Preview of Hetch Hetchy removal?

The city of Monterey’s water supply is in transition.  Apparently the dam upon which they have relied for years, the San Clemente Dam, is filling with sediment and has been subjecting the Carmel River to accelerated erosion since 1921 (erosion is a balance between sediment coming in and sediment washing away, and the dam blocks the sediment coming in, leading to net washing away of the riverbanks).  The dam is in the process of being removed, while the city debates a new water supply – a combination of desalination, aquifer storage and recovery, and conservation.  The California Coastal Conservancy has also been involved in removing the dam and restoring habitat for steelhead trout and the California red-legged frog.  But between environmentalists and citizens of the Monterey peninsula, people aren’t that happy.

Environmentalists are disappointed that the city is headed towards desalination, an energy-intensive process that could possibly damage the environment through the discharge of its waste brine (the verdict is still out over how best to manage the wastes from desalination).  There’s already a desalination plant in Marina that sits idle because of high energy costs, and state utilities regulators rejected the Environmental Impact Review for the new desalination plant.  Recently, dozens of residents near the San Clemente Dam protested the use of a local roadway as the key access point for large trucks and other heavy equipment in connection with the $83 million project. Dam removal has been delayed by a month.

Is this a harbinger for how Hetch Hetchy removal would proceed?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  The Hetch Hetchy is a larger system, with estimates of $1-10 billion for its removal.  The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has presented a series of facts to rebut some of the aspects to appear in the November ballot measure to study removal of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  Among other things, SFPUC notes that there is no good way to replace the storage capacity of the Hetch Hetchy (bigger than the other 5 drinking water reservoirs in the San Francisco Bay supply system combined) or the 500 MW of power from the O’Shaughnessy Dam.  Plus, the idea has been studied many times before in the past 20 years.  Furthermore, the cost would be prohibitive — as much as $700 to $2800 more per year for the average customer.  Sounds to me like a bad idea…

Plus, we have this example from Monterey that even when being removed, people find new ways to protest the dam/reservoir in question.  What a headache.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

The biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of

In 2010, there was an oil spill of nearly 1 million gallons on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.  You may not have heard about it.  The spill came from a leaking pipeline chock-full of diluted bitumen (“dilbit”), a particularly heavy mixture of tar sands oils (plus some lighter-weight stuff).  The company who owned the pipeline, Enbridge, had a leak prevention system in place, and just 10 days before the accident, told federal regulators that it could remotely detect and shut down a rupture in 8 minutes flat.  Unfortunately, it took 17 hours to confirm the spill – operators thought that a bubble was blocking the flow and restarted the flow multiple times to unblock it…only to discover a huge leak was the actual problem.

Apparently remote detection of leaking oil pipelines is pretty difficult, technically speaking, because the flow rate changes so frequently within the lines.  It’s hard to know if some oil is missing if you don’t know how much should be there in the first place.  And there have been more than 100 significant spills per year for the past 20 years.  So it kind of makes sense that environmentalists and farmers are nervous about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – politics aside, it does sound pretty risky to put that much oil on top of the Ogallala aquifer, water supply to a vast swath of the Midwestern US.

The 2010 Kalamazoo spill brought needed scrutiny to Enbridge, against which a record $3.7 million fine was levied, and will hopefully prompt the company to take safety a little more seriously.  But the spilled “dilbit” is still wreaking havoc on ~40 miles of the Kalamazoo River: being heavier than water, it sank beneath the riverbed and will cost ~$500 million to clean up.  Yikes.  Granted, an aquifer isn’t the same as a river – probably a spill would be pretty localized due to low flow rates – but again, is it worth the effort?  Is it so much to ask that these pipelines not leak?

The latest technology proposed by Keystone XL would be able to detect leaks larger than 1.5% of flow…which is nearly 500,000 gallons per day for the proposed flow rates.  Not that convincing, to be honest.  Oh, and did I mention that Keystone XL will be pumping dilbit, too?  That’s a high-risk proposition.  I think, given these facts, it’s very reasonable for American regulators to be hesitant about the pipeline, and hopefully we can hold the Keystone folks to a high standard while sensibly choosing routes around sensitive areas of the Ogallala aquifer.  Because if we veto this outright, the tar sands oil will travel by pipeline to the Pacific coast and be refined in China — not our problem, per se, but also not good for the environment.

political interlude

Today’s post is short on my comments: any American voters out there should check out Obama’s and Romney’s views on science.  Both were asked a series of questions by Scientific American, and surprisingly, both responded.  (Or, the cynic would say, both have enough underlings that someone wrote up something for them.)  I found both Obama and Romney refreshingly well-informed on the scientific issues of the day, though Romney of course kowtows to the Republican anti-climate-change positions.  I also thought Romney punted a bit on the question about fresh water (#8), omitting any discussion of the issues around water scarcity.  To be fair, Obama merely mentioned water conservation measures, rather than broad public policies, and neither was willing to bring up the actual amount of water infrastructure our country needs at the moment (the American Water Works Association estimates over $1 trillion through 2035).

