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 World Health Organization released a report this week highlighting the need for sanitation and handwashing facilities in schools around the world. As classrooms reopen this fall, access to these hygienic services is an important step for children’s safety. The report, published in collaboration with UNICEF, emphasized that, last year, 43 percent of schools did not have basic handwashing amenities. This puts an estimated 818 million children at increased risk of Covid-19 and other diseases due to a lack of hygiene and sanitation in the classroom. The report also noted that although school closures impede learning, countries must seek a balance between public health and education. UNICEF published a report earlier this year with guidelines for reopening schools. Those guidelines include policy reform, financing requirements, and reaching out to those who are marginalized.
In the United States, North Carolina saw another setback for fossil fuel pipeline developers, according to NC Policy Watch. The state Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality permit for a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through two northern counties. Danny Smith, the state Water Resources Division director, said that construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s Southgate extension would result in “unnecessary” impacts to water quality and the environment. The Southgate extension is part of the larger Mountain Valley Pipeline, intended to deliver fracked natural gas from West Virginia to sites in Virginia and North Carolina. The rejected permit continues a string of recent defeats for pipeline developers. The companies behind another natural gas project in the region, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, cancelled their project in July after rising costs attributed to permitting delays.  The defeats are due to several factors, including climate change concerns, opposition from Indigenous groups, and the potential harm that the pipelines would cause to rivers, streams, and groundwater.
In Venezuela, public services are collapsing under the weight of economic crisis and government failure. Water services from state-run utilities have become crushingly expensive. Reuters news service detailed the creative ways that Venezuelans are providing water for themselves. A group of residents in Caracas, the capital, banded together for a “do it yourself” water supply project. They linked hoses together in a chain that stretched nearly a mile in length. The hoses drew water that had pooled at a stalled construction project. One of the project’s leaders told Reuters. “We can’t spend our whole lives complaining. We are finding solutions.”
Finding the solution to an expensive problem is the focus of our Circle of Blue story this week –  on the success of a landmark watershed protection program in New York.
Over two decades ago, New York City and its rural partners launched a groundbreaking, multibillion-dollar watershed protection plan, and the review is in – a panel of experts says the effort sufficiently protects the city’s drinking water supply from contamination.
The Catskill and Delaware watersheds are the source of most of the city’s drinking water. Since 1997, New York City has spent some $2.5 billion on ecosystem protection in those watersheds. The money has been put to good use: upgrading 42 wastewater treatment plants, buying out land to prevent development, and stabilizing stream channels to prevent erosion. The funds also replaced failing septic tanks, trapped pollutants in stormwater, and helped dairy farmers control nutrients and pathogens in manure.
The investments in high-quality source water have been a relative bargain for the city. Together, these efforts have avoided the need for a water filtration plant, which could cost up to $10 billion to build, and several hundred million dollars each year to run.
Vincent Sapienza is commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the city’s water supply. He described the 435-page evaluation as “thorough, honest, and objective.” He added that the recommendations are the basis for further ways to contend with the water stresses that climate change will bring. 
The New York City water system is a behemoth, supplying about 1 billion gallons a day to roughly 9.5 million people. Most of that water — 90 percent or so — comes from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds.  It is delivered through a network of aqueducts and tunnels that, combined, extend more than 175 miles from upstate forests to treatment plants just outside the metro area.
The city does not filter the water from the Catskill-Delaware system. Filtering is a treatment step that most cities take to meet federal drinking water standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted New York a waiver from the filtration requirement after the city signed an agreement in 1997 with upstate communities in the two watersheds.
The agreement was a landmark for the region’s politics, economy, and water supply. It was a compromise that aimed to secure high-quality water for the city and economic development for the rural areas. From this, came the watershed protection plan which was reviewed by the panel from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Its report states that, though that the watershed protection program has done well, it does need revision, for several reasons. Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, and a member of  the panel that issued the report. He told Circle of Blue that the program is a compelling example of watershed management in action, calling it “a remarkable success.”  But he also advised that the Department of Environmental Protection should “rebalance” its land acquisition spending, and focus on maximizing the benefits of its fund, saying “If you’re going to make an investment, you want to get the most out of it.”
As the report indicates, the water-quality benefits from early investments in land acquisition and infrastructure upgrades have already been realized. Instead of more land purchases, which have already targeted the parcels of highest value to the department, the report recommends putting money into neglected areas that have the potential for greater water-quality improvements – such as septic system upgrades, timberland management, and controlling nutrients. For example, hundreds of septic systems line the shores of Kenisco Reservoir. The report recommends that these septic tanks be replaced with top-of-the-line models, or that the area should instead be served by a treatment plant.
Local partners like the Watershed Agricultural Council and the Catskill Watershed Corporation are essential to making the agreement work. The bond is explicit: the 1997 agreement aims not only to improve water quality but also to enhance the “economic vitality” of watershed communities.  On this point, the report notes an imbalance:  water quality has been analyzed extensively since the agreement was signed, but the economic component has been given minimal attention.
Lund added that climate change presents new challenges to the efforts as well. Stronger storms could rip through the region, churning the waters and increasing erosion. Turbid waters, because they allow less light to penetrate, interfere with the ultraviolet disinfection that is the core of the city’s water treatment process. To maintain the filtration waiver, the city is subjected to strict turbidity requirements.
The expert panel ran a stress test against a high-turbidity scenario. The panel modeled how the treatment system might handle a double hit: back-to-back tropical storms causing river conditions worse than the most-severe storm on record. The system, in this case, performed well. The New York system has multiple water sources — a half dozen reservoirs in the Catskill-Delaware system as well as the Croton system and groundwater sources. Those multiple sources allowed operators to meet water demand in the hypothetical event while keeping water at or just above turbidity standards. The panel found that even in harsh conditions, violations of water quality standards would be “rare and small.” 
A warming climate presents other challenges besides murky waters. a Heat, in combination with nutrients in the region’s waterways, threatens more algal blooms in the system’s reservoirs. Some of these blooms are toxic, and others produce odors in the finished drinking water. Either way, they are to be avoided.
The water-quality stressors of the future— turbidity, phosphorus, algae, heat, stronger storms — are a different set of worries from two decades ago, when the primary concern was pathogens. These emerging issues will come into focus in the next review of the EPA’s filtration waiver. The current waiver extends through 2027.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.