Current Events: News from the world of water

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great lakes
The Great Lakes, as seen from space. Source: Getty Images

Welcome to the December edition of “Current Events,” our new feature that gives you an update on what’s going on in the world of water, from Lake Erie to Lake Victoria, and everywhere in between.  There has been a lot of important water headlines in the news the past few weeks, so let’s get started:

Great Lakes news:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives has reauthorized the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for another five years. The program, which President Obama launched in 2009, has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to clean up toxic pollution, fight the threat of invasive species, curb harmful runoff, and restore critical ecosystems. The new legislation, which is unlikely to be approved by the Senate before the end of the year, provides guaranteed financing for the program, which has seen its budget cut in recent years.
  • The Ohio Senate will not take up House Bill 490, a massive agriculture bill that included a number of key water provisions. While one provision, which would have banned the application of fertilizer on frozen ground, would have been beneficial for Lake Erie, another, which may have increased the amount of water withdrawn from the Lake, may have violated the Great Lakes Compact. Senate President Keith Faber, a Republican, has indicated the legislature will consider these issues again next year.
  • In November, the lake-effect snow conveyor belt kicked into overdrive, dumping more than seven feet of snow on the Buffalo, New York area. While it may sound crazy, some experts believe that climate change may be driving an increase in such lake-effect storms. A new study from the University of Wisconsin suggests they may be right, at least through the middle of the century. Regardless of what’s driving the change, all the signs suggest that the region is in for even more crazy winter weather.
  • And in some rare good news, read the story on how two dads named Dan from Northeast Ohio have created an all-natural detergent that is phosphorus free and Lake Erie friendly.

United States news:

  • West Virginia has given the go ahead for companies to begin drilling for oil and gas under the Ohio River, using the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” method. Officials argue that the decision will generate much-needed tax revenues for state coffers, but environmental activists argue the risks of drilling beneath a river that provides drinking water for 5 million people is are simply too high.
  • A new study published this month suggests that California’s ongoing drought, which has now entered its fourth year, is the worst drought to hit the region in at least 1,200 years. At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report saying that the drought was caused by natural cycles, not climate change. Slate‘s Eric Holthaus argues that NOAA is missing the point, writing that even if the causes are natural, “we can’t ignore the role that climate change likely plays in exacerbating the situation.” Either way, the drought continues to strain communities throughout the state, and the major storm system hitting the state now is unlikely to solve the crisis.
  • The FBI has filed criminal fraud charges against Gary Southern, the former president of Freedom Industries. You may remember Freedom Industries as the company that spilled 10,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, a chemical used to clean coal, into West Virginia’s Elk River. The spill, which contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents, ultimately led to Freedom Industries filing bankruptcy.
  • The Daily Show‘s Jessica Williams recently headed to Detroit to investigate the city’s water shutoffs, which we explored recently. Predictably, the results were hilarious.

International news:

  • The president of the Maldives, a small island state in the Indian Ocean, has urged calm as a fire at a desalination plant cut off drinking water to the capital city, Male. India and Sri Lanka began airlifting bottled water to the archipelago nation, which hopes to restore water service in a few days.
  • The New York Times is reporting that that critical lack of adequate sanitation in India has sparked the rise of several antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” throughout the country. We discussed India’s sanitation crisis in our last post. This declining efficacy of antibiotics is likely to spread beyond India’s borders, potentially creating a public health crisis. This is occurring at the same time that several pharmaceutical companies have halted research into new antibiotics. For more information on this crisis, check out FRONTLINE’s great documentary on the subject.
  • An ongoing project to install new water pumps in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, have left many residents without reliable drinking water for weeks. As Voice of America reports, that is forcing Malawians to turn to other sources of water, sparking concerns about waterborne illnesses.
  • A decade-long study has revealed that cyanobacteria is rife throughout South Africa’s 50 largest dams. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, is the family of microorganisms that produced the harmful algal bloom which cutoff water to Toledo last August.

Oceans news:

  • The 5 Gyres Institute has published a new report indicated that there are at least 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans. That volume of plastic – equal to around 700 pieces for every man, woman, and child – totals more than 250,000 tons. And that number likely a significant underestimate. To put it into perspective, scientists estimate there are approximately 200-400 billion stars in the entire Milky Way galaxy. Unfortunately, a bill to ban microplastic in Ohio, which we discussed in June, has stalled out.
  • File this one under gross: Friends of the Earth used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to calculate that cruise ships release around 1 billion gallons of sewage into the oceans each year.

Space news:

  • Yes, space news. I wasn’t sure where else to categorize this one. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta  mission, which landed a probe on a comet moving 84,000 miles per hour last month, has thrown another wrench into the search for the origins of water on Earth. Several scientists believed that comets has brought water to the Earth, but the water which Rosetta found is heavier than that located on Earth. So now the search begins anew. Either way, science is awesome.