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.
From Europe to South America, dry conditions are affecting local and national economies, as countries are still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.
In Germany, the Rhine River is a key waterway for European industry. But Reuters news service reports that low flows on the Rhine have forced cargo ships to operate at reduced capacity. The river is a major shipping route for commodities such as grain, chemicals, coal, and petroleum products. It connects Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands to the deepwater port at Rotterdam. Without substantial rainfall in the coming months, forecasters fear a repeat of 2018, when commercial traffic on the river shut down completely.
A few hundred miles to the east, the Czech Republic is facing a drought that the environment minister described as catastrophic, according to Bloomberg news. Europe experienced its warmest winter on record this year, and as it heads toward summer, there is already a deficit in soil moisture in the Czech Republic. Environment minister Jiri Brabec said that without rain, water sources will dry up. In a television interview Brabec said “Unless there is a miracle that would bring a month-long continuous rain, we will see rivers and streams dry out and tens or hundreds of villages with no source of drinking water.”
A similar story is playing out in northeastern Argentina, where the Iguazu River is running at 13 percent of its normal flow. The rainy season just ended, but it was more dry than wet. In at least one town, the river dropped below the level of the intake pipes. The residents of Puerto Iguazu are using bottled water and public wells to get by. Hydropower in the region has also been affected, with outputs at two hydroelectric dams down by half because of low reservoir levels. Lawmakers from the region are asking Brazil to release more water from its upstream reservoirs.
In Australia, meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported some good news for the country’s parched and beleaguered eastern states. Government data shows that soil moisture has increased in New South Wales thanks to a series of rain storms in the last four months. However, scientists with the Bureau of Meteorology caution that it will take more than a couple of wet months to undo the damage from a three-year drought considered Australia’s worst on record. The drought tindered horrific bush fires in December and January and forced some towns to rely on water that was trucked in. The rain has yet to translate into large increases in river flows or reservoir storage. But more could be on the way. A government forecast shows favorable conditions for wet weather in the next three months.
Our Circle of Blue feature reports on U.S. Congressional negotiations over financial aid to water utilities and their customers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Water and wastewater utilities and their customers were ignored in Congress’s three coronavirus relief bills. The first two bills provided support to health and medical services through the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis. On March 27, The CARES Act, the monumental third piece of legislation, directed more than $2.2 trillion in federal aid to individuals, businesses, and large cities — but nothing for the utilities that deliver drinking water and purify sewage.
The industry and its advocates consider this a grievous oversight, and are backing a two-phase relief plan for water utilities and customers, covering both the short and the long term. Step one in the plan is the provision of emergency assistance to both groups. There is still a debate about the size of an aid package for utilities and the most efficient and effective way of helping customers. But $1.5 billion in customer assistance is a common starting point in discussions.
The second step is a longer-term investment in the nation’s water systems. As the immediate financial needs of the pandemic became more pressing in recent weeks, infrastructure debates moved to the back burner. Republicans, meanwhile, have become leery of additional spending to prop up state and local budgets during the crisis. Nonetheless, House Democrats are proposing roughly $50 billion to bolster water and sewer infrastructure and reduce pollution.
Rep. Peter DeFazio is the Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He said that although it’s been neglected thus far, emergency aid for utilities and customers is a Democratic priority for the next round of coronavirus relief. “We haven’t given up,” said DeFazio. His remarks were recorded and aired during an April 29 webinar for Water Week, the water industry’s annual D.C. lobbying event, which took place remotely this year. DeFazio acknowledged that many utilities are in a state of distress. He referred to a utility in his district whose revenue has fallen by 60 percent because two of its large industrial customers shut down during the pandemic.
Apprehension about the coming months abounds. An industry-commissioned report estimates that the pandemic will cost U.S. drinking water utilities about $14 billion in lost revenue. Such a hit could result in delayed investment, deferred maintenance and diminished affordability if utilities raise rates to replenish their reserves. City governments are already furloughing staff and freezing new hires as they anticipate double-digit declines in tax revenues.
The wastewater industry, meanwhile, compiled its own figures. If revenue declines by 20 percent across the board, the nation’s roughly 16,000 sewage-treating utilities could lose about $12 billion. That rough estimate does not include losses from customers who cannot pay their bills.
For utility customers are also feeling the pinch. As job losses soared in April beyond any historical precedent, governors and utilities offered relief for those suddenly without a paycheck and for those already financially insecure. Many utilities said they would no longer shut off water in response to unpaid bills. Authorities like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, ordered utilities to resume service to all homes where water had been disconnected.
With these households in mind, a rising number of representatives in Congress have rallied around an old idea: a national customer aid program for water bills. Such a program currently exists for energy bills.
The question, though, is how to get the aid to the households. The vehicle for delivering it has not been settled. The House bill would employ the existing procedures used for LIHEAP, the federal program that assists poor households with heating and electric bills. To access the money, states and tribes — the conduits for the aid — must agree to certain conditions. They must not turn off water to homes during the coronavirus public health emergency. They must also reconnect water service to homes in which water was previously turned off.
But LIHEAP is not the only option. Kristina Surfus of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies said that there is also talk about routing funds through the Environmental Protection Agency or through the Community Services Block Grant program that is run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Surfus said that however the aid is directed, congressional staff are talking about the program as an emergency effort and not as a permanent expansion. Utility groups also would like any shutoff moratorium restricted to the period of the public health emergency. Surfus said that if assistance was forthcoming, any lessons learned could inform proposals for a permanent program.
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.