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3 Threats to Our Health and Environment on Day 7 of Government Shutdown

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By Scott Slesinger

“Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know it's my own damn fault.” - Jimmy Buffet, Margaritaville

Politicians in Washington keep trying to blame the other guy for the government shutdown, now entering its seventh day. Like Jimmy, they should own up and acknowledge it’s their own damn fault, and they should end it before they cause any more harm to our economy, our health and our environment. In the name of not having a budget, we’re wasting money to bring back research ships from important missions at sea. Small towns with recreation-based economies continue to bleed. And progress is stalled in bringing to reality our clean-energy future.

A U.S. Park Police officer walks behind a barricade in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, Oct. 1. Photo credit: AP/ Carolyn Kaster

It’s time to stop the Margaritaville-like wasting away there in the Capitol, and get down to the business of putting the American government back in business.

Heaving to: A Costly Return to Port for NOAA Ships

Many fisheries laboratories at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are closed, except a few that must be open for activities such as keeping animals alive. In a land-based lab, at least you just have to lock the door—sea-borne research ships may be forced to turn around and come home.

“If the shutdown lasts longer than 24 hours, government-owned research vessels may have to return to port, wasting significant time and money when they have to be redeployed,” the American Geophysical Union said last week.

Apparently that’s already happening: according to Crosscut, a Seattle-based online newspaper, the research ship Oscar Dyson has been called back to its port on Kodiak Island from the Gulf of Alaska, where it was supposed to pick up research buoys, which would be destroyed by storms if they aren’t picked up by winter. Other NOAA ships were also reportedly ordered to head to port.

A One-Two Punch From Nature and Congress

For the Yosemite National Park gateway town of Groveland, CA, the shutdown has been a man-made disaster on top of a natural one. In August and September, the devastating Rim Fire, one of the worst wildfires in California history, blanketed the skies with thick smoke. The giant blaze, which burned into remote parts of the park itself but did not reach the town, devastated the tourist trade, the lifeblood of the small community, during the height of the season. Now with the fire nearly all contained, Groveland was hoping to recoup some of the lost business this month. But with hikers, campers, birders, photographers and others now barred for the indeterminate length of the shutdown from visiting the spectacular Yosemite Valley, those hopes are fading further every day.

Offshore Renewable Energy Projects Grind to a Halt

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) manages the development of offshore energy on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). However during this shutdown, offshore renewable energy activities, including leasing federal land for offshore wind projects and management of environmental assessments, have stopped. This will mean at least some delay, depending on how long the shutdown lasts, in the development of the kind of carbon-free energy sources we’ll need to help bring an end to climate chaos caused by carbon pollution. BOEM this year has been auctioning off leases for wind and other renewables in the OCS off the East Coast. That momentum may be blunted because for now, no new environmental studies can be initiated. These environmental studies generate information that is critical in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws that protect our health and environment. 

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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