Posts Tagged ‘drought’

Chasing Environmental Change

October 18, 2017

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life

Joannah is a Georgetown University sophomore studying Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology. A member of the university’s Environmental Club, she enjoys spending her free time in N.J.’s Raritan River Basin, a NWNL case study watershed.  Joannah is a NWNL Researcher for Fall 2017.  Below is Part II of her analysis of our 2016 NWNL Survey.  Part I can be found here: A Green Education for the Younger Generation.

 

From the mid-to-late 1900’s, climate change and water-use issues began to appear more and more consistently in the popular media.  Yet, based on results of a 2016 NWNL Survey, working-age adults between the ages of 31 and 50 are surprisingly unaware of environmental disruptions in their own communities, even though the concept of climate change gained traction during the formative years of their lives. In 1975, the term “global warming” was introduced by American scientist Wallace Broecker. By 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess the effects and dangers of emissions, water use, and pollution. Two years later, this panel released its initial Report detailing how greenhouse-gas emissions lead to increased average temperatures. Later IPCC Reports state that it is 95% likely that humans are causing global warming.

 

Jones_140316_CA_0484Refineries on the northern extension of the San Francisco Bay, California (2014)

 

Shortly thereafter, Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance further exposed the general public to the threats human behavior was placing on biodiversity, water, soil and climate. He proposed a “Global Marshall Plan,” intended to eradicate poverty, protect the environment, and promote sustainable development through an Eco-Social Market Economy.1 The “Climategate” affair of 2009 stirred further public debate concerning wasteful human practices when hackers released some e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.2  In spite of these decades of publicity on climate change and human effects on the planet, wasteful water use continues today.

Those between 31 to 50 however have been exposed to environmentally-friendly practices starting at a young age.  So perhaps that’s why they as a group are more likely to be frugal water users. The NWNL Survey revealed that nobody polled in this age group considered themselves wasteful with water. In fact, 30% claimed to be frugal water consumers vesus only 14% of the 18-30 year-old respondents. It is also notable that 28% of the youngest group in the survey, the under-18-year-olds, admitted to being wasteful. [See Part I of this Survey Analysis on the need for under-18-year-olds to become more aware of environmental issues, the need to reduce consumption, and their carbon footprints.]  Those in the over 50-year-old bracket were the least willing to alter their wasteful water practices. This information is reconcilable with the fact that the older generation did not grow up with encouragements to be environmentally friendly and thus are hesitant to alter their habits.

 

Jones_111026_LA_0547Clay water jug being filled from wall pipe, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana (2011)

 

At the same time, about 79% of those in the 31-50 age range never or infrequently recycle water. This survey response is somewhat tilted, given that the majority of people surveyed did not come from drought-afflicted areas. In states like California where water shortages are a perpetual part of everyday life, water recycling has become much more popular. Starting in 2015, the California Water Environment Association and other municipal water groups produced recycled water from community waste treatment plants  for free. Although not all recycled water is suitable for drinking, all recycled water can be used for landscaping and agricultural purposes.3  Going further, some extremely arid California communities, including San Diego, began recycling “black water,” which is processed from sewage that includes human waste, into drinking water beginning in 2011.4  (Once overcoming “the mental yuck factor,” those that drink this recycled water, including NWNL Director Alison Jones, say it’s delicious).   Such government water-recycling projects make it much easier for people to be more responsible water users.

 

Jones_140322_CA_3870Sign for non-potable reclaimed water, San Joaquin River Valley, California (2014)

 

While it is concerning that more than half  (58%) of 31-50 year-olds are unsure of what water changes are being pursued in their community, it is encouraging that a large percentage of them are individually willing to make water use changes. Of those surveyed in this age group, 73% were open to buying fewer “high-water-content” items. These items include leather, paper, cotton clothing and merchandise from drought-ridden areas. For example, producing just one pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water,5 while one sheet of paper demands almost three gallons.6

NWNL hopes more will be done to encourage these working-age adults, who say they are willing to put water-saving techniques into practice, to learn more about climate-change impacts on their community. A renewed emphasis on presenting reliable, factual information in the news and in social media will be important in promoting effective approaches to responsible water consumption practices.   

