories around the globe.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it plans to regulate two PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The agency will officially start the regulatory process by the end of the year. The agency’s PFAS action plan includes steps for regulation, monitoring, detection, and cleanup. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the organization is conducting a comprehensive review of the contaminants, but many lawmakers criticized the ongoing delay in setting PFAS safety standards.
In Michigan, tensions over PFAS contamination in Kent County are rising as Wolverine Worldwide—the company responsible for dumping polluted tannery waste—refuses to fund expansion of the municipal water system. The local government says it does not have the resources to address the issue on its own, but Wolverine says it won’t put forth any money unless its chemical supplier, 3M, contributes as well. In the meantime, residents are relying on filters and water from tanker trucks. Attorneys for the townships say Wolverine is using “scorched earth” litigation tactics to avoid liability.
A “Pineapple Express” weather system has been hitting the U.S. West Coast, bringing particularly heavy rain, snow and wind to California. Already, the storm has forced evacuations and caused flooding. The conditions threaten mudslides and flooding to areas already devastated by the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.
In related news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service says that 18 million trees died in California over the past year. Since the state’s drought began, nearly 150 million trees have died, and experts say this high tree mortality increases the risk of more wildfires.
In Puerto Rico, over 200 thousand citizens are experiencing drought as abnormally dry conditions affect three-quarters of the U.S. territory. Governor Ricardo Rossello announced that seven municipalities will face water rationing. The communities rely on the Guajataca reservoir, which was damaged in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria.
In Brazil, mining waste from last month’s dam collapse has contaminated the Paraopeba river, the main source of food and water for the Pataxo indigenous tribe. Officials say dangerous levels of lead, mercury, and other heavy metals have poisoned the river, and they have warned residents to keep at least 100 meters away from it.
Several Caribbean nations are among the most water-stressed in the world, according to the World Resources Institute. On many islands, the problem is worsening as rainfall diminishes and aquifers run low. Caribbean nations are considering water-scarcity solutions such as desalination, wastewater conversion, and atmospheric water generation, but in many cases, the cost of such projects is too high.
In volatile Venezuela, government negligence and hyperinflation are destroying the livelihoods of residents, leaving them without adequate food, water, or healthcare. Last week, 14 children in a coastal city died from amoebiasis, an illness spread through contaminated food and water. Several other children have also contracted the disease, but cannot be treated due to limited medical supplies.
In Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin plan was supposed to help restore healthy flows in the sprawling river system, but it has been mired in controversy from the start. After eight years and 8.5 billion dollars, a report says that water flows at key sites have actually declined since the plan began.
In other Australia news, the Adani mining company admitted to releasing contaminated water at twice its licensed rate during recent severe flooding in Queensland. A report by Adani discounted any environmental impacts on the surrounding Caley Valley wetlands, but environmentalists are calling for a government investigation into the release.
And that’s the world water roundup. We focus this week on how humans have made the planet literally greener, and why that could be a mixed blessing.
“Humans are officially greening the earth,” says the headline about a study by Boston University environmental researchers. It then asks “Is that a good thing?”
NASA satellites show the world is literally getting greener as reforestation projects and intensified agriculture have spread vegetation across more land. While this sounds like progress, experts note that not all vegetation is equal in the effort to fight climate change.
The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, reveals human influence on the earth’s vegetation. Vegetation, in turn, affects water and carbon cycles. Because farming, logging, tree planting, and other land uses have different effects on atmospheric carbon, it’s important to create models for understanding how “leafiness” can help or hinder efforts to limit greenhouse gasses. Professor Ranga Myneni and his team at Boston University studied satellite data from the last twenty years and found that global “green leaf area” has increased by five percent since the early 2000s.
The world’s most populous countries, China and India, are leading the greening trend. The increased vegetation has two main sources: massive tree-planting programs in China, and intensive agriculture in both China and India. Although other areas in the world, such as the Amazon or eastern North America, have more vegetation, they don’t show a similar increase.
“China and India account for one-third of the greening, but contain only 9 percent of the planet’s land area covered in vegetation.” That’s according to lead author Chi Chen of Boston University. “That is a surprising finding, considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from overexploitation.”
Of the Earth’s vegetative areas, some 30 percent are getting greener, while five percent are getting browner. In China, farming accounts for 32 percent of increased vegetation. In India, farming makes up 82 percent of leaf cover. The amount of land dedicated to food production in China and India has not changed much in the last 20 years, but food production has swelled up to 40 percent since 2000. That’s because farming methods have intensified in order to meet growing demand for food. The added greening comes from using the same land for multiple crops and multiple yearly harvests and heavy use of fertilizers and irrigation.
