drinking microbes is ok

Some work recently out of my former institute, Eawag, has been optimizing a novel method, flow cytometry, to measure microbes swimming/floating in water.  A couple of fluorescent DNA dyes are added to the water, then as a very narrow capillary stream flows by a laser, the cell numbers are counted.  Initial results have shown that there are a lot more microbial cells in water supplies than we might like to think.  Ambient water in the environment (e.g., a lake) generally has maybe 10^7 cells per milliliter (i.e., 10,000,000 cells per drop of water).  A soil or sediment has 1-2 orders of magnitude more cells per milliliter in general.  The flow cytometry results show that treated drinking water has roughly 10^5 cells per milliliter (i.e., 100,000 cells per drop of water).  That’s a lot of microbes in your water!  Time to freak out, set your hair on fire, and switch to bottled water!  The government is trying to kill you!!

Ok, it’s not that bad.  When water leaves a drinking water treatment plant, it is usually given a healthy dose of chlorine (“chlorine residual”) to keep microbial growth low in the piping network to your house.  Furthermore, there are tests for potentially dangerous bacteria, with standards to be met before the water is allowed to be delivered to you.  A common problem with standard tests is that they require the cells to grow on agar plates, even though many cells don’t grow under those conditions, and the results take up to 3 days.  Flow cytometry is available just minutes after sample collection.  The Eawag method has revealed that the standard test is a little misleading — no “bad” microbes doesn’t mean no microbes at all, and that’s ok.

What’s interesting is that the Swiss authorities have added this method to the list of acceptable tests for drinking water quality.  Who knows, maybe you’ll soon see this method coming to a water treatment plant near you!

Oh, and if you were going to switch to bottled water, just remember, it might have more microbes in it than tap water.  It will be ok.

any press is good press?

The ill-fated Cadiz groundwater extraction project keeps accumulating approvals, but not without dredging up more opposition.  The San Bernardino County supervisors approved the Environmental Impact Report, with one stipulation: groundwater drawdown must not exceed 80 feet below the normal water table.  If the USGS estimate of recharge (approximately 5,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, the 80-ft metric will be reached in roughly 10 years.  If the Cadiz estimate of recharge (approximately 32,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, they’ll have a few more years of leeway (I’m going to be lazy and not look through their 1700-page EIR for the exact drawdown they project, sorry).  I’m glad that they at least added something nominal to the EIR, but the four supervisors who voted to approve the plan may have a tough time being reelected: the lone dissenter, Neil Derry, noted, “My constituents have been very vocal about not taking water out of the desert.”  There are also documented donations from Cadiz, Inc. to the coffers of the Board of Supervisors — to the tune of $107,000.  I won’t speculate on the influence of money in politics.

Besides the local opposition, Cadiz has a couple of very powerful opponents: Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Senator Feinstein’s office is pushing for a federal review of the EIR, which is likely both to generate red tape for an unfavored project and to subject the EIR to much more stringent environmental standards.  MWD is apparently still smarting from the last time this project came up, failed to materialize, and then spawned a lawsuit from Cadiz.  Besides the bad blood (lawsuits rarely happen between friends…), MWD operates a mostly full Colorado River aqueduct with very high quality drinking water — no need to add the Cadiz water, which may just have high levels of arsenic and chromium in it (data about which was conveniently omitted from the aforementioned EIR), to the relatively smooth operations.  The MWD annual report for 2011 mentions three programs to ensure that the Colorado Aqueduct operates as close to full as possible, and more to ensure the California Aqueduct does as well.  There may still be room for that Cadiz water, but MWD sounds like it’s only willing to make room for a friend…and Cadiz, Inc. may not fall under that umbrella…

The press coverage has also led to a flurry of lawsuits against the Cadiz project.  The tally of lawsuits is now up to five: one from the company mining the nearby evaporating lake beds for salt, three from environmental groups that want to protect the delicate desert spring ecosystems nearby, and one from a labor union that claims the environmental impact report does not assess the danger of unexploded ordnance from WWII-era military exercises in the area.  Cadiz definitely has a long way to go, but a path littered with lawsuits, federal red tape, and an unfriendly potential business partner suggest it will be a very expensive one.

I have a suggestion: why not try bottling water?  Bottled water companies harvest desert spring water all the time — Crystal Geyser wants to expand its operations in Olancha, California, known for its hot, dusty vistas of the eastern side of the Sierras and the dry lakebed of Owens Lake.  Sure, it’s expensive to bottle water, but you also get to charge more for it, and there aren’t as many pesky political issues in the way…at least as long as they stay out of the press.  Maybe Cadiz thinks any press is good press, but I would advise them to rethink that philosophy.