Archive for the ‘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.”

Cool Water



All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water,
Cool water.
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water,
Cool water.

The night are cool and I’m a fool each star’s a pool of water,
Cool water.
But with the dawn I’ll wake and yawn and carry on to water,
Cool water.

Keep a movin’ Dan, don’t you listen to him Dan, he’s a devil not a man
and he spreads the burnin’ sand with water.
Dan can’t you see that big green tree where the waters runnin’ free
and it’s waiting there for me and you.
Water, cool water.

The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water,
Cool water.
And way up there He’ll hear our prayer and show us where there’s water,
Cool Water.

Dan’s feet are sore he’s yearning for just one thing more than water,
Cool water.
Like me, I guess, he’d like to rest where there’s no quest for water,
Cool water.

Bob Nolan

California has an official song. It’s called I Love You California. It might be time to retire the pretty little thing and switch to Cool Water, a song that’s been notably covered by artists as diverse as Hank Williams and Joni Mitchell.

California is in trouble. It’s perennial governor, Jerry Brown, has managed to wrestle its finances into shape for the first time in years,  but the state’s weather outlook is also sunny – too sunny. Temperatures aren’t just unseasonably high across the state, they are setting records, bringing summer into the depths of winter.

Along with the record setting heat has come a record setting drought. 2013 was the driest year in California history. Faced with drastically reduced water reserves and a snow pack only 20% of normal, Governor Brown declared a drought emergency across the state. According to Brown, the state’s reservoirs are critically low and cities across the state have already begun rationing water. He wants the state’s residents to cut back water consumption by 20%. So far, the conservation efforts are voluntary. We’ll see how long that lasts before mandatory cutbacks are put into place.

I’m sure there will be some griping about brown lawns, but the shady groves of Beverly Hills will probably be unaffected. (I’ve noticed over the years that whatever the drought conditions, the water in Beverly Hills’ verdant gardens always flows with abandon.) But the statewide water shortage is no trivial matter. California feeds the nation. Without adequate water supplies, its $45 billion farm economy is at risk. Already the local cattle business is feeling uncomfortably pinched.   Almonds, tomato, lettuce and avocado crops are also in danger of wilting away.

A graphic illustration of just how radically low California’s reserves are comes to us complements of some high school students in Bishop, California. Those enterprising souls have been launching big helium balloons up into the stratosphere for three years. Among other things, they’ve captured images of the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Comparing the amounts of snow now on the peaks with last year’s snow pack is sobering. “We had a flight almost exactly a year ago, and at that time the mountains were almost completely covered in snow,” said one of the students. “In the recent images very few mountains were covered with snow. We knew we were in a drought, but it wasn’t clear to us before we saw the pictures how bad it is.” Another added, “Given that last year was also a low snow year, it is very disconcerting.”

So, California is experiencing both record heat and record drought. To get a taste of what that particular combination can bring, cast your eyes past the equator to Australia, which is struggling through a similar double-whammy. It’s not a pretty picture.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if the experiences in California and Australia are anecdotes or data.

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.

Calamity, Catastrophe, or Cataclysm?

Photo Credit: FoodAndYou. Some rights may be reserved.

Dire warnings and dismal predictions often seem to be the stock in trade of environmental activists. Hyperbole helps fundraising and hyperventilating about imminent threats get page views. Two of the leading subjects for pumped-up concern are global climate change and vanishing resources. But rarely are both topics so alarmingly conjoined as they have been by Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left and Resource Wars.

Writing for, Klare argues that we are on the cusp of a new world order dominated by struggles over access to affordable resources. He says that humanity is faced with two converging and utterly unprecedented disasters: severe resource depletion and extreme climate change. His prognosis is not a happy one. The civil, political, and military institutions we have developed over centuries would be strained to deal with either threat alone. Together, they present a monumental global challenge.

It’s not just peak oil. The world is also heading for peak water. Klare cites the disastrous drought in Russia that decimated that country’s wheat crop in 2010 as just one in a litany of destabilizing events global warming will visit on us. The roiling discontent of the Arab spring flowed at least in part from the enormous spike in wheat prices caused by the murderous heat in the Russian steppes. Klare tells us such resource shocks will become increasingly common as the globe warms and resources diminish.

He is hardly alone in seeing the threat. The Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper (no Pollyanna, he) cites competition and scarcity involving natural resources as a national security threat on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. “Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.”

So while we may become inured to the environmental movement’s escalating warnings, those alarms are not groundless carping. A prudent and conservative individual or organization would be well advised to take them into account. The world may be warming but there are still icebergs in our path. It would be best not to collide with one.

