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Current Events: One fish, two fish, red paint, blue green algae

world water day 2015
World Water Day 2015 at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium

Last week, people all over the planet joined together to celebrate World Water Day 2015, which focused on the vital role that water plays in sustainable development. Here at Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc., World Water Day is central to what we do. Our annual World Water Day activities began six years ago with a small group of people marching in the rain through downtown Cleveland. Since then, it has grown, and we have had the opportunity to engage hundreds of children and adults throughout Northeast Ohio to teach them about how water touches every aspect of our lives.

World Water Day also falls on March 22, as we shake off winter and move into spring. While the weather outside may not necessarily reflect the season – yet – the changes are becoming clearer. Hopefully as we transition into April – Earth Month – we can all carry the lessons of World Water Day through and pay just a little bit more attention to what it really means to say that “water is life.”

Now, on to the news from the world of water this month:

Great Lakes news

As we enter spring, one clear change is the level of ice cover on the Great Lakes. As I’ve mentioned (time and time again), this past winter was brutal, and it left its mark on the Great Lakes. Ice cover, which topped out at around 89%, has generated a number of consequences. As The New York Times explains, the back-to-back extreme ice cover events has put the deep freeze on the shipping industry, costing companies who depend on the lakes millions. Fortunately, the thaw we’ve seen in the past few weeks has hastened the melting of the lake ice; since reaching its peak on February 28, ice cover has fallen by roughly one-third. Earlier this month, after walking out onto a frozen Lake Erie, I decided to explore what the recently-announced El Niño might mean for ice cover next year. Essentially, while the picture is somewhat murky, we shouldn’t anticipate seeing another winter like the past two which we’ve endured.

I feel like a broken record here, but there has been more legislative action on Lake Erie’s algae problem. After weeks of going back and forth, the Ohio House and Senate finally reached and approved a compromise bill to mitigate phosphorus loading from various sources in Northern Ohio. The bill now goes to Governor John Kasich, who is expected to sign it. While the bill does tackle a number of leading phosphorus culprits by restricting fertilizer use, banning open lake dumping of dredged sediment, and requiring more stringent testing of wastewater, it’s not without its detractors. The final bill will not take effect immediately, and farmers will have two years to begin complying with the restrictions. Accordingly, lawmakers could not provide information on how much phosphorus runoff the bill would actually eliminate. Experts have called for a 40% reduction.

While most of us in the Great Lakes region have paid attention to a set group of known pollutants – e.g. phosphorus & microplastic – we have missed a whole set of other chemicals in the lakes. A recent study found that wildlife living in and around the lakes have dangerously high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of flame-retardant chemicals found in a number of consumer products, including couches. A separate study reported that large amounts of alkylphenols, a group of hormone-disrupting compounds, are passing through wastewater treatment plants and into the lakes on a daily basis. Both of these compounds pose potential health threats to aquatic organisms and humans.

We have some good news and some bad news when it comes to fish in the lakes. Good: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a story on a campaign to reintroduce lake sturgeon into Lake Erie. The sturgeon, which has existed for some 150 million years and was once ubiquitous throughout the lake, was driven nearly to extinction during the 20th century. Bad: federal and state lawmakers remain at an impasse over how to forestall the threat of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes. At the moment, the carp remain just outside the Great Lakes watershed, but that could change in the near future.

United States news

While the hyperbolic headlines that California only has one more year of water left were not true, there is no question that the state’s drought – now entering its fifth year – is devastating its available water reserves. At The Atlantic, Bourree Lam asks if this ongoing saga will finally force the country to consider putting a higher price on water – one that actually reflects its value.

Last fall, we discussed the ongoing water crisis in Detroit, and I noted that the hard-hit city of Flint was in the process of breaking away from Detroit’s water supply. Well, this week The New York Times reports that the city is now going back on that decision, after residents have complained about major issues with the clarity, color, and odor of their tap water. According to the Times, some residents are so concerned about the potential health effects of their drinking water that they are spending up to $400 per month on bottled water.

There has also been a lot of coverage this month about innovative steps that utilities are taking to treat their water. Yale E360 has a post on how officials in the US and Europe are constructing man-made wetlands to filter out pharmaceuticals and chemicals that otherwise make it through the normal water treatment process. Researchers at Ohio University have developed a paint from the toxic sludge leftover from southern Ohio’s coal industry – a product that could help finance further remediation of the area’s rivers and streams. And scientists in Oregon have uncovered a new way to filter arsenic out of water, a major issue in places that rely heavily on groundwater reserves, like Bangladesh.

International news

In the past, I’ve told you about the important role that clean water plays in facilitating peace and cooperation. But too often, water itself becomes a target during times of war. In eastern Ukraine, the ongoing civil war has damaged water treatment facilities, causing the water in Donetsk to take on a noxious odor that could potentially be harmful to human health. And the Red Cross is reporting that militants are increasingly targeting water and sanitation facilities throughout conflict-affected areas in the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria.

In Rio de Janeiro, the government and its Olympic bidding team pledged to use the 2016 games as a catalyst to clean up the Guanabara Bay, where the Olympic sailing events are to take place next summer. The bay is currently fouled with large amounts of untreated sewage and solid waste. Unfortunately, as many observers feared, the government now admits that it will not meet its pledge, to the great dismay of residents and athletes alike.

In Russia, officials are warning about a myriad of threats to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. Rotting clumps of spirogyra, a form of green algae that feeds on sewage, have washed up on 50% of the lake’s coastal areas. The lake’s water levels have also begun dropping considerably; it now sits 5 centimeters below the the critical threshold of 456 meters, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.

Lastly, the non-profit group Water for Women released a report last week on how the lack of clean water and sanitation affects women and girls worldwide. According to the report, “globally [women and girls] spend 200 million hours every single day simply collecting water for themselves and their families.” That tremendous toll cuts into the amount of time that they can spend on other activities, including school and employment. Additionally, the continued pursuit for water and toilet facilities exposes women and girls to violence and sexual assault.