That said, I’ll leave you to read and form your own opinions about the candidates.  I won’t endorse either one here, but I will endorse that each of you is an informed voter.

drugs in drinking water

One of those news items that tends to freak out the general public is the idea of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (e.g., shampoo) in our water supplies.  There’s birth control in the water!  There’s ibuprofen in the water!  There’s Prozac in the water!  Time to panic, indeed.  What the news media doesn’t report (and, I suspect, doesn’t understand) is that the concentrations we’re talking about here are low.  Reeeeaaallly low.  Let’s think about a generic liter of water (a liter is a little more than a quart, for the metrically challenged out there).  A generic liter of water weighs about 1 kg / 1000 g / 2.2 lbs.  In the environment, it could easily have 100 mg (0.1 g) of calcium carbonate dissolved in it.  Calcium and carbonate are considered major ions in drinking water.  More minor ions include chloride (about 9 mg per liter in my drinking water supply (0.009 g)) and fluoride, added for dental health (about 0.8 mg per liter – 0.0008 g).  The drinking water standard for lead, which is a known toxin, is 15 micrograms (ug) per liter (= 0.015 mg = 0.000015 g).

The levels of pharmaceuticals that are being detected in water sources are on the order of nanograms per liter.  That’s right, a one-thousandth of a microgram, a one-millionth of a milligram, a one-billionth of a gram, a one-trillionth of a kilogram.  Since that liter of water weighs a kilogram, we talk about ng per liter as “parts per trillion”.  Frankly it’s a modern miracle that we can even measure stuff at these trace levels, and the advances in aqueous analytical chemistry are the only reason we know that some of these compounds are out there in the environment.  (Side note: in true chemistry, there is no such thing as a concentration of “zero”.  Instead, concentrations are not detectable by current technology.)

Don’t let the small concentrations fool you — these compounds are able to do damage at these uber-trace levels…but so far we’ve only seen evidence of damage to fish and amphibians.  When you think about our lifestyles compared to those of fish and amphibians, it kind of makes sense — we’re not the ones constantly bathing in the water in question.  We spend an awful lot of time exposed to air rather than water.  So take a deep breath (no pharmaceuticals in the air, knock on wood) and keep drinking tap water.

This gets tricky when it comes to regulations.  EPA is charged with protection of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act, and generally has developed standards for tap water and treated wastewater that protect human health and, to a lesser extent, the environment.  The Clean Water Act itself was born from environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga river catching fire and giant foam piles in rivers and lakes, but most of today’s regulations are about people, a subject most of us can agree upon.  I think it would be a striking development for EPA to begin regulation of trace levels of pharmaceuticals for the protection of aquatic life — there are plenty of non-environmentalists who couldn’t care less about some transgender frogs but sure do care a lot about their water and wastewater bills.

The main solution to these trace contaminants is additional wastewater treatment, whether at a treatment plant or in a septic system, since these point sources are the largest entry point for these compounds into the water supply.  Drugs are designed to deliver the target dose into the body, assuming some fraction of the active ingredient will not be absorbed by the body and will pass through to wastewater.  I don’t think we would ever decide to take lower doses of drugs to protect the environment (again, your cancer or a transgender frog?  I’d probably vote for your cancer, too).  In an odd development, I appear to be advocating for UV treatment of wastewater, once again.  (I did not see that coming, for the record.)

So what’s the conclusion?  Trace levels of pharmaceuticals are out there, but they aren’t high enough to affect human health.  They are high enough to affect fish and amphibians, and it will be interesting to see if EPA develops wastewater discharge limits to protect aquatic life from these compounds.

Whose backyard is best?

There’s a huge market at the moment for rare earth elements that are prolific in our favorite electronic devices.  Most of these are mined in the developing world, with significant proportions in China or Malaysia.  This not only means that these countries are making a killing on our insatiable need for new iPhones, it also means that the elements are extracted with their health and safety standards, and their environmental regulations.  Compared to ours in the US, these are all far less stringent.

So imagine how nice it would be to have some of these things mined in our territory, under our regulations.  Mining companies are dreaming big, especially in Alaska.  High prices of these rare earths have made formerly marginal ore into a serious investment, and in particular, mining companies are dying to extract some 2 billion tons in Pebble Mine.  However, our environmental groups are appropriately skeptical and the pushback has already begun.  Some EPA regulators in Region 10, which serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and 267 Indian Tribes, published a guidance document about the potential environmental hazards of mining in this pristine area, concluding that the risk is too high to even consider a true mining permit application from the Pebble Mine companies.

The only problem with this document is that it sets a fairly broad precedent for stifling private development in privately held land without even giving the parties a chance to describe their intended operations or mitigation measures.  Pebble Mine claims that its will implement the most environmentally friendly mining techniques ever used (quite the claim, but perhaps not that difficult given the haphazard approach often taken in the past and in other locations).  Don’t they deserve to have EPA at least evaluate their proposal?  For example, the Cadiz EIR was full of suspect science — it should become obvious if that’s the case in Pebble Mine, too.

