This week’s episode of What’s Up With Water covers how Bolivia’s gold rush is polluting rivers, a resurgence of nitrate pollution in Iowa, and the expansion of desalination in Egypt. Plus, Circle of Blue explores what happens if one of the most powerful hydroelectric dams in the United States stops generating power.
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 Bolivia, the rising price of gold is fueling a boom in illegal, small-scale mining – activity that is polluting rivers in the South American country. According to Reuters, government officials have been threatened and attacked when visiting illegal mining areas in Bolivia’s Amazon region. It’s difficult to monitor illegal activity, but other data give an indirect picture of the industry’s growth. Since 2019, Bolivia has been the world’s top importer of mercury, a toxic metal that helps extract gold from ore. After it is used to separate the gold, the mercury flows into streams, contaminating fish that Indigenous groups rely on for food. The Correo community lives next to the Beni River, and its leader said that his people no longer fish or bathe in the water.
In the United States, nitrate problems are re-emerging in a Midwest farming hub, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. For the first time in five years, the city of Des Moines had to restart equipment to remove nitrate from its drinking water. Iowa’s drinking water, especially in its capital city, has been plagued for years by farm nutrients like nitrate. Iowa is one of the country’s leading producers of corn and soybeans. Excess fertilizer drains into the state’s rivers, including the Raccoon River, which supplies Des Moines. Operating the nitrate removal equipment costs the city’s water utility up to $10,000 a day. The equipment helps the city meet the federal drinking water standard for nitrate, which is 10 parts per million. Academic research, however, is beginning to show that there are health concerns when nitrate levels are even lower than the federal standard.
In Egypt, government ministers are planning to expand the country’s use of desalinated water to meet the demands of a fast-growing population. The highly water-stressed country aims to build 14 new facilities to raise desalination capacity by 50 percent. The Middle East News Agency reports that during a cabinet meeting in May, the prime minister ordered the formation of a government technical committee. The group will work with the private sector to solicit project bids, negotiate prices, and secure land for the developments. Eighty-two desalination plants already operate in Egypt, but the country relies on the Nile River for nearly all of its water. Most of the Nile water goes to farms, not households.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the Colorado River’s water crisis, and what happens if Glen Canyon Dam stops producing hydropower.
When the US Bureau of Reclamation raised concrete and earthen walls across magnificent canyons in the Colorado River watershed, critics gave those structures a derogatory nickname: cash register dams.
The dig wasn’t inaccurate, especially during the agency’s mid-20th century construction spree. For decades, hydroelectric dams in the Colorado River Storage Project supplied cheap power and a relatively steady revenue stream from electricity sales. That income helped repay dam construction and operation costs while also subsidizing crop production and the settlement of the American West.
Today, the cash registers are ringing at much lower decibels. Sapped by a warming climate, the grand reservoirs of the Colorado River are in a two-decade decline. The water levels are dropping so low that hydropower from one of the grandest, Lake Powell, may soon be in doubt.
Lake Powell is the country’s second largest reservoir and a lynchpin in the intermountain electric grid. But these days, it’s more dirt than water. The reservoir holds a mere 27 percent of its full capacity. In April it fell to a level not seen since Glen Canyon Dam was completed nearly six decades ago.
Lake Powell’s water is released through turbines in the dam, which generate power for homes, businesses, rural co-ops, and irrigation pumps across six states and more than 50 Native American tribes.
Lake Powell’s feeble condition is part of a climate reckoning in the West that links water, ecosystems, food production, and energy generation. In recent years, a drying climate and withering heat have pummeled the region, with water cuts to farmers, dry wells, mass die-offs of fish and birds, and depleted reservoirs that have decimated hydropower output.
Nick Williams is the Upper Colorado River Basin power office manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. He said that Glen Canyon Dam is now operating at about 60 percent of its designed hydroelectric capacity. It’s rated for about 1,300 megawatts — roughly the size of a large fossil fuel plant — but now the dam can only produce 800 megawatts.
The failure of Glen Canyon Dam to produce hydropower, in isolation, would be bothersome for energy markets but not a catastrophe. It would raise the cost of electricity for 5 million retail power customers, increase greenhouse gas emissions associated with alternate sources of electricity generation, and eliminate key grid-support services that hydropower provides.
But if Glen Canyon dam loses capacity at a bad time – say, in the summer, when there’s a high demand for electricity, and when other power stations are underperforming as well – that could add up to a cascading electric supply problem, with grid strain and blackouts in the western states. That’s according to a recent reliability assessment from a national energy watchdog.
With this in mind, the Department of the Interior took emergency action last month to take the stress off Lake Powell. The Bureau of Reclamation’s parent agency ordered it to keep more water in the reservoir while releasing reinforcement supplies from Flaming Gorge, a smaller reservoir higher in the watershed. Together the actions will add nearly 1 million acre-feet to Powell this year. That’s equivalent to 16 feet of water in the beleaguered reservoir.
According to projections from the Bureau of Reclamation, there is a 10 percent chance in the next two years that Lake Powell will fall to a level at which electrical generation is no longer possible. As of June 5, the reservoir’s elevation was only 44 feet above that threshold at 3,534 feet. It was slowly climbing as melting snow and Interior’s emergency actions contribute to a seasonal rise that has added nearly 12 feet to the reservoir since it bottomed out in April. It is out of the danger zone, for now.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.