Archive for the ‘Drinking Water’ Category

This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama gave his long-awaited climate change speech this week. In it, he discussed possible approval of the Keystone Pipeline – the massive conduit to bring Canadian tar sands oil down to the gulf coast. In discussing the pipeline’s potential environmental effects, he focused – as most commentators do – on the impact of carbon emissions, both in extracting the tar sands oil and burning the stuff after it makes its way down the pipeline and into American (or Chinese) automobiles. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if the State Department certifies that it will not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. That drops the fate of the Keystone project in the lap of the new Secretary of State John Kerry who has not shown himself to be an enthusiastic backer of the plan.

The Keystone pipeline has been drawing lots of heated opposition of late, and not just from the usual tree-huggers and totebaggers.  Rock-ribbed Republican sections of the country are beginning to sour on the idea of sluicing some of the filthiest fuel ever devised across the entire center of the country.

And carbon pollution is hardly Keystone’s only problem, despite Obama’s emphasis on emissions. It’s not just the stuff flowing through the pipes which can cause problems when it’s ultimately burned. The pipelines themselves pose significant environmental hazards on their own.

Existing pipelines haven’t been doing Keystone any favors lately in the publicity department. The fact that the nation is crisscrossed with fuel pipes literally burst into the country’s consciousness when a natural gas line exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, killing three boys playing nearby. A decade later, a PG&E pipeline exploded in Burlingame, California, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. In March, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped some 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen onto Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing an evacuation, contaminating local rivers and lakes, and sickening local residents.

Then, just this month, a whopping 9.5 million liters of toxic oil waste leaked in Alberta, the source of Keystone’s tar sands oil.  The Globe and Mail tells us that across a broad expanse of northern Alberta, the landscape is dead. “Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation. The leak is just one of several major spills in the region, and local residents are alarmed at what all those toxins will do to wetlands and their water supplies.

And what of Keystone? Well, aside from providing a means of moving filthy fuel from one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, the proposed pipeline just happens to run smack dab through the Ogallala Aquifer, the principal source of water in an area composed of  174,000 square miles of eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water necessary for residential and industrial use, and supporting a whopping one-fifth of  the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle raised in the United States. It’s a big, big deal.

The Aquifer is already being severely stressed by drought and over-consumption.  In some areas, the water table has declined by 200 feet.  Aquifer residents, already alarmed about stresses to their vital water supply, aren’t taking kindly to the prospect of a foreign company laying down hundreds of miles of inevitably leaky pipe over that precious resource.  Quite aside from balking at TransCanada’s aggressive pursuit of eminent domain claims over farmland, High Plains residents are increasingly concerned about the possibility of oil leaking into their wells. One notable property of tar sands oil is that it sinks, rather than floats, making clean up difficult and expensive.

TansCanada is lobbying furiously to gain approval for it’s pipeline. But Secretary Kerry would be well advised to consider the likelihood of contaminating some of America’s key drinking and agricultural water as his agency weighs the environmental impact of the Keystone pipeline. Carbon emissions are only one of the problem Keystone poses. Its potential threat to one of our nation’s most vital water supplies should not be shrugged aside.

Oil Companies Will Pay Out $320,000 to Montana Town as a Part of EPA Agreement

Photo by ESRL. Some rights reserved.

In December 2010, the EPA attempted to act via emergency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act against oil companies that they claimed were polluting the water supply of a small Montana town. Their attempt was appealed by these companies, and finally referred by a federal judge to mediation. However, as of last week, the EPA has finally settled with these three oil production companies operating on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation (home to the Assiniboine and the Sioux tribes) over claims that their business has compromised the local water supply.

According to an EPA press release, the companies in question (Murphy Exploration & Production Co., Pioneer Natural Resources USA, Inc., and SGH Enterprises, Inc.) have agreed to pay out $320,000 to the city of Poplar, MT (the nearest city to the reservation, whose population of 810 is made up predominately of Native Americans) in order “to reimburse costs related to water infrastructure and relocating water wells.” The companies have also pledged to fund the monitoring of the cities water supply over the coming months, and to fund further relocation/exploration of alternative water sources if it is deemed necessary by the EPA.

The EPA’s study claims that 40 million gallons of brine (an unwanted bi-product of oil and gas drilling and production) have entered Poplar’s water supply over the last five decades, and that while the quality of drinking water has not yet dipped below the acceptable safety level, it is in “imminent danger” according to EPA scientist Sarah Roberts. Studies of the local water have revealed increasing amounts of dissolved metals, chloride, and sodium in past years. The Poplar Public Water Resource carries drinking water to serve 3000 people in the greater Poplar area.

Let’s Hope This Sunlight Can Kill Coliform, Arsenic, and Bad User Interfaces

Photo by mrhayata. Some rights reserved.

In the name of transparency, the EPA announced yesterday the release of several improvements to the availability and usability of drinking water data in the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) tool.

The updated Safe Drinking Water Act search page can ostensibly used to pinpoint violations of drinking water standards in any given individual’s community. The interface, however, leaves much to be desired.

