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, the government of New South Wales is postponing plans to expand a desalination plant that supplies water to Sydney. The government made the decision because of a reversal of hydrological fortune, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. When the plant’s expansion was announced just five months ago, Sydney faced a devastating drought. Its main reservoir had dropped to about 40 percent of capacity. Today, circumstances have reversed. After several rainy months, the amount of water stored in the reservoir has doubled. It is now at 83 percent capacity. A government minister said the expansion of the desalination plant has not been cancelled. It’s just that there are more pressing concerns at the moment.
In economic news, the international food and beverage giant Nestle says it will consider selling its bottled water operations in Canada and the United States. The owner of the Deer Park and Poland Springs brands has been criticized for its water extraction practices by local governments and environmental groups from California to Florida to Michigan. The groups accuse the company of paying too little and taking too much water from springs. Mark Schneider, Nestle’s chief executive, told the New York Times that environmental concerns, including plastic pollution, have hurt sales. Still, its American brands and its in-home water delivery business generated $3.6 billion in revenue last year.
In the United States, a study says that confidence in tap water has critical health and economic implications. Researchers at Penn State University and Northwestern University analyzed data from a federal health survey. They found that the percentage of children drinking tap water was rising nationwide until the Flint water crisis. But after that, the percentage of children avoiding tap water started to rise. The study was published in the journal Water Resources Research. They found that adult behavior was unchanged after the Flint crisis, which peaked in 2014-15. The researchers said that in general, poor and minority residents distrust tap water and use more bottled water, a response that could signal underlying issues with tap water quality and access. Children not drinking tap water do have lower levels of lead in their blood, but they exhibit other health problems, such as being overweight, having dental issues, and consuming more sugary beverages.
A major federal trial is underway that could end water fluoridation in the United States. Fluoridation has been widespread in the country since the 1940s, when the element was added to water supplies to combat tooth decay. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a coalition of consumer groups is citing recent studies that show possible health risks from fluoridated water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several worldwide health groups deny the claims, saying that there is no evidence that fluoridated water is unhealthy. The lawsuit is being heard without a jury by federal District Court in California.
This week Circle of Blue reports on how efforts to protect salmon in the Pacific Northwest could affect the region’s dams.
Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited proposal under the Clean Water Act, which would limit water temperatures in one of the country’s largest river systems. The limits apply to some 900 miles of the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington. The intent is to protect endangered salmon and other aquatic species from overheating in waters affected by thermal stress. Achieving the proposed standards will probably center on operational changes at the 15 hydropower dams in the target area, as well as enhancements to cold-water flows from tributary rivers. These spots provide a cooling refuge for salmon moving upstream.
But bringing down water temperatures across such a large river system will be difficult, said water managers in the basin. Water temperatures in the summer, the period of highest stress, have climbed several degrees in many stretches of the Columbia, a river system whose legendary salmon runs have been decimated by dams and now by rising temperatures. The dams, which blocked upstream spawning grounds, also absorb heat in their reservoirs. At the same time, heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are raising the planet’s temperature. EPA computer models estimate that climate change has increased water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake by nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Water in the rivers is out of compliance even before it reaches the area of concern, with water temperatures exceeding state standards when the rivers cross into Washington from British Columbia and Idaho.
The proposed standards are known as a TMDL, for Total Maximum Daily Load. It’s a management tool within the federal Clean Water Act used for cleaning up waterways. In effect, a TMDL puts rivers and lakes on a “pollution diet” in order to meet water quality goals. TMDLs address specific pollutants such as phosphorus, sediment, or heat. TMDLs, while often for an individual river, can be extensive and complex, such as the standards for the Chesapeake Bay that apply to six states and the District of Columbia.
The proposed standards for the Columbia River and its tributary, the Lower Snake, vary depending on the stretch of the river and the season. But all the standards aim to keep water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the point at which heat can become fatal to adult salmon.
The responsibility for implementing the standards would belong to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and tribal nations. Regulators in those agencies say they are still considering the EPA’s proposal.
Melissa Gildersleeve is the watershed section manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology. Gildersleeve said that Washington has temperature limits for several smaller rivers, but the scale of this TMDL makes it unique. She added that the big question for regulators is what to do about the federal dams in the target area. Washington issues Clean Water Act permits for hydropower dams that are owned by public utility districts. Public utility dams, by and large, already have water temperature management goals written into their permits. But federal dams have a different permitting process and do not have specific temperature requirements. Gildersleeve said “This will start a conversation with those dams that have not had permits in the past. We’ll start talking with them about what things they can do that would help address the temperature problems on the Columbia and Snake system.” Gildersleeve noted some of the steps that state-regulated dams have taken. The Chelan Public Utility District, for instance, is releasing more water into a section of the Chelan River immediately below the Chelan Dam in order to improve fish habitat.
The Army Corps of Engineers is one federal agency that will be affected by the temperature limits. The Army Corps owns and operates nine dams in the target area. One of those dams, Dworshak Dam, in Idaho, is a net benefit for temperature management because it is deep enough to hold cold water. That chilly water can be released throughout the summer to moderate the Lower Snake River. Matt Rabe, a spokesperson for the Army Corps’ Northwestern Division, told Circle of Blue that the agency is still reviewing the document and will work with Washington and Oregon to develop implementation plans.
Gildersleeve says the conversations and management plans that come out of the process are valuable tools for a basin under increasing stress. Barton, the water quality coordinator for the tribal fish commission, hopes that the agencies focus on enhancing cold-water refuges, especially at the mouths of tributaries. Some of these spots can become silted and might require dredging, she said. The EPA published a draft plan last October for protecting these cold-water pools in the Columbia watershed. The agency is waiting on public comments on the TMDL before finalizing that plan. All of that is on the table. “Right now,” Gildersleeve said, “the real focus is identifying those people who are impacting the water for temperature and working together to come up with ideas for what can be done to address temperature on the Columbia and Snake system.”
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 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.