Happy Easter April Fools – It’s Spring!

Easter-Backgrounds-Download

I’m feeling a tad conflicted today. First of all, I rarely post any blogs written in the first person. Second, because today features two holidays eliciting almost contradictory emotions. Easter tends to be a solemn occasion, meant to remind traditional Christians of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.  It’s also April Fools day, a time for light-hearted prankster-isms and silliness.  So, to play it safe, I thought I’d spread some “Goods News” about a more earthly passion – taking care of our planet.

Here’s what’s hit the headlines recently:

Defiant Sustainability –  The U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate hasn’t stopped progressive cities from shifting to lower-carbon, renewable energy sources. Ecowatch recently reported that 58 U.S. cities “have now committed to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.” This transition includes both large and small cities who recognize “sustainability investment as essential to new markets, jobs and creating attractive places to live, work and do business.”

Even more encouraging, the June 2017 U.S. Conference of Mayors, “representing 250 U.S. mayors, resolved to support the procurement of 100 percent renewable energy for cities by 2035.”

Clearly, our local leaders are more in-tune with what “we-the-people” desire and need than their federal counterparts. For that, we can all breathe a sigh of relief AND fresh air!

Futuristic Ford Drinking Fountain – NPR news station Michigan Radio recently interviewed Doug Martin, a Powertrain Controls Engineer for Ford, who created a prototype drinking water dispenser that collects and uses condensate from vehicle engines. The system is called “On-the-Go-H2O”. Martin got the idea for his system from – of all places – a billboard in Peru that collects condensate off its metal surface and generates about 2500 gallons of water every 60 days.

In the radio interview, he points out the best way to collect vehicle water is from the AC unit. During early experiments, Martin mentioned he was able to collect 6 ounces of AC condensate water in 15 minutes. His prototype collects and purifies the condensate to drinking water quality for passengers. Ford is also exploring other uses for the collected condensate such as inside misting units or topping off wiper fluids.

Martin made a compelling case for who might want this feature, noting that kids and pets always need water, often at inconvenient times, like when you’re stuck in traffic.

This idea may seem crazy to some but so did the idea of selling food at gas stations in the 1940s and 1950s – now there’s a Circle K or Quik Mart on practically every city block. Martin may be a visionary with his new system and I’d say his idea clearly holds water.

Downsides to Desalination

Throwing salt over your shoulder after you spill some, is a ritual that originated in ancient Rome. Back then, salt was a very precious and expensive commodity. To carelessly lose any was considered a bad omen. To rectify this terrible error, you needed to lose some of what you valued most. Times have changed and now we have an overabundance of salt.  Instead of throwing it over our shoulder to make up for misdeeds, we may be looking over our shoulder to make sure were are not caught dumping it.

SaltAs water quality continues to diminish around the world, advocates are promoting desalination as a technological solution. They point to the earth’s abundant water supplies, such as the ocean or brackish aquifers, which desalination can treat to provide another source of drinking water. Yet, these advocates tend to gloss over the environmental impacts of the concentrated salt waste that is produced.

Desalination works by removing salts and minerals from water supplies, generally using sophisticated membrane technology which is very energy intensive and quite costly. This technique not only results in producing freshwater, it also generates a concentrated brine which needs to be disposed of. In some ways, you could say desalination is just another version of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In the end, you still have the problem of too much salt.

Unfortunately, there is no sound way to handle the concentrated brine waste produced. Currently, many countries with coastal desalination facilities release the brine waste back into the ocean. A practice which marine biologists warn is taking a heavy toll on the ocean’s health.

In a Scientific American online article, Jeffrey Graham of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, noted that the highly concentrated salt waste from desalination processes “can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.” He expressed concern that “the disappearance of some organisms from discharge areas may be related to the salty outflow.”

The same article discusses how the seawater intake process can also be detrimental to biodiversity. Desalination plants essentially vacuum up sea water through intake pipes and “inadvertently kill millions of plankton, fish eggs, fish larvae and other microbial organisms that constitute the base layer of the marine food chain.” This reduces the amount of food available for larger ocean creatures.

Some desalination supporters suggest injecting the concentrated brine deep into the ground, where it, presumably, will do no harm. However, Menachem Elimelech, a Professor at the Yale University School of Engineering and Applied Science, doesn’t believe that solution would be sustainable. In a Deutsche Wells online article, Elimelech states “If you have many many desalination plants injecting this salt into the groundwater, it may affect the groundwater 50, 100 or 500 years from now.”

Being a water resources junkie, I couldn’t agree more. Water doesn’t stay in one place and it’s impossible for us to know the exact nature of any formation that the liquid waste is pumped into. Fractures, fissures, and faults might be unseen pathways for this solution to eventually move into and contaminate productive aquifers.  Why take the chance?

Also, consider the intake material from the ocean is not just water and salt but also organic matter, bacteria, and other materials.  All these substances must be treated and removed before the sea water is run through the reverse osmosis membranes. William Phillip from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, points out in the Deutsche Wells article that “In order to keep the membranes from clogging up with particles, the sea water has to be treated with chemicals before it is desalinated. These chemicals are then poured back into the sea.”

