California eases water restrictions, but drought isn’t over


California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks during a news conference from a farm in Dunnigan, Calif., Friday, March 24, 2023. Newsom announced an end to some drought restrictions and calls for water conservation, following a series of winter storms have dramatically improved the state’s water supply outlook

DUNNIGAN, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom ended some of the state’s water restrictions on Friday because a winter of relentless rain and snow has replenished the state’s reservoirs and eased fears of a shortage after three years of severe drought.

Newsom was careful not to declare the drought to be over, noting water shortages remain in the Klamath River basin along the California-Oregon line and in densely populated Southern California, which relies heavily on the struggling Colorado River system to supply millions of people.

But Newsom did say he would stop asking people to voluntarily cut their water use by 15%, a request he first made nearly two years ago while standing at the edge of a nearly dry Lopez Lake in the state’s Central Coast region — a lake that today is so full from recent storms it is almost spilling over.

“None of us could have imagined … a few months ago that we’d be where we are today,” Newsom said Friday from a farm northwest of Sacramento that has flooded some of its fields with excess water so it will seep underground and refill groundwater basins. “Are we out of the drought? Mostly — but not completely.”

Newsom’s call for voluntary conservation had mixed results. Californians did reduce their water use, but only by 6.2% overall, according to data from the State Water Resources Control Board. Newsom never ordered statewide, mandatory water restrictions — but he did require water agencies to impose some limits on their customers.

Friday, Newsom said he was easing those rules. That change will impact people in different ways depending on where they live. For most people, it means they won’t be limited to watering their lawns on only certain days of the week or at certain times of the day. Other restrictions will remain in place indefinitely, including a ban on watering decorative grass for businesses.

“We’ve got to conserve as a way of life,” Newsom said.

Newsom could ease some restrictions in part because California’s reservoirs are now so full that cities will get more than double the amount of drinking water this year compared to a previous allocation announced last month. Now, water districts that serve 27 million people will get at least 75% of the water they requested from state supplies. Last year, they only got 5% as California endured three of the driest years ever since modern recordkeeping began in 1896.

“This wet winter, which has led to a large increase in our (water) allocation, is not a signal that we can relax,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that supplies water to 19 million people. “It is an alarm to act and accelerate our efforts to respond to rapidly changing conditions, including conservation, storage, recycling and reuse.”

Last week the district ended mandatory drought restrictions for about 7 million people who rely almost exclusively on state supplies for their water.

California and the western United States have been in an extended drought for about two decades, a period of abnormal dryness punctuated by occasional intense seasons of storms. It would be tough for a governor “of a large, diverse state that has very diverse water supplies and water demands” to say when a drought has started or ended, said Jay Lund, vice director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Lund said the drought is over from many perspectives in California, including urban water supply and reservoirs. But it’s not over for the state’s fragile ecosystems and the groundwater aquifers that were depleted during recent drought years.

“We might never recover them completely,” he said.

Three years of little rain or snow in California had depleted reservoirs to the point the state couldn’t generate electricity from hydroelectric power plants. It dried up wells in rural areas and state officials had to truck in water supplies for some communities. And it reduced the flow of the state’s major rivers and streams, killing off endangered fish and other species.

But since December, no less than 12 powerful storms have hit California, packing so much rain and snow that meteorologists call them “atmospheric rivers.” These storms have flooded homes, closed ski resorts and trapped people in mountain communities for days with no electricity, prompting emergency declarations from President Joe Biden.

“That kind of whiplash is something that we’ve experienced in a very intense way in California that I think is unique across the western U.S.,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Water has been steadily pouring into the state’s reservoirs since December. Of California’s 17 major reservoirs, 12 of them are either at or above their historical averages for this time of year.

And more water is coming. Statewide, the amount of snow piled up in the mountains is already 223% above the April 1 average — the date when the snowpack is typically at its peak. Most of that snow will melt in the coming months, flowing into reservoirs and posing more flooding threats downstream.


Next epidemic could be spotted early in wastewater

By University of Bath

Image from Chemistry World

Researchers analysing wastewater say that routine monitoring at sewage treatment works could provide a powerful early warning system for the next flu or norovirus epidemic, alerting hospitals to prepare and providing public health agencies with vital health information.

In the first large scale and comprehensive wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) study in the UK, scientists at the University of Bath, Bangor University and the UK Heath Security Agency analysed wastewater from 10 cities for both chemical and biological markers of health, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and disease-causing viruses.