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

On “The Rim of Fire”

October 13, 2017

Essay and Photos by NWNL Director Alison M. Jones. 

FIVE NWNL EXPEDITIONS have focused on CA’s recent multi-year drought, ended by winter 2017’s heavy snows and rains.  I returned last week to report on any impacts from that drought – only to find drought is back already! Flying into Central California, I was stunned to see how arid this region is – again!   It doesn’t take California long to dry out, especially with Climate Change consequences!  This year, the state’s 2nd wettest winter was followed by its hottest summer. That combination on top of a 5-year accumulation of dead, droughty vegetation created this horrid tinderbox that is taking lives and destroying whole towns this week.

Jones_160929_CA_7297Sign warning of wildfire, in Kaweah River Valley, California, 2016

SINCE NWNL BEGAN IN 2007, our project has noted that wildfires degrade our rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs.  Losing forests means losing their storage and filtering of water in tree roots for later release.  Forests also shade streams, creating cool habitats for fish, especially needed for spawning salmon and trout.

BUT, WE MISSED A 2007 ARTICLE noting high CO2 emissions from wildfires.  Today, on a California hilltop above the Pacific Ocean, I’m monitoring the upcoming weekend’s Santa Ana winds and heat in the dry canyons behind me. Listening to local weather, I learned that 2 days of these CA fires emitted more CO2 than CA cars do in a year.  Sadly, this worsens the global warming that intensifies hurricanes, sea level rise, droughts, high temperatures, local storms and yes, wildfires. Global warming is a vicious cycle we’ve created.

Jones_080816_BC_4159Forest fire smoke in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia, 2008

CALIFORNIA’S FIRE TSUNAMI rages on as I write, destroying lives and livelihoods.  Its explosive blanket of kindling was created by 5 years of drought, as well as high temperatures and increased building on fire-prone hills. Now, the sweep of damaging urban wildfires has been lowered from treetops to rooftops.  A NOAA analysis has connected these Oct 2017 CA fires to climate change, predicting that the state’s fire risks could quadruple by mid-century if CO2 emissions stay at current levels.

SINCE ARRIVING LAST WEEK, I’ve read much here in CA on how climate change and water-related consequences relate to wildfires. This year’s Whittier Fire above Lake Cachuma left its drainage slopes bare and vulnerable to massive erosion by future rains.  Soil sliding into this reservoir will degrade water quality and decrease storage capacity for Santa Barbara’s main source of water. (Santa Barbara Independent, Sept 28-Oct 5, 2017, p 12). Also at peril from ravages of fire and landslides are municipal water infrastructure and distribution systems.

Jones_140207_CA_9966Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity from 3-year drought, 2014

A MORE GLOBAL FOCUS on this topic by Mongobay expands the impacts of wildfires beyond CA.  Its weekly newsletter states that “forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn of mega-fires that could be coming, unless trends are reversed.”

TODAY, INDIVIDUALLY WE CAN ONLY HOPE for the best for Californians and their dramatically beautiful state.  NWNL will keep raising awareness of the nexus of water-related issues, climate change and wildfires.  Meanwhile, it’s time to reduce our individual CO2 footprints. We can offset our role in CO2 emissions by supporting climate-change research groups like TerraPass. For the record, all NWNL expedition travel and in-office energy consumption have been offset since we began in 2007.

Jones_140207_CA_9707Dry stream bed of the Santa Ynez River, California, 2014

TOMORROW, IT’S TIME TO DEMAND a much deeper commitment from our government to use every effort possible to stop wildfires, sea level rise, deadly heat waves, Category 5 hurricanes….  It’s simple, if we’ll look ahead, rather than gaze at today’s profit margins.  Let’s not find ourselves mourning that we’ve stolen our youth’s future. Promoting ignorance with a myopic focus on today’s profits for a few will curse the future of all of us, even more than it has this month in Houston, Florida’’s Keys, The U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and now California.

