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.
This week, we highlight three stories from the United States on nitrate pollution, groundwater extraction, and drought response.
In Oregon, a port located on the Columbia River has agreed to spend $200 million to control water pollution from its operations. State regulators had already fined the Port of Morrow for repeated environmental violations over the mishandling of its wastewater. It’s the state’s second largest port and it had been dumping nitrogen-saturated waste on farmland in eastern Oregon. The waste contaminated the groundwater with high levels of nutrients, in an arid location where residents rely on groundwater for their drinking water. The port’s waste comes from food processors, data centers, and storage facilities. It’s now taking action to meet stricter disposal requirements imposed by the state. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the port’s $200 million investment will bolster its waste treatment capacity. The agreement allows the port to build out its treatment system in stages. The project is expected to be completed by 2026.
Groundwater is also a concern in western Kansas. But what worries residents most is the risk that the water will run out. The region relies on the Ogallala aquifer to irrigate bountiful harvests of corn, wheat, and soybeans. But because the aquifer refills so slowly, there are many areas where water is essentially a finite resource. For years state policy has encouraged the gradual draining of the aquifer to support the region’s farm industry. Now that policy is being questioned, as High Plains Public Radio reports. A board that advises the governor and state lawmakers on water policy voted for the first time to recommend that the aquifer not be drained. The vote was groundbreaking, but its effect is limited. It was an advisory vote, and it does not bind any agency to act. State lawmakers could impose limits on groundwater extraction, if they choose. But language to that effect was removed from legislation earlier this year, due in large part to lobbying from the agricultural industry.
In California, a series of early-season storms have blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains in snow. The snowpack is well above average for this time of year, which is a hopeful sign in a state that is still severely dry. Water managers don’t know what the rest of the winter holds, so they are playing it safe. Last week, the state’s largest municipal water provider declared a regional drought emergency and asked its 26 member agencies to voluntarily conserve water. Through these agencies, the Metropolitan Water District serves 19 million people in southern California. Most of the water it provides comes from two distant basins that are currently short of water: the Sierra Nevada watersheds in northern California and the Colorado River basin hundreds of miles to the east. Adding to the challenge, some member agencies can only get water from one of the basins due to their pipe infrastructure. Because their supplies are less secure, those agencies are already required to conserve water through measures such as once-a-week lawn watering. The drought emergency declaration is an alert to the rest of the district’s water agencies in Southern California. They may have to take similar conservation measures if the rest of the winter is dry.
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