Monday, September 28, 2009

Virginia’s Proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System Regulations 12VAC5-613

Today, September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. There is only a 30 day window for public comments. Please take this opportunity to comment.

The purpose of the regulations is to ensure that these more effective treatment systems are maintained in a manner to allow them to function properly to be protective of the environment and public health. It is widely accepted, but not documented that improperly managed septic systems contribute to major water quality problems. The US EPA states in the “Volunteer National Guidelines for Management of Onsite and Clustered Treatment Systems” that improper design, construction, installation, operation and/or maintenance are the source of these onsite waste treatment failures. EPA hopes to better determine the extent of the relationship as documentation becomes available. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur nationally each year from drinking water contaminated by waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination. Proper maintenance of septic systems (both traditional and alternative) is essential for protection of public health and local water resources. The EPA estimates that 29-30% of Virginia households have septic systems and that 8% of theses systems are AOSS.

The research into the contamination from septic systems was performed at the RS Kerr Environmental Research Laboratory in Ada, Oklahoma. The classic study by Marylynn V. Yates points out that septic systems contribute 800 billion gallons of waste water per year to the subsurface. The study found that the most important factor influencing groundwater contamination by septic systems is the density of systems in an area and the distance to the contamination point. It is as simple as that. The fewer systems per square mile the less chance of contamination. Distance from a septic system, the so called horizontal set backs are the final protection from harm especially for those of us who obtain our drinking water from private water supplies. The proposed regulations maintain and expand the conservative set backs for traditions systems.

The AOSS were approved by the state based on demonstrations of their functioning and effectiveness. In the proposed regulations the Commonwealth is going to require outside operators to inspect and maintain these systems in perpetuity at a cost to the home owner of $400-$600 per year (the basic contract where I live is $480, but the provider will grant a 25% discount if I get a group of at least 10 families together.). This level of oversight and maintenance should ensure that these AOSS function as intended and ensure that anomalies and alarm situations are responded to in a timely manner.

Ideally, homeowners should care for their septic systems appropriately to avoid the system back up in the future, contamination of the groundwater (which may be the source of the local drinking water), and future septic system repair bills of tens of thousands of dollars to remediate and replace a system. Many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them. In addition, many people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their systems. One method to deal with this problem is to eliminate all but the most basic systems in the most geologically favorable locations (reduce percolation rate tolerances and design the systems as conservatively as possible). The other method is to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system for compliance monitoring. Virginia has taken the tact to require outside operators and an ongoing operations and maintenance contract. There is no opportunity for an interested homeowner to obtain the skills and knowledge to operate and maintain their own systems. I do not know if this is the right answer, but it is the one the VDH picked.

All AOSS systems were demonstrated to perform satisfactorily to be approved for use in the Commonwealth. Monitoring and operating these AOSS systems with professional operators is designed to ensure a single family home (low volume) unit is functioning. In addition, the VDH proposes that single family AOSS be required to have the outside operator sample and send out for analysis system effluent every five years. As an old chemical engineer I know how misleading a single sample once every five years can be. Septic systems are impacted by volume, load, temperature and humidity. The AOSSs are really the most basic and tiny of waste treatment plants. These systems were tested over a period of time and conditions to demonstrate an acceptable operating average performance.

A single sample every five years will provide little if any useful information that is not provided by an initial demonstration of functioning and on going maintenance and inspection. If a system is tested and does not meet the design averages, does it fail? What range around the design parameters is officially acceptable to the VDH? If a system fails, protocol would require a retesting (at the consumer’s expense). If the system “failed” to meet the design parameters adjustments to the use or operation of the system would be then be made and the system retested again at the home owners expense. How many rounds of testing would be required to determine that the “average” parameter was met? Or would the Department of Health simply ignore the results and allow the systems to continue to operate until the next five year sample date? In real life design parameters will sometimes be exceeded and sometimes not met. THE VDH has not quantitative standards for these operating ranges, but wants quantitative sampling performed every five years. At what levels does the VDH take enforcement action, or require further investigation? Without these answers how can a sampling program be instituted that is anything more than data gathering? If the VDH has no intention of using the data for enforcement it is inappropriate to require this level of expenditure from home owners. What is the limit of the amount of money the VDH will require to be spent by a home owner? I do not believe the environment or public health of the Commonwealth will benefit from this sampling. This requirement creates a permanent substantial and open ended additional cost to the homeowner above the annual cost of having an operator maintain the system.