Jones_150824_CA_6365Santa Ynez River, low stream bed due to 3-year drought, 2015

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

A Green Education for the Younger Generation

October 3, 2017

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life

Joannah is a sophomore at Georgetown University studying Environmental Studies, Art History and Psychology. She is a member of the University’s Environmental Club and enjoys spending her free time horseback riding through the Raritan River Basin in New Jersey.  Joannah is an NWNL intern for the fall semester of 2017.

As catastrophic weather events hit with increasing ferocity and drought expands its domain across the United States, it falls upon the shoulders of the younger generations just as much as the older ones to change their habits and stay abreast of environmental concerns for the safety of their future planet. A survey conducted by No Water No Life (NWNL) in early 2016 has revealed a startling unawareness amongst teenagers of environmental issues and of the steps being taken to address them. Although the data was largely collected from adults over 50 years of age, the responses of younger participants shed an interesting and somewhat concerning light on how the up-and-coming consumer thinks of the environment.

Jones_170616_NE_5079Severe storm at sunset, Missouri River Basin, Nebraska. (2017)

Compared to 4.7% of the overall survey takers, 28% of the under-18-year-olds admitted to wasteful water use. This was the highest percentage recorded amongst the four age groups surveyed for wasteful consumption. Among younger participants, 71% also believed that they would have enough water even in times of drought. This is compared to the overall 46% who answered they would have sufficient water supplies.

However, it is encouraging and significant that over 80% of the teenagers believed they would use less water if they were charged for it. In fact, an overwhelming number of survey participants from all age groups reported that taxing water use, or creating incentives for less water consumption, would be the ideal way to address current or imminent water shortages.

Jones_170209_INDIA_8478A public water source in the Ganges River Basin, India. (2017)

The trouble comes with how to enact such taxes. In late August 2017, California began consideration of a tax on tap water in light of its recent six year drought. The intent of this tax was to encourage moderation and to fund the cleanup of contaminated groundwater. Some countered that water is a human right and questioned whether the money would in fact be directed to improvements. Such diverse views complicate the enactment of solutions to issues agreed upon by majorities, like those in the survey.1

Jones_160930_CA_7924Sign at a peach orchard, California Drought Expedition. (2016)

In an age where social media and smartphones have replaced hard-copy newspapers, it is not a surprise that only 40% of under-18-year-olds have read about water issues, or even considered doing so. Compared to the 81% of over-50-year-olds who have stayed abreast of water concerns through reading, this is an unsettlingly small percentage of informed young people. Granted, some in this age group may be too young to have any interest in reading about current events. It is also possible that they do not have access to newspapers in light of the fact that the Pew Research Center has recorded a 9% decline in weekday newspaper circulation since just last year.2 These explanations in themselves are unsettling.

Jones_170615_NE_4867Art & Helen Tanderup, active protesters of the Keystone XL pipeline, Missouri River Basin, Nebraska. (2017)

One would hope that this younger generation, which could make or break the severity of global warming and other concerns, would have more awareness or interest in the environment. The survey revealed that almost 70% of the under-18-year-olds were unaware of changes in their communities concerning water use.

The data from the NWNL survey points to an undeniable need to educate our youth about water usage; environmental issues; and what they can do to help. Their lack of awareness about the impact of human consumption on the planet can be attributed to a simple ignorance of the facts, rather than an unwillingness to learn. Therefore, it is imperative that environmental education be more heavily emphasized in elementary and middle schools. Teaching the next generation of homeowners, voters, and lobbyists the importance of respecting our planet is of utmost importance if we expect positives changes to emerge from a world in flux.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Drought: A Photo Essay

September 26, 2017

From 2014 until the beginning of 2017  California suffered through a major drought. It was a hot topic in the news, and NWNL conducted five Spotlight Expeditions to document and bring attention to that drought and its significance.  But what exactly is a drought? What causes droughts?  What are the effects of droughts? What does a drought look like?

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Boat launch, Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

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Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

Basicplanet.com defines a drought as a “lengthy period of time, stretching months or even years in which time land has a decrease in water supply.” Droughts usually occur when rain doesn’t fall often enough during prolonged periods of warmer temperatures, causing high pressure winds and and reduced water content.

