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Emily Driehaus | Science Communication Intern
The newest IPCC report provided a look into how climate change has altered global temperatures and weather patterns over the past few decades. The International Panel on Climate Change publishes a "state of climate change" every few years that provides update on how today’s emissions and activities will affect weather patterns in the future, and the effects these changes will have on our lives. The report highlighted how climate change has and will continue to impact the accessibility of clean drinking water.
Why This IPCC Report is Different From Previous Years:
The recent IPCC findings are notable because scientists have determined that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” The term “unequivocal” is not used lightly in this instance, as scientists do not use absolutes unless the evidence is unquestionable.
Scientists also used paleoclimate data to provide more context for our current period of warming. Our planet goes through glacial and interglacial periods, where a glacial event is followed by a period of time where the climate is warmer. We are currently in an interglacial period after the last glacial period ended about 11,000 years ago. The last interglacial period before our current interglacial occurred about 125,000 years ago. The IPCC report found that “the last decade was more likely than not warmer than any multi-centennial period after the Last Interglacial.” To put this in perspective, Homo sapiens were still mostly living on the African continent 125,000 years ago. The past decade has likely been warmer than any multi-centennial period since Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and dispersed across the globe.
The IPCC report also included new advances in a branch of climate science known as attribution science. Scientists can now attribute specific weather events to human-induced climate change. In other words, the frequency of extreme weather events, like droughts and hurricanes, is a direct result of human-driven climate change.
The authors of the report included a glimpse of what the future might look like under five different climate scenarios with greenhouse gas emissions ranging from “very low” levels to “very high” levels. Some effects of climate change are now unavoidable and are present in all scenarios, but the intensity of these events is increased as greenhouse gas emissions climb. For example, global surface temperatures will continue to increase in all the presented scenarios, but the degree of warming increases with each climate scenario. Global warming of 2° Celsius is very likely to occur under the “very high” emissions scenario, but is extremely unlikely to be exceeded under the “very low” emissions scenario. These scenarios provide important perspectives on what the future of our planet could look like under different emissions scenarios, as changes in weather patterns will become more extreme with each increment of warming.
What Does All This Have To Do With Drinking Water?
Extreme weather events already have an impact on our drinking water. Droughts reduce the amount of drinking water available due to the lack of precipitation to replace water supplies. Water contamination is also more likely to occur in areas with drought conditions. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also contaminate drinking water supplies with floodwater and leave communities without clean drinking water for long periods of time. Even cold weather events can affect access to clean drinking water, especially in areas that are not equipped with the infrastructure to deal with extremely cold temperatures. For example, the recent round of winter storms that brought freezing temperatures to Texas limited access to drinking water due to frozen pipes, power outages, and boil water advisories.
As global temperatures increase, these extreme weather events will increase not only in frequency but in intensity as well. Drinking water supplies will be threatened by these events more often and the intensity of these events risks damaging water infrastructure that was not built to withstand the extreme weather conditions created by climate change.
The IPCC report also included specifics on how global warming will directly impact the global water cycle. Like weather patterns, the rise of global temperatures will intensify the water cycle, making wet seasons wetter and dry seasons drier. This will have direct implications for areas of the world that depend on seasonal precipitation. Intensified dry seasons will impact agriculture and those who depend on rainy seasons to water their crops. Intensified wet seasons bring the risk of flooding that could potentially damage communities and infrastructure. These intensified seasons will also bring problems with drinking water quality, either due to lack of rainfall to replenish water supplies or too much precipitation that contaminates drinking water supplies with dirty floodwater.
How Can We Stop The Worst From Happening?
It is easy to fall into a downward spiral of negative thinking after reading about how our planet is being irreversibly damaged. However, this report makes it clear that there is still time to change course. While it is too late to stop some warming from occurring, there is still time to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the worst from happening. Now is the time to call on world leaders and governments to implement policies that will lower emissions and protect future generations and ensure a livable planet with access to clean drinking water for all.
Emily Driehaus | Science Communication Intern
As the drought in the western United States continues to impact water supplies, the risk for long-term damage to drinking water systems increases daily. Although they are not always readily apparent, prolonged drought brings the potential for issues that can be costly to manage and cause problems for years to come.
Seawater or saltwater intrusion occurs near coastal areas when groundwater supplies become too low to keep seawater from flowing into groundwater aquifers. Groundwater meets seawater near coastal areas in transition zones, where the water pressure of groundwater keeps seawater from getting into aquifers. During a drought, these groundwater levels may not be replenished quickly enough to maintain enough water pressure to keep seawater out. Continued pumping of groundwater through groundwater wells can exacerbate this, as this further reduces groundwater pressure. When seawater does make its way into groundwater aquifers, the damage can be costly to manage. If the affected aquifer is used for drinking water, public water systems have to effectively treat the water to make it safe for drinking. Seawater intrusion may leave some water sources unusable, resulting in the need to find new sources in an already limited area.