I investigated the costs of testing an AOSS with an ATU by having the third tank sampled. To test for Total Coliform, ecoli, and Nitrate-Nitrite cost $321.42 (which included a 10% discount for having a maintenance contract). Sampling BOD, TSS, Oil and Grease and Nitrate-Nitrite, as Nitrogen samples from the third tank cost $353.58 (also including a 10% discount). For $675 all these parameters could by tested by the outside operator. This level of cost, even at a five year interval is excessive on top of the operations and maintenance contract. This cost could financially stress a home owner. The possibility to have to retest, take corrective action or develop an average effluent profile to demonstrate compliance with a design parameter is an open ended financial liability that might have no benefit to the environment or public health, but could have dire consequences on the financial viability of the home owner. Routine inspections and maintenance should serve to identify systems that are not functioning properly. If there appears to be an on going problem then sampling and testing could be performed if the operator in consultation with the VDH felt it could help resolve an operating problem.

The success of the regulations in protecting the environment and public health will depend on the compliance of the AOSS owners. For the individual home owner the regulations will have to be clear, easily understood by a layman reading them and fair. I believe home owners will be able to accept that AOSS systems need to be annually inspected and maintained by operators at a monthly cost that is around $40. It will be perceived as an additional property tax, but is constant and will become routine like any other homeowner expense.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Water and Groundwater in the West

One of the most important elements of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. Water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture, industry and maintain the ecology of the earth. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on water. Demand for clean water generally increases with population growth, but not always in a straight line affected by factors such as conservation efforts and industrial and agricultural balance. As seen in the US Geological Survey Circular 1268 above, from 1950-2000 daily water use increased from approximately 175 billion gallons a day to 260 billion gallons a day, however; the peak water use was in 1980 at 280 billion gallons a day. Based on the 2000 data from the US GS, 65 billion gallons a day of fresh groundwater used daily in the United States.

The legal and institutional systems for managing and protecting groundwater resources are complex; and are often separate from parallel systems for governing surface waters, even though ground and surface waters may be interconnected. In the west settlement and then development evolved in tandem with water laws. A more arid portion of the country, the west is straining at what appear to be the limitations of its water supply. Unfortunately, when the water laws governing the west were created the interrelationship of groundwater and surface water was not understood. So the governance schemes were different. Surface water in the western sixteen states was governed on a priority scheme. Appropriations are allocated based on when they first began receiving water. Early on in most western states access to groundwater basins was minimally restricted by some variant of the “reasonable use” doctrine which is still in effect in 3 of the 16 western states (Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas). Nebraska currently attempts to coordinate the management of ground and surface water recognizing their connection. Of the 12 remaining western states, 11 govern groundwater under the prior surface water appropriation scheme mentioned above and California does not fall under any of these schemes but uses an inconsistent local ordnance system. The eastern states which typically have more water do not as a rule regulate groundwater use. Though in the past decade there have been several regions to study the recharge characteristics of their water sheds with an eye to regulate density. The western states have not been successful in devising management schemes to resolve groundwater problems. The end result is the resources have been poorly understood and managed. Water is used unsustainably throughout the west.

In response to the growing western water crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to expand it WaterSense Conservation program. I believe the intent is to encourage conservation and thoughtful use of water, but I question the method. The program will now include a voluntary label that has a landscaping component that would limit the quantity of turfgrass participating builders plant. One of the two approaches that the EPA is considering is the Water Budget where a regionally appropriate amount of water is allowed for the landscaping. According to the EPA the average home in the US uses 30% of its water outside. However, none of us is average and turfgrass is not always bad. Living in Virginia where there is plenty of rainfall during the warmer months of the year, I do not need to water my landscaping. I believe that residential landscapes should be predominately native species that will thrive with benign neglect. What passes for a lawn on the three open acres closest to my house is the original pasture grasses supplemented with what compost I make, and over seeded with fescue each fall. I don’t fertilize, I don’t use weed killers and I don’t water. The lawn and weeds grow and I have hopes may improve over the years, but it is green. My home is saved by the beauty of the lovely trees and shrubbery I have planted. With only a few days of watering in the early weeks after planting my 43 trees have thrived with no effort on my part. I wonder if this WaterSense program is the appropriate response to the water supply problems of some states. Is it like recycling and energy star where a generation learns new habits to thoughtfully use the earths resources.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Regulation of Groundwater Use in the West

