til 2013

Dear readers,

Due to the encroaching holiday craziness, including travel and work deadlines and a flurry of fascinating end-of-the-year reports about water, I’m going to have to sign off for the rest of 2012.  Of course I’m also hedging in case of the end of the world on Friday, as predicted by the Mayans.  Wouldn’t want to waste my time blogging right before the end of the world…

I hope that you all have a wonderful holiday season and safe travels.  In 2013, I hope to write up an analysis of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s recent report on water scarcity and the Colorado River, read the Pacific Institute’s reports on desalination and California’s water footprint, and eventually get back to that water balance of the Los Angeles basin.  If you get bored over the holidays without me, feel free to beat me to all of this!

take care,

Claire

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getting carbon sequestration to work

One magic bullet that engineers like to talk about for global warming is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — pumping carbon dioxide into the right water-saturated geological formations just might form carbonate minerals, converting carbon dioxide gas (greenhouse gas!) to a greenhouse-neutral rock.  There are some hurdles, though, that haven’t quite been resolved.  Most of the current CCS projects inject the captured gas into oil formations to enhance oil recovery — this is means that some of the gas often comes back out with the oil.  It’s a different task to inject carbon dioxide to form minerals.

First, you have to have the right geochemistry in the water and in the rock.  Carbonates are actually really slow to precipitate, and in some cases in the lab, oversaturated solutions took months to precipitate out solids (chemistry note: thermodynamics is separate from kinetics).  Second, you have to get the pressurization right in the geological formation.  On the one hand, this means putting in the proper well casing and piping (the “walls” of the well hole) — see the BP oil spill for an example of improper well construction.  On the other hand, this means ensuring that the geological formation doesn’t open up cracks under pressure and leak that carbon dioxide back to the surface.  (This is the suspicion of what might go wrong in some fracking, for example: that certain formations might open preferential pathways for migration of gases and solutions upward into overlying aquifers of drinking water.  This is also an unknown, but not one that I’ll address here.)  Finally, there’s the risk that injecting pressurized fluids will lead to increased seismic activity.  This is currently being documented as it occurs, but we’re far from predicting when and where it might occur (other than “in locations where we injected stuff…after we injected the stuff” which isn’t that helpful for planning or engineering purposes).

Well, as usual, scientists are working on stuff that will eventually be useful.  A recent paper evaluated a new way to detect carbon dioxide leaking into shallow soils from deep formations.  Traditional technology has required an extensive collection of background data to understand how carbon dioxide might naturally move through a geological formation.  But the new method uses measurements of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane in soil gas to distinguish between naturally occurring processes and an extra influx of carbon dioxide from, say, a CCS injection site.

This is pretty sweet, because knowledge is going to save money on these projects, as well as give clearer answers that the traditional method could.  Plus, this will resolve a big question, at least in my mind, as to the viability of this technology.  We can deal with it if the kinetics of carbonate mineralization are slow underground, but if the carbon dioxide gas leaks back out, it isn’t really sequestered after all…

spy vs. spy, lobbyist-style

I wrote recently about the attempt by the last coal-fired steamer on the Great Lakes, the SS Badger, to circumvent environmental laws that would force it to upgrade to a modern propulsion system.  I really find it hard to justify such an outdated and messy mode of transportation, which dumps 509 tons of coal ash in Lake Michigan every year (an average of nearly one and a half tons per day).  That’s a lot of ash.

Well, the language to exempt the SS Badger from EPA’s oversight was stripped from a U.S. House of Representatives bill just last week.  Advocates from Michigan and Wisconsin had added an amendment to a Coast Guard reauthorization bill to exempt the ship, as a National Historic Landmark, from EPA oversight.  However, the reauthorization bill was passed without the amendment, meaning that the Badger’s permit to operate expires on December 19th, no exceptions.

Apparently, a rival ferry with diesel-powered engines, Lake Express, appealed to its own representatives, including one from Milwaukee, to vote out this amendment.  Lake Express offers ferry service about $50 more than the SS Badger, for service about 1.5 hours shorter (2.5 hours vs. 4 hours).  In a public statement, Lake Express noted that in the SS Badger’s own correspondence with the EPA, the company said it could pay for equipment to eliminate the need to dump coal ash by upping their ticket prices by just $4 per customer — which would still be much cheaper than Lake Express.  In other words, it’s less about the money and more about the effort…

The conclusion from all of this is, two rival companies appealed to rival lawmakers, and despite what might seem like corruption of the legislation process, the best outcome was reached, as far as protecting human health and the environment.  Whether you call the SS Badger’s National Historic Landmark status a loophole or an earmark, it was not successful.  The process works…

taking advantage of messes

A paper came out this week in Environmental Science and Technology, probably my favorite technical journal, suggesting a “risk-managed route” for the Keystone XL pipeline.  The original route made enough stakeholders in Nebraska nervous about their groundwater supplies that the governor requested President Obama to deny the Presidential Permit, and so it was done.  Keystone has a new proposed route, which will avoid much of the Nebraska Sandhills, but still go through some ecologically sensitive areas.  The authors of this paper propose a route that avoids surface water crossings in the canyons of the northern part of the Ogallala aquifer, and instead intentionally crosses spray-irrigated, row-cropped land underlain by nitrate-contaminated groundwater.  The route eventually connects with the existing Keystone 1 pipeline north of the Platte River, rather than the proposed connection in Steele City, NE.

