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Current Events: Lake Erie’s algae, Yellowstone’s oil spill and Malawi’s floods

malawi flood survivors
Flood survivors make their way to a relief station in Nsanje district, Malawi (Source: Associated Press).

2014 was an incredibly eventful year for water. From the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River to the Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina’s James River; from California’s historic drought to Kashmir’s biblical floods; from the ongoing saga of Detroit’s water shutoffs to the Lake Erie algae bloom that closed off taps throughout Northwest Ohio, water was in the news throughout the year, and often for the worst reasons.

Water is sure to make headlines again during 2015, but let’s hope there are more positive stories to report. Here in Cleveland, we are recognizing 2015 as the Year of Clean Water in an attempt to “connect people to their water resources in order to restore, conserve and protect this valuable asset.” And water will play a central role in the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, the successor to the landmark Millennium Development Goals, which the United Nations will finalize this fall.

With all of that in mind, let’s dive into this month’s edition of Current Events and see what’s happened in the world of water in the last few weeks.

Great Lakes news:

Looks like we will be hearing a lot more about the attempt to tackle Lake Erie’s harmful algae bloom problem. Late last year, Ohio lawmakers in Columbus and Washington, DC introduced bills to try and tackle some of the root causes of the issue. But neither bill came to fruition. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer has strongly criticized the House GOP for letting the bipartisan, common sense Safe and Secure Drinking Water Act of 2014 die unceremoniously. Fortunately, lawmakers in both legislatures plan to introduce new bills this session that will, among other things, ban the application of fertilizer to frozen fields and order the EPA to issue a health advisory on microcystin, the toxic byproduct of blue-green algae.

While Congress and the Ohio General Assembly have dithered, the Obama administration appears to be taking the algae problem more seriously. This week, the US Department of Agriculture announced plans to provide $17.5 million in grants to farmers in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan in an attempt to cut down on phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie.

And because the Great Lakes don’t already have enough challenges from algae blooms, fluctuating levels, invasive species, and microplastic pollution, add another one to the list – plastic fibers. According to the Chicago Tribune, researchers at SUNY Fredonia have discovered that the petroleum-based fibers of synthetic fabrics, like polyester and nylon, are also omnipresent in the lakes. Maybe 2015 will be the year that we try to stop kicking the Great Lakes while they’re down?

United States news:

Each day, outdated water infrastructure ensures that Americans lose billions of gallons in wasted water. According to the EPA, the US experiences more than 237,000 water main breaks, which raise rates and cost utilities nearly $3 billion in foregone revenues. To help address this serious problem, the Natural Resources Defense Council has created a new online tool to track water losses and collect information on state policies to ameliorate it.

In a new study, Duke University scientists have discovered high levels of ammonium and iodide in wastewater discharges from oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The discovery concerns researchers, who note that the levels of ammonium, which can transform into the highly toxic ammonia, were present at levels 50 times higher than EPA drinking water standards.

VICE News has a disturbing story on how the deterioration of public water infrastructure in California’s Central Valley, often known as the nation’s salad bowl for its concentration of vegetable farms, is driving poor families to forgo contaminated water for sugary drinks. Researchers believe this “dirty water” problem is contributing to a spike in obesity and diabetes in the region.

Yellowstone National Park, which became the world’s first national park with its establishment in 1872, is named after the river along which it is located. Now, it’s namesake river is under threat, after 50,000 gallons of oil spilled into the partially frozen river following a pipeline breach Saturday. Officials are busy trucking in drinking water to residents after some of the oil reportedly entered drinking water intake lines.

International news:

As this year’s World Economic Forum kicks off in the Swiss resort town of Davos, the body released its 10th global risk report. For the first time, water risks topped the list, ahead of infectious diseases, violent conflict, and WMDs. Circle of Blue has a great primer on the report and how it reflects a shifting perspective of the most pressing global challenges we face.

The water-energy nexus received a lot of attention last year, even being recognized at the theme for World Water Day 2014. Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the conflict between water and energy more acute than in South Asia, a region in which hundreds of millions of people go each day without access to either electricity or clean water. The Wilson Center has an excellent new video on this challenge in the Indian state of Meghalaya, where the push to extract coal for electric generation threatens the freshwater resources upon which millions depend. One way to address this challenge may be to utilize existing water infrastructure to generate solar power, as officials in India are doing.

As Ethiopia grows closer to the completion of the Gibe III dam, which will begin generating hydropower in June, Kenyans living along Lake Turkana are concerned about how the project will affect their livelihoods. According to The Guardian, ethnic groups who have relied on the lake for generations are concerned that the project will hasten its demise, killing off fish populations and exacerbating the threat of desertification. And some local officials are concerned that any shrinking of the lake could lead to violent conflict.

Torrential rains have brought “unprecedented” flooding to both Malawi and Mozambique. Rising floodwaters have killed more than 175 Malawians and displaced at least 200,000 residents. Just across the border in Mozambique, at least 38 people have died and tens of thousands have been forced from their homes. Survivors have heavily criticized the slow response from Malawi’s beleaguered government, as observers warn of the growing threat of waterborne illnesses.