Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sustainable Living Rethinking the Approach

When I moved from city living to the outer edge of the suburbs sustainable living became a much more complicated topic and approach to life. In the city, sustainable living had been straight forward low impact green living. Work as an environmental consultant, recycle, choose well in purchases (local food, wine and other products), conserve water, limit travel, limit car use, live without heat or air conditioning (which is not particularly difficult in San Francisco). My footprint on the earth felt small. However, here on the outer edge of the suburbs the topic becomes much more complicated and I no longer have a firm definition of what sustainable living is, and I need to rethink sustainability and expand my view. First the easy, we do not commute beyond the walls of our home, but sustainable living is a complicated topic that needs to be fully explored.

Over the next several days let’s look at the various definitions of sustainable living. Sustainability has its earliest roots in the tools developed to assess the environmental, social and economic activities of life. The first approach that I am aware of was IPAT.
Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology
Affluence and technology were believed to worsen the impact of humanity on the natural world. This theory is attributed to Barry Commoner, Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren in 1971. The equation was developed in the 1970s during the course of a debate between them. Commoner who argued that environmental impacts in the United States were caused primarily by changes in its production technology following World War II, while Ehrlich (Population Bomb, 1968) and Holdren while emphasizing the role of population growth, argued that all three factors were important. There was a strong movement in the 1970’s for zero population growth and John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich strongly supported population control.

The past 28 years have given us the opportunity to evaluate these point of views. Despite widespread fears amongst environmentalists that populations would continue to expand at an exponential rate until checked by plague and famine, in recent years world population growth has slowed as women are having fewer children. This phenomenon is believed to be a result of a variation in the demographic transition theory in developed nations, as people become richer, mortality rates drop and they have fewer children. As a result, the UN believes that human population might stabilize around 9 billion by 2100. Of course, the supporters of population control questions if the earth can support 9 billion people in a sustainable fashion. I do not know what life on earth a hundred years from now will be.

History shows that Barry Commoner was more right than wrong. As time goes on we see the power of technology of production and living to change our impact on the earth. Affluence and technology have worked together in the United States to promote pollution prevention, remediation and environmental awareness. It is in the rich, developed countries that the air becomes clearer, the streams cleaner and the forests and preserves more expansive. It appears that after industrial development the next stage of an industrialized society, is environmentalism. The environmental movement and technology join together to reduce and prevent pollution in a number of industries. Waste reduction and point source reduction are the great successes of the second stage of industrial revolution. Technology can potentially take the next step into product reduction, by delivering services electronically. Consider, information and music. Just as we moved from vinyl, to CD’s to electronic music files, I am afraid that IPAT approach is very vinyl in this analysis. It appears that technology will deliver new aspects of life that are more electronic than physical, efficiencies will improve.

Currently, sustainability is tied in the public consciousness with ecological or carbon footprint. Next we will look at the carbon footprint as a method of determining an maintaining a sustainable existence.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How will the Single Family Homeowner Comply with the new Virginia Emergency Alternative Septic Regulations

The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations were published September 28, 2009 by the Virginia Department of Health and the comment period is open until October 28, 2009.

The single family homeowner who has an AOSS will not have and easy time complying with the requirements of the regulations. The Virginia code and the Emergency regulations require the owner of an AOSS, have that system operated by a licensed operator, as defined in § 32.1-163, and visited by the operator as specified in the operation permit. Very few homeowners have seen the operating permit for their septic system and most are unaware of its requirements. In addition, it is possible to have an AOSS and not know it.

Effective July 1, 2009, oversight of soil scientists and septic construction and repair companies was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). Virginia law now requires that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of onsite sewage systems to be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the DPOR. Any individual who was previously certified by the Department of Health for construction and/or repair of septic systems can get an interim license.

Prior to July 1, 2009, Virginia law did not require a license to practice as an onsite sewage system installer or operator. To make the transition smoother, any individual that was practicing as installers or operators could obtain an interim license from DPOR. As I understand it, anyone operating in any aspect of septic can obtain a license to perform any of the tasks, qualified or not. It appears as if the license is merely evidence of currently involvement in the septic business, not ability to operate an AOSS. Because the program is new, DPOR does not have any complaint history or even a list of licensed contractors available in your area.