The other issue is the idea of global environmental protection.  If this mine is rejected, we further rely on rare earth sources with lax (by our standards) regulations in foreign countries we don’t necessarily want to support.  I caution any true environmentalist against rejection of American industry and manufacturing on the basis of environmental impacts, without at least considering where those displaced activities will relocate.  Is preservation of our local environment a higher good than preservation of a local environment in another part of the world?  That’s a tough question.

correction about toilets

I wrote last month about the Gates Foundation’s competition to design a new toilet, and I mentioned that Eawag declined the chance to compete.  That was completely wrong.  Eawag did compete, and their design won the award for best user interface.  Congrats to team leader Tove Larsen.  I have to say, the schematic of their squat toilet looks a lot more likely to be accepted in parts of the world like southern Asia, where I have observed the ubiquity of squat toilets.  Their design also minimizes water throughput.

That said, the winning design from Caltech is impressive in other ways.  It is big and fancy and space-age.  It fits that the design was first produced for NASA.  But astronauts don’t make up the bulk of the population that needs access to toilets.  So it will be interesting to see who “wins” the implementation phase of the competition.

same bat topic, same bat place

Why not continue one’s train of thought from previous posts?  Speaking of water in New York City, this article in the New York Times amused me for what it did not discuss.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a ballot measure in the city of San Francisco this November to spend $8 million to study whether the Bay Area’s main water source, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, could be feasibly drained and dismantled.  I think the title of my previous post expresses my opinion on that topic.  There are many who agree with me, namely the mayor of San Francisco as well as many Bay Area business groups.  What’s funny about the New York Times reporting on this issue is that New York City could just as easily have been in a similar boat itself.

New York’s water supply comes from the Catskills, some 163 miles away.  The Pepacton Reservoir supplies the city with 25% of its water supply, and it displaced 974 people in four towns.  The outrage!  In fact, most reservoirs acquired by New York City around 100 years ago involved city representatives buying out local families and towns, then filling their quiet valleys with water to be stored for New York.  It was contentious, not surprisingly, but no one is begging the city to remove any reservoir to restore the small towns and quiet valleys to their previous state.  Contrast that with Owens Lake in southern California, which people are still mad about, and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in northern California, and you have to wonder, why isn’t there more water conflict in New York?

I think there are a couple of reasons why.  One is that these were not originally protected environments.  In fact, state-owned Forest Preserve land could not, under the state constitution, be sold to any other party, so the privately owned land in the Catskills was targeted by the city.  Another is that these are not remote areas today.  There are towns along the shorelines of many New York City reservoirs, many of which were relocated from now-flooded property.  Third, people don’t tend re-fight battles won by progress, at least in the US.  If a block of houses is demolished to build a mall, local citizens don’t tend to camp outside the mall for the houses to be rebuilt.  We seem to have a special blind spot for people displaced by progress.

But not the environment, which I think is interesting.  Scientifically speaking, we’re actually really bad at environmental restoration.  We’re good at spending money on it, but bad at even knowing if it’s working.  (This comment comes from research articles I’ve read about river restoration efforts in particular.)  So we have to balance the restoration effort against its likelihood of success as well as its cost.  The cultural difference between New Yorkers and Californians, though, is a big contributor in these water debates: I find that Californian environmentalists, especially from the San Francisco area, are very impractical about the infrastructure necessary for their lifestyles.  Full-on environmental restoration comes way before any consideration of cost or likelihood of success or alternative strategies.  So if we’re placing bets on cities likely to be viable 100 years from now, I guess I’d put money on New York over San Francisco.

UV to the rescue

New York City is about to open the world’s largest UV disinfection plant in a couple of months, which will treat roughly 5 billion gallons per day.  That’s a lot of water.  That’s also a prime reason why I always found the evil plot at the heart of Batman Begins very difficult to swallow: the bad guys lace the water supply with a toxin that induces psychosis, but assuming that Gotham City is basically New York City, they’d have to be dumping at least 500,000 gallons per day for 100 ppm toxin in the water supply — some 9100 55-gallon barrels.  That’s quite a logistical headache to hide, deliver, and dispose of that many barrels.  I won’t go into the details of pipe networks that also make this improbable — the work of fiction did get people to ask me questions about water supply, which is never a bad thing.

I have digressed.  The NYC UV disinfection plant will be the second treatment step for New York’s water supply, besides chlorination.  Given the reports from Wisconsin about the necessity for UV disinfection to prevent viral gastroenteritis, New Yorkers could soon be a lot healthier.  Turns out the EPA has been quietly requiring a secondary step for water treatment on top of chlorination, whether it be filtration or UV disinfection.  EPA has been worried about standard water-borne pathogens like Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Adenovirus, but this rule has preempted the latest research on the role of viruses in water-borne illness.  Good job, EPA!

aaand we’re back

Sorry about the delayed return, reader(s).  I had some personal developments that now mean I’m spending free time researching wedding plans rather than water plans.  I have to say that I’m pretty excited, but you know, this is a water blog rather than a personal blog, so enough fluff — back to the meat!  I hope to maintain a steady buffer of MWF posts to avoid another hiatus in the future.