brief hiatus

Readers, I hate to do this, but I’m going to take a brief hiatus from posting.  I’m a bit swamped this week preparing to leave town tonight for a long weekend, so I won’t be able to get something up until next Wednesday.  Please check back then, and in the meantime, enjoy your long weekend!

just keep pumping

A lot of the world’s major agricultural regions are irrigated by groundwater rather than surface water.  Even locations with enough rainfall to avoid irrigation under normal conditions are adding capacity to irrigate with groundwater under drought conditions (my home state of Georgia is a prime example).  Well, worrywart scientists have done some large-scale analysis to put numbers on which of 800 aquifers worldwide are being overexplioited for irrigation.  Lots of anecdotal evidence does not make a scientific fact, after all.

It must be an important study, because it was published recently in Nature:

…in most of the world’s major agricultural regions, including the Central Valley in California, the Nile delta region of Egypt, and the Upper Ganges in India and Pakistan, demand exceeds these reservoirs’ capacity for renewal.

…In calculating how much stress each source of groundwater is under, Gleeson and colleagues also looked in detail at the water flows needed to sustain the health of ecosystems such as grasses, trees and streams.

That’s a troubling development, which doesn’t surprise me of course, because of the implications for agriculture when these groundwater sources run out.  And before agricultural collapse, we’ll probably see major impacts to the environment as far as ecosystems drying out and creeks/streams drying up.  We won’t even have anything nice to look at while we die of starvation.

Ok, it’s not quite that dire, of course.  The first step is to identify the problem after all.  But at some point, nations will need to examine the unregulated groundwater extraction for irrigation and ask if the water use is worth the risk.  The ongoing US drought, for example, has many wondering why you would ever grow rice, cotton, or pecans in a place like California or Texas.  In news that should shame us, Saudi Arabia made a push in 2009 to shift its domestic agriculture away from water-intensive wheat and soy beans in order to conserve its limited water supplies.  Of course, non-representative government doesn’t really have to worry about public outcry to get things done (see: China).  But let’s hope that our governments take heed before the tragedy of the groundwater commons plays out on a large scale.

the answer is beneath your feet

California is facing some worrisome pressures from increasing water demand for a growing population and decreasing supply reliability due to climate change and environmental pressures on the Bay-Delta region.  What should California do, when faced with extreme drought?  A new study released by the California Energy Commission recommends creating and maintaining a water storage bank underground.  That is, California should store excess water underground, and then pump it out as needed when extreme drought arrives.  I’ve been a fan of this idea (“Managed Aquifer Recharge” or “Managed Underground Storage” are two broad names for the idea) since I first heard about it some 6 years ago in grad school, and it’s great to see that policy advisers and think-tanks are starting to come around.  If we can educate the rest of California, including politicians, then we might actually have a shot at making things happen.

save the lakes, for science

This is a total shill for my thesis advisor, but so be it.  She did get me through grad school after all…

Canada has this really cool resource called the Experimental Lakes Area.  Being so big and unpopulated, the Canadian government set aside 58 lakes in rural Ontario that could be manipulated for the purposes of science.  It has been 44 years, and you should see the list of papers that have been published from this area (partial list here).  One of the greatest scientific breakthroughs from these lakes was the understanding of the role of phosphate and nitrate in the eutrophication process (photo in link).  Without a remote area to perform whole-lake studies, we might still be sorting out exactly what chemicals lead to eutrophication.

I find the idea of having a whole lake on which to perform one’s experiments very intriguing.  But then I worry that we scientists tend towards “mad” ideas when given too much power…

Well, unfortunately, this remote resource is under threat.  No, it’s not some Canadian developer who wants to build condos and mansions along the remote lakefronts, it’s government.  The Experimental Lakes Area is funded by “Fisheries and Oceans Canada” (DFO), and it’s on the chopping block for 2013, as of March 31.  We figured out eutrophication, so why retain this large space?  I would argue that there are plenty of unanswered questions about endocrine disruptors/emerging contaminants, viruses, natural organic matter, and even climate change’s impacts on freshwater ecology that merit further research.  One of these things could be the “eutrophication” of the 21st century.

Generally I think it’s a bad policy to cut back on science funding, especially funding that is rather applied to problems of the day — there are implications for drinking water treatment and water supply in all of this research.  I hope that the Canadian government would listen to my advisor and other scientists out there, and find a way to keep the Experimental Lakes Area going.

you and what water?

Apparently Utah sits on a large reserve of tar sands, especially in the northeastern part of the state near Dinosaur National Monument.  A Canadian company has leased about 32,000 acres to open a pit mine.  The process would be similar to that in Alberta, Canada, but would be less water-intense and would not rely on strip-mining.  Rather, it would rely on deep, salty groundwater (~2500 feet below the ground surface) and a relatively non-toxic compound called limonene to extract the oil.  Water recycling in the pits would ensure that no wastewater ponds sit onsite and potentially harm local ecology.  It does sound like an improvement on Alberta’s methods, but I have to admit that my ears perk up at the thought of mining tar sands in Utah.  You should see the satellite image of the area north of Ft. McMurray in Alberta – that’s a massive mining operation.  I’ve traveled a lot in southern Utah and appreciate its remote and inhospitable scenery.  I start to feel like an environmentalist: “Protect the wilderness from all encroachment!!”

