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.
Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan resumed negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam last Tuesday. The dam is the largest in Africa and it’s on the largest tributary of the Nile, the river supplying most of Egypt’s surface water. The Associated Press reports that Egypt and Sudan have pushed back on the project, fearing the dam will deplete their water supplies from the Nile. Ethiopia began filling the dam this summer, but it has not reached agreement with its downstream neighbors over how the dam will be operated in dry years. Negotiations are no longer being mediated by the U.S. government but instead by the African Union. The union’s chairman, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, told the AP that the three countries seem poised for “peaceful and amicable resolution” to issues surrounding the massive hydropower dam. Ethiopia has heralded its construction as an opportunity to spur economic growth and bring electricity to millions of citizens. U.S. President Donald Trump inflamed tensions two weeks ago when he said that Egypt has “to do something” about the dam and suggested that Egypt might bomb the structure. Ethiopia’s foreign minister responded that such an incitement to war was not acceptable.
In the western United States, federal government data shows that vegetation dryness is at historically low levels. E&E News reports that the moisture deficit contributed to record-breaking wildfires in recent months. This year, the southwestern states plus California had their warmest – and driest – July-to-September period on record. One example of the dryness comes from the Plumas National Forest in northern California. In early August, researchers measured the moisture content of logs from the forest floor at just 2 percent. It was the lowest reading ever in the 15 years that moisture measurement records for the forest have been kept. Mike Flanagan is a fire scientist at the University of Alberta. He told E&E News that low moisture sets the stage for explosive fire. He said “It’s like having gasoline just waiting for a spark. It’s primed, just itching to go, needing something to get it going.”
In science news, a research team found that one climate change adaptation tool has a large water footprint. To keep global temperatures from rising too high, many climate experts think that countries will need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon-capture technologies take many forms, but have a significant drawback. The researchers found that removing carbon requires a lot of water. The least efficient technology is called bioenergy carbon capture and storage. It involves growing plants, burning them to generate electricity, capturing the burned carbon, and trapping it underground. The researchers advise that if carbon capture is used, that it be prioritized for areas with plentiful water supplies. They also say that the best way to address climate change without endangering water resources is to avoid burning fuels in the first place.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the U.S. Senate race in Michigan and what it means for water.
With the U.S. Senate majority at stake in the 2020 election, nearly every race has become a battleground. That’s the case in Michigan, where incumbent Democrat Gary Peters is being challenged by Republican John James. Polls of likely voters show Peters up by six to nine percentage points. National super PACs on both sides have spent a total of more than $65 million. To defend their seat, the Democratic Senate Majority PAC has spent twice as much as the Republican Senate Leadership Fund.
The stakes are high nationally. The Michigan race could influence control of the Senate. While Republicans hold a majority now, Democrats only need to win four of the 23 Republican-held seats in this election in order to take control of the chamber. That is assuming Democrats don’t lose any contests.
While Covid and the economy dominate debates, Michigan has another defining issue: water. The state is surrounded by the Great Lakes and grappling with aging infrastructure and the chemical contamination of its lakes, streams, and groundwater.
Mary Brady-Enerson is Michigan director for the advocacy group Clean Water Action. She told Circle of Blue that clean drinking water and protection of the Great Lakes are top issues for Michiganders. She pointed to surveys taken before the 2018 election such as one by EPIC-MRA that found that nearly half of voters believe that when it comes to state infrastructure, the most concerning problem is drinking water safety.
Clean Water Action endorsed Peters in February, citing his work on Michigan issues such as recognizing and limiting PFAS contamination and pushing for oversight of a controversial oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. As Senator, Peters expedited millions of dollars in funding for PFAS cleanup at contaminated sites such as the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda. He pressured Enbridge Energy on its aging Line 5 pipeline system running beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Huron and Michigan converge. The company committed to temporary shutdowns during severe weather and agreed to some measures for more transparency on issues of damage to the pipeline.
Challenging Peters for his Senate seat, James entered the race touting his business and leadership credentials. After eight years in the Army, James worked at his family’s supply chain management company. As company president, he served on councils for former Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, advising on veteran support and automation developments. James’ background on environmental issues is less extensive. He was critical of the scope of federal protection given to bodies of water by the Obama administration, while Peters supported its broader approach. The Trump administration has since narrowed the definition of what water qualifies for federal oversight. James said that the Obama-era definition burdened Michigan agriculture with federal regulation. He prefers what he calls “bottom-up regulatory reform” in terms of the environment. James has promised to join the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. Peters is a member of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force.
Another issue in the Michigan Senate race is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative . The Initiative is a federal program for cleaning up the watershed’s legacy pollution, removing invasive species, and restoring wetlands. Michigan is historically the largest beneficiary of the fund. James’ spokesman indicated that James supports the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Peters supports it as well, and this fiscal year he secured an additional $19 million in funding for the Restoration initiative.
For Brady-Enerson of Clean Water Action, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is an example of how Michigan’s water is interconnected with a number of environmental and social concerns. She said, “The folks I talk to, they get that our environment – the air we breathe and the water that we drink – impacts everything. Water is life, and it seeps into all these other issues as well.”
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