They collected samples from each location at hourly intervals over 24 hours on nine days in November 2021. The samples for each day were pooled before being processed and analysed for trace chemical markers using mass spectrometry techniques.

The samples were also analysed to detect any genetic material from viruses (SARS-CoV-2, norovirus and adenovirus). The total sampling catchment area equated to a population of around 7 million people.

Detecting trace chemicals

Using highly sensitive chemical analysis that could distinguish between very similar markers, the researchers were able to tell whether pharmaceuticals had passed through the human body or had been directly disposed into the wastewater system.

They could also identify whether chemicals such as pesticides had been ingested through food or had washed into the wastewater system from agricultural land.

The team observed that differences in levels of chemical markers were mostly dependent on the size of population in the catchment area, however there were some outliers.

For example in one city, there was a much higher concentration of ibuprofen found in the water, compared with other cities, suggesting direct disposal from industrial waste.

Identifying disease outbreaks

The researchers detected localised outbreaks of norovirus, Covid-19 and flu, but could also correlate them with spikes in usage of over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol.

The results indicate that analysing wastewater on a large scale in this way, dubbed wastewater-based epidemiology, could spot new outbreaks of diseases in communities early on, before large numbers were admitted into hospitals.

Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, from the Water Innovation Research Centre and Institute for Sustainability at the University of Bath, led the chemistry work on the project. She said: “Most people reach for the paracetamol when they first get sick, and try to treat their illnesses at home.

“So looking for large spikes in paracetamol use could give an early indication that there may be an infectious disease outbreak in the community.

“We can also detect markers of inflammation and so look for any possible links of poor health with exposure to harmful chemicals, such as pesticides from food or industrial sources of chemicals.

“Our study has shown that only 10 daily samples from 10 wastewater treatment plants are needed to provide anonymous and unbiased information on the health of 7 million people — this is much cheaper and faster than any clinical screening process.

“This could, therefore, potentially be a very powerful tool for giving a holistic understanding of public health of different communities.”

Professor Davey Jones, who led a team at Bangor University analysing the wastewater for viruses, said: “Norovirus and seasonal flu have always been a huge problem in hospitals each winter; now Covid-19 has added to this problem.

“Our proof-of-concept study has shown the potential for Wastewater Based Epidemiology to provide an early warning surveillance system for these and other diseases, which would enable hospitals to prepare for outbreaks in the local area.”

Matthew Wade, from the UK Health Security Agency, said: “This has been a fantastic collaboration of chemists, biologists and Government agencies, working with multiple water companies to collect important data on both chemical and biological markers from different parts of the UK.

“We are delighted to be part of this project and look forward to developing the potential of this public health tool even further in the future.”

The study is published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, and was funded by the UK Health Security Agency and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.


New water treatment zaps ‘forever chemicals’ for good

By University of British Columbia

image from

Engineers at the University of British Columbia have developed a new water treatment that removes “forever chemicals” from drinking water safely, efficiently — and for good.

Forever chemicals, formally known as PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of substances that make certain products non-stick or stain-resistant. There are more than 4,700 PFAS in use, mostly in raingear, non-stick cookware, stain repellents and firefighting foam. Research links these chemicals to a wide range of health problems including hormonal disruption, cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and cancer.

To remove PFAS from drinking water, Dr. Mohseni and his team devised a unique adsorbing material that is capable of trapping and holding all the PFAS present in the water supply.

The PFAS are then destroyed using special electrochemical and photochemical techniques, also developed at the Mohseni lab and described in part in a new paper published recently in Chemosphere.

While there are treatments currently on the market, like activated carbon and ion-exchange systems which are widely used in homes and industry, they do not effectively capture all the different PFAS, or they require longer treatment time, Dr. Mohseni explained.

“Our adsorbing media captures up to 99 per cent of PFAS particles and can also be regenerated and potentially reused. This means that when we scrub off the PFAS from these materials, we do not end up with more highly toxic solid waste that will be another major environmental challenge.”

He explained that while PFAS are no longer manufactured in Canada, they are still incorporated in many consumer products and can then leach into the environment. For example, when we apply stain-resistant or repellent sprays/materials, wash PFAS-treated raingear, or use certain foams to put down fires, the chemicals end up in our waterways. Or when we use PFAS-containing cosmetics and sunscreens, the chemicals could find their way into the body.

For most people, exposure is through food and consumer products, but they can also be exposed from drinking water — particularly if they live in areas with contaminated water sources.

Dr. Mohseni, whose research group also focuses on developing water solutions for rural, remote and Indigenous communities, noted: “Our adsorbing media are particularly beneficial for people living in smaller communities who lack resources to implement the most advanced and expensive solutions that could capture PFAS. These can also be used in the form of decentralized and in-home water treatments.”