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Aerial  of dry river bed, Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. 2006

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El Molo Swamp in Mau Forest during Kenya drought of 2009

Human activity can also be the cause of drought. Deforestation, farming, excess irrigation and erosion can lead to drought. Climate change also creates drought. Rises in average global temperatures greatly effect the possibility of drought, by reducing water content in the air.

Jones_150813_CA_4202Rio Hondo River, a tributary of Los Angeles River, California. 2015

Jones_140207_CA_9687Dried up succulent in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. 2014

There are many more affects of drought than most people realize. The most obvious affect is the shortage of water. Because of this, crops and animals will die. Droughts lead to malnutrition, dehydration and deadly famines. Wildfires and dust storms are much more probable and common effects. Industries that rely on water are forced to cutback, thus forcing people into unemployment. Wars have occurred due to droughts.

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USA: California, Kettleman City, sign about effects of drought and no waterSigns posted during the California Drought,  2014 – 2016.

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Glaciers: A Photo Essay

September 19, 2017

Edit (9/27/17): Since publishing this blog, the Washington Post reported the calving (or splitting) of a key Antarctic glacier, the Pine Island Glacier.  The article states, “the single glacier alone contains 1.7 feet of potential global sea level rise and is thought to be in a process of unstable, ongoing retreat.”  To learn more about how climate change contributed to this calving, and what the affects will be, read the article here.

 

“The alarming rate of glacial shrinkage worldwide threatens our current way of life, from biodiversity to tourism, hydropower to clean water supply.” (climatenewsnetwork.net)

During and in between NWNL’s dozens of expeditions to its six case-study watersheds, we have explored the value and current condition of glaciers on three continents, since they are a critical source of freshwater.  NWNL visited the Columbia Icefields of Alberta, Canada in 2007; Argentine glaciers in 2003 and 2005; and Rebman Glacier on the summit of Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro in 2003.   We have witnessed the effect of climate change on glaciers. The melting of glaciers will affect  all forms of water resources for human and wildlife communities.  Just as upstream nutrients and pollutants travel downstream, “the loss of mountain ice creates problems for the people who live downstream.” Glacial loss must be thought of as just as important in the climate-change discussion as flooding and drought have become.

 

Jones_030809_TZ_0745Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route. Tanzania, East Africa. (2003)

 

Jones_050402_ARG_0155Hole in ice of Lake Viedma Glacier in South Patagonia’s Glacier National Park, Argentina. (2005)

 

Jones_070609_ALB_2357Sign marking the former edge of the glacier. Columbia Icefields, Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC LVgla 059DA.tifLake Viedma Glacier at Glaciers National Park in Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Canada: Alberta, Columbia Icefields Center Bus Tour, Athabasca GlacierAthabasca Glacier in Columbia Icefields. Alberta, Canada. (2007)

 

ARG SC Azul 004DA.tifGlacier melting and pouring into Blue Lake in the Andes Mountains. Southern Patagonia, Argentina. (2005)

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

On Combating Drought and Desertification

June 16, 2017

Today is “World Day for Combating Drought and Desertification.”  Ironically, today I am on a NWNL expedition in Nebraska atop the northeastern edge of the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans and supplies water to 8 states, all the way down to Texas.  The farmers I’ve talked to here are all aware of this observance.  After all, Nebraska was one of six of those same states so heavily impacted by the severe Dustbowl drought in the “Dirty Thirties.”  While these “black blizzards” caused terrible casualties and human displacement, much was learned about the importance of dry-land and no-till farming, planting windbreaks and the value of deep-rooted prairie grasses – all of which prevent wind erosion of these sandy “loess” soils.  During the Dustbowl, more than 3/4 of the topsoil was blown away in some regions.  Thanks to indomitable “Great Plains” human spirit, there has been recovery, albeit at the expense of large population declines, and continuing slim profit margins, provoking yearly concern.  The lesson still to be considered today is how we can mitigate extreme weather patterns.  Several means come to mind: irrigation and farming technologies, drought-tolerant crops, reduced consumption, reduction of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and paying attention to the lessons of history.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN HUMAN HISTORY:

For how long have our species worried about water availability?   For eons, civilizations settled on the planet’s great rivers and have flourished. I think of the Nile and its pyramids; the Tiber and its Roman Forum; and the Ganges and its Taj Mahal. There were also great civilizations that are believed to have literally dried up. I think of the Mississippian, Anasazi, and Incan cultures. Their power was decimated by their wanton consumption of natural resources, which intertwined with intense droughts and resulting food scarcity.
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Taj Mahal next to the Yamuna River, India. Photo by Alison M. Jones. NM-CCK-210A os.tif

Anasazi ruin ‘Chetro Ketl’ in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

THE ROLE OF WATER IN THE US WEST

Recently, David Beillo reviewed David Owen’s Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River. He began his article by saying, “The waterways of the [U.S.] west now exist as monuments to an ambitious desert civilization. Across this vast region of America, few, if any, rivers flow without hosting one or more dams, concrete channels, diversions or other human-made ‘improvements’ that allow people and farming to flourish in this dry country.”

Nevada: Boulder City, Hoover Dam,

Hoover Dam, Boulder City, Nevada. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Owen’s book follows a stream of well-known authors who’ve analyzed the issue of water availability in the desert – from Wallace Stegner’s many books to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (where did my well-worn copy of that classic go??) to John Fleck’s recent book on the Colorado River, Water is for Fighting Over. In describing the changing American West, Stegner muses on John Muir’s approach: “Instead of thinking what men did to the mountains, he kept his mind on what the mountains did to men.” A riverine parallel could be: consider what men have done to rivers in order to address what lack of rivers could do to men. Stegner succinctly states: “The West’s ultimate unity: aridity.”

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Parker Dam, hydrodam across the Colorado River that siphons water from Colorado Aqueduct to Los Angeles. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

In The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West, Stegner describes the Cowboy Country – much of which supplies critical bounties of food and livestock – as a “land of little rain and big consequences.” The U.S. West is an extravagantly endowed region, but has one critical deficiency – water. Without water, watersheds, timber and crops are all vulnerable. Stegner mused, “There have been man-made deserts before this in the world’s history. The West could be one of those.” NWNL undertook five “Spotlight” expeditions to document the just-ended, six-year California Drought, including ten August days in the Mohave Desert when nights never cooled down below 108 degrees. Experiencing such extreme heat seemed to be possible preparation for what might be the norm in the future for larger areas than the deserts we now know, given climate change predictions.

Jones_140322_CA_3790California Aquaduct, seen from levee road, in San Joaquin River Valley, California. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

Rising populations are using many straws to pull from that finite source of water called the Colorado River. It was named the Red River because of the color of the soil it carries, but perhaps we should also consider its color being derived from the blood of dying ecosystems and water-dependent livelihoods and communities. The death toll that many fear is exacerbated by the increasing droughts seemingly induced by climate change.

DESERTIFICATION IN AFRICA

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Aerial view of deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

Africa is also haunted by the specter of drought and desertification. The late Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to stem deforestation and resulting desertification by gathering legions of women to plant saplings across Kenya. No forests, no water, no life, no peace – as Ms. Maathai told NWNL after an appearance at NYC’s Cooper Union. But forests continue to disappear across Africa to be replaced by fields of maize to feed a growing number of mouths. Politics also interferes with efforts to protect Africa’s precious water towers, like Mt Kenya’s slopes and the Mara River’s Mau Forest headwaters.

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Indigenous cedar stump. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones.Jones_120124_K_5375

Truck full of cut logs. Deforestation of Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

THE FUTURE

In the face of today’s increasing droughts and deforestation, change is needed and is possible. But, given the human species’ tendency to short-termism, is it probable? Counter that tendency, our species also has often risen to crises — whether they were created by uncontrollable forces or by ourselves. Our inventiveness can overcome our inertia with leadership from grassroots and legislative actions. We certainly possess the ability to fight the specter of water scarcity.

We just need the will to change behavior and habits in order to stop deforestation, desertification and droughts. We need the will to reduce unnecessary consumption. We need the will to invest in research and technology. We need the will to respect nature’s needs and consider the long-term impacts of our human footprint.

 

 

 

Global Drought Threats – New Jersey Up Next?

October 25, 2016

jones_160925_ca_5749Stanislaus National Forest at the Yosemite N.P. entryway. Trees are dying by the thousands here due to the nexus of drought, high temperatures, fires, and pine bark beetle infestation. 