Sometimes, though, nature solves its own problems.  There is very little rain or surface water in northeastern Utah, and apparently the aquifer 2500 feet below ground isn’t quite as productive as the mining company expected:

But records on file with the Utah Division of Water Rights hint U.S. Oil Sands may be struggling to find the deep water. The company drilled three dry wells before finding water somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 feet in a fourth well, according to Dennis Sorensen, with the Utah Division of Water Rights. In June the company requested a drilling permit for a fifth well.

Ok, well, that will settle things, then, won’t it?  Hard to get the oil off the sands if you don’t have any water.  And drilling wells 2500 feet deep is expensive, not to mention pumping salty water out of those wells from those depths.  I’d say that if this company figures out how to make profit with that water source and without contaminating the local area or strip mining, they’ll have fully earned their money.

a lot of hype about s**t

The Gates Foundation funded a big research push among specially invited top universities and institutes around the world to “reinvent the toilet”.  The idea is that the toilet is as old as indoor plumbing, and we could surely use high-level technology to bring safe, sanitary toilets to the developing world, where water and wastewater treatment are hard to come by.  It’s a nice idea, and the Foundation does a good job of throwing money at problems to solve them rather than study them (see AIDS and malaria, for example).

It just so happens that a recent competition among the new toilet grant winners was won by a group from my alma mater, Caltech.  Their toilet uses

a photovoltaic panel to generate energy, stored in batteries, to power an electrostatic unit that purifies liquids drawn from a small septic tank. The unit produces hydrogen as it cleans the water, potentially a supplementary source of toilet power on cloudy days or at night. The unit also purifies the solid waste which can then be used as biofuel or fertilizer.

That’s great, and I’m glad for the breakthrough.

One teeny tiny criticism of the whole thing: will anyone in the developing world ever use something this fancy and complicated?  This is not meant as a patronizing comment, but rather a comment that reflects some of the serious issues on the ground when it comes to Western improvements of lives in the developing world.  My research institute in Switzerland, Eawag, has done a fair bit of research into human waste management in the developing world, including the dreaded (to engineers) social sciences of surveying people in impoverished communities, and came to a very different conclusion than the Gates Foundation: urine separation is key.  We therefore had urine-separating toilets installed throughout the institute.  I happen to know that Eawag declined the opportunity to bid on the Gates Foundation grant because the top researchers would have been forced to do something that their experience suggests would never work on the ground.  (One example of the relevance of social science in Bangladesh: some local people prefer the metallic taste of groundwater that happens to be high in arsenic.  Non-metallic taste is associated with the local surface water, which is visibly contaminated with bacteria.  So some refuse to drink from safer groundwater wells that lack the geochemistry to have the metallic taste. That’s not engineering, that’s psychology.)

The Gates Foundation is doing a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  Who knows, maybe this technology will start turning up in the US as well.  But I worry that by involving researchers based on their school’s credentials, rather than their experience in this field, which is brand new to them, will lead to a lot of whiz-bang engineering feats that won’t translate well on the ground.  Well, it could be that Gates has the money to spare…

We want solar now!

Apparently some picture of Indians using a photovoltaic (PV) panel above a water canal has gotten some Californians clamoring for PV all over California’s major aqueducts.  Someone ran a rough look at the numbers here.  It is true that harnessing solar energy would offset the energy footprint of moving all that water around, which is not trivial.  But there are a couple of reasons why any water manager should be skeptical of this option, which aren’t widely publicized.

  1. California’s aqueducts, open to the atmosphere, receive a high dose of natural UV irradiation as the water travels, which acts as a natural disinfectant to keep down microbial growth.  This means that the water quality would decrease if the UV rays were captured for energy purposes.  Drinking water utilities would likely need to spend more money (and energy) on water treatment to offset this natural treatment process. (As an aside, this is what concerns me about Christo’s art project in which he wants to drape fabric over six miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado.)
  2. PV panels get dirty, especially in the desert.  You know what they use to clean PV?  Water.  So you’d also lose some of the water to cleaning those hundreds of miles of panels, which at scale is also not trivial.
  3. Finally, there is the cost of PV itself.  Solar projects are notoriously capital intensive, which is one reason that they have a tough time competing with non-renewable energy projects like coal and natural gas, which have higher operations and maintenance costs.  The installation above the aqueduct channels would require new design and likely extra steel to straddle the wide channels, compared to normal solar arrays mounted on single posts.

My guess is, utilities like Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owns the Colorado River aqueduct, or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the Los Angeles aqueduct, have done enough cost analysis to determine that the benefits do not outweigh the costs (and the financial risks) in this case.  It’s understandable to me that they would be very conservative when it comes to anything that might disrupt their most valuable resource: water.

scaling up regulation that works

We have one fantastic example of environmental regulation that improved human health, reduced pollutant loads to the environment, and “let the market decide” the implementation to do so: cap-and-trade of sulfur dioxide to resolve the issue of acid rain.  There is much debate as to the potential effectiveness of cap-and-trade for other air emissions, namely mercury and carbon dioxide, but it has never been implemented for water emissions.