The UBC team is preparing to pilot the new technology at a number of locations in B.C. starting this month.

“The results we obtain from these real-world field studies will allow us to further optimize the technology and have it ready as products that municipalities, industry and individuals can use to eliminate PFAS in their water,” said Dr. Mohseni.


Phytoplankton blooms offer insight into impacts of climate change

University of Otago

Image from

The first study into the biological response of the upper ocean in the wake of South Pacific cyclones could help predict the impact of warming ocean temperatures, New Zealand researchers believe.

Dr Pete Russell, of the University of Otago’s Department of Marine Science, and Dr Christopher Horvat, of the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics, have published a study on the oceanic biological effect of Cyclone Oma which passed near Vanuatu in 2019.

“While Oma was a relatively benign cyclone, it produced a massive phytoplankton bloom in its wake — the single most abnormal event in the history of South Pacific chlorophyll measurements,” Dr Russell says.

“Such an extreme event can produce a large amount of biomass in a part of the ocean that is typically a biological desert. We don’t yet know about the fate of this biomass, but one possibility is that it could end up on the bottom of the ocean, sequestering carbon.”

The study, just published in Geophysical Research Letters, found the phytoplankton bloom produced by Oma was exceedingly rare, occurring just once every 1500 years in the same location.

“Cyclones are one of the mechanisms that dissipate heat from the tropics. Warming oceans mean more heat to dissipate. This means more intense storms and perhaps longer storm seasons resulting in more storms.

“By examining sediment cores from the last inter-glacial period, we may get a heads up on what cyclone activity to expect with ocean temperatures 1+ degrees higher than today,” Dr Russell says.

The pair found if a storm hovers above a patch of ocean long enough, physical interactions between the cyclone winds and ocean will cause water to rise near its eye, bringing nutrient rich water to the surface which seeds a phytoplankton bloom.

Dr Horvat says these events may be biological hotspots, causing large amounts of biological material to be produced in areas typically devoid of upper-ocean life.

“These cyclones can do amazing things — other than have strong winds, they can also dramatically affect the plants and animals living in the upper ocean and change the cycling of carbon by leading to blooms.

“Along with these bloom events in the open ocean, cyclone activity results in both coastal upwelling and runoff from the land that also deliver nutrients into the photic zone, generating blooms. These blooms could be an integral part of the local marine ecosystems of our Pacific neighbours supporting higher food chains,” he says.

The researchers say they know too little about phytoplankton blooms to declare them as being good or bad, but they believe there is potential for them to support open ocean ecosystems that are nutrient limited.

“We hope to investigate this further, in particular the influence on fisheries for Pacific islands,” Dr Horvat says.

*The researchers note recent cyclones in the South Pacific were unique to Oma.

Cyclone Gabrielle moved too fast to produce a bloom due to its circular motion, however it did, through interactions with reefs in the coral sea, lead to a bloom there.

Cyclones Judy and Kevin again did not hover long enough in the same region to produce a phytoplankton bloom due to circular motion, but because both passed over larger islands there was evidence of a bloom due to run-off of nutrients from the land.


Majority Say Water Supply and Pollution ‘Very Serious’ Problems

By Brett Walton

A woman reaches for a hose from a water tanker in Rajasthan, India

As the world’s weather flips more rapidly between the poles of too wet and too dry, the general public is taking notice.

Fifty-eight percent of people who responded to a global public opinion survey on freshwater supply and pollution said that water shortages were a “very serious” problem. A larger share – 62 percent – said the same about water pollution.

How have they been affected by water shortages? Three in 10 respondents said “greatly.”

“We’re looking at citizens who are deeply concerned with water and feel the impact of climate change,” said Perrine Bouhana, director at GlobeScan, the polling firm that conducted the survey.

The survey results indicate growing public awareness and vulnerability to the challenges of water supply and pollution. The polling data is being released a week before the United Nations hosts its first global water conference since 1977, an effort to rally support for the goal of safely managed water and sanitation for all people.

According to the survey, concern over freshwater shortages was highest in Latin American countries, with Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil at the top of the rankings. Just behind was South Africa, whose urban residents have witnessed shortages in recent years due to a combination of unfortunate weather and utility mismanagement.

Residents of Asian countries like China, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea were the least concerned about water shortages.

Italy and the United States registered the biggest jump in concern over water shortages since 2020. Both countries have experienced notable droughts in that time period.