By Christina Belasco, NWNL Project Manager

When Americans hear the word “drought” these days, they may instantly envision a scene of a heat-scorched, fire-ridden California. Of course this is for good reason – the California drought is entering its sixth year, and shows no sign of stopping in the southern part of the state.

NWNL has just completed its 5th CA Drought Spotlight expedition, covering 1,300 miles from the headwaters within Yosemite and Kings Canyon N.P to the Central Valley to coastal estuaries. It is clear that water consumption patterns and habits must change. NWNL witnessed the devastation of the Rey Fire, Loma Fire, Rim Fire and others that have heavily impacted California’s forests.

NWNL also witnessed homes in East Porterville that still do not have access to running water for the 3rd year straight due to groundwater depletion and lack of piping.

 

USA California, No Water No Life CA Drought Expedition # 5,Here is a “bathtub ring” typically found in California reservoirs, showing significant drops in water levels due to drought and overuse. 

Another stark example of a region filled with drought woes is Northeastern China, where climate change is causing extreme desertification, despite some governmental efforts to reduce the trend. Villages are being pushed out, and have been for decades now, as the desert continues to creep eastward at a rate of 1,300 square miles per year.

Such examples of extreme drought worsened by climate change seem like an unbelievable scenario, things that happen in far off places, other worlds. Many Americans on the East Coast could never imagine this happening in their own backyard.

 

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Usually a healthy, flowing river, the Kaweah River in Tulare County, CA is now a dried-up riverbed. 

However, green trees and rain aren’t sure signs that water supply is plentiful. In fact most people don’t treat their water as if it is a finite resource, which it is. The truth is that the effects of climate change are everywhere. They are happening here right now.

Fourteen New Jersey counties are now in a drought warning. Reservoir levels, stream flows and groundwater levels are showing signs of depletion across the state.

What can we do about this?

Besides just reducing personal water usage, NJ citizens are pressuring Governor Christie to act and pass legislation for the Water Supply Master Plan. This master plan includes recommendations for balancing the amount of used water with the amount of replenished water. This would ensure that there will be enough water for the private sector, agriculture, residents and the environment.

Websites like njwatersavers.rutgers.edu are advocating for water awareness and sustainability across the state, and have information on how to directly help.

NWNL urges East Coast citizens to think of the impacts of drought before it comes barreling towards them at full speed. Acting preventatively, and taking a can-do approach to climate change, are some of the best ways we can work together to change our unsustainable habits and save the planet for future generations.

 

 

Gathering Momentum

December 16, 2015

A STRONG PUSH…
In Paris this month 195 countries tackled climate change together, due to increased public awareness.
TO KEEP MOVING…
Climate change is still in question, NOT out of the question!
AND PAYING ATTENTION.
Climate change is invisible, but its causes and effects are visible.

Photography has been a critical tool in communicating the dire need for the cooperation and progress that began at Paris COP21.

Let’s all continue this conversation and purposefully work to create a world that sustains itself with recycling and renewable energy sources.

 

Ethiopia: Lower Omo River Basin, Kotrouru, a Kwego village, three generations: infant, a pregnant mother, older woman, standing on bank overlooking Omo River

Ethiopia: Three generations in Omo River Basin

This problem isn’t for another generation. It has serious implications for how we live right now.” -Anonymous

USA: Washington, Columbia River Basin

USA: Washington, Columbia River Basin

One reason people resist change is that they focus on what they have to give up, rather than on what they have to gain. -Anonymous

Missouri: St Genevieve, Route 61, flooded corn, field during Mississippi River flood of 1993

Missouri: Mississippi River Basin, Flood of 1993

Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.
-Alice Walker, American author

Canada: Alberta, Columbia Icefields, retreating Athabasca Glacier

Canada: Alberta’s retreating Athabasca Glacier

 Posted by Jasmine Graf, Associate Director of No Water No Life.