That is about to change.  Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA was tasked with first permitting various polluters to release maximum allowable amounts of pollution to the nation’s waterways.  If that strategy does not lead to the receiving water returning to a certain status of beneficial uses (such as recreation and drinking water), then the EPA was tasked with establishing a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the impaired water body, from point (pipes) and non-point (agricultural runoff) sources, and then forcing all stakeholders to come into compliance with this permissable load.  Because non-point sources are much harder to regulate, the EPA hasn’t gotten very far on the latter task, and large watersheds that continue to have major water quality issues, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Mississippi River, reflect the lack of enforcement.

Well, the EPA and others are finally starting to sort out this TMDL business, and one innovative solution that will be launched as a pilot study is the trading of pollution credits between industrial facilities and farmers in the Ohio River basin, specifically in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio.  This is very promising, as it provides incentives for farmers to “implement relatively low-cost land management techniques to reduce fertilizer- and manure-laden runoff.  Those reductions would generate “credits” that farmers could then sell to industrial facilities for which comparably effective pollution reduction technologies would be considerably more expensive to install.”  Farmers are generally very resistant to emissions regulations, because they feel the cost burden is unfair and oppressive.  This technique, though, will provide financial incentives for them, and will spread the cost burden between industrial and agricultural sources alike.

The project could eventually include up to eight states in the Ohio River Basin, potentially creating credit markets for 46 power plants, thousands of wastewater treatment facilities and other industries, and about 230,000 farmers.

I just don’t see a downside.  Let’s hope that in 2015, when the pilot testing is over, that we’ll have a viable strategy to clean up more of the nation’s water bodies!

fracking: the problem is not what you think

Researchers just published a paper that claims that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) poses a substantial risk to water pollution, but not how you might think.  Fracking, at this point, is viewed as an evil process that’s destroying America’s heartland and poisoning major water supplies.  Unfortunately, the public remains misinformed about actual threats to water supplies, and some widely popular “facts” claimed by fracking opponents turn out to be myths.  Apparently neither side of the fracking debate is doing a good job of using science rather than emotion.

Which brings me back to the paper that just came out.  The paper did not claim that fracking fluids would contaminate groundwater supplies, but rather stated that the risk from fracking wastewater is substantial to surface water bodies.  Most of the water that is injected for fracking comes back out of the wells with the natural gas, and has high concentrations of naturally occurring salts, trace metals, and radioactivity due to its contact with the shale rock at depth.  The large volumes of wastewater have the potential to overwhelm existing wastewater treatment plants (and downstream water treatment plants).  The authors suggest that regulators should consider mandating procedures and methods to reduce wastewater volumes, so as to mitigate the risk of accidental wastewater release.

Oddly enough, the extensive drought across the US is already encouraging drillers to recycle their fracking wastewater to be reused for injection elsewhere.  I’ve previously alluded to some of the research that’s being done to develop water reuse technologies for fracking, and now anti-fracking groups are pressing legislators to mandate water reuse and limit the amount of fresh water that can be used for fracking.  To me, this is eminently sensible – it would be very hard for an environmental group to stop fracking altogether at this point, but it should be possible to hold drilling companies accountable to today’s environmental standards.

why change now?

Merced, California is located in the dry but productive Central Valley of California.  Besides local groundwater, farmers in the Merced Irrigation District use the water stored in Lake McClure on the Merced River.  Looking to expand their water supplies, the Merced Irrigation District has proposed to raise the spillway as much as 10 feet in the reservoir, so that they can capture more runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in particularly wet seasons.  It’s a relatively simple change from an infrastructure perspective, but there’s one catch: the expanded reservoir, when full, would flood part of the Merced River designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river.

The “wild and scenic” designation comes from a 1968 law to “protect wild rivers and scenic rivers from development that would substantially change their wild or scenic nature.”  Only 156 rivers across the US have wild and scenic status, and the goal is to preserve these rivers’ free-flowing condition.  Sounds like that’s not really compatible with an expansion of Lake McClure.  Nonetheless, the local congressman, Rep. Jeff Denham, has begun the process of removing the “wild and scenic” designation from this section of the Merced River, and the House has already approved the bill that includes this provision.

This is a clear case of the values of our ancestors (those 1960s environmentalist hippies) clashing with the priorities of today.  We’ve decided a certain way to balance ecosystems and free flowing rivers against our water demands, and have been using it for ~44 years, but now we’ve gotten tired of that approach?  Environmentalists are rightly fearful of the legal precedent that this revocation would set.  Why bother with such designations if we will later down the line decide that progress comes first?

It sounds to me like the Merced Irrigation District should consider alternative methods of water storage, at least to compare the relative costs.  For example, storing water underground during wet seasons could be just as viable (I’m pretty sure this part of the Central Valley has the right alluvial sedimentary geology for underground storage) with far fewer environmental costs.  No change to the “wild and scenic” status would be necessary if water management strategies from 2012 were used instead of those from the 1960s…