“People are beginning to make those links between climate and nature and then link them with water,” said Alexis Morgan, global water stewardship lead at WWF.

The GlobeScan survey was conducted online in the summer of 2022 with the participation of about 1,000 people in each of 31 countries. In total, 29,293 people, from six continents, submitted responses.

The survey revealed divergent attitudes toward water among sexes and generations. Women were more likely than men to express concern over water shortages and pollution, just as younger people were more worried than their elders.

The GlobeScan results mirror the generational split in the United States over environmental issues. A survey conducted by Pew Research in April 2021 found that Gen Z and Millennials were more concerned about land, air, and water pollution than older generations.

Water is also more prominent in the public eye than its peer issues. A Gallup poll from 2022 found that water pollution is the biggest environmental concern among American adults. Water pollution ranked higher than air pollution, species extinction, and global warming.


Tax Incentives Find New Purpose for Conserving Water in American West

By Brett Walton

Dust and cows in the fall in the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley, a high desert farming region in southern Colorado, is a land of daunting natural constraints, especially its scarce water reserves. Pragmatic ingenuity is being applied here to overcome them, including a new easement program that uses federal and state tax benefits to conserve groundwater.

In November, Ron Bowman, owner of the 1,900-acre Peachwood Farms, signed Colorado’s first groundwater conservation easement. The landmark legal agreement enables Bowman to gain a substantial tax credit based on the value of 2,000 acre-feet of water he used annually. In exchange Bowman is prohibited from pumping groundwater to irrigate his fields.

Easements to conserve groundwater, while new, work the same as easements that have been negotiated for decades to conserve environmentally sensitive land. A landowner’s water is valued through an appraisal. The easement restricts what can be done with the water. The easement is then purchased or donated to a land trust or government agency, which is responsible for enforcing its stipulations. The value of the donated easement can be deducted from federal taxes and some state taxes. In Colorado, the benefit to the landowner is a state income tax credit.

Though the San Luis Valley is not the first to use easements to conserve groundwater — Nebraska’s Central Platte Natural Resources District has had them for 15 years — the San Luis Valley’s experience struck a chord, becoming the water-sector equivalent of a viral hit. The lawyers, land trusts, farmers, and water districts working in the valley are at the forefront of a new form of groundwater protection in the American West.

“I think it’s a brand new tool that has a lot of promise in terms of being able to conserve groundwater in perpetuity by reducing the draw on the aquifer,” said Peter Nichols, a water lawyer in Colorado who co-drafted the model easement that Peachwood Farms used.

The San Luis Valley is an apt place to start what amounts to a last-ditch program to reduce groundwater consumption. Hemmed in by the sawtooth Sangre de Christo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the broad valley is the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a river pummeled by a warming climate. Even with rising temperatures, the growing season is just three months for the alfalfa, potatoes, barley, and hemp that are planted here.  At nearly a mile and a half of elevation, a crop-killing frost can strike at any time.

Along with the formidable weather, water is a major factor limiting production. Valley farmers pump more water from the basin’s aquifers than can be sustained. After a catastrophic drought a generation ago, the state demanded that they use less, setting in motion a two-decade quest for groundwater balance. Easements are the latest step in a developing strategy to meet Colorado’s water conservation directive.

Farmers across the drying American West are taking notice because groundwater depletion is a top-line political issue in nearly every state from the High Plains to the Pacific Coast. California officials are implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to align supply and demand in its major farming valleys. Last November, voters in Arizona’s Cochise County approved new restrictions to counteract declining groundwater levels that had caused rural wells to dry up.

Groundwater conservation easements could be a solution, and the concept is starting to spread rapidly. Nichols is working with the Ogallala Land and Water Conservancy, in Clovis, New Mexico, to develop groundwater conservation easements in that state. The conservancy was founded in 2021 with the goal of using easements to protect the shrinking Ogallala Aquifer.

Attorneys, environmental groups, water groups, and land trusts in Texas also got interested in replicating the easement model following a presentation at the Texas Land Conservation Conference earlier this month by Ladona Clayton, the executive director of the Ogallala Land and Water Conservancy.

Clayton said the talk was a sensation. “Interest has suddenly exploded for me,” she said. “There’s not a quiet moment since I did that.”

Clayton is not resting while the conservancy assembles the paperwork for easements in New Mexico. In the last year she entered into three-year contracts to lease groundwater from 53 wells, saving nearly 13,000 acre-feet per year.

“Time was of the essence,” she said.

