fracking gets uglier

There’s plenty of controversy around fracking in the US.  But here we have a relatively informed public, with public officials who must respond to the balance of public opinion (whether it’s heightened oversight or direct election), and a pretty good basis of environmental laws.  A fair number of countries have observed our issues with fracking and environmental hazards, and said, “Thanks but no thanks.”  Notable bans have arisen in France and Germany, with proposals in the UK.  But developing countries are hungry for the cheap energy source, and China, for example, wants in, to the tune of 6.5 billion cubic meters of gas by 2015 and 100 billion cubic meters by 2020 (the US produced some 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2011).

The first red flag in my mind is cutting corners.  My understanding is that the majority of the problems with aquifer contamination in Pennsylvania arose from shoddy well construction.  Pardon my stereotyping, but Chinese industries aren’t exactly known for their meticulous high-quality work, especially when there’s profit to be made…This makes me nervous.

But the second red flag upsets me more: where will the frack water come from?  China is not a country of abundant water resources, especially in the north.  And in contrast to the US or Canada, its people have little recourse if they have complaints about depleted or contaminated water resources.  Where will the water come from?  Will Chinese central planners favor industry over people?  It has happened before (just Google “chemical spill China” and see how many different incidents pop up, e.g., this one).

Never mind that it apparently takes 3 years to get environmental laws on the books, and wastewater disposal (currently one of the main problems with fracking in the US) is not one of China’s strong suits.  Fracking might help the Chinese economy, but my bet is, it’s going to get really ugly really quickly.  I’m glad we have home-grown natural gas to rely upon — far less guilt.

pipelines aren’t all evil

I can’t put together a lot of analysis this week, but I can point you to some people who have.  In this case, we’re talking about pipelines for oil and gas delivery across the US.  I’ve mentioned some of the issues related to leak detection in the context of the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan before.  You might be surprised to know that there are already some 2.5 million miles of pipelines across the US for oil and gas delivery, and the number is going up with every new shale gas deposit or oil sands site.  ProPublica has compared the risk of pipeline failures vs. the risk of trucking oil/gas, using the analogy of travel by air vs. travel by car.  Yes, it’s risky (is anything truly risk-free?) but it’s less risky than the major alternative.

Apparently many of the leaking pipes are old, and were grandfathered in when regulations came out, just to avoid the excessive cost of digging up miles and miles of pipeline to check for their integrity.  I’d like to think that new pipelines could meet higher standards, such as in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama will evaluate in the next 4 years.  The National Academy of Sciences is also working on a scientific review of the risk to pipelines from carrying diluted bitumen, an especially corrosive form of crude oil; that report to advise government and industry is due out next year, and will probably play a significant role in the acceptance or rejection of the Keystone XL plans.

Let’s keep in mind that the oil and gas boom in the US and Canada is boosting our economy, and natural gas prices in the US are cheap enough now (sometimes 30-50% the cost in Europe and Asia) that factories may be able to offset our higher labor costs with lower energy costs, and relocate back to the US.  Let’s also keep in mind that there are environmental benefits to keeping oil and gas production subject to American/Canadian laws rather than in places we might consider more likely to cut corners.  Enbridge is in big trouble with regulators over the spill in Michigan.  It’s a big deal in Canada that scientists have found oil sands contaminants in snow and rain nearby to the mines and not been able to fully disclose their results.  Our two nations have an active population that is keeping an eye on these things.  Better to mine/refine/deliver oil and gas with much oversight and supervision, and to challenge our regulators to hold these companies to account, than to punt on development and send jobs abroad, in my mind.

science delivers an answer on Great Lakes water levels

Shame on me for repeating news from reporters without looking into the numbers in greater detail.  I’m not terribly surprised to find out that a swath of recent research on the dynamics of climate, ice cover, evaporation, and flow rates in the Great Lakes system has been published.  There’s a great article chock full of details and solid explanations of the research here on the National Geographic Water Currents blog.  Here’s the take-home message, which should settle the debate on why water levels are so low in the Great Lakes:

Lake water levels are heavily influenced by the amount of ice cover in the winter.  Ice cover in the winter affects when and how much the lake evaporates in the summer.  Ice cover has been at record lows, with a singularity in the winter of 1997-1998.  Since then, significant evaporation has started earlier in the summer, and the lake water has been getting steadily warmer.  This means that the annual onset of water level declines is starting earlier in the year, too, which all leads to lower average water levels.

The scientists apparently don’t want to speculate on the influence of climate change, since water levels aren’t yet statistically different from historical ranges.  Fine, but increasing surface temperature and decreasing ice cover/snowpack are two clear factors in favor of this explanation.  I suspect that the drought is the short-term driver of losses in the Great Lakes system, but climate change is the long-term driver, perhaps of both the Great Lakes system and the drought itself.

Happy Thanksgiving to all — let us be thankful for what we have to drink!