Now, I’m sure that Keystone has its own agenda for why it chose the route it did, and there are parts of this “risk-managed route” that are left unmentioned in the paper (it’s only 5 pages, so it can’t cover everything).  That said, the authors’ proposed route has an interesting idea as far as the irrigated cropland goes.  They assume that pipeline spills are inevitable (over the past 10 years, they cite statistics of 0.8 spills per 1000 miles of pipeline, averaging 364 barrels of oil), and that dilbit will partition into the part that volatilizes (evaporates away) and the part that floats on the water surface (light components called “light non-aqueous phase liquids” or LNAPLs).  The existing irrigation infrastructure is already set up to deal with LNAPL spills in the groundwater: the irrigation wells can extract the water+hydrocarbons, and the irrigation sprayers can enhance volatilization of the components pumped out of the ground.  Interesting thoughts, and true.

The big red flag in my mind is the actual composition of the dilbit (diluted bitumen) to be carried in the pipeline.  Normal crude oil is largely lighter than water, and does in fact float.  But bitumen is more like tar, and it’s diluted with lighter hydrocarbons so it can even flow in pipelines.  I don’t know if bitumen composition is a trade secret or something (I couldn’t find much information), but it’s possible that it would sink under the water table (making it a dense non-aqueous phase liquid, or DNAPL) rather than float.  In fact, the Enbridge spill in Michigan suggests that dilbit will, in fact, sink, though in that case, the dilbit got mixed in with sand and sediment that caused it to sink into the riverbed along 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River.  There’s not much mixing like that in groundwater — things are pretty static.

But think about this: LNAPLs are easier to remediate than DNAPLs, based on the physics of water and non-aqueous phase liquids.  I found a statistic that the average spill cost is ~$2,000/barrel for normal crude oil, but the spill in Michigan is already past $29,000/barrel.  Multiply that by 364 barrels/average spill, and you’re talking a $10.6 million starting point, on average.  That’s an expensive project.

I guess my take-home message is, I like the thinking outside of the box in the paper, but if dilbit is, in fact, DNAPL rather than LNAPL, we need to do a lot more due diligence and risk mitigation before we approve anything.

bad timing for grand ideas

I’ll take a brief respite from my recent oil pipeline kick (more to come later this week) to compare two different news stories: one is the continuing saga of water management struggles in the Missouri-Mississippi River basins, and the other is the attempt to track down new water management strategies for the water-poor, population heavy Front Range region of Colorado.

Over in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, stakeholders continue to fret about the balance of water flowing through their reaches.  Farmers in North Dakota worry about sufficient irrigation water in the future, as the Army Corps of Engineers considers depleting the 12 years of supply stored in the Upper Missouri’s reservoirs.  (Note to Hetch Hetchy restoration advocates: that’s a lot of supply to be stored.  Engineers must think that excess storage is a hedge against uncertain future conditions, huh…).  Barges in the Mississippi are cutting down their loads, so they can ride higher in the river, and dredging activities to remove natural limestone features along the Illinois-Missouri border have been accelerated.  Don’t let the title of that article fool you — the only water wars in progress are figurative, not literal.

Things could escalate — though almost certainly not to actual violence — if a proposed plan to build a pipeline from the Missouri River watershed to Colorado’s Front Range goes through.  The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) is entertaining far-fetched ideas to address Colorado’s limited water supply, including towing an iceberg to California, shipping giant bags of water from Alaska, and yes, building a giant pipeline across Kansas to Denver.  In order to consider these odd ideas seriously, the USBR has started the planning and alternative evaluation process.  I outlined how this generally works in relation to the Hetch Hetchy restoration idea, but suffice it to say, this pipeline is still at the early stages of “tools for decision making” rather than the early stages of design and implementation.

Although this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it first might seem (the pipeline would need to be roughly 600 miles long, only 50% longer than the 419-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct), I really hope it doesn’t make the next cut for analysis.  The goal in the US should not be to emulate California’s extensive aqueduct network, but rather to implement large-scale water recycling to cut down on net consumption of water by various municipalities or regions.

The timing of this idea is also about as bad as it gets.  Any sign of the Missouri and Mississippi stakeholders getting wind of this idea, and an all-out media war of words will likely ensue.  That’s a good way to ensure that regardless of the engineering feasibility study outcome, the public relations battle will already be far lost.  And who knows, maybe that’s what USBR really wants, too.

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.