Previously, county Department of Health qualified individuals to perform these tasks and to a limited extent could remove their permit if their work was unsatisfactory. Single family homeowners have any easily accessible tools at their disposal to determine who should be the operator of their AOSS, merely having a license is not evidence of competence. Supposedly, Virginia is requiring licensed operators to operate and maintain all AOSSs to protect public health and the environment, because homeowners cannot operate these systems themselves.
This is very much an example of let the homeowner beware. Verifying a license is not a substitute for checking references with both other homeowners and the Department of Health and local engineers. Many county offices of the Department of Health used to maintain a list of qualified contractors to install AOSSs. Some of these lists are still on line or can be obtained from the county office. That is the basic list to start with or start with the contractor who installed your system. That information is available from the Department of Health. Next call each contractor and ask if they operate and maintain your type of system. If you do not know what type of system you have, go outside and write down the name from the power boxes and lids you can piece the information together from the component names.

Find two or three contractors who state that they are familiar with and licensed to operate and maintain your system. Get copies of their maintenance contracts and read them. Are the required visits included? How many emergency calls are included under the contract? What about minor adjustments and repairs, pumping the tanks every few years, etc. Understand what is included. Ask for references and call them and find out if customers are happy with the contractor. Ask about the training and experience of the person who will actually make the site visit. Next, call the local Department of Health office to determine how many and what type of complaints are listed against the contractor in the files still available. Additional information you might ask about is the contractor familiar with regulations, are they proactive and easy for the Department of Health to work with. Talk to them, they are your best source of information. Finally, it is important to verify that the contractor is familiar with your specific system, knows how to determine that the system is actually operating properly and knows how to repair the system if there are problems. Call the manufacturer of the system and ask about certification and training that an operator should have. Then make sure that your operator is properly trained.

As you are faced with the work to find a qualified operator, the possibility of a Department of Health managed option looks attractive. The local county Departments could engage a qualified and licensed individual or firm to operate and maintain various types of AOSSs. Any single family homeowner could choose to have the contract managed by the Department of Health and pay the monthly fee of $25-$40 to the Department of Health to operate their system. For those home owners who felt unsure at how to select a “good” contractor, the Department could manage the process. The benefits of this approach would be that the Department of Health could serve as quality control for the process. The Department by being the customer could ensure that public health and the environment were protected, but would not be on site to observe systems alarms and ensure they were responded to in a timely fashion or even responded to at all. The downside is that the Department of Health has only dealt with contractors in a limited environment during the approval process for installation and really has no experience with contractors as operators. Nor does the Department have any demonstrated expertise in contract negation and management. Finally, the contractor would first serve the department of health not the customer, and this approach would hinder the development of a healthy marketplace and could be influenced by criteria not in the homeowners best interests. So I am afraid that the best course is to get to work in finding a qualified operator for your system.

A final note. I have negotiated a 25% discount on the annual contract for a group within my HOA. You might band together with your neighbors if there are a number of AOSSs in your neighborhood. Also, you could divide up the work of checking references, reviewing contracts, and verifying training and license.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Septic Regulations and Protection of Public Health and Waters of the State

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. For single family homes the regulations require that these systems are installed with conservative horizontal set backs, are operated and maintained by a licensed operator, grab samples taken by a licensed operator at either once a year or every five years (there is an inconsistency in the proposed regulations) and analyzed by an EPA certified laboratory, and an operating manual and records need to be maintained on site.

While I think the sampling requirement which is expensive does not provide additional protection to the environment and the operating manual requirement is inappropriate, the operation and maintenance of the system by a qualified and trained individual is reasonable. (Whether that individual needs to be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) as a professional operator is for another time.) The truth is people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their septic 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 and operating permits for compliance monitoring, and establish fines and enforce the program as the current regulations propose. Some version of these proposed regulations will go into effect in the near future. So, Virginia has chosen the control and track approach.