The Tools of Land Conservation But for Groundwater

The inflection point in the San Luis Valley arrived two decades ago. In 2002, amid a severe drought, groundwater levels plunged. Two years later the Legislature approved a mandate to bring the basin’s aquifers back in balance. Doing so would also ensure sufficient water would flow down the Rio Grande to New Mexico and Texas, as is required by federal compact.

About five years ago, Cleave Simpson, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, approached the region’s conservation groups with a challenge. Conservation easements had a long history in the valley as a tool to protect land from development. Could they be repurposed for groundwater protection?

“If all of us could eventually somehow agree to a restriction, we could improve our aquifer system,” Simpson said, recognizing one of the leading conundrums of behavioral economics and natural resource management. “But how can I incentivize folks to agree to a reduction in their groundwater withdrawals?”

Simpson put this question to Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, two groups that work on land conservation easements. Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands, said that farmers wanted flexibility with groundwater — to continue to grow crops but to use less water at the same time. To develop a model conservation easement, Colorado Open Lands contacted Peter Nichols and Allan Beezley, two lawyers specializing in land and water rights.

The list of groundwater protection tools is lengthy: fallowing agreements, groundwater leases, cap and trade, contracts that buy land for a one-time payment and cease farming. All the tools differ in terms of legal enforcement, funding source, length of the contract, and how they are administered. Conservation easements have two substantial benefits over their competitors, proponents say. Tax benefits mean that a funding source is already secured, one that is not subject to annual budget battles in the statehouse or Congress. And easements do not need to be renewed; they protect groundwater in perpetuity.

One of the challenges with this approach, Nichols said, is an accurate valuation. Land appraisals are common and relatively simple compared with valuing the non-use of groundwater. In the Peachwood Farms easement, the appraiser compared the value of irrigated farmland against land that is not irrigated.

The Peachwood Farms easement is no half measure either. Under the agreement, the entire 1,900-acre property will eventually forego irrigated agriculture and will be bought out by the water conservation district. Instead of rows of alfalfa or canola, the land will be returned to a natural state over a 10-year period. Some groundwater will be required in the first years, to establish native grasses and shrubs, Parmar said. And several of the fields will be leased during this transition period to produce barley for a local brewery.

An all-or-nothing groundwater approach is not the only path. Nichols said that farmers could pursue easements that would allow limited irrigation, relinquishing most of their groundwater pumping rights but keeping enough to maintain some farm production on their acreage. Parmar sees this as a viable alternative.

“Because a conservation easement can be tailored and written for a specific farm operation, our hope is that — and we’re in lots of conversations with other farmers about doing this — is to actually help them to permanently reduce their water use, but not go out of farming entirely,” Parmar said.

The easements mandate an endpoint — a reduction in groundwater pumping — but farmers determine the route. They could switch to a less water-intensive crop. They could install more efficient irrigation. Or they could fallow land. The choice is theirs.

If the benefits of groundwater conservation easements — the tax incentives, the flexibility, the ability to continue farming — are so clear, why aren’t there more?

Parmar, who has worked in land conservation for 15 years, said that organizations can be shortsighted.

“I think that there’s just been these silos that have existed between the land conservation communities and the water management communities,” Parmar said. “And I think we’re starting to work together and talk more to find more solutions, and that collaboration and engagement is, I think, what finally led to this. But it’s probably way overdue.”

Bowman, now retired, has owned Peachwood Farms for eight years as an investment property, growing alfalfa, hay, hemp, and canola on roughly 1,900 acres. He was not born in the San Luis Valley, coming to the area later in life. In his view, families that have lived in the valley longer should be the ones to continue farming. It’s one reason he was willing to sign the conservation easement.

Preservation of agriculture in the face of a tempestuous climate and unforgiving hydrology is a driving force for Cleave Simpson. Not only the general manager of the water conservation district, Simpson is a state senator and a fourth-generation farmer. He feels these changes every day.

“Agriculture is the [valley’s] biggest economic driver by far,” Simpson said. “All of our communities, our culture, our economies are all built around irrigated agriculture.”

Communities that laid their foundations more than a century ago now must adapt to an era of scarcity, Simpson said. All of the management tools today, groundwater conservation easements included, are intended to avert a disruptive transition.

“I routinely said, ‘If we’re very thoughtful about this, ag is going to change in the valley,’” Simpson said. “It can change incrementally, if we’re thoughtful about it. Or it will change fundamentally if we’re not careful.”


