This week’s episode of What’s Up With Water covers paying for groundwater in California and a controversial canal project in Nebraska. Plus, Circle of Blue reports on the links between Russia’s war in Ukraine and global food crises.


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 the United States, a county in California is finalizing plans to require well owners, for the first time, to pay for the groundwater they extract. The Press Democrat newspaper reports that the new rules proposed in Sonoma County come from the state’s sustainable groundwater management law, which was passed in 2014. The extraction fees would apply to well owners in three groundwater basins in Sonoma County. The fees vary from basin to basin but all are based on the volume of water that is pumped. Depending on their locations, rural residents who have a well would pay between $18 and $200 a year. Large water users like ranches, cities, and industries would pay much more. Management boards in those California basins have until June to decide on the proposal. If they don’t, the state will require well owners to pay a flat fee.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts will proceed with a controversial plan to build a canal in Colorado in order to divert water from a river that flows through both states.  A federally approved compact between Nebraska and Colorado allows for Nebraska to divert water out of the South Platte River. The river begins in the Rocky Mountains and flows through Denver before entering Nebraska. Ricketts proposed the project amid fears about Colorado’s increased water use. Colorado’s governor questioned the $500 million canal, calling it a “costly boondoggle” for Nebraska taxpayers. But Ricketts maintains the project is necessary to preserve water rights for his state. The bill that Ricketts signed last week provides $53.5 million for preliminary design and land acquisition.

This week Circle of Blue reports on the connections between drought, conflict, and global food prices.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is escalating food prices worldwide. This is intensifying hunger emergencies in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia where millions of people are underfed, with harvests and livestock decimated by three under- average rainy seasons in a row.

A fourth failed rainy season is predicted for the Horn of Africa. The convergence of severe local drought, domestic conflict, environmental degradation, and shocks to the international food supply raises fears that the region’s herders and subsistence farmers will face famine. Jeremy Taylor of the Norwegian Refugee Council, described the potential for the scale and severity of the drought and its impact as an “unprecedented crisis.”

International trends are not making the situation any easier. At the start of April, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that its global food price index reached its highest level since measurements began in 1990.

Russia and Ukraine are top suppliers of staple crops. They account for 30 percent of global wheat exports and 20 percent of global maize exports. The prices of those crops have spiked since February. In the month following Russia’s invasion, cereal prices climbed 17 percent, according to the FAO. Wheat prices rose by 19 percent, as did maize prices.

Bram Govaerts is the director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a nonprofit research organization. He said one factor in rising prices is the simple issue of availability of food.  But, he added, the war in Ukraine will affect food markets in other ways. Higher fuel prices will increase the cost of production, while reduced fertilizer exports from Russia could stunt harvests elsewhere in the world.

The executive director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said the ripples of war go beyond global food markets. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Beasley said that the conflict is generating a “tsunami effect.”  If food production in Ukraine continues to be curtailed, countries who depend on imports have higher risk of famine, political destabilization, and mass migration. The World Food Program bills itself as the world’s largest humanitarian organization. It operates in countries suffering hunger crises, and Beasley said that the organization typically buys about half its supplies from Ukraine. Supplying food is difficult in any hunger crisis, but price increases are an added challenge this year. Higher food and fuel prices have raised the World Food Program’s operational costs worldwide by $71 million per month.

The spike in global food prices coincides with an existing hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa that recalls a severe drought in 2010-11 in which more than a quarter of a million people died. Failed rainy seasons in the last three years have decimated harvests and livestock herds. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that last January, 400,000 people in Somalia were displaced from their homes due to drought. It was the highest monthly number in 10 years of keeping track. Adding to the strain, aid deliveries in Ethiopia and Somalia have been delayed by local and regional conflicts.

A food security monitoring group warns that about 5 million people in Somalia – that’s about 31 percent of the population – are in crisis levels of hunger or worse. The April-to-June seasonal rains are forecast to be below average. If that is the case, the number of people at crisis levels or higher could reach 6 million. Poor people in Somalia’s urban areas typically pay 60 to 80 percent of their income for food. Aid agencies say they have little capacity to absorb higher costs.

Govaerts said the alignment of drought and conflict is a warning sign for the future. As the planet warms, the risk of weather disasters in multiple grain-growing regions increases, be they droughts, floods or hailstorms. “This is just an example of what’s about to come,” he said. “Our global systems will have these kinds of interruptions driven by climate change, not only in one country but in multiple countries at the same time, which can equally represent an interruption in the global breadbaskets.”

The United States is no exception. Even now, major wheat-producing regions in the U.S. are experiencing drought which threatens their ability to take up the slack in the global supply. The FAO notes that long-term dryness in those areas is hurting the potential crop yield.

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.