Let’s look at how requiring operation and maintenance might protect public health and the environment. A real world example would be a geologically unfavorable groundwater rich location. The small development where I live is located within the northeast quadrant of the Culpeper basin in Prince William County. The soil (if you want to call it that) consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks created around 200 million years ago probably by volcanic action. The rocks of the Culpeper basin are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. The lack of overburden is a challenge to gardens and limits natural protection to the aquifer. The sedimentary rocks are highly productive aquifers, but also subject to fractures that allow contaminants to move swiftly and easily through the system and easily reach depth in the groundwater aquifer.

Groundwater flows under ambient pressure from Bull Run Mountain towards Bull Run, the river. Thus, groundwater flows west to east. The soils in our neighborhood are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That is the technical name for the flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rock run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to drinking water depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures and zigzag through the neighborhood. The neighborhood is bound to the south by a river and the area is bound to the east by a river. There are also natural ponds, a manmade pond, and seasonal creeks. The rivers serve as hydraulic breaks. There is no natural attenuation in a fractured system. Any malfunctioning septic system, improper disposal, or spill on any property has the potential to impact the drinking water well of other residents to the south, southeast or east.

The new alternative septic regulations would require me and all my neighbors to properly operate and maintain their septic systems. Hopefully, preventing the neighbor’s septic system from contaminating the drinking water wells in the neighborhood. (I already have a operation and maintenance contract and my septic alarms to an automatic dialer to the maintenance company and my e-mail.) A cracked septic tank, malfunctioning system, improper management of stables, dumping of chemicals down the drain or in the yard, all have the potential to impact large sections of the neighborhood and need to be diligently guarded against by all residents. The need to negotiate the best rates for AOSS contracts may offer the opportunity for the HOA to create a buying group and educate neighbors. This could serve to protect all our drinking water. That remains to be seen; in the meantime I will be testing my water twice a year.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Alternative Septic Regulation and the Virginia Single Family Homeowner

Here are some additional thoughts on the proposed Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations as they pertain to single family homeowners. These regulations were published September 28, 2009 by the Virginia Department of Health and the comment period is open until October 28, 2009.

The proposed regulations implement the 2007 legislation and require professional operators certified by DPOR to operate and maintain all alternative onsite septic systems, AOSS, including those of single family homes. The Virginia code requires the owner of an AOSS, to have that system operated by a licensed operator, as defined in § 32.1-163, and visited by the operator as specified in the operation permit. Effective July 1, 2009, Virginia law requires that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of onsite sewage systems must be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). For the interim regulations nothing can be done to change that. However, the proposed regulations go on and require the same operation, maintenance, sampling, record keeping behavior in single family home owners as required of clustered systems of up to 39.999 gallons per day. This serves to add to the profitability of the licensed operators and the expenses for the homeowner without benefiting public health or the environment.

The proposed testing requirement is not authorized or required by statute and is useless. Laboratory testing of a septic system at a single point in time can be misleading. Operating performance is impacted by volume, load, temperature and humidity, and a single sample is not representative of overall performance. These approved AOSS have already been tested to demonstrate an acceptable operating average performance over a period of time and range of conditions. The authorizing statute requires regulation of the operation and maintenance of AOSS but does not authorize or require testing or reporting unrelated to this purpose. An AOSS that is operated and maintained by a professional operator meets the requirements in the law and protects the environment. Regular inspections and maintenance should serve to identify systems that are not functioning properly.

The requirement for operation and maintenance by a licensed operator favors operator over homeowners, and does not require certification by the manufacturer of all approved systems for implementing operation and maintenance programs. Effectively, licensed operators unqualified to maintain a particular system can contract with homeowners to operate and maintain the system. This bias is compounded by the record keeping, and evidence of maintenance contract requirements making it extremely difficult to change operators. The DPOR and VDH do not give homeowners any tools to evaluate operators, yet tie the homeowner to the operator by the requirement to “Maintain a relationship with an operator.” Before a contract expires the homeowner is required to have another one in place.