A Heartfelt Eulogy for Florida’s Manatees

Photo by MyFWCmedia

Photo by MyFWCmedia

This spring has already proven to be extremely tragic for Florida’s manatee population, and a new report this week from the New York Times suggests even more fatalities before the season is over. So what the heck is going on, right? These deaths (widely recognized as “mysterious” by most major news organizations) are part of a phenomenon commonly referred to as a “red bloom” or red tide, which affects Florida’s waters every year.

A red bloom is an influx of toxic red algae that appears in the shallow waters of the state’s western coast, and is poisonous to any marine life who would try to feed off of affected sea grass, where the toxins cling. Florida’s manatees have succumbed to this invasion before, but never in such alarmingly high numbers. This year, the red bloom has killed 241 of the state’s 5,000 manatees, far surpassing the previous record of 151 fatalities. This comes after reports earlier this year that manatees had been dying from an even more “mysterious ailment” in the state’s eastern rivers, where they should be safe from the red bloom, but apparently not from another mysteriously deadly algae in the Indian River Lagoon having similar effects. Tragically, more manatees are expected to die before this whole sad dance wraps up for another year.

But so: who’s to blame for the red bloom phenomenon? Is this something we can avoid? Experts are uncertain, reports the Times, of there are any human factors to consider here, and how they would weigh against other natural factors like weather and seasonal timing, however:

“Phosphorus runoff from fertilized farms and lawns may have contributed, because algae thrive on a phosphorus diet. The Caloosahatchee River, which runs through rural Florida farmland, empties into the ocean at Fort Myers.”

And sadly (though don’t get me wrong: despite their appearance, I love a manatee as much as the next fellow), manatees are not the only Florida wildlife affected: though the numbers are less drastic, the red bloom will affect birds, dolphins and any other marine life it comes in contact with.

More at Grist | Treehugger | NPR

What the Frack?

The Associated Press revealed on Wednesday that it discovered the EPA had evidence indicating that a major drilling company was responsible for contaminating drinking water at homes near its operation. When the EPA moved against the company, however, it threatened not to cooperate in a large-scale study of fracking within the industry. Soon after, the EPA ceased investigative activity directly targeting the company. Yet at one point, the agency was so concerned about the local water quality that it issued an Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Order regarding the situation. The order was later retracted.

EPA Sued Over Nutrient Pollution in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico

Photo by turtlemom4bacon. Some rights reserved.

Law Firm Faegre Baker Daniels sent out a Legal Update this week detailing two complaints filed simultaneously against the EPA over actions (and inactions) taken in regards to nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in the Mississippi River.

One complaint (Gulf Restor’n Network v. Jackson, E.D. La., No. 2: 12-cv-00677), filed March 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana by the Gulf Restoration Network (and others), claims that the EPA violated the Administrative Procedure Act by denying a 2008 petition that asked the EPA to establish state water quality standards and total maximum daily loads to address excessive nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the waters of the Mississippi River Basin and northern Gulf of Mexico.

The other complaint (Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. Jackson, S.D.N.Y., No. 12-CIV-1848), filed the same day in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by the Natural Resources Defense Council (and others), seeks to compel the EPA to address a 2007 petition requesting that the EPA publish updated standards on secondary treatment technology for publicly owned treatment works, and include nitrogen and phosphorous removal in those standards. The agency never even responded to the petition.

Faegre points out that, “[f]or the agriculture industry and farmers, the implications of the lawsuits are significant. According to the Iowa Farm Bureau, the cost of complying with the nitrogen and phosphorous standards sought by environmental groups could be as high as $600 million per year nationwide.”

NRC Report Champions the Benefits of Wastewater

Photo by Pam_Broviak. Some rights reserved.

As the National Research Council made clear way back in 2001, “In this new century, the United States will be challenged to provide sufficient quantities of high-quality water to its growing population.” According to a new report authored and released by the NRC’s Water Science and Technology Board (made up of sixteen government officials, researchers, and industry specialists), approximately 12 billion gallons of used water is discharged each day into oceans, rivers, and groundwater by American municipalities, when this wastewater could be easily “captured and reused.”

As climate change and population growth force the need for more stringent water conservation methods ever higher, this new report argues that the current practice for disposing of this used water is to treat it by recycling it back through larger bodies of water, when in fact this “natural treatment” step may be entirely unnecessary, when this water could be put to immediate use in bolstering out national water supply.