Radioactive water leaked in November at Monticello nuclear plant

Officials say cleanup continues and they’re monitoring local wells

By Matt Sepic 

Chris Clark and Randy Fordice of Xcel Energy walk outside of the company’s nuclear generating plant in Monticello, Minn., during an October 2019 tour. Officials on Thursday acknowledged a radioactive water leak occurred at the plant last November

Water containing tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, leaked out of Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant in Monticello, Minn. in November, state officials said Thursday.

Xcel reported that about 400,000 gallons of the tritiated water leaked from a water pipe between two buildings.

State officials said the tritium was found during routine checks of ground water.

“The leak has been stopped and has not reached the Mississippi River or contaminated drinking water sources. There is no evidence at this time to indicate a risk to any drinking water wells in the vicinity of the plant,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said in a statement.

Water containing a radioactive form of hydrogen, tritium, leaked out of Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant in Monticello, Minn., in November, state officials said Thursday.

How did the leak start?

Xcel reported the leak to government regulators on Nov. 22, the day it was confirmed, but Xcel Energy Regional President Chris Clark said it’s unclear when the problem began.

“As we do a full root cause analysis, we’ll have a better understanding of whether that was a few days, a few weeks, a month. But we just don’t know that at this point,” Clark said.

Clark said workers have pumped about 25 percent of the tritiated water out of the ground and are treating it on site. He said it’ll take about a year to remove the rest.

The steel pipe that leaked is about four inches in diameter and carries condensate water away from the steam turbine that drives the plant’s generators. Pat Flowers, Xcel’s manager of environmental services said the damaged pipe was in an inaccessible spot.

“The leak took place in that tiny little space and it wasn’t really visible until you drilled a hole through two feet of concrete to get to it to physically see what was leaking,” Flowers said.

Xcel will analyze the pipe to try to find out what caused it to break, Flowers said.

“In order to really understand what happened to this pipe, we’re going to have to take out several feet of concrete around the pipe so that we can get access to it,” Flowers said. “That’s not going to happen until our [routine refueling] outage that starts here in mid-April, and we’ve got plans in April to remove that pipe so we can do the metallurgy, we can repair it, and we can also understand what took place, what caused the failure.”

Though both state and federal regulators knew about the leak around the time Xcel staff discovered it, state officials did not inform the public about it for nearly four months.

The NRC’s November public notice was not in a news release, though it can be seen online at the bottom of a list of “non-emergency” event notification reports. 

Both state and company officials said they did not notify the public when the incident occurred because the tritiated water was not moving toward toward drinking water wells and did not pose a danger to people near the plant.

“If at any time, we had felt that there was any threat to Minnesotans, their health or their safety, we would have notified people immediately,” said assistant Minnesota Health Commissioner Dan Huff.

The company said it is monitoring the groundwater plume at two dozen wells, and is considering options to dispose of the collected tritium. Minnesota regulators will review those options, MPCA said.

How dangerous is tritium?

Tritium occurs naturally in the atmosphere. But it’s also produced through fission in nuclear reactors. Because it’s a type of hydrogen, it reacts with oxygen to produce radioactive water.

Tritium is hazardous but only if ingested in large concentrations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said tritium emits beta particles at such a low level that they are unable to penetrate human skin.

“While tritium is radioactive, it’s low energy, and so it’s not like plutonium. If you were to sit it next to you in a glass, it wouldn’t hurt you,” Huff said. “If you drank it, it would increase your radiation exposure. And we want to limit radiation exposure because radiation can cause tissue damage.”

Brian Vetter leads the Department of Radiation Safety at the University of Minnesota, where he oversees nuclear materials in the U’s research labs and medical facilities. He doesn’t work for Xcel or its government regulators. 

“We’re drinking extremely small quantities of radioactive water all the time: radium, tritium,” Vetter said. “It’s just a part of our naturally radioactive world that we all live in. Very extremely small quantities, but you want to keep them extremely small.”

Both the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Xcel said testing indicates that the underground plume of contaminated water has not spread outside plant boundaries.

The MPCA says the closest public well is less than a mile from the plant, but is on higher ground, so the tritiated water isn’t flowing to it.

There’s also a potable water well on the Monticello plant property that employees use. Chris Clark, the Xcel executive, said there’s no evidence of tritium in that particular well, and he said he would drink from it.

“I’d be happy to drink that water. I’ve actually drank that water there at the plant,” Clark said. Our employees are there and of course we care about our employees, we care about our community. Our employees live in the community of Monticello and communities around there.”

MPCA assistant commissioner Kirk Koudelka said the agency is overseeing Xcel’s cleanup efforts. 