Depleted groundwater can also cause land to sink, also known as land subsidence. When groundwater stores are not replenished, soil becomes compacted due to the lack of water pressure and the loss of volume groundwater takes up below the surface. Land subsidence can permanently damage groundwater aquifers, resulting in a decreased capacity even after groundwater stores are replenished. Continued pumping of groundwater wells can make land subsidence even worse, especially during a prolonged drought such as what is currently being seen in the western U.S.
Both seawater intrusion and land subsidence can damage critical infrastructure, specifically drinking water systems. Contamination from seawater intrusion can render some water sources unusable, which can be costly to fix. This can also result in the need for new pipes and systems to be built to use a different water source. Because drought also leads to water stagnation, bacteria and other microorganisms are able to grow in stagnant water and can contaminate drinking water supplies. Land subsidence can result in damage to groundwater aquifers and other equipment used in water systems, such as pumps. Underground pipes can also sustain damage when the soil gets compacted and sinks, resulting in pipe breaks and potentially damaging other parts of the system.Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
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Conversations around infrastructure have been the major political theme of 2021. The U.S. unfortunately has both outdated infrastructure and outdated laws when it comes to ensuring that Americans have access to safe drinking water. The recent proposals provided by the Biden Administration and Congress aim to update existing drinking water and wastewater regulations, but what about addressing newer unregulated contaminants? Over 200 million Americans drink water contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical called Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances or PFAS. How do the new infrastructure bills plan to address PFAS?
The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act
The Senate recently passed a $35 billion infrastructure bill to address nationwide water and sanitation updates. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act includes reauthorizations for existing legacy programs and important new grants for necessary infrastructure improvements. The Senate’s bill proposes a significantly smaller budget than the President’s $111 billion water infrastructure allocation under the American Jobs Plan. Key sections of the Senates’ bill include; additional assistance and subsidies to disadvantaged communities, $500 million for the Lead Reduction Grant program, funding for voluntary lead testing in schools, and resiliency grants for water systems susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Check out a full list of key provisions by clicking here.
How Do New Infrastructure Bills Propose to Address PFAS?
It’s impossible to talk about infrastructure without highlighting harmful PFAS chemicals and the communities across the country grappling with how to address them. The most significant discrepancy between President Biden’s infrastructure plan and the Senate’s iteration is the explicit mention of PFAS chemicals. The President’s plan explicits allocates “...$10 billion in funding to monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water…” whereas the Senate’s version fails to mention PFAS once. State’s will be able to decide how they want to use federal funds, but the explicit mention reinforces how pressing of an issue PFAS contamination has become in the U.S.
PFAS Action Act of 2021
As more evidence shows the negative effects of PFAS on human health, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives aims to tackle PFAS pollution in drinking water and air. Michigan Representatives Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton introduced the PFAS Action Act of 2021 in April after an earlier version of the bill passed the House in January 2020 but was blocked by Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Senate.
What’s In The Bill?
If passed by Congress and signed into law, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 would require the EPA to take regulatory action on PFAS contamination in drinking water. These actions include establishing a national drinking water standard for two of the most common PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). These chemicals would also be designated as hazardous substances.
PFOA and PFOS are two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, but there are still others that have contaminated drinking water and lead to health problems. The bill would require the EPA to determine whether to add other PFAS chemicals to the hazardous substances list within five years. PFOA and PFOS would also be added as air pollutants with more PFAS chemicals potentially added as determined by the EPA.
The bill would give the EPA the power to put limits on the amount of PFAS that can be released during industrial processes. Wastewater treatment facilities and other water utilities would also be given $200 million annually to treat water contaminated with PFAS.
Current Federal PFAS Regulations
Under the Biden administration, the EPA has launched new initiatives to research PFAS contamination in the environment to gain a better understanding of these contaminants. EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced an EPA Council on PFAS in April, which would work with local governments to protect citizens against PFAS contamination. The EPA has also issued a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS. These health advisories are meant to inform the public and governments about these PFAS chemicals and provide recommendations, but they are not actually enforceable.
Some states have enacted their own PFAS regulations due to the lack of current federal regulation. For example, Michigan adopted PFAS regulations last summer that are stricter than the EPA’s guidance set forth in health advisories. If passed, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 would establish the first federal regulations on PFAS in drinking water and the environment.
What’s Next For The PFAS Action Act of 2021?
The bill has been reported by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and is set to be scheduled for a vote. The bill’s co-sponsors are optimistic about the vote in both houses of Congress, as both have a Democratic majority. The previous version of the bill was blocked by Mitch McConnell, who controlled the Republican-majority Senate. President Biden campaigned on the promise to enact federal PFAS regulations, so he will likely sign the bill into law if it is passed by both houses. However, regardless of the bill’s status, The National Law Review expects federal PFAS regulations to be enacted by the end of this year.
All drinking water infrastructure improvements must include funding to address PFAS chemicals in water. Period. An estimated 200 million Americans drink PFAS-contaminated water on a daily basis. With this comes an increased risk of cancer, an increased risk of miscarriage and other reproductive effects, and a long list of other negative health outcomes.Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
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