Over the last several decades, water users in the western United States have increasingly turned to groundwater resources to support agriculture, enhance economic expansion, and spur urban growth. As can be seen above in the US Geological Survey chart, the western 16 states account for the lion’s share of groundwater use in the United States. It is reported that the western states account for approximately two-thirds of the groundwater use in a “typical” year.

One of the defining features of the western U.S. is its aridity. In an arid environment, water is often diverted from streams and transported, sometimes great distances, to mines, farms, cities, and towns. Developing surface water supplies requires two intensive expensive efforts. The first is to plan, build, and maintain a surface water transport project. This entail building diversion structures, a distribution system, and storage reservoirs. Second, administrating and maintaining the system, including developing information about and monitoring the physical setting, negotiating over the location and design of the water system, and monitoring and enforcing agreements, are significant. Managing water allocations in a western state is very much managing the economy of the state. As water demand raises past supply the regulatory scheme or the state economies are doomed to failure. We are incapable of designing the right economy to allocate scarce resources to over time. What is right for today is not adoptive to the future. Central planning and allocation is rigid.

The development of groundwater resources and their use occurred after the system of surface water management was in place. The west had already developed the institutions necessary to allocate, diver, distribute and use the surface water. The rapid development of groundwater in the west occurred before any limits were placed on its use. Initially many of the western states recognized some variant of the “reasonable use” doctrine. The reasonable use doctrine allows landowners overlying a groundwater basin to pump as much water as they can put to reasonable use on their land. This doctrine was intended only to limit waste of water not limit pumping. Groundwater codes were adopted in response to the intense conflicts that broke out.

In adopting groundwater codes, most western states extended the prior appropriation doctrine to cover groundwater. Beginning with New Mexico in 1931 and ending with Montana in 1961, groundwater in 11 of the 16 western states was governed by the prior appropriation system. Existing wells were given priority dates, new wells were allowed only with permits granted by state water agencies. Permits could be denied where an aquifer was over appropriated. The priority system was extended to groundwater because it was familiar, well accepted and seemed to work for surface water. It was believed that this system would allow satisfactory regulation of groundwater use much in the same way that it had allowed regulation of surface water. In states that do not apply the prior appropriation doctrine to tributary groundwater, intense conflict has emerged around the effects of pumping on surface water flows. Arizona is an extreme example of a state that uses distinct bodies of law and regulation to govern ground and surface water with no legal recognition of the physical connection between the two sources of water (Glennon 2003).

Unfortunately, the hydrologic connections between groundwater and surface water were not understood at the time. Hydrology determines the long term success of prior appropriation as a groundwater management scheme. Where groundwater basin is not hydrologically connected to a surface water source, prior appropriation has resulted in groundwater mining, non renewable use of groundwater. In locations where the groundwater basins are hydrologically connected to surface water sources the prior appropriations has had the effect of protecting surface water flows from over pumping because surface water rights holder are invariable senior to well pumpers. The prior appropriations doctrine has not resolved intense conflict between groundwater, surface water users and ecological demands.

The prior appropriation doctrine has failed to resolve the conflicts between groundwater and surface water users or adequately managed groundwater basin storage. The prior appropriation doctrine as conceived and administered was not designed to conserve water. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be plentiful and development and growth were to be encouraged. This management scheme has resulted in non sustainable use of groundwater. Today, the “reasonable use” doctrine is still in effect in Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. Nebraska attempts to coordinate the management of ground and surface water recognizing their hydraulic connection. As stated above 11 states govern groundwater under the prior surface water appropriation. California does not fall under any of these schemes but locally restricts well permits and has a total of 27 local ordnances under which local governments attempt to regulate groundwater. . The eastern states do not as a rule regulate groundwater use.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Groundwater the Fluid of Life

To survive over time, a population must live within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, which represents a form of natural capital. One of the most important elements of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. As populations grow water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture and industry.