The New York Times points out that in some areas of the U.S., local governments are already implementing such measures. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has been using un-treated wastewater for decades across a broad spectrum of uses (none of which involve any human consumption, which seems to be the biggest hang-up for the American consumer, a POV that was considered in the parameters of the NRC report). Ten percent of total water use in this district employs recycled water, whereas this figure stands at less than three-tenths of 1 percent nationwide.

Despite the obvious benefits, and though the study concludes that there are no significant risks in these potable reuse water projects (finding no comparable differences between common drinking water sources and potable reuse water), the legalities of enforcement of these standards on a larger federal level are somewhat dicier. The EPA is on shaky ground enforcing national water reuse standards under the Clean Water Act, and so, at least for now, the decision to reuse wastewater seems to rest on a district-by-district-level. I’ve linked to the full version of the NRC report above, and you can read a nice summary of the report here.

Water Disclosure

Photo by Davidpd. Some rights reserved.

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog yesterday posted a bit about the results of the recently released 2011 Water Disclosure Report by the not-for-profit Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which holds “the largest database of primary corporate climate change information in the world”. The blog post highlighted the following “key findings” from the process and the report:

  1. 190 companies or 60% of identified companies responded to the questionnaire – a 10% increase over last year.
  2. Over half (59%) of companies responding reported exposure to water-related risks such as flooding, scarcity and reputational damage.
  3. One third (38%) of companies already have experienced water-related business impacts, such as disruption to operations from severe weather events or water shortages.
  4. 63% of companies believe that water presents commercial opportunities and commonly identified opportunities relate to increased water efficiency, among others.
  5. 72% of companies understood the linkages or tradeoffs between water and carbon emissions.
  6. 41% of companies confirm that the biggest water risk facing their businesses is water stress or scarcity.

The findings were based on a questionnaire sent to 315 companies on the Global 500 Index identified as operating in the most water-stressed locations or industry sectors.

The report itself has a great breakdown of trends across the sectors, but if you are interested in seeing some real life examples of water-related risk disclosure from public companies, check out knowledgemosaic’s risk factor search page, which extracts risk-related disclosure from SEC filings.

In the past year alone, there have been more than 800 risk factors mentioning floods or flooding. For instance, NewLink Genetics reports:

“Our facilities are located in areas where floods and tornados are known to occur, and the occurrence of a flood, tornado or other catastrophic disaster could damage our facilities and equipment, which could cause us to curtail or cease operations.”

(click here to see an excel report of all flood-related risk factor search results)

Interestingly enough, in the same time period, there have been only 17 mentions of water stress, shortage or scarcity in the risk factors. One such risk factor – from Anheuser-Busch InBev S.A. – reads:

“We also face water scarcity risks. The availability of clean water is a limited resource in many parts of the world, facing unprecedented challenges from climate change and the resulting change in precipitation patterns and frequency of extreme weather, overexploitation, increasing pollution, and poor water management. As demand for water continues to increase around the world, and as water becomes scarcer and the quality of available water deteriorates, we may be affected by increasing production costs or capacity constraints, which could adversely affect our business and results of operations.”

(click here to see an excel report of risk factor search results mentioning water stress, shortage or scarcity)

Seattle’s Future Water Woes

Photo by tarnalberry. Some rights reserved.

No doubt there are bigger water related-problems in the national news, with the summer’s drought in Texas casting a grim agricultural shadow over the coming year and the storms that have hit the east coast and the Gulf in recent weeks causing more than a just a stir. But seeing as we at Knowledge Mosaic are based in Seattle, let’s put national issues aside and take a little look at some local news! Trust me, I’m sure this has some inklings of national resonance anyhow, as this must be a pattern occurring more or less on a wide scale across the US.

Though Seattleites have done an admirable job of lowering water usage to its bare essentials in recent years (we are reported to be using the same amount of water now that we were using in 1957, and the population has almost doubled in that time), the Seattle Times reports that the amount Seattle has been paying for water has, regardless of the amount of water conserved, almost doubled since 2000, and may see an additional 25% raise before 2014.

Seattle citizens have voiced displeasure with Seattle Public Utilities, stating that they’ve done their best to follow the “How to Reduce Water Use” tips that they’ve put on their website, and that their bills are still rising month by month. The issue is that maintenance and construction work on water-related projects (“dams, reservoirs, pipelines and pumps,” as the Times alliteratively puts it)continue to rise, while consumers are still on the hook for paying off hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to build facilities like the Cedar River Watershed. The Seattle City Council voted last night (before this post went to press!) on the proposal to raise water bills, and it was expected to pass.

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