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.
On October 1, the UN Human Rights Office called for an equitable distribution of water between Israel and Palestine. The office delivered a special report on the topic at a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The report noted that lack of safe, reliable water is especially severe in Gaza and areas of the West Bank, where an estimated 14,000 Palestinians are not connected to a water network or water infrastructure. The gaps in water access come from climate change, the expansion of Israeli settlements, aging infrastructure, movement restrictions, and political conflict. Such conflict flared earlier this year when Israeli airstrikes in Gaza damaged desalination plants, water distribution pipes, and sewage systems.
In the United States, officials in the Great Lakes region are turning to emergency water sources for two communities contending with contaminated drinking water. In Wisconsin, the state Department of Natural Resources says it will spend more than $500,000 a year on providing bottled water to households on French Island. Wisconsin Public Radio reports that drinking water in the western Wisconsin community is contaminated with PFAS chemicals believed to have come from fire-suppressing foams used at a nearby regional airport. About a thousand homes are affected.
In Michigan, the state Department of Health and Human Services is recommending that 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth. Benton Harbor is in western Michigan. A majority of its residents are Black and income levels are low. The city has had high levels of lead in its drinking water for at least the last three years. As an interim solution, Michigan is now delivering thousands of cases of bottled water and testing the use of faucet filters. Last month, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use emergency powers to provide alternative water sources and public outreach. They also petitioned for grant funding to help Benton Harbor replace about 6,000 lead pipes.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the personal sacrifices that were required to reduce the risk of flooding in an Illinois town.
For 30 years, Dean Anderson’s home was his pride and his joy. It was a small riverfront property at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers in the town of Ottawa, Illinois, and the house held some of his happiest memories. Anderson recalls weekend mornings with his late wife, enjoying the view of the docks that he built on the river. He said “We loved that house. We’d go out in the morning and drink coffee out on the deck. It was so quiet, you could hear the fish jump.”
Anderson’s love for his home was so deep that he was willing to endure the floods that had long plagued the neighborhood, an area known in town as “the Flats.” In the mid-1990s, climate change and upstream development funneled more runoff than ever into the flood-prone area. This reached a peak in 1996, when water got into Anderson’s elevated home twice in one year.
The city began offering to buy out homes in the Flats, using funding from FEMA, so that residents could move to safer areas. Anderson planned to stay, and refused the city’s offers several times. It wasn’t until 2000 that he relented, worried that contaminated floodwaters would jeopardize the health of his wife, who was ill.
That buyout program marked the beginning of a decades-long flood management strategy in Ottawa. It steered development out of the riskiest areas. It bought out 50 flood-prone properties and relocated homeowners outside the flood plain. For buildings that remained in flood zones, Ottawa tightened the safety requirements. And, unlike many places, it strictly enforces unpopular policy.
Those steps paid off. Last year, the city saw the second-highest flood on record, but it caused virtually no property damage  – a stark contrast to the devastation from past floods. But there is personal sacrifice behind the town’s success. Today, although Anderson is settled into his new home, further inland, the memory life in the Flats makes his heart ache. 
Anderson’s bittersweet experience is not unusual in the town, where safety has always come at a steep cost. It’s a place that personalizes the reality of living with climate change. In Ottawa, every resident relocated to safety is a life turned upside down. And the city’s experience shows that as the climate becomes more volatile, achieving safety is not an endpoint; it is a continual exercise in coping.
Flooding has always been a part of life in Ottawa. The city receives the runoff from the Illinois and Fox River watersheds, which have a combined area of almost 12,000 square miles. Heavy rains upstream can flood the town—even if local rains are minimal. Residents used to find ways to stave off –  or put up with – the periodic rising waters.
But things are getting worse. Climate change has made the heaviest rainfall events almost 40 percent more intense in the Midwest and, in many places, more frequent. What’s more, urbanization and development upstream of Ottawa have turned water-absorbing ecosystems into impervious roads and parking lots, funneling even more runoff into the city’s riverbanks.
Lifelong residents watched as the flooding became too dangerous and too frequent to ignore. 
Dave Noble is Ottawa’s director of economic development. He told Circle of Blue that during these years, whenever heavy rains hit northern Illinois, Chicago news agencies would send their helicopters straight to Ottawa. He said “They knew there would be houses underwater, people being rescued by boats, and it would be a great news story.” 
At this point, the cost of floods began to escalate nationwide. In the 1990s, flooding caused $5 billion in damage in the U.S. In the 2000s, that figure doubled to $10 billion. And last decade, it doubled once again, amounting to $20 billion in national flood damage.
During those same decades, however, Ottawa was reversing the trend. In 2020, the city experienced its second-highest flood on record, with minor consequences. Noble said “We had to close some streets that were underwater, but we had no businesses damaged, no houses damaged, no schools damaged. Instead of walking away with tens of millions of dollars of damage, we effectively had just a little bit of maintenance and cleanup. That’s a success.”
Ottawa is one of only six communities in the nation to have achieved the second-highest possible rating by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for floodplain safety. The Flats buyout program was key to achieving this goal. The city bought homes for 80 percent of their market value before the floods, allowing most residents to stay on their feet financially when relocating. The area is now a public park. By one estimate, buyouts have saved the city over $9 million in damages.
From a safety perspective, nearly all residents and city officials consider this a success. But getting there required choices often fraught with grief. The opportunity to sell up and relocate has, for some, been tinged with the loss of a home that holds lifelong connections and memories.
This duality is part of life on the edge of a changing climate; and it’s a dynamic that the city’s planning is designed to continue. Ottawa strictly enforces the “50 percent rule”: a FEMA mandate requiring that when a building accumulates damage worth 50 percent of its original value, it has to meet local floodplain building codes. It’s rare for cities to be strict about enforcing the rule; both because they don’t want to discourage development, and because it’s viewed as placing yet another burden on flood victims.
On higher ground, residents like Anderson are now safe from flooding. But the development trends that have made the city so vulnerable still remain. So the question looms: how much longer will Ottawa’s flood protection measures hold?
Just as flood risks evolve, so too do Ottawa’s mitigation plans. Flood adaptation in the city is not designed to have an endpoint. Rather, by continually enforcing the 50 percent rule and tightening building codes, it’s an ongoing process, a constant cycle of risk assessment and reassessment.
Ultimately, Ottawa’s history is a testament to its ability to adapt, even if for no other reason than necessity. Those on the front lines of flooding, know this vulnerability firsthand. In the thirty years before Anderson sold his property, he was constantly adapting to the changing river levels. After historic flooding hit in the early 80s, Anderson paid to elevate the house on eight-foot stilts. Later, he built a stone floodwall into his yard to fend off rising waters. And over the years, he and his wife gave up on a garden, since their plants would get swept away when it rained hard. In spite of all this, the place was home. As he put it, they’d been fighting as long as they’d been there. Even so, he said, “I miss it still.”
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.