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 the United States, the chemical company Bayer announced settlements in lawsuits alleging that its weed killers caused damage to humans and the environment. Bayer will pay roughly $9 billion to settle tens of thousands of lawsuits that claimed the popular herbicide Roundup causes cancer. The agreement includes $400 million to settle crop damage claims related to the weed killer called die-camba and $650 million for water contamination linked to PCBs. The company will set aside more than a billion dollars to cover future litigation. Three cases are not covered in the settlement. They allege health damage from Roundup that have gone to trial and are now in the appeals process. Roundup, paired with genetically modified seeds, is a staple of commodity agriculture. But the weed killer is also used in products marketed for lawns and gardens.

In Michigan, an Ingham County Circuit Court judge granted the state’s request to temporarily close an oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. Line 5 runs across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet. It is owned and operated by the Canadian energy firm Enbridge, which reported damage to the pipeline’s anchor support on June 18. Line 5, which consists of twin pipes, is 67 years old and transports oil and natural gas liquids from Wisconsin to Ontario. Bridge Magazine reports that the state requested a full shutdown after it learned that Enbridge had resumed operations in the pipe that was not damaged. The state is seeking a more extensive assessment of the line’s condition before it reopens. Environmental groups, local governments, and Indian tribes in the region have lobbied for a permanent shut down of Line 5, arguing that the risk of an oil spill in the turbulent straits is a significant hazard for the Great Lakes. The state’s attorney general, who campaigned on decommissioning Line 5, is pursuing that goal through a separate legal action. The Ingham County Circuit Court will hold a hearing on Tuesday about extending the temporary shutdown order.
In science news, researchers at Columbia University published a study on a neglected topic: drinking water contamination in jails. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted health risks for people in jail, where comprimized hygiene can increase transmission and severity. The Columbia University study provides another piece of evidence: water systems that exclusively serve jails in the American Southwest have higher levels of arsenic than other water systems. Arsenic is naturally occurring, and is a particular problem in the Southwest, where concentrations in groundwater are high. Water systems serving jails did a poor job of reducing this risk. Their drinking water frequently exceeded the federal health standard for arsenic.
This week, Circle of Blue continues our reporting on small water systems facing big money problems.
In North Carolina, officials are working on a rating system that would identify public water and sewer providers that are at risk of financial failure. The ratings would allow state funding and technical assistance to flow to the most distressed communities. At a June 25 committee meeting of the North Carolina Water Infrastructure Authority, staff from the Department of Environmental Quality outlined draft criteria for the rating system.
Kim Colson is the director of the the North Carolina DEQ’s water infrastructure division. He said that 499 water and sewer systems were analyzed in the draft review. Out of the 499,183 could be considered distressed.
“It is a large number,” Colson said, noting that that it will change as more data comes in and the threshold for defining distress is refined.
Colson hopes that state intervention can give small systems what he called “the firm foundation that water infrastructure provides, to sustain themselves and redevelop and start growing.” That intervention can come in the form of grants, coaching, and assessment tools.
The coronavirus pandemic has sent financial shockwaves through many water utilities as businesses closed and manufacturers shut down. Nationally, rural water systems expect to lose about $1 billion in revenue from declining water sales. That’s according to an industry survey.
Even before the pandemic, small water systems were struggling. North Carolina took the historic step last summer of revoking the charter of Eureka, a tiny community whose chronically indebted sewer system had bankrupted the town.
Colson and his colleagues aim to prevent more scenarios like Eureka. North Carolina’s water infrastructure master plan, published in 2017, focuses on the financial and managerial shortcomings of small water systems. The next step is using a rating system to identify water and sewer providers that are on the cusp of failure.
At the meeting, Colson presented 18 criteria that factor into the ratings. These include financial metrics such as debt ratios, operating budgets, revenues, and rates, as well as demographic elements such as population trends. Each of the criteria is worth various points, depending on its importance. The draft proposal considers systems with six or more points to be distressed.
The most important factor in the draft version is a community’s revenue outlook, worth up to six points on its own. This measurement combines population trends and water rates, and indicates the ability to raise revenue in the future to sustain operations. According to Colson, the communities in the deepest trouble are those with declining populations and high water rates. He said that in many cases, even doubling the rates would not offset operational costs and extensive repairs. The trend is most obvious in the smallest communities, those with fewer than 1,000 people.
Colson said that many of these distressed systems could yet be viable. But that requires what’s called “resetting the utility.” That could mean an assessment of assets and finances, making improvements in managerial practices, or patching leaky pipes. It could also result in partnership with larger neighbors or regional mergers. For utilities, there are advantages to size: shared billing systems and pooled contracts reduce operating budgets, while having more customers can spread the fixed infrastructure costs across more people. But connecting one system to another often requires several million dollars, which is a significant hurdle for a community already financially constrained.
State assistance for these sorts of ideas might be forthcoming. The North Carolina Legislature is considering a new grant fund for distressed water systems. That bill, which includes provisions to foster utility partnerships, is now in negotiation between the House and Senate.
Colson said that there is still “a ways to go” before the ratings system for public water and sewer providers is finalized. There is missing data to fill in, and the ratings criteria need to be reviewed by stakeholders outside of the committee. Nevertheless, committee members seemed pleased with the early stages of the review. One of the members, Charles Vines, is the mayor of Bakersville, a town of about 450 people. He told Circle of Blue “I think this is going to make a huge difference in our communities.”
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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.