“We are monitoring the area. Xcel is taking actions to remove contaminated groundwater from one series of wells, and in addition using other wells to control the contamination to prevent it from going offsite, whether that’s the river or outside its property boundaries,” Koudelka said.

The leak report comes as Xcel is asking federal regulators to extend Monticello’s operating license through 2050 — when the plant will be nearly 80 years old. 


Review of world water resources

By University of Texas at Austin

Image of water flowing from an old pipe (image from Sciencing)

A recent review study led by The University of Texas at Austin provides an overview of the planet’s freshwater supplies and strategies for sustainably managing them.

Published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the study highlights the connections between surface and groundwater and calls for diversified strategies for managing them both.

“I like to emphasize a lot of solutions and how they can be optimized,” said lead author Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist at the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, a research unit of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

The study draws on data from satellites, climate models, monitoring networks and almost 200 scientific papers to analyze the Earth’s water supply, how it’s changing in different regions and what’s driving these changes. The study’s co-authors include almost two dozen water experts from around the world.

According to the research, humans primarily rely on surface water. Globally, it accounts for 75% of irrigation and 83% of municipal and industrial supply annually. However, what we see at the surface is tightly connected to groundwater flow. In the United States, about 50% of annual streamflow starts as groundwater. And globally, surface water that seeps into the ground accounts for about 30% of annual groundwater supplies.

Human intervention can strongly influence the exchange in water between surface and groundwater sources. About 85% of groundwater pumped by humans in the U.S. is considered “captured”from surface water, which leads to declines in streamflow. At the same time, irrigation sourced from surface water can increase groundwater recharge as irrigated water seeps through the ground back to aquifers.

The study cites numerous examples of human activity affecting this flux between surface water and groundwater supplies. For example, surface water irrigation recharged aquifers in the early to mid-1900s in the Northwestern U.S.’ Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain, while global models show that groundwater pumping has greatly reduced the volume of water going to streams, with 15-21% of global watersheds at risk because of the reduced flows.

Despite their inherent connection, surface water and groundwater are frequently regulated and managed as separate resources. According to the researchers, future water resilience depends on recognizing that surface water and groundwater behave as a single resource — and acting on that knowledge.

The study describes different ways for managing water through both natural and engineered solutions that can help increase water supplies, reduce demand, store water and transport it. According to Scanlon, one of the best ways to adapt to increasing climate extremes is storing water during wet times and drawing on it in times of drought.

“We have droughts and we have floods,” she said. “We are trying to manage those extremes and a way to do that is to store water.”

Annually, the world stores about 7,000-8,300 cubic kilometers, or about two Lake Michigan’s worth of water, in surface reservoirs. The researchers said it was important to continue developing groundwater supplies, too, because they are more resilient than surface reservoirs during long-term droughts. Managed aquifer recharge can help cities build up their groundwater supplies by collecting surface water and diverting it underground into aquifers. Globally, about 10,000 cubic kilometers of water is stored this way each year.

“This type of integrated research, linking surface and groundwater, is exactly what is needed to develop lasting solutions to issues such as fresh water use,” said Scott Tinker, the director of the Bureau of Economic Geology. “Too often studies are done in isolation, and well-intended applications have unintended outcomes.”

Matthew Rodell, a hydrologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who was not involved in the study, said that the paper offers a useful compendium of research results and potential solutions for managing water supplies while also keeping water quality — a characteristic that’s more difficult to monitor remotely than quantity — in mind.

“Water quality is one of the next targets in terms of being able to manage water resources,” he said. “I like that this was incorporated as well.”


Rising Bottled Water Consumption Signals Safe Drinking Water Goal Is Under Threat, Says U.N. Think Tank

By Gloria Dickie

A resident living in a flooded area refills plastic containers with drinking water on an improvised “banca” (small boat) in Artex compound, Malabon city, north of Manila

Surging global bottled water consumption reflects the failure by governments to improve public water supplies which is putting the U.N. sustainable development goal of safe drinking water by 2030 under threat, a U.N. academic think tank said on Thursday.

The bottled water market saw 73% growth from 2010 to 2020, and consumption is on track to increase from around 350 billion litres in 2021 to 460 billion litres by 2030, according to the U.N. University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

“The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public water supply systems,” the institute’s director Kaveh Madani said in statement.

The U.N. estimates that some 2.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, with the number of people who had access growing by only 4% between 2016 and 2020.

Developing nations depend on bottled water to make up this shortfall. Egypt, facing water scarcity, was the fastest growing market for treated bottled water from 2018 to 2021, the UNU report said.

