In the United States, Wyoming  state regulators approved an application from Aethon Energy to inject millions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater into a freshwater aquifer. The Casper Star Tribune reports that the company plans to drill more than 4,000 oil and gas wells into the Moneta Divide formation in the central part of the state. Oil and gas drilling produces hydrocarbons along with large quantities of salty water that must be disposed of. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission determined that Aethon can rid itself of the waste by injecting it roughly 15,000 feet underground. The company successfully argued that treating the wastewater at the surface was too expensive, and that the freshwater aquifer they proposed to use for wastewater disposal was too deep underground to be of any practical use. Over a hundred members of the public objected, citing concerns about groundwater pollution. They countered that the disposal plan would compromise the aquifer’s potential as a future drinking water source. Wyoming will forward its recommendation to approve the plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has the final say.
The state of New Jersey filed lawsuits against three companies over water pollution stemming from so-called ‘forever chemicals.’ The lawsuits allege that the companies have failed to clean up polluted sites and that they continue to release harmful PFAS compounds into the environment. The companies named in the lawsuits are Arkema, Honeywell, and Solvay. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said “The days of free passes and soft landings for polluters in New Jersey are over.” The lawsuits complement actions that state regulators have taken in response to PFAS contamination. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has adopted drinking water standards for three PFAS compounds.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has reached a decision in one of the state’s most scrutinized environmental disputes. The governor ordered the Canadian energy company Enbridge to shut down a pair of oil pipelines that cross the Straits of Mackinac. Bridge Magazine reports that the twin Line 5 pipelines are supposed to cease operation by May 2021. A state review alleges that Enbridge is violating its easement by failing to properly maintain Line 5 and that the risk of an oil spill from the aging pipelines is too high to bear. The Straits separate lakes Michigan and Huron and researchers have noted that their swirling currents would be the worst place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill. Enbridge had planned to enclose the pipelines in a tunnel drilled beneath the straits. Enbridge officials said that they are still reviewing the governor’s decision.
This week Circle of Blue reports on California’s efforts to better understand the pandemic’s impact on water utilities and their customers.
Last week, California regulators sent a survey to 150 of the state’s largest water providers. It’s an effort to assess the financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has caused economic slowdowns, and the State Water Resources Control Board wants to know how this affects water services – from the financial health of utilities who provide the water, to the households who may be unable to pay for it.
The data collection effort came a day before a report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office urging lawmakers to monitor water issues. According to the report, the pandemic is one of several factors that could complicate the state’s ability to provide safe and affordable drinking water to all of its residents.
The Board hopes the survey will answer a handful of basic questions. It wants to know how many California water utilities are at risk of financial failure in the next year and how much state assistance might be needed to keep them afloat. The Board is surveying 150 large utilities — those that serve more than 10,000 connections — and it’s also seeking information from a subset of 500 smaller water providers. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, smaller systems are more likely to be stressed by revenue losses.
For data at the household level, the Board wants to develop a statewide estimate of debt burdens and identify ZIP codes with high debt levels. It also wants to tally the number of California households that have overdue bills and those that have received extra time to repay their debt.
The survey has high-level backing. A state lawmaker and members of Congress had written letters to the Board in October, urging it to collect and analyze the data.
Household water debt is widespread in the United States, but it varies significantly among utilities. A Circle of Blue investigation that was published in August found that one and a half million households in a dozen large U.S. cities were behind on their bills. Collectively, they owed just over a billion dollars to their water departments.
Those data were collected before the pandemic, and circumstances have since changed. The national unemployment rate has nearly doubled. Many utilities were ordered to continue water service to households despite overdue bills as a way to keep water flowing during the public health crisis. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom halted water shutoffs in April.
Because of the job losses and water shutoff suspensions, past-due balances have continued to grow. A study from North Carolina examined data from nearly 90 utilities at the end of July. The researchers found that a few more households in the state were behind on their bills, but those that were behind had fallen much deeper into debt.
As for the pandemic’s impact on water providers and users in California, that picture will take several months to develop. The Water Board expects to release its findings on January 5, 2021.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies more than ever on your support for independent water news and analysis. Right now, your tax-deductible gift goes twice as far, thanks to NewsMatch. This challenge grant will match your one-time or monthly donation dollar for dollar. It’s a limited time offer – so find out more – and make a difference at