Finally, a home owner is required to keep a copy of the Operation and Maintenance Manual (O&M Manual) on the property where the AOSS is located, make the manual available to the Department upon request and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M Manual to any future owners. The requirements for the manual are listed in the proposed regulations, and appear to be another profit center for the licensed operators to provide these manuals to homeowners. Since the homeowner is not allowed to operate or maintain their systems themselves a manual is a useless pile of paper conveying little information to untrained reader. A simple diagram of the system, physical location of the components and a list of components, their manufacturer and their function would suffice for single family systems. This short information brochure would more likely to be read and understood by the homeowner and could serve as an educational tool and be useful in shopping for a licensed operator.

The success of the regulations in protecting the environment and public health will depend on the compliance of the AOSS owners. For the individual homeowner the regulations should be clear, fair and easily understood by a layman reading them. Compliance with the regulations will suffer if they are, or are perceived, to be excessively costly or burdensome and without benefit to public health and the environmental. Though I believe there should be a method for a homeowner to become licensed to operate their own systems, these approved AOSS need to be annually inspected and properly maintained by professional or trained operators. A monthly cost for a maintenance contract of around $40 will be perceived as an additional cost like a property tax, but is manageable. The other portions of these regulations make the cost to the homeowner too high without providing additional protection to public health and the environment.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Commonwealth of Virginia Proposed Septic System Regulations

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. The window for public comments closes on October 28, 2009. Please take this opportunity to comment.


The proposed regulations implement the legislative mandate of 2007 and require professionals operators certified by DPOR to operate and maintain all alternative onsite septic systems, AOSS. The Virginia code requires the owner of an AOSS, to have that system operated by a licensed operator, as defined in § 32.1-163, and visited by the operator as specified in the operation permit. Effective July 1, 2009, Virginia law requires that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of onsite sewage systems must be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). Prior to July 1, 2009, Virginia law did not require a license to practice as an onsite sewage system operator. DPOR’s regulations for licensing operators does not have any sort of exemption or modified certification for homeowners, but should. It is irrational that home owners can operate direct discharge septic units, but the legislation requires that all single family AOSS units be operated and maintained by a licensed operator.

In their proposed regulations the Virginia Department of Health did not have the option of allowing homeowners to operate and maintain their own systems without modifying the DPOR licensing requirements. The legislation passed in 2007 required that licensed operators perform these tasks. The Department of Health, fully aware of the problem, did not attempt to develop an alternative certification for homeowners, instead they choose to propose that single family home AOSS (under 1,000 gallons per day) be required to be operated by a licensed operator, maintained by a licensed operator and sampled. These are the same requirements that are used for AOSS units processing up to 39,999 gallons per day. These requirements combined are far in excess of what is required to ensure that these systems function as designed. It is to be noted that most single family homes operate at far fewer than 1,000 gallons a day.

The requirement for operation and maintenance by a licensed operator favors operator over homeowners, and does not require certification by the manufacturer of all approved systems for implementing operation and maintenance programs. This bias is compounded by the record keeping, and evidence of maintenance contract requirements making it extremely difficult to change operators. I am not give any tools to evaluate operators, yet sa a homeowner I am tied to the operator by the requirement to “Maintain a relationship with an operator.” Before a contract expires the homeowner is required to have another one in place. Finally, a home owner is required to keep a copy of the Operation and Maintenance Manual (O&M Manual) on the property where the AOSS is located, make the manual available to the Department upon request and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M Manual to any future owners. The requirements for the manual are listed in the proposed regulations, and appear to be another profit center for the licensed operators to provide these manuals to homeowners. A simple diagram of the system and a list of components and their function would suffice for single family systems. The question is why the VDH is proposing such punishing regulations for single family AOSS that go beyond the need to properly maintain these systems, but serves as a profitability act for the licensed operators.

Alternative onsite septic systems are designed to be state of the art, meeting EPA's treatment standard one. This exceeds the standards for sewage treatment plants and replenishes existing groundwater systems. These alternative onsite systems can be more sustainable to the surrounding ecosystem than sewers and centralized waste treatment and are certainly less expensive for the homeowners in sparsely populated areas. However, the systems need to work properly and these newer alternative systems with multiple tanks, compressors and various parts require consistent maintenance to continue working properly. Rather than attempt to educate the homeowner and offer cost effective solutions to ensuring that AOSS are maintained properly, the VDH has proposed three layers of oversight within the regulations that are likely to result in avoidance of compliance and potentially abandonment of the technology. The VDH is treating low volume single family home AOSS the same way as clustered systems. Is this the best answer for Virginia?

