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 Taiwan, officials are battling an unusually severe drought while at the same time trying to cope with rising Covid-19 cases. Reuters reports that because of low water levels, hydropower stations are generating less electricity. The power crunch could not have come at a worse time. The island suffered two power outages last week, caused in part by reduced output from hydropower dams, a malfunction at a fossil fuel plant, and high electricity demand from Taiwan’s manufacturing sector. With reservoirs declining, officials announced stricter water rationing measures. If the spring rains continue to falter, the high-value computer chip industry will have to cut consumption by 17 percent starting in June. To maintain residential supplies, the government is drilling wells and installing desalination plants. One official at Taiwan’s Water Resources Agency said it had been 360 days since the island saw any appreciable rainfall.
In science, a new study is questioning common assumptions about the role of dams in global warming. Dams are promoted as a low-carbon source of electricity: one that traps more carbon than it releases into the atmosphere. But a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience argues that dams do not deserve such a green reputation. The study found that dams actually release twice as much carbon as they store. Carbon emissions are most pronounced in areas of the reservoir that are dry part of the year. The wetting and drying of the soil releases stored carbon, especially in the tropics. The study made its conclusions by analyzing 30 years of data from nearly 7,000 dams worldwide. The findings ague against the assumption that dam reservoirs are net carbon sinks.
In the United States, an investigation by USA Today found a patchwork of regulations for the nation’s water towers and tanks. These are the iconic structures that store drinking water and grace many small town skylines. On the outside, the towers may promote a local industry or a state championship sports team. But on the inside they could harbor dead snakes, animal feces, or other unwanted intruders. In one notable incident last year in Delray Beach, Florida, a water tank filled with sediment caused the town’s water to turn brown. After looking into the matter, town officials determined that the tank had not been cleaned in nearly 50 years. For now, states set the rules for cleaning water towers and tanks. Of those that responded to an industry survey, only nine require inspections of the inside of the tanks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told USA Today it is considering whether to issue nationwide rules for the cleaning of water towers and tanks.
This week, Circle of Blue looks at how the U.S. government’s recent coronavirus relief package is serving as a stealth infrastructure investment.
Frank Picozzi, the mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island, wants $10 million to replace water and sewer pipes. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards floated the idea of $300 million for water and sewer infrastructure. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, meanwhile, is putting $250 million into upgrading his state’s water systems and connecting rural residents to clean drinking water.
These potential investments are made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act, a coronavirus relief package that includes substantial sums for public works.
President Biden is promoting a multitrillion-dollar standalone infrastructure bill — a proposal that includes over 100 billion dollars to remove lead pipes, upgrade rural water systems, and clean up toxic PFAS chemicals. But in the meantime, the American Rescue Plan Act is a windfall of its own.
When lawmakers in Congress passed the $1.9 trillion rescue plan in March,  they opened the public purse in a bid to stoke the economy and help the country recover from a deadly pandemic. In addition to stimulus checks and support for families with children, the act set aside $350 billion for states, cities, and tribal governments. The act allowed for state and local funds to be spent in several ways, including premium pay to essential workers, aid to businesses and households, and covering expenses incurred during the pandemic. The act also stated that funds can be used for “necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”
But what is a necessary investment? In May, the U.S. Treasury Department clarified the terminology. And in doing so, it opened the door for state, local, and tribal governments to use the funds for improving their water and sewer systems. Joseph Kane at the Brookings Institution says the American Rescue Plan funding is an opportunity to address essential current and future water infrastructure needs, calling it a “chance to provide short-term stability while accelerating lasting infrastructure improvements.”
Funding will be spread broadly. States and the District of Columbia will receive $195 billion. Counties will get $65 billion, while metro areas will see about $46 billion. Tribal governments will receive $20 billion. The remaining $24 billion will go to U.S. territories and smaller local governments.
How might the funds be spent for water systems? According to the Treasury Department, “necessary investments” for water and sewer means those that maintain service to meet health standards or add resilience to climate change. Acceptable projects include those that are eligible for the federal government’s primary water infrastructure lending program, such as transmission, storage, distribution, treatment, lead service line removal, pollution prevention, stormwater capture, and connecting a failing system with a better performing neighbor. The Treasury Department argues that aligning the American Rescue Plan funding with the state revolving loan program provides states the flexibility to target their water and sewer needs.
Some states have already outlined their spending. In Kentucky, Gov. Beshear signed a state law that allocates $250 million from the American Rescue Plan for water infrastructure. The funding will be distributed through the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. The law earmarks $50 million of the total amount for providing drinking water to “unserved” rural residents.
Other state officials are just now considering how to spend their funds. Gov. Edwards of Louisiana recommended that the Legislature use at least $300 million of its $3 billion allocation on water infrastructure. Edwards noted that 20 percent of water systems in Louisiana are in violation of state requirements for water quality, operations, or maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded Louisiana’s drinking water systems as a D minus. Edwards sees the infusion of federal money as an opening for improvement. He said “We certainly need to take advantage of the opportunity that we have to make significant headway on this issue.”
Some local officials are taking their time and evaluating their options. Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, said that he has ten priorities for the $394 million that the city will receive, and that infrastructure and eliminating sources of lead in homes are two of those priorities. But Barrett wants to consult with residents and city departments to harmonize Milwaukee’s spending plan with their priorities, whether they are broadband, affordable housing, streetlight repairs, or water mains. He intends to submit a plan to the Council by July. The American Rescue Plan Act requires the funds to be spent by the end of 2024.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here