The Hill's Sustainability Report: 'Trash fish' take center-stage amid drought

The Hill's Sustainability Report: 'Trash fish' take center-stage amid drought
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Two species of hearty suckerfish maligned as “trash fish” have risen to the forefront of a battle between local tribes and farmers in the drought-ridden Klamath Basin between Oregon and California, The Guardian reported.  

C’waam and Koptu fish — once a staple of the Klamath Tribes’ seasonal food system, canned and served with Tabasco — has been on the endangered species list for more than three decades, according to The Guardian. While their meat earned praise from white anglers through the mid-20th century, in recent decades the suckerfish have been ridiculed by nonnatives as “trash fish,” The Guardian reported.

The fish occupy Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake, which serves about 1,200 local farmers. Amid ongoing megadrought conditions this spring, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water supplies to preserve the lake’s minimum water level for its endangered inhabitants. This also meant cutting off outflow to the Klamath River, which contributed to a die-off of salmon downstream, according to The Guardian. 

Today we’ll bring you other water-related stories, as World Water Week concludes. We’ll explore how Japan’s plans to discharge treated radioactive wastewater is angering its neighbors and local fisheries. Then we’ll look at how communities might need to rethink the ways they prepare for floods in a more extreme climate.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at or Sharon at Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

Japan plans to release treated radioactive wastewater into Pacific


A person protesting the removal of radioactive waster at Fukishima

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco) had a big sustainability headache: How to get rid of 1 million tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the former Fukushima nuclear plant.

So the company is planning to bore a 1-kilometer tunnel to pipe the wastewater — which contains heavily diluted tritium, a radioactive ingredient — into the Pacific Ocean, The Japan Times reported. From there, the water will be released into an area where there are no fishing rights to minimize harm to local fisheries, according to the Times, Japan’s largest English-language daily newspaper.

“We will thoroughly explain our safety policies and the measures we are taking against reputation damage, so that we can dispel concerns held by people involved in fisheries,” the plant’s chief decommissioning officer, Akira Ono, told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.

But local fisherfolk — and Japan’s South Korean neighbors — still aren’t happy.

Why is there so much radioactive water?  When a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima plant in March 2011, more than 1 million tons of treated water accumulated at the site, the Times reported. Water that was pumped into the reactors to cool the melted fuel then mixed with rain and groundwater, creating further contamination. 

The treatment process removes most radioactive materials, like strontium and cesium, but leaves behind tritium. That poses fewer health risks in low concentrations, according to the Times. But it still has to be removed.

What’s the plan for getting rid of it? Tepco will build the tunnel by hollowing out bedrock on the seabed near Fukushima’s No. 5 reaction, the Times reported.

The company intends to apply to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority for a review, with the goal of beginning full-scale construction in early 2022 and starting the discharge by spring 2023, according to the Times. 

The tunnel will be 2.5 meters in diameter and stretch east into the Pacific Ocean, AFP reported.

Is this safe? Japan’s regulators say so. The treated water will be diluted with seawater so that its tritium concentration is less than 1,500 becquerels per liter, the Times reported.

A becquerel is a unit used to measure radioactivity: The amount of radiation released when an unstable atom — like uranium, strontium or tritium — disintegrates, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One becquerel represents a rate of radioactive decay equal to 1 disintegration per second.

This concentration of tritium is 1/40th of Japan’s regulatory standard, which is 60,000 becquerels per liter, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.


Fisheries are still fearful. The Japanese government has pledged to buy marine products as an emergency step to support businesses, if the discharge ends up hurting their sales, the Times reported.

Even a decade after the meltdown, Fukushima’s seafood products are often priced lower and avoided by retailers and consumers, the Associated Press reported.

Tepco President Tomoaki Kobayakawa told reporters that the company plans to unveil a compensation plan soon and that it is taking these concerns “seriously,” according to the AP.

Japan’s next-door-neighbor is also angry. Koo Yoon-cheol, head of South Korea’s office of government policy coordination, said that Seoul "expresses strong regret” that Japan is “unilaterally pursuing its plan without any prior consultations or seeking consent from our government,” Yonhap News Agency reported.

Koo demanded that Japan “immediately halt” its plans and consult its neighbors before proceeding, according to Yonhap.

A South Korean foreign ministry official, Lee Tong-q, called a Japanese Embassy official on Thursday to lodge a formal complaint about the project, a second Yonhap report said.

"Director General Lee stressed the importance of sufficient consultations over the planned disposal of the contaminated water, and of providing information with sincerity, and relayed our citizens' concerns," a ministry news release said, according to Yonhap. 

Takeaway: Regardless of the plan’s safety from a scientific perspective, Japan is risking stirring up tensions with both neighboring governments and its own local businesses — considerations that the country will have to navigate as it tries to clean up a decade-old mess.

Past flooding no longer a guarantee of future flooding  

A house floats after the flooding in Tennessee

Inland and coastal communities must prepare now for the danger of flash floods, Laura Lightbody of the Pew Charitable Trusts told Equilibrium.

Communities and the federal government are good at responding after disasters happen — but with flooding a growing problem, that’s no longer enough, according to Lightbody, who directs Pew’s flood-prepared communities initiative. 