Monday, October 12, 2009

California Wants to Build Dams

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. Without this extensive management system California’s limited water resources could not supply as much of the demand as they do today. However, 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 and the demand from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "biological opinion" imposing water reductions to protect an endangered species. Californian are facing the failure their water- network, due to age, changes in population and demand, unsustainable use of the groundwater, unsustainable diversions of water, the current drought and the potentially far-reaching effects of climate change.

As a potential solution to this crisis, the farmers in the Central Valley and the Governor are supporting the expansion of the dam and reservoir system, though there appears to be no way that an expansion of dams will correct the water use imbalance and certainly will not improve the state’s budget problems. In the Central Valley many farmers are convinced that new, man-made lakes will help offset dry spells and ease the Fish and Wildlife Service ordered reductions to the water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The California Farm Bureau and others support three big projects they believe would not inflict the environmental harm of past dams and provide relief to the drought problems. The projects are: The expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County, the Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River above Friant Dam, and Sites Reservoir, which would flood the Antelope Valley in Colusa County.

The Sites project alone is estimated to cost $3.8 billion and proposes that a dam create an off-stream reservoir that does not obstruct the Sacramento River. Through canals connected to the Sacramento River, water would be pumped into the lake where it would be used to supplement flows into the delta or allow deeper, colder reservoirs to hold back water for critical salmon runs. There are major unanswered questions of the impact of diversion on groundwater recharge and how much additional supply of water will result from this expenditure. Dams do not create water they just control flow and have a long history of supplying less water than promised and costing more than projected. Why would there be such support for dam construction? Reducing water use through conservation efficiencies and recycling will increase available water at significantly less cost than constructing new storage dams and reservoirs according to Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

The Pacific Institute in Oakland points out Farmers in the Central Valley have been the poster children for water diversions, but, official data shows that the major Central Valley districts will use at least 75% of their average water use by depleting stored groundwater reserves, participating in water transfers, etc. By combining resources the Westland’s Water District will irrigate with at least 86% of their “normal” water supply. The San Joaquin Valley wildlife refuges will get 75% of its promised water, less than many of the agricultural districts once the groundwater use is taken into account. Some farmers get less than others in dry years because of their junior water rights which have allocated water in California and the western states in an archaic and out dated fashion since the 19th century.

According to the Pacific Institute, the unemployment problem in the Central Valley is a result of a global and national recession. Unemployment increased more in non-farm industries than in farm workers. In Fresno County, unemployment today is substantially lower than it was just five and ten years ago and during that period farm employment grew; non-farm employment shrunk. In some of the hardest hit areas, unemployment is and has always been much higher. As has appeared in several newspapers, unemployment rates in Mendota are above 30%. What is not often published is that nine years ago, unemployment in Mendota was 30%. Six years ago, it was 36%. The problem in Mendota isn't just the current drought. Employment or rather unemployment has been a long term problem of the Central Valley. Is it possible that the dam’s projects are thinly disguised employment projects?

It appears unlikely that the dam projects are the answer to any of the problems facing California. However, it is time to spend money on determining what the sustainable water supply in California actually is and in readdressing the archaic water right and allocation that have developed in California over time. California is on an unsustainable path they need to plot a new one. This is a dangerous thing to suggest in the west where water rights have been fiercely guarded and fought over since the 19th century, but the method and logic of the allocation of water in California will determine its future viability.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Quit Dreaming of Water




In 1995, the Pacific Institute published a report that summarized the condition of the water supply in California:
“California’s current water use is unsustainable. In many areas, ground water is being used at a rate that exceeds the rate of natural replenishment. This is causing land to subside and threatening some aquifers with possible collapse. The use of ground water is almost entirely unmonitored and uncontrolled, hindering rational management. Urban water use is inefficient and poorly managed. Agricultural policies encourage the production of water-intensive, low-valued crops. Environmental water needs are poorly understood and rarely met. Fish and wildlife species are being driven toward extinction and habitats are being destroyed by withdrawal of water, as well as by development.”