Drought and Flooding increases CA Levees risk of failure

October 16, 2015
USA: California, Sherman Island, on north shore of Sacramento Delta, levee

California, Sherman Island, on north shore of Sacramento Delta, levee

Almost 5 years of drought, now combined with recent rainfall-induced flooding, has weakened California’s levees. Culprits are soil cracking that allows water seepage, soil-strength reduction, land subsidence and erosion, all of which NWNL observed on its California Spotlight expeditions in 2014 and 2015. Fifty-five percent of California’s levee systems are now in danger of failing in the event of a flood or an earthquake. If the levees fail, water quality could be compromised for over 23 million people.

Levees are sand and clay earthen embankments which regulate water levels and protect dry land from floods. More research, risk science, community education and stakeholder collaboration are crucial to improving levee resilience.

Related article in Science Magazine: https://grgusyd.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/vahedifard-et-al-2015_ca-drought-levees_science.pdf

USA: California, Arbuckle, irrigation drainage ditch, levee

California, Arbuckle, irrigation drainage ditch, levee

Dealing with California’s 4-year drought

May 19, 2015

The End of California?” is the headline of Timothy Egan’s New York Times op ed piece for May 3. “California,” he says, “from this drought onward, will be a state transformed.… The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place.”

As dire as that sounds, an aggressive statewide effort – to use water more efficiently, reuse wastewater and capture lost stormwater – could save enough water to serve 20 cities the size of Los Angeles every year, according to a new analysis released by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Now in its fourth year of drought, the state’s reservoirs are running low, lakes are turning into mud puddles, some rivers will go completely dry. The drought led to the death of 12.5 million trees in California forests last year, greatly increasing the danger of wildfires. The Sierra snowpack was only 5 percent of normal in April, following the driest winter on record.

Governor Jerry Brown ordered the first mandatory statewide water rationing for cities in early April.

Finding solutions to California’s water problems is no simple matter – but we must keep trying to find innovative and technological answers to better usage practices. Eighty-two percent of this large and varied state was in extreme or exceptional drought last November, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

California 4-year drought map

California 4-year drought map, 2011–2015.
Source: National Drought Mitigation Center.

Value of CA water & farming

Eighty percent of the water used in California goes to farms, and nearly a fifth of the state’s energy use goes toward moving the water around, including pumping it over the mountains to Los Angeles.

Low-value crops have become uneconomical to farm in areas where water has become scarce and expensive. California’s Central Valley, through which the San Joaquin flows, grows 40% of U.S. fruits and 80% of the world’s almonds. These are high-value cash crops, but they need a lot of water. Ten percent of California’s water supply is used for almonds alone – many of which are exported overseas. Only the richest corporate farmers can survive in this drought.

Environmental effects

Last September, CNN columnist John D. Sutter wrote about his 417-mile trip down the San Joaquin River, designated by American Rivers as the United States’ “most endangered” river in 2014. As Sutter says, “Depending on what happens soon, it could become a river reborn, or a drainage ditch.”

The San Joaquin has federal protection, yet it is a river that is broken. Within living memory it was packed with an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 spring-run salmon. But now it is so over-drawn that a 40-mile stretch in its midsection is always dry. The migration route has been destroyed.

The Central Valley has increasingly high levels of groundwater pollution, some so bad that some people can’t drink from the tap. The extremely high rates of poverty in the Central Valley are also increasing since the lack of water for farms means fewer agricultural jobs are available. Access to the river is largely forbidden because it’s lined by private property; some people don’t even know it dries up not far from there.

Subsidence during this drought has been documented at nearly one foot per year near Los Banos due to excessive withdrawals of the groundwater. Still-expanding orchards of profitable almonds and fruit trees need water year round, not just during fruiting season – thus creating higher demands for irrigation and negating the former ability of Central Valley farmers of tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables to fallow their lands during droughts such as this.

Dry wells

In August, the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services had 12-gallon-per person rations of bottled water delivered, where at least 182 of the 1,400 households in East Porterville reported having no or not enough water. Because dry wells on private property are rarely reported, the real number is likely far greater, according to the state.

The problem was partly due to the shallowness of some residential wells that are replenished by groundwater from the Tule River. The drought has greatly lowered river flows. The state Department of Water Resources reported in November that more than 1,480 domestic well failures in 36 counties had been reported, more than half in Tulare County.

