As you surely know, fracking gets a lot of publicity these days. One thing that gets less publicity is the science about fracking. In the case of the threat that fracking poses to drinking water supplies, things have gotten a little out of hand. The image of lighting one’s tap water on fire is pretty powerful stuff. But from what I’ve read, it sounds like the initial issues with fracking fluid and natural gas entering local aquifers derived mainly from poor well construction, specifically the well casings, by inexperienced workers eager to cut corners to make more money. Furthermore, the wells affected were generally private wells, owned by the very landowners making money off the natural gas being extracted. Private wells are not subject to the same rigorous testing as public wells and public water supplies, although the EPA recommends that well owners have their wells tested regularly. So these issues have not generally affected public water supplies.
That’s not what the public believes. A recent survey published in Environmental Science and Technology found that more Dallas residents worried that fracking was the greatest threat to their water supply [27%] than knew that they lived in a watershed [10%]. (Hint on the watershed question: you live in one.) This is not just another sad comment on the lack of public science education, rather this is a key piece of information when we discuss water use in general. Urban water use drives demand in most American cities, not industrial use. Cutting back on urban water consumption in places like Dallas, with a per capita water use of ~220 gallons per day, has far greater potential impact on the regional water balance than fracking could ever hope to have. The major coastal cities in California use closer to ~120 gallons per person per day, so it can be done.
I was riding BART the other night, trying to mind my own business despite a loud group of French teenagers. My ears perked up, though, when one teenager asked her chaperone, a young American woman about my age, if it was safe to drink the tap water everywhere in the US. At first I was annoyed that Europeans consider us so third-world as to even need to ask such a thing. (In China, for example, no city yet delivers safe tap water to all its residents.) But then the American’s response floored me: “Uh, sure, maybe except in areas with a lot of fracking.” It took all of my willpower not to launch into a tirade of facts about water. It’s frankly impressive how quickly environmentalists have won the P.R. battle about fracking. If only we could harness that momentum to educate the public about far more pressing issues when it comes to water supply…
I recently wrote about some studies that suggest that our wastewater treatment plants are not effective at removal of DNA fragments and viruses, and I even suggested that UV disinfection for wastewater treatment deserves consideration. A paper that just came out in Applied and Environmental Microbiology analyzed samples from 129 receiving waters around wastewater treatment plants. Over half of the environmental samples had E. coli strains identical to those in the wastewater treatment plants, and of those strains, 95% carried virulence genes associated with intestinal or urological pathogens. The authors conclude that some of the strains originate in animals near the receiving waters, but a large fraction of the virulent strains likely come from wastewater treatment plant effluent.
In other words, this study provides further evidence that our wastewater treatment plants may not be sufficiently protecting human health and the environment. Wastewater treatment has come a long way in ~60 years, and it is very good at reducing the load of human-derived wastes on the environment. But as our analytical technology has evolved, it’s becoming clear that we could do better. We could have cleaner, healthier, safer bodies of water. We just have to decide if we want to pay for it…
In rural areas served by private wells, people’s water supplies are susceptible to regional declines in the water table. Essentially, if the groundwater is not managed sustainably, some people’s wells can just dry up. This happened recently in a rural community north of the California town of Clovis. Those whose wells dried up had requested the local council to consider connecting the area to a public water supply, and the rural area proposed a tax to take on the $23.4 million cost of the water treatment facility and pipelines. The tax broke down into roughly $58,000 per household. It was voted down.
Apparently the county was unable to secure financial assistance from state or federal funding, so the residents had to split the cost among themselves. As area resident Shawna Speake said, “We cannot come up with equivalent of a Chevy Tahoe brand new. I want to vote yes with my neighbors, but I feel like more of us think this is a burden.” Some area residents will likely be forced to walk away from homes with virtually no value, due to the lack of water supply. The tragedy of the commons, embodied – and who knows how long the other residents will have a reliable groundwater supply?