Though the report gained much publicity the public was not engaged and life continued as usual for most. The conclusions of that report are still true today only the need for action is more urgent. Planning for the future was pushed off. In their 2005 the Pacific Institute published another report. Pointing out that water demand and use exceeds sustainable supply. Mining of groundwater unconstrained by environmental or ecological limits will doom California. “The costs to the state of such a future will include:
• lost industrial competitiveness and revenue;
• destroyed natural resources;
• continuing uncertainty about long-term water supplies; and
• Further ill will among urban, agricultural, and environmental interests.”

The day of reckoning is nearer. Water wars are erupting in the state. The Pacific Institute is cursed as Cassandra. Right but never believed.

The State of California has routinely prepared water scenarios and projections as part of long-term water planning. The California Water Plan, a regular analysis published by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is the major guide book for water planning within the state. The latest version of the Plan was released for public review in January 2009 and stated:
“We must adapt and evolve California’s water systems more quickly and effectively to keep pace with ever changing conditions now and in the future. Population is growing while available water supplies are static and even decreasing. Climate change, as evidenced by changes in snowpack, river flows, and sea levels, is profoundly impacting our water resources. The Delta and other watersheds and ecosystems continue to decline. The state’s current water and flood management systems are increasingly challenged by legal remedies and regulatory protections, with economic and societal consequences. The entire system—water and flood management, watersheds, and ecosystems—has lost its resilience and is changing in undesirable ways.”


In August 2009 the Environmental Water Caucus published California Water Solutions Now under a grant from the Goldman Institute pulling together a unified view and list of recommendations from a diverse group of stakeholders. The report points out that California’s state water agencies cannot report on how much water is actually being used, where it is being used, where it is being diverted to, how much is being diverted, or how many diversions are illegal. Where it does have such data, the State Water Board estimates that the number of illegal diversions may be over 40 percent of the number of active permits and licenses, which also fails to comply with the law in many cases. Enforcement authority and resources are extremely limited, and violations rarely if ever receive a meaningful state response. Water rights enforcement must increase if we are to police the illegal use of California’s waters and ensure its beneficial use, in accordance with the state Constitution.

The state needs transparent and independent accounting assessing the sustainable water supply and water use in California. This will have to include monitoring groundwater use throughout the state. Sustainable use of water resources cannot be a voluntary program. The current water rights systems needs to be reformed. The SWP has never been able to consistently deliver all the water supplies on which its contracts were based. The main input to the Delta, the Sacramento River does not provide sufficient water for all the present claimants. The system cannot provide full delivery of water to the most junior holders in most years without even taking into account the recent court-ordered restrictions that protect endangered fish species.

Many of the conclusions drawn by the Environmental Water Caucus are difficult and painful, but the reality is water resources are limited. The report points out that 37% of all years since 1960 are drought years in California and in response local politicians, the Governor and Senator Feinstein want to build more major dams and canals to store and more water at a time when changing climate will most likely make less water available. Publicly subsidized farm water has created and insatiable appetite for more irrigation water. The true cost of water must be paid for and the mining groundwater to cover the water shortfall needs to stop.

Subsidized water has resulted in the unsustainable practices in the western San Joaquin Valley, which is an ancient ocean bed. Selenium, boron, molybdenum, mercury, arsenic and various other salts and minerals are highly concentrated in these soils. Irrigation of this land with water from the Delta adds enormous amounts of salts to the soils in the western San Joaquin Valley and requires the water wasteful “pre-irrigation” of the land to push down the salt level before planting. Only subsidized water could produce this behavior. These lands need to be taken out of agricultural production. There is no more water. Both urban and suburban water conservation must take place as well as agricultural water conservation, since agriculture uses more than three-quarters of the state’s developed water supplies, unsustainable use of water begins here. Reducing water use through conservation efficiencies and recycling will increase available water at significantly less cost than constructing new storage dams and reservoirs according to Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Coming Water Crisis in California