Singapore and Australia were the biggest per capita consumers of bottled water at 1,129 litres and 504 litres a year respectively, according to the report. Malaysia led developing countries in per capita consumption, at just under 150 litres.

More than a third of Americans said they use bottled water as their main water source, the report said.

“To a somewhat surprising extent, bottled water grew immensely over the last few decades while in the conventional and more reliable public and domestic drinking water supply, progress was slow paced,” said report co-author Vladimir Smakhtin of UNU-INWEH.

Meeting the UN sustainable development goal of providing safe drinking water by 2030 is therefore under threat, he said, noting governments were too often leaving the provision of safe drinking water to private actors.


In addition to concerns over poor access to clean drinking water, rising bottled water consumption also threatens the environment, ranging from concerns that corporations are depleting groundwater to plastic pollution.

The industry produced 600 billion plastic bottles in 2021, 85% of which are likely to end up in landfills.

“While there is growing awareness toward bottled water and plastic issues in the northern hemisphere … the market is not showing that,” said report co-author Zeineb Bouhlel. “It shows that campaigns run by corporations have a bigger influence on perceptions that bottled water is a better option.”

Research published last week found that plastics entering the ocean could nearly triple by 2040 if left unchecked.

“It is a human right to have access to free and clean water, but it’s also a right to live in a world free from plastic pollution,” said Marcus Eriksen, director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a plastic pollution non-profit.


Las Vegas water agency seeks power to limit residential use


A home with a swimming pool abuts the desert on the edge of the Las Vegas valley July 20, 2022, in Henderson, Nev. Nevada lawmakers on Monday, March 13, 2023, will consider another shift in water use for one of the driest major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Vegas is seeking authority to limit what comes out of residents’ taps.

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers are set to consider a remarkable shift in allowing the water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Las Vegas to limit residential use in the desert city.

It’s another potential step in a decades-long effort to ensure one of the driest metropolitan areas in the U.S. has enough water. Already, in Las Vegas ornamental lawns are banned, new swimming pools have a size limit and the water used inside homes is recycled.

While some agencies across the U.S. West tie increased water use to increased cost, Nevada could be the first to give a water agency — the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the power to restrict what comes out of residents’ taps in state statute. The provision is one among many in a sweeping omnibus bill that goes before legislators Monday afternoon.

Nevada is one of seven states that rely on the Colorado River. Deepening drought, climate change and demand have sunk key Colorado River reservoirs that depend on melting snow to their lowest levels on record.

“It’s a worst case scenario plan,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas. “It makes sure that we prioritize the must-haves for a home. Your drinking water, your basic health and safety needs.”

The bill would give the water authority leeway to limit water usage in single-family homes to 160,000 gallons annually, incorporate homes with septic systems into the city’s sewer system and provide funding for the effort.

The average home uses about 130,000 gallons of water per year, meaning the largest water users would feel the pinch, according to the agency.

The authority hasn’t yet decided how it would implement or enforce the proposed limits, which would not automatically go into effect, spokesperson Bronson Mack said.

Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90% of its water supply. Nevada has lost about 8% of that supply already because of mandatory cuts implemented as the river dwindles further. Most residents haven’t felt the effects because Southern Nevada Water Authority recycles a majority of water used indoors and doesn’t use the full allocation.

Nevada lawmakers banned ornamental grass at office parks, in street medians and entrances to housing developments two years ago. This past summer, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, capped the size of new swimming pools at single-family residential homes to about the size of a three-car garage.

A state edict carries greater weight than city ordinances and more force in messaging, said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which monitors western water policy.

Watts said he is hopeful other municipalities that have been hesitant to clamp down on residential water use will follow suit as “good stewards of the river” with even deeper cuts to the Colorado River supply looming.

Snow that has inundated northern Nevada and parts of California serves as only a temporary reprieve from dry conditions. Some states in the Colorado River basin have gridlocked on how to cut water usage.

Water from the Colorado River largely is used for agriculture in other basin states: Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. Municipal water is a relatively small percentage of overall use.

As populations grow and climate change leaves future supplies uncertain, policymakers are paying close attention to all available options to manage water supplies.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, uses a tiered cost structure where rates rise sharply when residents reach 10,000 gallons during the summer months.

Scottsdale, Arizona, recently told residents in a community outside city limits that it no longer could provide a water source for them. Scottsdale argued action was required under a drought management plan to guarantee enough water for its own residents.

Elsewhere in metro Phoenix, water agencies aren’t currently discussing capping residential use, Sheri Trap of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said in an email. But cities like Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe have said they will cut down on usage overall.