Mississippi river blues

I’ve mentioned that water levels in the Great Lakes have declined recently, and that this is probably related to climatic factors like recent droughts.  Low flows on the Mississippi River suggest that droughts are, indeed, a big factor in the upper Midwest right now.  In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to manage the reservoirs on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to balance conservation and water flow.  Their latest decision to keep more water stored in an upper Missouri reservoir may mean that barge traffic on the Mississippi near St. Louis and Illinois may shut down early next year, absent heavy rain/snow.  The Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, and in a normal year, up to 60% of the combined flow comes from the upper Missouri watershed.  This year, however, approximately 78% of the combined flow has come from the upper Missouri — which means that the flow from the upper Mississippi (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and even Lake Michigan) is a mere 22% of the flow.  In other words, the upper Mississippi makes up a smaller piece of the pie than in a normal year, plus the whole pie is smaller than a normal year.  Rough times.

There’s not much to be done in the midst of a drought except draw down our reservoirs (this is why we save up our water every wet year) and increase dredging to deepen existing shipping channels.  But I can say that this saga tells us that the problems of the Great Lakes are not due to a couple of extra diversions here and there — the middle of the country is in a tough drought, and there’s less water to go around.  Another year like this, and we’ll be praying for rain.

Las Vegas takes charge

The Colorado River is over-allocated, such that in any given year, states only receive a fraction of the quantity of water they were originally promised in 1922 (they also promised nothing to Mexico, but have subsequently revised that part).  I’ve been pretty skeptical that any major treaty would be able to modify that treaty, since so many people are fighting over the water.  But a new pact is set to avoid any international standoffs in the Colorado River basin, between the US and Mexico, and my favorite water manager, Pat Mulroy of SNWA is behind things again.

Las Vegas is in a tight spot, in that it gets its water supply from pipes in Lake Mead, and the lake levels have been declining to levels that threaten to go below the intake pipes (their straws would be sucking air, rather than water, at that point).  Uh-oh for Las Vegas.  So the city is motivated for all downstream Colorado River compact states (Nevada, Arizona, and California), and now Mexico, too, to store as much water as possible in Lake Mead.  (Note to Cadiz, Inc: You’re fighting an uphill battle — Nevada will practically pay California to store water behind Lake Mead…)

Under the agreement, negotiated by UN-style earpieces for translated dialogue, Lake Mead will store Mexico’s excess water in wet years, and allow withdrawals of that “bank” in dry years.  Mexico will also be able to store much of its water supply there temporarily for the next 5 years, while improvements are made to irrigation canals that were damaged in a 2010 earthquake.  Las Vegas and other municipalities will also pay for improvements to Mexican canals to decrease losses, and then use the quantity of water that was formerly “lost” from the system.

Some people don’t just wait for disaster to make opportunities — they plan for worst-case scenarios.  Las Vegas has a plan on the books to build another pipeline into Lake Mead, once the lake hits a certain low level.  By signing practical, clever deals like this one — which, by the way, are a win-win all around — they forestall that expensive construction item, and enhance the reliability of the system for everyone.  Mexico has also avoided the cost of building its own reservoir south of the border, which is significant.

Apparently water managers from Australia, Asia, and Africa are already interested in borrowing language and ideas from this pact.  Props to SNWA for taking the lead and seeing this important deal through.

mandate for water

California had a few interesting outcomes from the elections a couple of weeks ago, when it comes to water.  Most of these were local ballot initiatives, like the “Restore Hetch Hetchy” proposition I’ve talked about before.  But one that’s a little more subtle is that the state legislature will have a Democratic supermajority to accompany Democratic governor Jerry Brown’s agenda for the next 2 years.  Brown is a moderate Democrat, so he won’t necessarily appeal to all Democrats, but he has set five near-term priorities:

  1. Calibrating state rules and regulations so they don’t discourage job creation and economic development
  2. Continuing work on the state’s high-speed rail project
  3. Evaluating the state’s education framework
  4. Delivering a budget to the Legislature in January
  5. Securing water reliability for the state

That last one is pretty interesting, considering that Gov. Brown has already issued the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, to build two massive tunnels to make deliveries to the Central Valley and Southern California more reliable.  Plus, remember that huge ballot initiative to spend $11 billion on improving water resources across the state, the one that was shelved so Gov. Brown’s education proposition would have more likelihood of success?  Well, the Democrats could pass it now, to the chagrin of small-government Republicans across the state (but on that note, if you’re a small-government Republican — let’s be honest — you live in the wrong state).

The state legislative analyst recently projected lower budget deficits and future budget surpluses for the state,  a first in a long time.  You know what legislators, especially big spenders, will want to do with budget surpluses?  Spend them!  Let’s hope that Gov. Brown’s priorities lead to wise spending on projects that the state needs (and you can guess which issues I’m biased towards…).

programming note

Well, this year is starting to wind down, which means that deadlines at work are ramping up.  Unfortunately this also means that I have less time for writing (a travesty!).  So as not to mislead you, especially the swath of new readers who, on Tuesday, somehow discovered my blog within the labyrinth of the web, I’m going to have to back off of my commitment to three posts a week for the indefinite future, perhaps through the new year.  I’ll try to get out one post a week, and more when possible.

