Highlights from the Week's News

This Week in Water™ airs on community and public radio stations nationwide and is available on podcast networks. Want environmental news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.

The Push to Privatize Water

September 03, 2023

Federal Council Recommends Privatizing Water Systems

The U.S. is facing a slow-rolling crisis over access to clean, safe drinking water but lacks a coordinated response to address the root causes of the problems, many of which are aging infrastructure. That is the view of a draft report released last week by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) made up of 30 executives from the public and private sector that reports to the president. Among other recommendations, the council proposes creating a federal Department of Water—a Cabinet-level agency to steward water issues. 

Credit: Margaret Barse, Alabama Extension/Public Domain

The NIAC, which was established 22 years ago, was tasked with determining how the federal government could help infrastructure operators prepare for the rapidly evolving water crisis and what actions could minimize its impacts.

The draft report covers a broad range of issues, including shortages, climate change, cybersecurity, and the water workforce. The council says infrastructure problems are caused by decades of underfunding and underinvestment, and while the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act closed some of the funding gap, they say it’s not sufficient.

The report also included a controversial recommendation that water systems around the U.S. should be privatized and presumably become “investor-owned” utilities; however, the council does not explain why moving water systems, or parts of them, out of the public sector would address problems. In the cybersecurity area, the executives say it’s hard to compete with the private sector for talent.

In the U.S., most water systems serving more than 100,000 people are publicly owned, supplying about 90 percent of consumers. However, research has shown privatization results in higher prices that hurt the poor more than others. The advocacy group Food & Water Watch said in a statement that Wall Street wants to take control of the nation’s public water systems to wring profits from communities that are struggling with unaffordable bills and toxic water. They say also that there would be higher water bills and less accountability. A report from Cornell University last year determined that privately owned systems have higher water prices, and even in states that just favor private investors, users pay more. Private ownership was the single largest factor associated with higher water bills, even taking drought and aging facilities into account.

Food & Water Watch was also critical of President Biden for appointing a chair of the NIAC who is an investment banker and the chairman of Global Infrastructure Partners, an investment bank. The company, according to its website, targets water infrastructure, energy, and transportation. 

Climate Disasters Bring FEMA to the Brink of Not Having Enough Funding

Last week, Hurricane Idalia moved through northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, leaving significant damage. It was the strongest storm to hit the Big Bend region of Florida in more than a century—made more powerful by warmer waters in its path. The storm damaged thousands of homes and caused several deaths. An analysis by the Washington Post concluded that higher sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico worsened the devastating storm, adding nearly nine inches to the surging waters.  The rising sea levels have been tracked since 1939, and more than half of the increase has occurred since 2010.

Hurricane Idalia, August 30, 2023  | Credit: NOAA

The mean sea level along the U.S. coastline has risen as the Earth warms, and when a major storm occurs, it’s on top of higher sea levels, leading to a storm surge that can reach farther inland. According to research, the rising ocean may be a result of a combination of natural variability and climate change.

Deanne Criswell, the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned that FEMA is running low on money to respond to disasters after the billions of dollars of damage from Idalia and the wildfires on Maui. Criswell said that Congress needs to approve additional funding or the agency will be out of money in the first half of this month, just as hurricane season is getting under way. On Friday, the White House asked Congress to pass $16 billion in disaster funding because of Idalia, wildfires in Hawai’i and Louisiana, as well as flooding in Vermont.

Rapid Shifts from Drought to Downpour Occurring More Often

If you’ve lived in Southern California for the past year, you might feel like it’s been weather whiplash—one minute you’re in the worst drought conditions in a century, and next you’re wading across flooded intersections following record rainfall. While many factors like the El Niño and La Niña climate patterns can contribute to these flip-flops from dearth to downpour, according to new research, global warming is making the massive swings more common.

Fig. 1: Proposed mechanism for explaining the shift from drought to pluvial from the perspective of soil moisture−atmosphere feedbacks  |  Credit: The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at meteorological and hydrological data in seven hotspots around the globe from 1980 to 2020 and found the sudden shifts increased roughly a quarter of a percent to one percent per year—and the land itself was a factor. For example, they say, during severe drought in humid regions, water evaporation from soils and plants accelerates, providing a moisture source for heavy rainfall. During heavy drought in arid regions, the hot weather and low pressure creates a pressure gradient that sucks in moisture from other areas like the ocean, increasing the chance for a soaking downpour.

These so-called “land-based feedback loops” were identified in seven places around the world where the trend was getting worse, including eastern North America, Europe, East Asia, Southeast Asia, southern Australia, southern Africa, and southern South America. The discovery could improve the accuracy of climate models and help communities prepare for back-to-back droughts and floods, which have already caused widespread damage to property, infrastructure, and the environment.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

If a Fly Lands in Your Wine, Do You Have to Dump It?

On this Labor Day weekend, perhaps you were enjoying a cool beverage on your deck or at a picnic—then boom—a fruit fly landed in your chardonnay. Should you drink it? 

A fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) feeding off a banana  |  Credit: Sanjay Acharya/Creative Commons

Given that fruit flies (Drosophila) are attracted to rotting food, which is rife with bacteria like E. coli, Listeria, Shigella, and Salmonella—any of which could make even healthy people sick—you chuck the drink, figuring it's better to be safe than sorry.

However, science says you just wasted a perfectly fine glass of wine. Writing in The Conversation, Dr. Primrose Freestone from the University of Leicester explains that wines, whether red, white, or rosé, are naturally antibacterial and one reason they can be stored for so long. Also, several laboratory studies have shown that wine alcohol combined with organic acids, such as malic acid, can prevent the growth of E. coli and Salmonella.

Moreover, even if the germs did survive in a glass of sauvignon blanc, they’d still have to deal with the hostile and highly acidic environment of the human gut with its digestive enzymes and entrapping mucus, which would likely neutralize the bacteria.

So, unless the thought of a bug doing the backstroke in your wine gives you the heebie-jeebies, you can simply remove it and enjoy your drink. Or, better still, swallow the fly and have some extra protein. Cheers!