Current Events: Great Lakes wetlands, California almonds & global water insecurity

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cuyahoga river dredging
Crews complete dredging of shipping channels in Cleveland’s harbor. The fight over whether or not to dispose of dredged sediment from the upper reaches of the lower Cuyahoga River in Lake Erie has continued to heat up in recent weeks (Source: The Plain Dealer).

Last week, people around the world commemorated Earth Day, which environmental activists established in 1970 as a response to continued degradation in the United States and beyond. Each year, the calls to make Earth Day an everyday event seem to gain a bit more steam, and now some people suggest that we celebrate Earth Week or even Earth Month.

Well, as we come to the end of April, let’s take a moment to recognize how important water is for the natural world, not just human use. There has always been a lot of debate over setting aside water from rivers, lakes, and streams for habitats and natural processes – so-called environmental flows – and this issue has gotten even more heated as  California’s drought has intensified. But we cannot deny that, just as water is essential for nearly every aspect of human life, it, too, is central to just about everything in the natural world. If we say that we care about the planet, we need to guarantee that our fellow flora and fauna also have reliable access to water.

Now, on to the news in water for April.

Great Lakes news

Now that spring has begun in the Great Lakes, those of us in Northeast Ohio begin to turn attention away from lake ice cover and on to the impending issue of harmful algal blooms. According to The Columbus Dispatch, heavy spring rains have already begun washing phosphorus off of farms in Northwest Ohio and into the state’s water courses, including Lake Erie. While it’s still too early in the season to predict the size of the algal bloom on Lake Erie this summer, researchers from the at the National Center for Water Quality at Heidelberg University think it will likely be on par with the one we saw last summer. While Ohio did pass a law limiting the application of manure on frozen and waterlogged ground earlier this year, its regulations do not take effect until mid-July, far too late to address the issue this year.

The fight between Ohio officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers over dredging sediment from the Cuyahoga River continues to heat up. The Army Corps insists that the sediment it skims from the bottom of the Cuyahoga River does not pose a threat to Lake Erie. As such, it has refused to pay for dredging and disposal of sediment from the sixth and final mile of the River; this portion is crucial, as the ArcelorMittal steel mill relies on it for deliveries. In response to the Corps’ actions, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed suit in federal court to try and force the agency to fully dredge all six miles of the River. This battle will continue to play out over the coming weeks, as we get closer to the May 25 deadline that the Corps set for Ohio to find the funding to complete the dredging.

In a provocative post for Great Lakes Echo, journalist Gary Wilson questions how the changing political dynamics in the region and in Washington, DC could affect the health of the lakes going forward. He argues that many of the elected officials who were real champions for Great Lakes restoration, such as former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, have been replaced by a new generation of leaders who “more interested in running for president and positioning themselves for their next job than paying attention” to the health and well-being of the lakes. He calls for activists to get actively involved in state politics as a way to stem this tide.

On a bright note, the White House has named the Great Lakes as one of four regions included in its Resilient Lands and Waters initiative, which will focus on restoring coastal wetlands. As we explained last year, wetlands in the Great Lakes region have begun to recover from their nadir, but there is still much work to do. According to The Plain Dealer, the administration will work with scientists and conservationists to collect and analyze data that will allow officials to prioritize the wetlands where they will initiate restoration efforts.

United States news:

All of the focus in the world of water this months seems to be on California, where Governor Jerry Brown implemented mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history. Everyone seems to have his/her bogeyman for the state’s water woes. Mother Jones has continued its all-out assault against almond farming, which accounts for 10% of the state’s water use, more than all of Los Angeles. Every almond consumes at least 1 gallon of water to produce. But, as Philip Bump points out at The Washington Post, growing almonds makes sense for California’s farmers, who must try to produce the most value per gallon of water in the current environment. For Slate, Eric Holthaus argues that the real problem with almonds is that farmers cannot fallow their trees during a drought – almond trees need a constant supply of water throughout their life cycle – but, despite that, they still belong in the state’s agricultural future. All told, it’s complicated.

But almonds aren’t the only target for activists in California. Recently, it has come to light that Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage conglomerate, has been withdrawing water from aquifers in the state for its Arrowhead Springs bottled water brand without a permit for at least 27 years. Concerned citizens have pushed the state to shut down Nestle’s operations, as they allow the company to effectively export the state’s limited groundwater reserves during the historic drought. As this has gone on, The Desert Sun sheds light on the more than 1 million Californians who lack access to clean drinking water. Perversely,  many of these residents have no choice but to turn to bottled water.

Last year, we wrote about how the water shutoffs in Detroit threaten the right to water in the United States. Well, the same thing is underway in Baltimore, where utility officials have begun shutting off water service to more than 25,000 residents who have fallen behind on their bills. Baltimore’s utility is facing many of the same systemic problems as those in Detroit. Unfortunately, this could be a harbinger of future shutoffs in even more cities.

And, for Quartz, Elaine Povich of The PEW Charitable Trusts describes a report from the Government Accountability Office, which suggests that California will be far from the only state in the country facing water shortages in the coming years. In fact, the GAO projects that as many as 40 states can expect to face water shortages in at least certain areas within the next decade.

International news

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Oxford released a report on water insecurity at the World Water Forum in South Korea. According to the study, water insecurity costs the global economy nearly $500 billion per year. More than one-fifth of this total comes from urban flooding issues. Costs are not spread evenly. As the authors note, countries whose economies depend heavily on agriculture face the highest risks, and these are likely to get worse in the coming years.

We’ve written a lot about the phosphorus runoff that continually feeds algal blooms in Lake Erie and other inland lakes each summer. Well, the problem is not confined to the Great Lakes. According to Yale E360, officials in several European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, are beginning to crack down on nutrient runoff from farmers, municipalities, and industry in an attempt to improve water quality and protect ecosystems.

In some positive news, Reuters has a story on how Drinkwell Systems, a US-based social enterprise organization, has developed a new, inexpensive system to remove arsenic from drinking water in South Asia. Arsenic, which occurs naturally throughout much of the region, can seep into groundwater. Researchers believe arsenic poisoning may be responsible for 1 out of every 5 deaths in Bangladesh. But rather than relying on the Indian government or NGOs, Drinkwell is partnering with women living within affected Indian communities to provide their systems via microloans.

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