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 research news, a new study is raising questions about the health effects of a contaminant common to drinking water. The study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that nitrate in the drinking water of pregnant mothers can impair fetal growth. Nitrate is a chemical that occurs naturally, but it is prevalent in the water and soils of farming regions, where it is used as a fertilizer. The study found that, on average, women exposed to nitrate in drinking water gave birth to children who weighed 10 grams less than babies born to women where household water had no detectable nitrate. The authors of the study wrote that although the change in birth weight was relatively small, this could have serious public health implications. They suggest that current U.S. and World Health Organization standards for nitrate in drinking water may need to be tightened. The researchers only studied pregnant women living in Denmark and they called for more widespread studies to confirm the findings.
In the United States, hackers broke into the computer network of a Florida water utility and tried to add dangerous amounts of treatment chemicals to the drinking water. Reuters reports that the hackers, who have not been identified, gained access to a software program on the computer of a water utility employee in the town of Oldsmar. The hackers attempted to dump sodium hydroxide, or lye, into the water. The water treatment operator was able to reverse the command quickly, before it caused harm to the water supply for the town’s 15,000 people. Cybersecurity experts believe that the utility’s computer network was vulnerable because of an outdated operating system and weak passwords. Investigators are also considering the role of software that allows employees to access utility networks from their homes. The attack is one of the first in the U.S. to attempt to tamper with water supplies. Previous attacks have crippled municipal IT and billing systems and have locked down computer files in order to extract ransom payments.
In Illinois, the town of Joliet has selected a new drinking water provider. Joliet is the fourth-largest city in Illinois and had been using groundwater as its supply source. But groundwater levels have declined to the point of unsustainibility. Instead of relying on a dwindling aquifer, Joliet will tap into Chicago’s distribution network, which uses surface water from Lake Michigan. Joliet will pay its larger neighbor $30 million a year for the water, and will need to build new infrastructure to access it. The Chicago-Sun Times reports that a 31-mile pipeline, plus pumping stations, will cost Joliet between $592 million and $800 million. Those costs will have consequences. The average water bill for Joliet residents is expected to triple in the next decade. The goal is to complete the transition to Chicago water by 2030.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on water infrastructure in Michigan.
A new grant program in Michigan is aimed at removing contaminants from drinking water systems, and it’s so popular, demand for the funds is far outpacing the supply. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced that 32 grant applicants, many of them small towns, requested more than $80 million in state funds. The problem? Only $25 million is available to give out.
Nick Assendelft is a spokesperson with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, which is administering the grant program. The takeaway, he told Circle of Blue, is that there is intense interest in addressing contaminated drinking water and a large demand for funding solutions to give all Michiganders access to water that is clean, safe, and affordable.
The Consolidation and Contamination Risk Reduction grant is part of a $500 million package of clean water initiatives that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled on October 1. The Michigan Clean Water plan intends to update the state’s drinking water and sewer systems and reduce chemical contamination in drinking water.
The risk reduction grant is a small but important piece of the plan. Communities can use the grant to help households whose private wells are contaminated switch to public water supplies. They can also use the money to install treatment systems.
Special attention is focused on the contaminant class of chemicals known as PFAS, which do not easily break down in the environment. A statewide investigation has found 154 sites with at least one PFAS chemical that exceeds state standards. Grant applicants addressing PFAS contamination from one of these sites will receive priority when the state determines which projects to fund.
Though PFAS issues are widespread in Michigan, grant applicants are hoping to solve other water quality problems, as well. West Branch, a town of about 2,00 people in Ogemaw County, is one of those applicants. Naturally occurring iron and arsenic have troubled the town’s water supply for decades. John Dantzer, the West Branch city manager, told Circle of Blue that the town drilled two wells in 2009, anticipating that new water sources would solve the problem. They did not. West Branch applied for $4 million to install equipment that would remove iron and arsenic. Dantzer said that getting a grant would be a huge benefit for both residents and businesses in the area.
The window for grant applications closed on January 31. Assendelft said that his department is now vetting the applications. It’s awarding points for criteria such as the extent of contamination, the number of water quality violations, and the number of PFAS chemicals in the water that exceed state standards. Projects with higher point totals will take priority. The grants are capped at $5 million per applicant. Assendelft said the department hopes to announce grant recipients in late March at the earliest.
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.