Water resources & water rights

Further complicating the situation is the complex set of appropriations that determine California’s century-old water rights laws. Competing interests are vying for an increasingly dwindling resource.

The State Water Resources Control Board has warned water rights holders to expect restrictions on their right to divert water from rivers and streams. On April 27, 2015, the Board announced it had approved a petition to allow transfers of water south of the Delta to needy water districts, including the Kern Tulare Water District and the The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).

Several water districts south of the Delta, including MWD, which serves the coastal and most heavily populated portions of Southern California from Ventura County to San Diego County, are offering $700 an acre-foot to water agencies in the Sacramento Valley.

Problems with oil field wastewater

Last summer, state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County after the federal EPA found that the state had allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation. Hundreds more wells inject wastewater into lower-quality aquifers that could have been used with more intense treatment. Most of the waste-injection wells are in the Central Valley. One farmer near Bakersfield blames oil companies for tainting the aquifer that used to feed his cherry trees. 3500 dying trees had to be removed, damaged by high levels of salt and boron in the water.

In Kern County, Chevron recycles 21 million gallons a day of waste water from oil fields, using various filtering methods to remove oil and chemicals. Chevron sells the treated water for about $30 an acre-foot, about half the open-market rate, to farmers who use it on about 10 percent of Kern County’s farmland. Though the program is two decades old, there are new concerns about crops raised with oil field water. Acetone and methylene chloride have been found in water moving through the irrigation canals from Chevron’s plant to farmers’ fields. Farmers can smell the petrochemicals in the irrigation water and trust that microorganisms in the soil are removing the toxins, but it’s unclear how much is removed and how much makes its way into the food chain.

In April, the Central Valley water authority notified all oil producers of broader testing requirements under California’s new fracking disclosure regulations requiring oil companies to tell the state which chemicals they use in oil-extraction processes so that testing agencies will know what to test for. Oil producers must submit their reports by June 15.

Solutions

As mentioned, the Pacific Institute and NRDC reported that California could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water a year. Their June 2014 report (PDF) summarizes the problem: California’s water supply strategy has been based on reservoirs for surface waters and on wells to tap the aquifers. Even in wet years, the rivers are over-allocated. Overdrafting of groundwater is so severe the subsidance of the land has damaged public roads and even water-delivery canals.

Green Infrastructure (GI): The good news is that there are opportunities to save 11 to 14 million acre-feet of water through cost-effective strategies that are technically feasible and more resistant to drought than the current system, and are compatible with healthy river basins and groundwater management. A series of issue briefs by Pacific Institute summarize the trends and the potential for improvements in agricultural and urban water conservation and efficiency, water reuse and stormwater capture.

A study of green infrastructure (PDF) by experts from The Dow Chemical Company, Shell, Swiss Re, and Unilever, working with The Nature Conservancy, finds that constructed and natural resources can be successfully used to replace gray infrastructure treatment plants. The study used two constructed wetlands for treating industrial wastewater, and found that initial capital expenses were significantly lower than for conventional gray infrastructure; operating expenses were minimal; energy requirements were significantly lower, carbon footprint and energy costs were reduced; and operational performance was satisfactory, being 100% compliant upon startup and for over 15 years in one case. These constructed wetlands also provide habitat for deer, bobcats, fish and birds, and educational opportunities for local schools.

Desalination: For coastal communities desalination is another source of fresh water. But because this process is energy intensive and the concentrated brine must be carefully disposed of, it comes at a high price. Researchers are now working on three new desalination technologies that require less energy.

Market Pricing: What is water’s economic value? Should the price of water be set by the free market? Water from a desalination plant opening soon near San Diego will cost about $2,000 per acre-foot, about what some almond farmers are paying to keep their trees alive. For the average California household using 360 gallons of water a day, that would come to $67 a month. Would that be too much to pay?

Market pricing would encourage conservation and investment in water-saving technologies, and make development of new infrastructure more cost-effective.

But water is an essential resource. In a water market, how can the needs of poor public districts be met when they could be outbid by rich and politically powerful communities?

Whatever the winning solutions turn out to be, California will be a state transformed.

—RW

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