In the meantime, check out some of the other blogs I’ve been following (see list to the right) — there’s some great stuff out there to keep inquiring water-minded people sated.


the Great Lakes don’t drain where you think

The water levels in the Great Lakes look to remain low for the foreseeable future, according to projections by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  This time, though, there’s a new suspected culprit for the prolonged declines, according to a local politician: the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC).

You may not know it, but the CSSC connects Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River.  So besides the main outlet of the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence River, there’s also some flow that is diverted towards the Gulf of Mexico. Originally, the city of Chicago was similar to Berlin, Germany and Las Vegas, Nevada, in that its wastewater discharged into the same body of water from which it withdraws its water supply.  But this was back in the late 1800s, when there wasn’t wastewater treatment but there was cholera.  People were rightly worried about public health.

So, the engineers came up with the easiest option: build a separate canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River (flowing water away from the city), ostensibly for shipping, and then dump the city’s wastewater in it.  Problem solved! (Except for Milwaukee’s wastewater, but that’s a separate topic.)

With Chicago taking water from Lake Michigan and diverting its wastewater to the CSSC, a large quantity of water is diverted from the Great Lakes system, on average some 1.2 billion gallons per day, or 450 billion gallons per year.  That’s a lot of water.  But how much water is normally flowing through the Great Lakes?  Ultimately, the water in the Great Lakes goes over Niagara Falls, which has an average flow rate of approximately 4 million cubic feet per second, or roughly 944 trillion gallons per year.  So, back of the envelope says that Chicago is diverting 0.05% of the flows from Niagara to the Mississippi.  I suspect that this is not as significant as the climactic effects of record droughts and low snowpack, but that’s a bigger calculation than I’m willing to take on for today.  We’ll see if the Michigan politician mentioned in the article above ends up stirring the pot further on this question.

give SFPUC a chance

I’ve mentioned before that San Francisco is an interesting place because it has an environmentalist streak laced with impracticality.  This streak has, at times, interfered with the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) and its ability to make innovative upgrades to the existing water and wastewater treatment facilities in the city.  Most notably, despite passing an initiative in 1991 mandating a water recycling facility in the city — rather cutting edge at that time — SFPUC still hasn’t been able to find a place that residents find acceptable to build the plant.

It turns out that, given the chance, the SFPUC can do stuff well.  The one-year-old Tesla treatment plant treats up to 315 million gallons per day with UV disinfection, and recently was awarded a LEED silver certificationA recycling facility in Daly City has also recently begun supplying recycled water to TPC Harding Park’s golf course, with approximately 230,000 gallons per day.  A drop in the bucket compared to the needs of the whole city of San Francisco, but a step in the right direction.

Well, I’m happy to report that the voters of San Francisco have decided to let SFPUC continue to manage their water supply and plan for its future, as they resoundingly voted against Proposition F to restore the Hetch Hetchy.  I’m interested to see if SFPUC can finally get that water recycling facility built (they may have 2 others in the plans, too), which would decrease the city’s water demand.  I’m glad to see them make a push in this direction before the drastic measure of tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

skip compact fluorescents – recycle wastewater

An interesting article has recently been published in an open-access journal called “Environmental Research Letters.”  I’m torn on open-access journals: people should have access to research results, but the quality of publication suffers without higher quality reviewers.  That said, this article seems pretty informative.  The authors attempted to quantify the energy used in the US in 2010 for treating and delivering water, and they found a whopping 12.6% of energy consumption in the US is due to water.

I found this figure instructive, showing the difference in energy requirements for various types of water sources and treatment levels.  Note the difference between desalted water and normally treated water is large, but the difference between desalted water and the California State Water Project water (which is pumped from the Bay-Delta to southern California) is small.  No wonder southern Californians are getting more excited about seawater desalination and water recycling, assuming that cost scales with the  energy intensity of the water source.

energy consumption for water supply

With some pretty complicated flow diagrams, the authors come to one very striking conclusion:

We estimate that 5.4 quads of this primary energy (611 billion kWh delivered) were used to generate electricity for pumping, treating, heating, cooling and pressurizing water in the  US, which is approximately 25% more energy than is used for lighting in the Residential and Commercial sectors [40]. (Despite this equivalency, much more policy attention has been invested in energy-efficiency for lighting, rather than reducing hot water consumption or investing in energy-efficient water heating methods, even though the latter might have just as much impact.)

In other words, reducing hot water consumption or investing in energy-efficient water heating methods could have a similar impact to switching our personal lightbulbs to compact fluorescents, yet there has been no policy push to educate people on this aspect.

Results like these are fascinating and instructive.  Once we know where the energy is going and how much our water really “costs”, we can make adjustments that make sense without revamping the whole system.  You and I can be more energy efficient by taking shorter showers and turning water off while lathering up with soap and shampoo.  California can promote water recycling in southern California instead of desalination and increasing imported water, which would save on energy without cutting off the State Water Project.  I’m sure many more examples of efficiency improvements are available — we just have to think a little outside the box.