Unlike other natural resources or raw materials, groundwater is present throughout the world. Possibilities for its abstraction vary greatly from place to place, owing to rainfall conditions and the distribution of aquifers (rock and sand layers in whose pore spaces the groundwater sits). Generally, groundwater is renewed only during a part of each year through precipitation, but can be abstracted year-round. Provided that there is adequate replenishment, and that the source is protected from pollution, groundwater can be abstracted indefinitely.

Groundwater forms the invisible, subsurface part of the natural water cycle, in which evaporation, precipitation, seepage and discharge are the main components. The “visible” components are all strongly affected by weather and climate, and although they can be contaminated quickly, they generally recover quickly too. By contrast, the subsurface processes of groundwater are much slower and longer lasting, ranging from years to millennia. However, with careful management, these different timescales can be used to create an integrated system of water supply that is robust in the face of drought.

The groundwater cycle in humid and arid regions differ fundamentally from each other. In humid climates, with high rainfall, large volumes of water seep into the groundwater, which contributes actively to the water cycle feeding streams, springs and wetlands during periods when the rainfall is lower. In semi-arid and arid climates, there is by contrast practically no exchange between the surface water and groundwater because the small volume of seepage from the occasional rainfall only rarely penetrates the thick and dry (unsaturated) soils. The groundwater is much deeper and isolated from surface contact. In these areas groundwater resources are only minimally recharged. Our understanding of the complete water cycle is only rudimentary.

Any attempt to accurately model the groundwater component of the water cycle requires adequate measurements and observations over decades. The computer models in common use in the United States only address the shallower groundwater and surface water interactions; GSFLOW (USGS) and ArcHydro (ESRI) are two commonly used models. This has not yet been done, instead rules of thumb and common knowledge assumptions are utilized instead of facts. Robert Bisson of Earth Water Global believes that there is much more water below the Earth’s surface than commonly believed and that the majority of the earth’s water passes beneath the measured surface and groundwater zones undetected.

We do know that groundwater availability varies by location. Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually. However the volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. Groundwater may be present today even in places with very dry climates because of the nature of the local geology and the historic climate cycles that have occurred through time. In the north-eastern Sahara, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System underlies an area of more than 750,000 square miles in Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and contains huge amounts of fresh groundwater. Giant groundwater deposits of comparable size and limited recharge are thought to exist on nearly all continents, but the amount of groundwater that can be pumped out is unknown. Water resources can be used sustainably only if their volume and variation through time are understood. However such information is often lacking, even in so-called developed regions. Hydrology as a science is very young and so little is known. Is it possible that water in these arid regions is finite and non-renewable because of changes in the earth’s climate over the millenia? According to Victor Ponce of San Diego State University, deep percolation represents 2% of the precipitation in California. He believes that the shallow groundwater belongs to surface waters. Any pumping of shallow water (especially for irrigation) effectively shortcuts the natural process, returning to the land surface groundwater that was going to return to the surface waters anyway.

Groundwater is usually cleaner than surface water. Groundwater is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer. This is the only available clean drinking water in many parts of the world. However, rising world population, changes in land use and rapid industrialization increasingly place groundwater in jeopardy. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and often after removal of contaminated plumes only long term abandonment of use to allow for natural attenuation is the only possible course of action. As droughts and water shortages appear the value of groundwater has begun to be more fully appreciated. Precious groundwater resources increasingly need to be protected and well managed to allow for sustainable long-term use.

The demand for water is rising as population, economic activity and agricultural irrigation grow. However, worldwide resources of accessible water are decreasing, due to overuse or pollution. The balance between demand (consumption) and supply (resource) is becoming unstable. More than 30 countries suffer from serious chronic water shortage, and groundwater is increasingly being used to cover the demand. According to UNESCO Water for People between 700 and 800 billion US tons of ground water are pumped each year. This is two hundred times the annual consumption of oil and coal used each year.