Going bankrupt usually limits one’s ability to pay for new things, at least until all the other creditors are satisfied. And as you may have heard, the city of Stockton, California, recently became the largest municipal bankruptcy in the US. With the nation’s highest crime rate and lowest police staffing rate, among other dire statistics, things do not look good.
Never required to consider cost in requiring environmental compliance, the EPA is kind of piling on. Stockton has an aging wastewater treatment plant that just doesn’t meet regulations, as it was built some 70 years ago, and during heavy storms, it often results in combined sewer overflows (CSOs). (CSOs result when the wastewater treatment plant’s intake capacity is overwhelmed, and the plant then temporarily allows stormwater and sewage to bypass treatment, discharging directly into the environment.) The EPA has been going after more and more municipalities for CSOs, notably Atlanta (my hometown bias, sorry), in the past few years. Apparently the Stockton wastewater treatment plant needs a $156 million upgrade, and EPA will surely issue fines for CSOs until this happens.
That said, Stockton apparently shouldn’t have too much trouble issuing new bonds to pay for this upgrade. The reason is that the wastewater treatment customer fees represent a consistent inflow of money to repay the bond, and the city could then issue revenue bonds rather than general fund bonds, the latter of which no one would offer, given the city’s recent attempt to default. Odd that the economics work out that way, but I guess this is some good news for the Stockton economy – a tiny stimulus package that will deliver long-term infrastructure benefits.
I suppose my inherent optimism makes me bring this story to light: right now, Texas beaches are cleaner than in years. Runoff is so historically low this year, so far fewer stormwater pollutants have been flushed off the streets and surfaces, shepherded into conveyance, and discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. Fewer pollutants in the Gulf shore means cleaner beaches. Hopefully people escaping the heat at the beach are enjoying the better quality of the experience. And it’s probably best to avoid the beach after the next big storm rinses everything off.
Note: Sorry to readers about the gap in posts. This week has been pretty busy, but I hope to get back to posts every 1-2 days.
Today’s news includes another way that you can distinguish yourself from less worthy peers: boutique water. A New York City shop has a 7-step ultrafiltration unit to purify NYC tap water into “pure water”. The taste is supposedly “‘fluffy’ with a ‘smooth’ finish”, which might be fine and good, but that’s the taste of flushing out your body’s minerals and nutrients! My understanding is that this equipment is basically laboratory-grade water purification, which I have used quite a bit, but have never drunk. As most of you probably know, all water naturally has dissolved minerals — cations and anions like sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and sulfate — that provide most of the flavor as well as the osmotic balance for the body’s cells. If you consume ultrapure water in large quantities, you could potentially flush out most of your cells’ nutrients and minerals via osmosis! (Just drinking large quantities of water alone will do this, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication).
Ah, but if the palate knows, it knows. I happen to know that New York City has some of the best tap water in the world, and it comes much cheaper than any boutique water…
A hot topic in the public sphere these days is fracking. I’m not interested in discussing the safety of fracking itself, but rather in the wastewater that it generates. You may have heard things like injecting wastewater underground can cause earthquakes, or that fracking wastes are contaminating surface waters across Pennsylvania. There’s science behind that. But there’s also an economic opportunity. The EPA will supposedly issue regulations for disposal of wastewater from fracking in the future, and the baseline condition is trucking the wastewater out of state, at least for parts of Pennsylvania. Lots of things are cheaper than that.
So start-ups are targeting this market and developing new technology. If they can treat the wastewater to a level where it can be reused for injection, then everyone wins: the net water withdrawals decrease, the treatment load on local municipal water and wastewater treatment plants decreases, and American ingenuity creates jobs. (Side note: no jobs would be created if we had no EPA. Keep that in mind, those who complain that regulations inhibit job creation.) Some ideas are a little out there, like the idea to use soybean oil to capture pure water from the wastewater stream, but I’m glad that they’re thinking about it. With costs like $15 to ship a barrel of wastewater from Pennsylvania to Ohio for disposal, or $5 million to drill a new disposal well, there’s a lot of room to be creative.