California represents approximately 12 billion gallons a day of the 65 billion gallons a day of fresh groundwater used daily in the United States. Groundwater is found in water-bearing layers of saturated underground rock and sand, called aquifers, which are formed as surface water percolates through layers of earth and fills porous rock and sand. Groundwater moves slowly compared to surface water, and are recharged naturally through precipitation that filters through a recharge area. The recharge process is typically very slow, taking from months to years to centuries. If the withdrawal or pumping rate matches the recharge rate, the aquifer is a renewable resource; if the withdrawal rate exceeds recharge then the aquifer becomes a nonrenewable resource and we are said to be mining the groundwater. According to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), despite California’s heavy reliance on groundwater, basic information for many of the groundwater basins is lacking. Particular essential data necessary to provide for both the protection and optimal use of this resource is not available.

In California, in 1999,the State Legislature approved funding and directed the DWR to update the inventory of groundwater basins contained in Bulletin 118 (1975), California’s Ground Water and Bulletin 118-80 (1980), Ground Water Basins in California. In 2001, the California State Legislature passed AB 599, requiring the State Water Resources Control Board, SWRCB, to establish a comprehensive monitoring program to assess groundwater quality in each groundwater basin in the State and to increase coordination among agencies that collect groundwater contamination information.

Significant legislation was passed in 2000, 2001 and 2002. AB 303 authorizes grants to help local agencies develop better groundwater management strategies. AB 599 (2001) requires, for the first time, that the SWRCB, in cooperation with other agencies, develop a comprehensive monitoring program capable of assessing groundwater quality in every basin in the State with the intent of maintaining a safe groundwater supply. SB 610 (2001) and SB 901 (2001) together require urban water suppliers, in their urban water management plans, to determine the adequacy of current and future supplies to meet demands. Detailed groundwater information is required for those suppliers that use groundwater. SB 221 (2001) prohibits approval of certain housing developments without verification of an available water supply. Despite all this legislation it appears that limited progress has been made in developing an integrated groundwater plan because little hard data exists for the basins. Without information about the state’s water basins the reality of the situation can be ignored and the complex task of attempting to develop a workable plan of water resource management is impossible.

California’s climate is dominated by the Pacific storm track. The mountain ranges cause precipitation to fall mostly on the western slopes. These storms also leave tremendous accumulations of snow in the Sierra Nevada during the winter months. While the average annual precipitation in California is about 23inches (DWR 1998), the range of annual rainfall varies greatly from more than 140 inches in the northwestern part of the State to less than 4 inches in the southeastern part of the State. Snowmelt and rain falling in the mountains flows into creeks, streams, and rivers. As these flows make their way into the valleys, much of the water percolates into the ground. The vast majority of California’s accessible groundwater is stored in alluvial groundwater basins.

California’s natural hydrology is too limited to support significant growth in population, industry, and agriculture. Robert Glennon (Pinching Straws) described the natural condition of California’s Central Valley, as an American Serengeti, characterized by extensive grasslands during the summer, marshlands in the winter and spring. Not only is California relatively arid, but it is subject to, seasonal and climatic variability that threaten a reliable water supply. Approximately 70 percent of the State’s average annual rain and snowmelt runoff occurs north of Sacramento, while about 75 percent of the State’s urban and agricultural water needs are to the south. Most of the State’s precipitation falls between October and April with half of it occurring December through February in average years. Yet, the peak demand for this water occurs in the summer months. Climatic variability in the form of dramatic deviations from average supply conditions by droughts and flooding further complicate this. The result of this has been the development of an intricate system of reservoirs, canals, and pipelines under federal, State and local projects intended to change the nature of the stat’s hydrology. However, a significant portion of California’s water supply needs is met by groundwater. Typically, groundwater supplies about 30 percent of California’s urban and agricultural water needs.