Monday, September 14, 2009

California Water Wars

Friday night the California State Legislature ended its session for the year without taking any action in regards to the state’s water supply issues. There were a set of bills that reportedly would have both diverted water from the Sacramento San Pablo Delta and restored the habitat while potentially adding damns that would somehow add additional water along with the storage. The bills would also require a reduction of 20% in per capita urban water use and created a monitoring system for groundwater statewide. The legislation reportedly lost support of the Sierra Club, the Republicans and some other environmental groups. The fundamentals of the water supply system for California need to be addressed carefully and in a coordinated manner. The legislature has essentially chosen to continue the status quo which is unsustainable. The entire economy of California and possibly the United States will be impacted by the way in which California chooses to allocate water. Slapping another band-aid on the California water supply system is not how to address the complicated ecological, economic and human issues; nor is doing nothing. Cutbacks in surface irrigation water will results in increased pumping in the Central Valley which is nothing more than a geologic trough filled with sediments containing groundwater.

For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. This has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. On less than 1% of the total farmland in the U.S. the Central Valley produces 8% of the agricultural output (as measured by value). In 2002 this translated to $17 billion in crop value. This is all made possible by a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley.

According to the US Geological Survey the before the extensive development of irrigation of the Central Valley the natural recharge of groundwater from precipitation and surface water inflows equaled the outflows to evapotranspiration and surface water. After development of irrigation in the Central Valley the balance changed. Recharge to the groundwater was from irrigation return flow, precipitation and surface water inflow. Outflow was from groundwater withdrawals and increased surface water outflows. The net result was that the Central Valley, a 20,000 square mile area of California was mining groundwater at approximately 1,900 cubic feet per second from 1962 to 2003.

When you withdraw the groundwater from fine-grained compressible confining beds of sediments and do not replace it, the land subsides. The incredibly fertile Central Valley was identified by the research efforts of Joseph Poland as the location of maximum subsidence in the United States. Though the tremendous amount of subsidence was famously documented in 1977, it was not until 2003 that the water balance changed to slow the subsidence. In 2007 the USGS estimated the rate of groundwater mining to be 300 cubic feet per second. This change is due to the surface water agricultural deliveries of 13,000 cubic feet per second while groundwater irrigation deliveries are now (or at least were) at 5,900 cubic feet per second. When I was consulting, I saw vineyards and orchards in the Central Valley with groundwater irrigation wells. These vineyards were mortgaged. If the surface water allocation is reduced, how much groundwater are they going to pump? It is their livelihood, it is their investment, it is their way of life. Even if the surface water allocation to irrigation is not reduced the Central Valley is still mining groundwater that is not being recharged. The problems in the Delta estuary maybe more visible, but the long term viability of groundwater is our future.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Station Fire Destruction Has Just Begun

For two weeks, the Station Fire, Southern California's huge wildfire, has burned while California’s fire fighters have fought the massive fire to contain it. The fire has destroyed 250 square miles (160,000 acres) of the Angeles National Forest and only now is “mostly” contained. To defeat the fire more than 400 firefighters bravely continue to build containment lines on the fire's eastern flank by eliminating all potential fuel for the fire near the fire line to prevent the fire from continuing to spread. Two firefighters have died and eleven were injured in this massive battle. The ecological toll is vast, but more destruction is yet to come. The wildfire has completely consumed all organic layers and roots of the understory plants within this vast area. Without plants to protect the soil, runoff and erosion will increase and create changes to water quality and quantity.

The chief concern now is the impact the 250-square-mile Station Fire is having on the watershed. Countless canyons, ravines and gullies funnel water toward communities at the forest's edge and into the water management system. There is virtually no area in California where the water and flood system is not managed. Los Angeles County maintains 14 major dams, basins to intercept debris laden flows from the canyons, 500 miles of open storm channels and a network of underground storm drains throughout the metropolitan area to the ocean. The biggest concerns after a fire are erosion, landslides and flooding in areas where the vegetation that once stabilized the soil has been destroyed by fire. The primary impacts to fish and wildlife (that were not killed by fire or related heat) will be from runoff entering streams and lakes from areas destroyed by the fire. The runoff may carry extra sediment and ash, which can kill fish by robbing the streams of oxygen.