Recently, the idea of draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park has gotten some attention. It all started with a Republican state representative who wanted to call out the liberals in San Francisco on their environmentalist hypocrisy — don’t judge the Central Valley farmers when your water is just as unsustainable. Well, now the “drain Hetch Hetchy” movement has gotten enough signatures on their petition to put the issue on the ballot in San Francisco.
Where will San Francisco get its water from, if not from there? The Bay Area is not sitting on a large reservoir of freshwater, and in fact the closest freshwater source, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is overallocated due to shipments to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Every city needs freshwater, and as I noted before, many major cities in the US depend on distant pristine sources. To be honest, the environmental damage has already been done to the remote valley of Yosemite. Draining and removing the dam would require more environmental damage than doing nothing, because you would need to bring in heavy equipment to do the dirty work.
My general sense is that Bay Area environmentalists, especially from San Francisco, lack practicality. We cannot have the city of San Francisco if we dismantle its water supply. We as a society apparently value some level of alteration to a pristine Sierra Nevada valley less than we value the existence of the city. I think that’s an ok tradeoff! San Franciscans pride themselves on their environmentalism, but they have twice rejected plans for a state-of-the-art water recycling facility in the city, which would increase its water sustainability substantially. I would argue that the water recycling plant is where effort should be focused, not on a lost cause to restore a distant valley.
Some recent studies on viruses and microbes in our water and wastewater treatment systems should give us all pause. First, researchers in Wisconsin conducted a very clever study that correlated concentrations of viruses in tap water with rates of illness in the local community. When chlorine or UV disinfection, which inactivates viruses, was added to those communities’ water treatment systems, the illness rates declined. The results were conclusive enough that even before the study was formally published, the Wisconsin legislature mandated chlorine or UV disinfection for all water treatment systems in the state. Of course, the politicians have since interfered, as the newly elected Republican caucus repealed that law last year. The study suggested that the source of the pertinent viruses was leaking sewer pipes.
A second study came out last year in Minnesota, showing that even a top-of-the-line wastewater treatment plant is ineffective at removing DNA fragments that could confer antibiotic resistance to new microbes. The treatment plant in question, in Duluth, MN, uses tertiary treatment estimated to be better than 95% of US wastewater treatment plants, and yet genes for antibiotic resistance were found in the effluent and in the pristine water bodies that the plant discharges into. Even if the microbes have been killed, the DNA can “live on” to spread to other cells.
If our treated wastewater is a potential source of viruses and antibiotic-resistant genes to the environment, then we must ask ourselves if our regulations are sufficient to protect human health and the environment. Should we measure our drinking water and treated wastewater in a more holistic manner to assess their safety? Right now, the standard is fecal coliform bacteria as an indicator for all microbiological activity. Do regular DNA assays need to be included in our standards?
I would argue that adding UV disinfection (quaternary treatment) to wastewater treatment merits consideration. Although it is costly in energy, the spread of viruses and antibiotic resistance should not be taken lightly, and adding UV treatment to water treatment (already a trend among the facilities that can afford it) does not impact the pathway from the wastewater to the environment. This is also something to keep in mind for water recycling purposes — you don’t want to drink water if that stuff’s still in there…
Homeowners in Los Angeles County may soon have the right to complain about a new municipal waste fee: the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Water Quality tariff. The fee is designed to spread out the cost of trash and pollution that head down the LA waterways and end up on the beaches or in the ocean. It’s debatable whether this is the best approach, but some in the article argue for federal or state funding to resolve the issue. Really? Isn’t it arrogant to assume that the cost burden of a problem specific to the Los Angeles basin should be distributed across the entire state or worse, the entire US? I actually like the idea of a fee that encourages people to consider the impact of their behavior on the local waterways and beaches, though I’m not sure this is it — it’s easy to grumble, write a bigger check, and move on.