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.
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Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s rise to power does not bode well for a water sector that is already troubled. That’s according to an international group of scholars. Over 70 percent of Afghanistan’s people are without access to clean drinking water, and most of the country experiences water stress. The Water, Peace, and Security Partnership includes Dutch researchers and international conservation groups. It argues that the Taliban’s takeover could make a bad situation worse. The partnership says that the Taliban do not have the technical or managerial expertise to oversee complex and deficient water systems. The situation is worsened by “brain drain” as current officials flee the country. The Taliban must also tread delicately in international politics, managing river systems that cross into Iran and the countries of Central Asia. The researchers say that these factors, combined, increase Afghanistan’s risk of conflict over water.
In the United States, the pandemic is affecting water availability in an unusual way. WFTV reports that the water utility for Orlando, Florida, asked residents to conserve over the weekend because rising numbers of Covid-19 patients in area hospitals is impairing the utility’s ability to supply water. The utility uses liquid oxygen to remove foul odors from its treated water. Its liquid oxygen reserves are low because of demand from hospitals, which need it to treat Covid-19 patients. Hospital officials say they are using an unprecedented volume of liquid oxygen due to rising cases. The utility provides water to about half a million people. Since outdoor irrigation accounts for about 40 percent of water use, utility officials told residents to avoid watering the lawn or washing their cars.
In Africa, a nonprofit group claims that the textile and apparel industry is poisoning rivers with polluted wastewater. The report from Water Witness International based its case on investigations in five countries: Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Tanzania. Regular water quality monitoring data was not always available, but the group found credible evidence of discharges into rivers of unsafe levels of toxic metals, dyes, and bleaches. Major fashion brands in both Europe and the United States use these suppliers, which are owned locally or by Asian companies.
This week Circle of Blue reports on water cuts that are coming next year for the lower basin of the Colorado River.
The implications of the drying American Southwest and the limits to the region’s water supply are increasingly apparent. The federal government marked the changing conditions recently, declaring a Tier 1 shortage for the lower Colorado River basin. The shortage declaration will force Arizona and Nevada, as well as Mexico to further reduce their withdrawals from the river in 2022. California, the other lower basin state, is not affected. The declaration also sets the stage for more drastic measures in the near future since Lake Mead is projected to fall another 30 feet over the next two years.
Mead and Powell, the basin’s largest reservoirs, are the lowest they have been since they were first filled. Each one is about one-third full. The lower basin was already in a Tier Zero shortage this year, which required modest reductions in water withdrawals from the river by users in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Despite this, water in the basin’s reservoirs dropped from 49 percent of capacity one year ago to 40 percent today. The decline was due to a dry spring and parched soils, making the runoff into Powell the second-lowest on record.
A Tier 1 shortage will demand deeper cuts from the lower basin. Nevada and Mexico will be affected, but the cuts will mostly fall on Arizona, and more specifically, to farmers in Arizona who get water from the Central Arizona Project canal. Arizona officials planned for the reductions, expecting the shortage and an 18 percent cut in water deliveries from the Colorado River. Farmers will pump more groundwater and some will be paid to conserve water. Arizona will also draw on water on its “liquid bank account” – water supplies it has stored in Mead from to conservation in previous years. Taking into account these and other measures, the cuts will not be as severe as the headline figure of 18 percent.
Tom Buschatzke is the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said that responding to drier and hotter conditions along with declining reservoirs “will be daunting.” He added that it will require local, regional, national, and international collaboration.
The shortage declaration is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study, a simulation of reservoir levels two years into the future. It’s updated monthly, and the August study sets the operating conditions for the next year. That includes how much water is to be released from the basin’s largest reservoirs, Powell and Mead. The Tier 1 shortage was triggered because, by the end of this year, the water level in Mead is projected to be 10 feet lower than the shortage threshold.
The cuts may not arrest Mead’s decline as effectively as hoped. That is because Mead will suffer from conditions upstream at it’s sister reservoir, Powell. Besides the shortage declaration, the 24-month study also determines water releases from Powell. Powell’s water stores have also declined, and so water releases downstream into Mead will be less than usual. The Bureau of Reclamation expects that the Powell reservoir can be stabilized by reduced releases and by infusions of extra water from reservoirs higher in the watershed. But the effects downstream on Mead will be severe. The big reservoir is projected to decline another 30 feet in the next two years. At that point, a key node in the Southwest’s water supply network would be just 26 percent full.
Federal officials are trying to anticipate what a changing climate means for a watershed that helps to supply drinking water to over 40 million people in some of the country’s fastest-growing regions. Recent dry conditions could get worse, said Bureau of Reclamation deputy commissioner Camille Touton. Scientists say that the basin is tapped out and that officials should be planning for severely reduced inflows, even as states in the upper basin are eyeing increased diversions. Touton said that additional actions to reduce water use “will likely be necessary in the near future.”
What those actions might be — and who would bear the brunt of the reductions — will be on the table when the basin states renegotiate interim guidelines for reservoirs Mead and Powell. Those guidelines expire at the end of 2025, and discussions are expected to begin later this year.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.