The firefighting chemicals can have adverse impacts on water quality and ultimately on fish and other aquatic life. The retardants used, though common chemicals found in fertilizers can cause fish kills if applied directly over lakes and streams. This is because ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus are in many of the retardants. Ammonia is very toxic to fish, and large quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus which if flushed into a stream or lake can use up all the oxygen in the water body. Even if the retardant has not been sprayed directly over lakes and streams, there is the possibility that runoff will carry the chemicals into the surface water depending largely on the amount of rainfall, the steepness of the terrain. Phosphorus readily binds to soil particles and will increase the levels of phosphorus flowing into surface waters throughout the rainy season. Nitrates are mobile in soil and readily move into ground and surface water. Cyanide can be of special concern after wildfires because it is a byproduct of the red fire retardant slurry I thought I saw picture of. In cells of all animals cyanide inhibits the release of oxygen for hemoglobin to individual cells, starving the animal of oxygen.

Fires also release pollutants that are normally found in soil and in living and decaying plants that are washed into streams and lakes either through runoff or transported through the air. After a fire there are concerns about streams flooding when burned areas receive heavy rainfall. Vegetation and forest litter that once slowed runoff are gone. This means an increased amount of sediment and ash will end up in the water where it can remain suspended or become part of the materials in the steam beds. Suspended solids can make treatment and filtering more difficult downstream possibly impacting the drinking water quality. After the rains come there will be much higher risks for landslides and flooding in the areas once stabilized by the now destroyed vegetation. Hillsides will become unstable and mudslides are expected.

The final tally of the destructive impact from this wildfire will be massive, far beyond the direct costs to fight the fire and the limited number of homes lost. The water quality impacts are cumulative as a result of pollutants mobilized by the fire, chemicals released to fight the fire, and the post fire erosion, mudslides and flooding.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Using Technology to Control Global Temperature

In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg says a group of climate economists at the University of Venice led by Carlo Carraro looked closely at how people will adapt to climate change they predict a 0.1% increase in GDP in 2100 among wealthy nations and climate change-related losses of 2.9% of GDP in poorer countries. "This remains a significant, negative effect. The real challenge of global warming lies in tackling its impact on the Third World.” There are several economists who believe that some level of global warming will usher in a golden age others do not. The science community has not yet been able to accurately model the earth ecology. The accuracy our current predictive models is unknown, but they do produce conflicting data. Economic modeling which would seem simpler, is apparently no more advanced.

Professor Lomborg goes on to suggest examination of climate engineering to control temperature change. One proposal he mentions would have boats spray seawater droplets into clouds above the sea to make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Since this is just a variation of a natural process, it does not sound dangerous. However, I find the prospect of trying to use technology to control the planet’s temperature frightening. We can not predict the consequences of our actions. In a June Wall Street Journal opinion piece “It’s Time to Cool the Planet” the author, Mr. Cascio, a futurist of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies argues for fast acting geo-engineering like releasing sulfate in huge quantities into the atmospheres using jet-aircraft exhaust. This particular action would be equivalent of several volcanic eruptions each year and while it would probably lower the temperature, what else would it do year after year? It is known that volcanic eruptions damage the ozone layer and plant life. We do not have the knowledge to understand the consequences of direct and quick changes to the plant temperature or carbon content. There is a limit to using technology to try and control the planet’s temperature. Would maintaining the planet's temperature come to consume all the resources of the earth and man? When we stopped, or the technology failed we would have masked a problem and suddenly be faced with a jump in temperature (assuming that the global warming projections are accurate). Sudden changes could be far more catastrophic than any consequence imagined by the long term projections of gradual global warming projected by the climate change establishment. Negative consequences of global warming will spur changes in behavior.

It is difficult for someone of my age and inclinations (having worked for the US EPA in the 1970’s) to think of Climate Change, Global Warming without thinking of other mass environmental movements. For example, Silent Spring and the birth of the environmental movement. Though it is often thought that Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, it was her followers who were the extremists. The movement developed a life of its own. As Eric Hoffer points out in his book, “True Believer” mass movements can never be moderate and rational they attract followers by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change. We are a nation of over reactors. Moderate, responsible action seems impossible for us, but that is the skill we must learn as responsible stewards of this earth and as humane and concerned citizens of the planet.

