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 international news, this week marks the start of a critical UN climate conference, known as COP26. Leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, have three main issues on the agenda. One is strengthening commitments to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep the planet from dangerously overheating. The second is boosting funding for developing countries so that they can adapt to climate impacts that are already occurring. The third topic is more controversial. It is whether rich countries should compensate poorer countries for damages caused by a warming planet. Amid these negotiations, water groups will press the case for integrating climate policy and water policy. Those groups, including the Global Water Partnership and the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation are hosting a “water pavilion” that will be a hub of information and dialogue during the two-week conference.
In the Nile River basin last week, a political power shift in Sudan could turn up the heat on a long-simmering dispute over a major dam in the region. According to Reuters news service, the military coup in Sudan is likely to make water diplomacy between Sudan and its neighbor Ethiopia more fragile. Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia have been negotiating for years over a tense concern: filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam is is the largest hydropower project in Africa, and Ethiopia says it is crucial for meeting the country’s energy needs. Egypt and Sudan sit downstream of the impoundment, and they have long worried that the project could reduce their precious water supplies. Sudan’s new leaders are far more likely to take the stance of Egypt’s president, who has warned of “inconceivable instability” if the dam threatens the country’s water supply.
In the United States, it’s election week, and Circle of Blue reports on state and local ballot measures related to water.
In New York state, voters have a chance to enshrine environmental protections in their state constitution, which could revive a legal movement that flourished in the United States a half-century ago. On November 2, voters will be asked whether to amend the state’s foundational document by inserting language to protect individual rights to unimpaired ecosystems. The text that would be added to the state Bill of Rights reads: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
The proposed amendment is a brief but powerful statement of principle, according to John Dernbach, a law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School. Dernbach told Circle of Blue. “How many words protect freedom of speech? It doesn’t need to be long. The point is it’s in the Constitution.”
If New Yorkers approve the amendment, it would resurrect a constitutional environmental rights movement from the 1970s, when public pushback against the health and ecological damages of unchecked industrial contamination became too great to ignore. In that decade, the federal government created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passed landmark environmental laws to protect air, land, and water. And state governments began to secure those same rights for individuals in their constitutions. In the 1970s, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, and Hawaii adopted some form of environmental protection in their constitutions. Rhode Island followed in 1987, and was the last state to do so.
Dernbach told Circle of Blue that these amendments act as a steadying force in state politics, because constitutions are more stable than policies and regulations, which can change from administration to administration. Constitutional provisions are also broader, filling gaps in state policy. Still, Dernbach notes that passage of an amendment to the state’s constitution is only a first step. Equally important is how the judiciary system recognizes the new language in rulings going forward. Dernbach said that Pennsylvania’s courts did not take the environmental rights amendment seriously until 2013, when they invalidated parts of a state law that encouraged oil and gas development.
The state of Maine also has a ballot measure linked to water. This hotly contested referendum is focused on the future of electric power in the region. The electric company Central Maine Power got its state and federal permits and began construction on a high-voltage transmission line called New England Clean Energy Connect.  The power line is 145 miles long, stretching from the Canadian border to Lewiston, Maine. If completed, the line will deliver hydropower generated in Quebec to Massachusetts, in order to fulfill that state’s clean energy goals. A small fraction of the power, about 5 percent, will go to Maine.
Citizens petitioned to get a vote on the project, with a measure seeking a halt it. Question 1 on the statewide ballot asks if Maine voters want to ban high-impact electric transmission lines in the region where construction is taking place.
Groups who support a ban do so on several grounds. They want to avoid the tree-cutting, even though those forests are largely commercial timberlands. They also believe that low-carbon goals could be met by generating more renewable power nearby, within New England. And they think that Maine, which is not the primary user of the electricity, is paying too high a cost. The principal campaign group opposing the electric transmission line is Mainers for Local Power, which spent about $24 million through October 27 and is led by energy companies NextEra, Calpine, and Vistra. NextEra operates a natural gas plant and several solar facilities in Maine, while Calpine and Vistra run natural gas plants in the state.
On the other hand, advocates for the transmission line say it is a vital springboard to a low-carbon future. They anticipate annual reductions of 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 700,000 vehicles. They tout construction jobs, local tax revenue, and side benefits in the deal such as $170 million for rural broadband, bill discounts, and electric vehicle infrastructure. Supporters of the transmission line worry that scrapping the project after it was approved by state and federal regulators would set a bad precedent for the state and inject partisan politics into future permitting decisions. Proponents of the transmission line have spent more money on their campaign for Maine’s votes. Through October 27, four groups have collectively spent nearly $81 million, largely raised from the companies who would benefit from the project. According to the Bangor Daily News, Maine’s transmission line referendum is the second-most expensive election campaign in state history, behind the 2020 U.S. Senate race.
While New York state has a vote on environmental protections in its constitution and Maine considers the future of a controversial electric transmission line, two cities on opposite sides of the country are asking voters for permission to borrow more than a half-billion dollars to work on crucial water infrastructure.
In Boise, Idaho and in Virginia Beach, Virginia, city officials are asking residents to approve measures for massive public works projects. These projects aim to address environmental pressures, repair aging systems, and prepare communities for a future of warmer temperatures and higher waters.
Even as Congress delays passage of a national infrastructure bill, leaders in Boise and Virginia Beach say that their projects, like much of the nation’s water infrastructure, are urgent matters. Natalie Monro is the communications manager for Boise. She told Circle of Blue “We can’t wait on these needs.” Boise’s population grew by nearly 15 percent in the last decade. It’s planning a 10-year $570 million renovation and expansion of its sewage treatment system. The Idaho capital wants to begin recycling wastewater for industrial use and divert a portion of the recycled water to replenish its aquifer.
Virginia Beach, meanwhile, is looking to guard homes and vital infrastructure against rising waters. Voters there are being asked to support a property tax increase that will fund a 10-year $567 million investment into 21 flood-prevention projects. Those projects include tidal gates, drainage pipe improvements, raising a road, and converting a public golf course into a park that doubles as a stormwater basin.
City councils in both Virginia Beach and Boise passed their respective spending plans after a series of public consultations, but the proposals also require the approval of the voters.
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