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 Panama, managers of the Panama Canal are considering water supply projects to keep the vital shipping route viable during extended drought. Last year was one of the driest on record in the Central American country and as the planet warms, rainfall in the region is expected to become more variable. In response, the Panama Canal Authority is considering several options that would augment water supplies that are needed to fill the canal’s locks. The Associated Press reports that those options include desalination plants, dams, and water transfers between river basins. The estimated cost is $2 billion. To raise funds, the authority introduced new fees in February – they’ll apply to large ships using the locks in the waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In northern Mexico, violence erupted this month when about 2,000 protesters seized control of La Boquilla dam on the Conchas River. The protestors said they wanted to dramatize the plight of farmers whose livelihoods depend on scarce water that’s being sent to the United States. According to the Washington Post, unrest has simmered for months over U.S. demands for over 100 billion gallons of water that Mexico owes it under a treaty signed in 1944. Tensions in the region escalated after a national guard unit was sent in to stop the protesters and one woman was shot and killed. Generators at the dam were set on fire, causing a power blackout, which federal security officials called “sabotage and sedition.” Every five years Mexico must release a certain amount of water from Rio Grande tributaries to meet the terms of the treaty with the U.S. This is the second consecutive five-year cycle in which Mexico has fallen behind on its obligations to release water from dams along some of the driest parts of the shared border.
In the United States, a new study reveals a significant link between water insecurity and psychological stress. Water rates in the country have climbed steadily, and millions of households lose water service each year because of overdue bills. The study, which was published in the Journal of Public Health, used the city of Detroit as a case study. Mental health stress was greatest among people who had recently received a shutoff notice. Mental stress was also reported by residents who had previously been disconnected, and those who felt that their bills were unaffordable.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on drinking water systems in Louisiana that were damaged by Hurricane Laura.
Last week, five hurricanes and tropical storms were swirling in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, but Jude Primeaux was still thinking about the last storm that hit his community. Hurricane Laura made landfall in southwestern Louisiana on August 27 with wind speeds around 150 miles per hour. The Category 4 storm was one of the strongest on record to strike the state.
Laura came ashore in Cameron Parish, and its wind and water took a toll on Waterworks District 7, where Primeaux is the District president. He said that debris struck fire hydrants and snapped them off. Electric motors for pumping water from supply wells were damaged. With fewer than 7,000 residents, Cameron is one of the state’s least populated parishes, but it took the lion’s share of the storm. As Primeaux put it, “It’s a lot of catastrophe”
Waterworks District 7 serves around 900 people. More than three weeks after the storm, it’s still offline. No residents have returned because the property destruction was so extensive, and Primeaux doesn’t know when the water will flow again. “We’re down right now,” he said. “We’ll be down for a while.”
In that regard, the district has plenty of company. As of Friday afternoon, the Louisiana Department of Health counted 17 water systems that are partiallly or fully inoperable. Some of those systems are operated by gas stations or refineries and do not serve homes. The others are essential public infrastructure.
Eight of the damaged systems, like Waterworks District 7, are community water systems, or those providing water to residences. In total, they serve about 4,500 people.
The Louisiana Rural Water Association has been at the front lines of the response. Pat Credeur is the Association’s executive director. He said that his staff, with the help of colleagues in neighboring states, has been working tirelessly since the storm to help communities. Workers are distributing generators to utilities still without power. They’re fixing pipes that snapped when trees uprooted and locating valves and meters that were covered by debris. Credeur told Circle of Blue “A lot of the water mains that were buried three, four, five feet – some of them have been brought to the surface and broke in two. So those things have to be replaced so the whole system can be pressurized.”
Even for residents who have returned, challenges remain. Some areas of Cameron Parish do not yet have electricity. Based on experience after hurricanes Rita and Ike, an office administrator in District 10 guessed that it might be three months before grid power is completely restored in her district. Because of a state rule, residents will be advised to boil their water as long as the district is using generators.
With the accelerating pace of large disasters in a warming climate, people are having to run faster and faster just to stay in place. Primeaux, whose main job is with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, is someone who wants to step off that treadmill. He suggests that others who live in the area consider their options, saying “My advice, I wouldn’t want nobody to go back. It’s not worth it, to me. I’m not moving back.”
Primeaux said that three of his coworkers at the Department of Transportation and Development said that they won’t return.
For now, Primeaux is staying in a camper on a property he owns in Grand Lake, which is farther inland. It’s where his son lives and where he plans to rebuild. It’s not the first time he’s lost a lot to a storm. His home was also destroyed by Hurricane Rita, in 2005. He said “For Rita I had nothing but a slab, and for Laura I have nothing but a slab.”
For residents who do want to stay, Primeaux advises persistence, saying “The people who are going back, just be patient, give us time to get things situated.”
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.