The level of groundwater extraction necessary in even a typical year is unsustainable, it exceeds the recharge rate. In dry years, groundwater use increases to about 40 percent statewide and 60% or more in some regions. These are estimates because groundwater use is not measured, it is estimated. The true dependence on groundwater is only estimated. From these estimates, the land subsidence observed in the central valley and the drop in groundwater level, it appears that California is mining its groundwater, using more water than is recharged. It has been apparent for years that California has been mining its groundwater; however, when major groundwater basins begin to fail if California is true to form the public will be shocked because no preparations will have been made no plan voted on by the people. But California will keep on pumping until there is no longer any groundwater to pump. When the groundwater fails there will be a catastrophic reduction in water availability. The costal centers will survive on solar powered desalinization, but California as we know it will be gone.

California does not have a comprehensive monitoring network for evaluating the health of its groundwater resource, including quantity and quality of groundwater. The reason is primarily due to the cost involved in drilling and monitoring the vast area underground. Given that groundwater basins cover about 40 percent of the State’s area, the cost of a dedicated monitoring network would be astronomical and the state never found the money to gather data even during the “flush” years. The task is further complicated by the fact that, groundwater is a locally controlled resource. The twenty-seven groundwater management ordinances in the state are managed by local governments. California’s diversion and management of the available water has severely damaged many of the ecological zones of the state. Now the estuary and fishing industry of the Sacramento and San Pablo Delta is threatened and Fish and Wildlife Service have invoked the endangered species act to protect the estuary. The major problem here is quantity of available fresh water to maintain the ecological balance of the estuary.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Costs of Cap and Trade in California

In a recent report by Sanjay Varshney, Dean of the College of Business Administration, California State University, Sacramento and Dennis H. Tootelian, Ph.D., Professor of Marketing and Director, Center for Small Business, California State University, Sacramento titled “Cost of AB 32 on California Small Business-Summary Report of Findings," the financial impacts to the economy and people of California to implement California’s greenhouse gas program was outlined. AB 32 establishes a comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that were intended to be cost effective. This law establishes a statewide GHG emissions cap for 2020, based on 1990 emissions. California has lead the way in cap and trade legislation and serves as an example to the nation of the concerns and problems with this particular approach to attempt to prevent climate change by controlling CO2 emissions.

The report concluded that when the program is fully implemented, the average annual loss in gross state output from small businesses alone would be $182.6 billion, approximately a 10% loss in total gross state output. This will translate into nearly 1.1 million lost jobs in California. Lost labor income is estimated to be $76.8 billion, with nearly $5.8 billion lost in indirect taxes. The study also found that in order to cope with the increased costs generated by the AB 32 program, consumers will be forced to cut their discretionary spending by 26.2%. The study’s cost analysis was based on the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) findings, which revealed significant cost increases. The study’s findings are consistent with the Peer Review analysis that CARB commissioned, which also concluded that the cost of the AB 32 Scoping Plan would be significant, and that the California Resource Board had significantly underestimated these costs. Unemployment in California was at 12.2% in August which translates to 2,248,000 people before the implementation of AB 32. If another 1,100,000 people are added to that total unemployment would reach 3,348,000 or 18.3%. In addition, there are both severe budget issues as well as water supply problems.

When fully implemented AB 32 is not going to stop climate change, though it may contribute to an amelioration of the increase in greenhouse gases. Even this modest reduction in CO2 emissions will not be met if the production of CO2 just moves out of state along with the economic activity that is producing the emissions. It is a fairly well known fact that greenhouse gas production is reduced in recessions, and I expect a wonderful report released from the EPA noting the recent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As the previous review of global warming research showed some research suggests that climate change may have some anthropogenic causes, but other research does not support that theory. Certainly, anthropogenic activity has contributed 4% of the 386 parts per million (0.039%) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If you recall, The "American Clean Energy and Security Act” is HR 2454, also know as the Waxman-Markley energy bill, or simply as "ACES" was passed by the House in June and models itself on the California plan. The bill includes a cap-and-trade global warming reduction plan designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. No doubt Representative Waxman wishes to share the California economic experience of AB 32 with America and ensure we all reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, economic activity and discretionary spending all at the same time. Is this really how we want to spend the limited resource at our command?