“Communities have to plan and prepare for the kinds of catastrophes that just happened in Tennessee,” Lightbody said, referring to the weekend’s floods, which killed 20 people, according to CNN. 

But there are a lot of tools and resources to help them do that, she added.

First steps: The White House approved a federal disaster declaration for Humphreys County, Tenn., the epicenter of the floods, according to an official statement.

Such a declaration unlocks federal financial assistance — like low-interest loans to cover uninsured losses, or grants for temporary housing and repairs — to people who can prove they were hurt by the disaster.

Backward looking: But it is also a sign of how flood response policy tends to look backward, Lightbody said. 

That plays out in two ways:

  1. The government tends to focus more on making people whole after the fact than on planning proactively for a more chaotic future. 
  2. Communities do their flood planning based on the obsolete assumptions that past averages are a good indicator of future flooding.  

Times have changed: This second idea — that the average of events over the past 10, 25 or 100 years is a good predictor of the next 10, 25 or 100 — is fundamental to many fields of risk management and insurance.

“But as the weather has gotten more extreme, urbanization has put more and more people into harm’s way” by building on the floodplains, wetlands and shorelines that otherwise take the brunt of flooding, Lightbody said.

Put together, that means a mix of "outdated methods of flood risk coupled with increasing [weather] events, layered on top of poorly built infrastructure, leads to more impact, more costs and more devastation," Lightbody said.

A better understanding of risk: Towns and cities are adopting new forms of risk modeling and factoring future flood and sea level rise projections into current planning.  

Most of America's current built environments were built both for a more hospitable climate and without refer to our current "more sophisticated understanding of flood risk,” Lightbody said.


Federal resources are available to help: The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) funds a program to help homeowners move out of neighborhoods subject to frequent flooding.

Using such voluntary programs — homeowners only move if they want to — include New Jersey’s Blue Acres buyout program after Superstorm Sandy and Nashville’s response to its devastating May 2010 floods by buying out more than 400 houses and restoring them to greenspace to absorb floods, NewsChannel 5 reported. 

There’s also the bipartisan infrastructure bill: The proposal features a program that builds out existing grant programs in the Department of Transportation to mingle “green” and “gray” infrastructure — as in Raleigh, N.C.’s green bioretention areas built in place of highway medians.  

Last words: The spur for such changes was typically a past disaster. “It’s important to use the opportunity of disaster to think more proactively about risk,” Lightbody said, “and where does it make sense for a community to sit.”

Thirsty Thursday 

Cracked land during a drought

How drought is impacting various parts of the global landscape and economy.

Afghanistan climate officials go into hiding, as country suffers from prolonged drought

  • Afghanistan officials who had planned to attend this fall’s U.N. Climate Conference have gone into hiding during the Taliban takeover, as the country continues to suffer from extreme drought, E&E News reported.
  • These climate leaders are “waiting anxiously to see if Taliban leaders will resurrect a federal ministry for the environment,” according to E&E.
  • “Our climate change situation would be a really serious issue, maybe more than the current situation,” one former official, Ahmad Samim Hoshmand, told E&E.
  • Afghanistan is among the countries in which children are at most risk from climate change, according to a UNICEF report that we covered last week. 
  • Due to the ongoing drought, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said that this year’s wheat crop will drop by 2 million metric tons, while more than 3 million livestock animals will likely die, E&E reported.

Warm water “blob” near New Zealand may be drying out Chile

  • A “blob” of warm water the width of the continental U.S. is sitting in the ocean east of New Zealand — and it may be driving the decade-long megadrought in Chile, thousands of miles east, according to Reuters.
  • That warm water is shifting storms from the subtropical and temperate zones away from Chile and toward Antarctica, according to the paper in Journal of Climate.
  • Thousands of miles east of the blob, 400,000 rural Chileans had to receive water by truck — as some peaks are now without the snow that would usually feed rivers, according to a second Reuters piece. 
  • "We need to be cognizant of the changes that are happening in global climate thousands of miles away," climate scientist Dillon Amaya of University of Colorado Boulder told Reuters. "It's all connected."

In the era of drought, California’s water futures soar 

  • Last year, California started selling “water futures” — contracts that allowed people to commit now to buy water at a certain price later.
  • Over the last year, those futures have climbed around 90 percent on the two California exchanges in the face of a blistering Western drought, according to MarketWatch.
  • In some ways, this climb is good news: It attracts attention and investment to water and water infrastructure, which when it is cheap is easy to waste.
  • And prices are probably going up, Deane Dray of RBC Capital Markets told MarketWatch, “as water scarcity is already a concern in certain areas around the world, and we believe that water as a commodity is gaining more traction.”  
  • That means companies “will be significantly impacted if they fail to be an active player in smart water management,” said Kirsten James of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres.

While not wholly water-related, book lovers out there might be interested to learn that Penguin Classics has launched a new imprint — Green Ideas — for environmental literature, according to The Guardian. The series is launching with 20 books that Penguin believes “changed the way we think and talk about the living Earth,” The Guardian reported.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday.