I’m 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 Greenland, a special election could settle a growing dispute over the environmental impacts of a major mining project. The election is April 6, and if the Inuit Ataqatigiit party,  which opposes the mine, can form a coalition, the project could be delayed or halted. The mine is intended to extract rare earth metals, such as neodymium, that are used in wind turbines and electric motors. Residents of a nearby town told Reuters news service that they are concerned about mine dust and its potential harm to fisheries and drinking water. The implications of the election stretch far beyond Greenland’s borders. As the Arctic becomes more accessible due to climate change and melting ice, international mining companies are racing to exploit mineral deposits that have been as yet untouched.
In science news, an international research team has shed some light on an overlooked source of pollution in marine waters. A study in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment found that groundwater is a major avenue for nitrogen and phosphorus getting into the ocean. The study investigated 200 sites around the globe for this kind of subsurface nutrient discharge. It found that, in over half the sites, more nutrients were carried to the ocean by groundwater than by rivers. Nitrogen in groundwater may take decades to reach the ocean, but once it arrives, it can increase algal blooms and decrease marine biodiversity.
In the United States, a massive coastal restoration project in Louisiana has received a mostly positive review from the federal government. The coastal land building project has a price tag of $1.5 billion. The Army Corps of Engineers says the benefits largely outweigh the costs. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion calls for channeling sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River onto wetlands and marshes. The project aims to rebuild 28 square miles of wetlands that have been damaged by oil and gas exploration, levees, and hurricanes. Not everyone is happy, however. reports that seafood businesses are concerned about the project’s impact in Barataria Bay, where the infusion of fresh water could decimate the bay’s brown shrimp and oysters. Still, the Army Corps argues that a huge project like the sediment diversion is necessary in an effort to rescue the state’s shrinking coastline. The project will be funded by fines paid by the energy company BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The sediment diversion is part of Louisiana’s 50-year, $50 billion coastal restoration plan.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and what’s in it for water.
Last week, President Biden unveiled a wide-ranging jobs and infrastructure plan. He asked Congress to support a $2 trillion investment in the built and natural systems that sustain American life, from trips to the grocery store to a glass of water from the faucet.
The administration is calling the proposal the American Jobs Plan, and it includes $111 billion for water systems. It comes a month after winter storms crippled water and electric providers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and the plan also calls for $50 billion to prepare the country’s infrastructure for an era of severe floods, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes.
Like much of the plan, the $111 billion in water systems funding is described in broad terms that sidestep, for now, the details on how the money would be allocated. As part of that total, the plan offers $10 billion for monitoring and cleaning up toxic PFAS chemicals and investing in rural water systems, household wells, and septic units. The plan includes $56 billion for modernizing drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater conveyance and treatment.
Nathan Ohle is chief executive officer of Rural Community Assistance Partnership. He said that his organization, which help small communities with infrastructure needs, applauds the plan. Notably for water and public health, the administration proposes substantial funding to eliminate service lines containing lead, a highly toxic chemical that can severely damage the brain and other organs.
As President Biden recently said, “The American Jobs Plan will put plumbers and pipefitters to work, replacing 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, every child can turn on a faucet or a fountain and drink clean water.” In a discussion with reporters, a senior White House official emphasized the lead pipe replacement initiative, calling it “a bold but a very practical goal” for clean water, mentioning also the need to target lead in schools and childcare centers.
The administration wants to allocate $45 billion for removing all of the country’s lead drinking water lines. That’s about 6  to 10 million lines, and $45 billion is about what it would cost to do the job, according to Elin Betanzo, founder of the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering. Betanzo called the American Jobs Plan  “a plan we have been waiting for since the 1986 ban on the installation of new lead service lines, which included no requirements to remove the lead service lines already installed.”
The proposal to remove all lead service lines runs counter to recent rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In December, the Trump administration completed long-awaited revisions to federal rules on lead in drinking water. To the chagrin of public health advocates, the revisions did not order removal of all lead service lines. In light of those concerns, the Biden administration said on March 12 that it was delaying the implementation of that EPA rule. The EPA said it would open additional rounds of public consultation. The moves give the agency’s new leadership more time to review rules that were finalized at the end of the Trump administration. The agency expects its review to be finished in December.
Sri Vedachalam is a water program director at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. He said that the Biden administration will be looking at how to reconcile these two positions: on the one hand, stating publicly that it has a goal of total lead service line replacement, while on the other reviewing a rule that does not mandate such action. Vedachalam told Circle of Blue that it is possible to maintain the tension between offering financial incentives to remove lead pipe without requiring utilities to do so. But he said “from a messaging perspective, it’s not at all compatible.”
Other administration objectives will also be put to the test.
In an executive order on the climate crisis, Biden said that 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate spending will go toward low-income areas and communities of color. Sara Hughes, a policy expert at the University of Michigan, said the $50 billion Biden proposes for infrastructure resilience should be similarly targeted. She told Circle of Blue “we should be taking steps to make sure that those who need protection and investment are both prioritized and involved.”
Water sector observers await the finer points of the Biden infrastructure plan as administration officials work with Congress to turn the proposal into reality. Reaching out to disadvantaged communities is an approach that Biden has highlighted in his policy proposals. As he said in a recent speech in Pittsburgh,
“Too often, investments have failed to meet the needs of marginalized communities left behind.”
The key, for this infrastructure proposal, will be making sure that that does not happen again.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis awaits you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.