A geographic search on the tool will return a list of violators in your area. However, because of the nature of any given city’s water systems, it can be difficult to know whether a specific discharge or exceedance of the maximum contaminant levels is affecting or has affected your neighborhood’s drinking water.

To boot, the page is riddled with acronyms whose explanations are difficult to locate, and – once you have the codes all figured out – it is still often unclear whether a given episode of noncompliance has been resolved.

If you agree that the functionality and usability of the Drinking Water Data Search could be improved, don’t be shy about letting the EPA know. They are currently accepting comments on the tool that will be used to improve the service.

Duke University Study Finds Methane Contamination in Drinking Water Near Fracking Sites

Photo by Augapfel. Some rights reserved.

Last month it was Cornell, and this month it’s Duke, but all these universities are telling us the same thing: hydraulic fracturing comes with environmental risks.

While the study from Cornell focused on the global warming effects of methane that escapes from natural gas fracking, a recent study from Duke University found that escaped methane from shale wells is also making it into surrounding groundwater.

Specifically, concentrations of methane in drinking water wells near active drilling and extraction areas were found to be 17-times higher on average than in wells by non-active drilling areas.  “Although dissolved methane in drinking water is not currently classified as a health hazard for ingestion,” the study points out, “it is an asphyxiant in enclosed spaces and an explosion and fire hazard.”

Of course, the results of a study like this won’t go uncontested. One article questioning the study’s reliability points to an industry spokesman who claims that “the authors (of the Duke University study) admit they have no baseline data at all, which makes it impossible to characterize the state of those water wells prior to recent development.”

However, one good – and surprisingly less publicized – piece of news for the gas industry is that this particular study found no evidence of drinking water contamination from the fracturing fluids themselves or from “produced” water (wastewater that results from the fracking process). Still, the EPA announced yesterday that they are continuing to seek information from natural gas drillers on their wastewater disposal processes to “ensure that natural gas production takes place safely and responsibly.”

For more information on the study, check out this Fulbright & Jaworski Briefing.

To Frack or Not To Frack?

Photo by Nigel Williams. Some rights reserved.

Hydraulic fracturing has received a lot of press since we originally reported on it (here and here), but probably nothing compared to the debate going forward.

On Sunday, April 10th, The Hill’s E2-Wire released a pre-publication version of a study from Cornell University concluding that natural gas obtained via “fracking” could be even worse for global warming than coal.

This downside is, of course, in addition to concerns about drinking water contamination in the areas surrounding hydraulic fracturing activities. The EPA is still preparing to undertake a study to “understand the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources.”

On Tuesday, April 11th, however, law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf published a client alert implying that hydraulic fracturing’s time has “finally come.” The alert suggested that heightened fears of nuclear fallout as a result of the crisis in Japan could mean a boost for “safer” sources of energy, and that the natural gas industry is “poised to benefit.”

Disagree? Perhaps you’ll be inspired to stand up to fracking, super-hero style.

High Levels of Lead, Low Levels of Communication

Image courtsey of Some rights reserved.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) got a public lesson in post-publication clarification when the GAO’s report “CDC Public Health Communications Need Improvement” was published earlier this week.

The GAO report takes us back to Washington, D.C., in the year 2001, when the District’s Water and Sewer Authority became aware of lead levels in the area’s tap water that were surpassing the EPA’s limit of 15 parts per billion. The elevated levels – now attributed to a change made in the disinfection process in 2000 – were reported to both the EPA and the public starting in 2002.

In early 2004, the District of Columbia Department of Health (DCDOH) asked the CDC to assess the effects of the elevated lead levels on D.C. residents. CDC is generally responsible for developing lead poisoning prevention programs, as well as collaborating with federal and state partners to prevent lead poisoning. Elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children, as well as miscarriage in pregnant women.

In April of 2004, the CDC published their preliminary assessment in an article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the agency’s “primary vehicle” for disseminating public health information.

But this particular dissemination of public health information backfired.

While the article suggested that no children tested had been found to have concerning BLLs, it was later established that some children’s BLLs had exceeded CDC’s “established level of concern.” According to CDC officials, the article “may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem.”

CDC took several steps toward addressing the confusion surrounding the article – for instance, the original online article is now preceded by two links to “Notices to Readers” published in 2010 that note the “limitations of methods employed and the manner in which findings were communicated.”

But it wasn’t enough. According to the GAO, “as of January 2011, CDC had no plans to publish an overview of the current knowledge about the contribution of elevated lead levels in tap water to BLLs in children, as suggested by a CDC internal incident analysis of issues surrounding the 2004 MMWR article.”

The GAO reports that the CDC has begun an initiative to revise procedures designed to “help ensure the accessibility and clarity of CDC public health communications,” but that the initiative does not address “how and when to take action about confusion after publication.” (emphasis added)

Therefore, the GAO recommends that CDC do the following: (1) publish an article providing a comprehensive overview of tap water as a source of lead exposure and communicating the potential health effects on children and (2) develop procedures to address any confusion after information is published. CDC has “generally concurred” with the recommendations.

You can find further resources on lead in drinking water – including specifics on the Washington, D.C. incident – from the CDC and EPA here and here, respectively.

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