The researchers suggest that greening achieved through agriculture doesn’t offer the same benefits to the climate as reforestation because carbon absorbed by crops is soon released back into the atmosphere. Reforestation is the other leading factor in global vegetation increase, notably in China, with its massive tree-planting program called the Green Great Wall. After years of economic development and rapid growth, urbanization and deforestation were blamed for the degradation of important watersheds and other natural resources. China’s Green Great Wall is similar to tree regrowth and sustainable forestry methods in Europe. Forest vegetation is a key factor in reducing climate change emissions, according to reports over the last couple of years. Large-scale reforestation efforts in China, India and South Korea have already shown significant carbon removal benefits to the climate over the last two decades. In 2017, the president of the research firm Forest Climate Analytics said “The experience of China—which produces more carbon emissions than any other country—is especially noteworthy, as reforestation programs there not only removed CO2 from the atmosphere and increased forest cover by more than 50 percent, but also provided additional income to rural communities and ensured that forests provide critical ecosystem services that support agricultural productivity.”
The recent study on global greening used data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, whose MODIS sensors recorded up to four shots of nearly every spot on Earth each day for the past 20 years. NASA research scientist Ramakrishna Nemani, said the long-term data provided greater insight into the role humans play in the vegetation of the earth. “When the greening of the Earth was first observed,” he said, “we thought it was due to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now with the MODIS data, we see that humans are also contributing.”
The Boston University group concluded that human land use is a “key driver of the ‘Greening Earth,’ accounting for over a third of the observed net increase in green leaf area. The study revealed a significant gap in understanding how that fits into the carbon cycle. “Moving forward,” the researchers said, “we recommend that Earth system models be refined to include key human land-use practices identified by our work—such as crop rotation, irrigation, and fertilizer use, fallowing and abandonment of land, afforestation, reforestation, and deforestation—all of which influence atmospheric carbon in different ways.”
This week’s featured story from Circle of Blue looks at the wastewater produced by the oil boom in the Permian basin.
The Permian basin is a chunk of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico that is larger than most eastern U.S. states. The basin is all the rage in oil these days. Production is up, spurred by more fracking, a drilling process that uses high pressure water, sand and chemicals to break up rock and access the oil within.
This oil, from stacks of shale formations lying thousands of feet below
ground, has helped drive America’s oil output to its highest level ever,
nearly 12 million barrels a day.
The United States is now the world’s largest crude oil producer, and close to one-third of the country’s output comes from the Permian. Oil is not the only liquid that emerges from the Permian’s wells. Producing oil produces even more waste water: some of it is the water injected under pressure, and some of it is the water released, like the oil, from underground. For every barrel of oil produced, there are two to five barrels of waste water. The industry calls this waste “produced water,” and as oil production soars, the basin is swimming in its own wastes.
Produced water is a noxious mix It is a hyper-saline brine—much saltier than the ocean. It includes chemicals used during fracking and trace minerals and radioactive elements that are naturally present in subterranean spaces. The oil industry usually disposes of produced water by injecting it deep underground. It’s one of the largest operating costs for an oil well. The financial outlay also makes it an underappreciated risk. There are several thousand disposal wells in the Texas section alone, and some are looking at ways to turn a liability into an opportunity. The basin is arid, produced water is plentiful, and disposal regulations are tightening. These are strong incentives to maximize the handling and use of wastewater.
Investors are considering ways to consolidate a fragmented waste disposal sector into more cohesive units – something like the pipeline networks that ferry oil and gas from the wellhead to refineries. As a result, the basin is attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in capital for water management.
IHS Markit, a research and consulting firm, estimates that the overall market for water in the Permian totaled $12.2 billion last year. That includes sourcing water for fracking, transporting, storing, treatment, and disposal of produced water. More and more companies are reusing produced water for their fracking operations, a move that takes pressure off fresh water sources in a region where fresh water is scarce. Lawmakers and regulators at the state and federal levels are also considering whether to expand the use of treated water for things such as irrigation or to supplement river flows.
Environmental groups, however, warn that any use of produced water beyond the oilfield needs to proceed with utmost caution because so little is known about the chemicals in the brines and their effect on human health and ecosystems.
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 hashtag whatsupwithwater.
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.