We must balance concern for the earth, worry about climate change as measured by whatever index suites your world view, with the needs of the lesser developed world to escape poverty and disease. What is the point of saving the earth if not for mankind? We must remember that our knowledge is limited and every action has a reaction. Only arrogance would allow someone to believe mankind could hold the temperature of the earth constant against nature indefinitely. The consensus of opinion is mankind has contributed to climate change, not caused it.

The changes we should consider are not massive interruptions in the natural cycles of nature, but conservation, replanting, control of non-point source contamination, and point source contamination reduction in emerging economies. Maybe if we can restore a watershed, reforest the jungles of the Amazon or the foothill of Mt. Kilimanjaro we could then consider bolder action. There is so much that can be accomplished by conservation and replanting, do that first. Start with replanting. According to the Tree Folks a single mature tree can absorb 48 lbs/ year of carbon dioxide and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings. Trees can also reduce air conditioning and heating needs by providing shade and providing a wind shield for winter. Trees also act as natural pollution filters. Their canopies, trunks, roots, and associated soil and other natural elements of the landscape filter polluted particulate matter out of the flow towards the water shed and use nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are contributing factors to the decay of water sheds. Trees are pretty.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

California Water Crisis Deepens

One of the most important elements of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. As populations grow water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture, industry and maintain the ecology of the earth. Worldwide resources of accessible potable water are decreasing, due in a large part to overuse or pollution. The balance between demand (consumption) and supply (resource) is becoming unstable in many locations which we think we have nothing in common with. More than 30 countries suffer from serious chronic water shortage, but now that has become the fate of California. As I sit in California writing this I am afraid that time’s up for California.

California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. In many cases, water in this system is sold to communities by the federal government. The price for this water is not based on its value or scarcity, but on price controls and rationing. Limited resources that are price controlled and rationed are allocated by the state and federal governments according to political goals. Without this extensive management system California’s limited water resources could not supply as much of the demand. There are limits to the water supply; California has been diverting large quantities of water to supply the ever growing demand of cities and farmers.

Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued what is known as a "biological opinion" imposing water reductions on the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding area to safeguard the federally protected delta smelt which has been endangered by shrinkage of its habitat. To a large extent those environmental problems have been caused by water diversions, invasive species and loss of habitat to development. We seem to have reached the breaking point for the state despite the fact that California reservoirs have received 80% of their normal amount of water and precipitation in the northern Sierras has been 95% of its yearly average this year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife are restricting water diversions from the rivers to maintaining the flow of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta’s into the ocean and preserve the habitat of the smelt.

As a result, tens of billions of gallons of water from mountains east and north of Sacramento have been channeled away from farmers and into the ocean, hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land is left fallow or scorched. Remembering that practically all water in California is channeled to or from somewhere, this decision was made under the endangered species act and through that act Congress has chosen to ignore farmers, without consideration of the overall economic and human consequences of this decision. The full balance of life in California was not considered. Yes, the delta smelt is a protected species, but the people and farms should also be protected.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he "doesn't have the authority to turn on the pumps" that would supply the farmers with water, and that is true. However, the Governor failed to request intervention from the Department of Interior in the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect the endangered delta smelt. Under a provision added to the Endangered Species Act in 1978, a panel of seven cabinet officials is able to intercede in economic emergencies, such as the one now parching California farmers. Despite a petition, Mr. Schwarzenegger has refused that remedy. The authority of the panel of seven should be expanded to ameliorate more than economic emergencies. Water supply thought variable from year to year is finite. In order to maintain the delta smelt and its habitat, California needs to reduce the number of acres that are irrigated and the population. There is only so much water.

In June, the White House denied the Governor Schwarzenegger's request to designate California a federal disaster area as a result of the drought conditions, which U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists as a "severe drought" in 43% of the state. However, the Governor still failed to call for intervention from the Department of the Interior, but Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to press the issue with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The price of water is very dear, the results of price controls and rationing has prevented the kinds of changes and advances in technology and farming techniques to alleviate the problem before the current emergency. Vast water work projects will not materially increase the total water available to the state.