As the membranes do their job of removing minerals and salts, they gradually get clogged up, making them less efficient. This is where desalination starts to get expensive. It takes a lot of energy to keep pushing water molecules through the reverse osmosis membranes especially when they are blocked by other elements.

Desalination also produces three times the CO2 emissions of conventional water treatment systems. In a world struggling to come to its senses over climate change, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may not be the best solution. In a way, it may be like rubbing salt into our collective wounds.

The Price of Comfort

It may surprise some Americans to know that within our thriving, capitalist culture there is a growing segment of people living in third world conditions, with limited access to water and proper sanitation. What is not surprising is most of these people live in or on the edge of poverty. In an era of large corporate tax cuts and the slashing of social welfare programs, what will become of people without access to services most of us consider essential?

The prognoses for their return to normalcy looks bleak. Researchers at Michigan State University are projecting “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent”. The study concluded there are three main factors behind rising water rates: aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Population trends show wealthier citizens moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs, leaving lower income residents to fend off the costs of large, aging infrastructures. Detroit is a perfect example of this type of mass exodus of wealth out of large cities.

In a March 22, 2016 online article, Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton describes how after World War II, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America with a population of 1.8 million people, 80% of whom were white. Now its population is 680,000 (less than half of its peak) and 80% black with 40% percent of them living below the poverty level. Walton states “Those remaining have inherited the legacy costs of a city built for an absent 1 million people.”

Detroit is not the only city facing an uphill water pricing battle. A December 13, 2017 Circle of Blue online report featured a similar story for Philadelphia. The piece notes how the Philadelphia Water Department has about 86,000 household accounts, but one in five accounts have had their water shut off at least once over the last 5 years largely because of overdue bills. The culprit here is not only lack of money but also local policy.

The problems of aging infrastructure are well known among the utilities sector. This issue has been highlighted over the past several years in various technical media. The 2012 American Water Works Association (AWWA) report “Buried No Longer – Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” revealed that “restoring existing water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.”

In a 2016 American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report, every American household is projected to lose $3,400 annually between 2016 and 2025 because of deteriorating infrastructure. Furthermore, the 2016 ASCE report contends the economic impact of America’s infrastructure issues could cost 2.5 million jobs by 2025 and up to 5.8 million jobs by 2040 if appropriate investments are not made.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

In addition to aging infrastructure and shrinking urban populations, climate change has been implicated in future water pricing trends. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence directly linking extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, suggesting that observed trends are likely to continue.

This is startling when you consider The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a compilation of “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980-2017”. In the report they detail 218 weather and climate disasters that have occurred since 1980 in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As we have seen again this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, these large weather events are becoming more common. If this trend continues, we have to ask how much more can our economy take?

If our overall economy is at risk, what chance do our poorest citizens have of maintaining basic services? There must be a better way.

From Pesky to Pestilent

A pesky, purple cartoon mosquito adorned T-shirts given out by the Massachusetts General Hospital blood donor program in the 1990s, encouraging participants to “Starve a Mosquito – Donate Blood.” This whimsical, uplifting logo once used to promote blood donation might be given second thought today as a plethora of mosquito-caused diseases have been spreading around the world.

Mosquito

In 2015 and 2016, news media covered numerous stories on the Zika virus transmitted by species of mosquitos called Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The primary concern being pregnant women infected with Zika having a higher probability of giving birth to children with a serious birth defect known as microcephaly, in which the brain and head are underdeveloped.

One of the areas hardest hit by Zika was Brazil. A July 14, 2017 article on the USA Today website noted a significant spike in microcephaly cases since the outbreak. Specifically, they stated “Brazilian health officials have confirmed more than 1,600 cases of microcephaly since the Zika outbreak began, about 10 times more than usual.”

This year, Brazil has been hit with yet another bout of mosquito-induced illness. This time Yellow Fever, a serious viral infection that can lead to organ failure, coma and possibly death. A June 8th, 2017 article in the Arizona Republic reported that at least 263 Brazilians had contracted Yellow Fever and that “the current outbreak is the nation’s worst on record.”

What was even more interesting is a possible link with climate change. According to the Arizona Republic article, the epicenter of the yellow fever outbreak “just recovered from their worst drought in 80 years.” A situation which can be taken advantage of by mosquitos whose “eggs can survive dry weather in a state of suspended animation” for years at a time.  Once the rains come, several years-worth of eggs may hatch at once, facilitating an outbreak.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that climate change is solely responsible for the Yellow Fever outbreak. Still, it does make you wonder what other diseases or disasters are waiting to be unleashed as environmental conditions fluctuate.

Fortunately, there are organizations studying scenarios where climate change and disease may coincide. One of these groups is the World Health Organization (WHO), whose primary role is to assist with international health issues for countries within the United Nations’ system.

WHO has been studying the connections between climate change and infectious disease for years. In 2003, WHO published a lengthy report on “Climate Change and Human Health – Risks and Responses.” Chapter 6 of the Report includes several “observed and predicted climate/infectious disease links”, which details how environmental changes may impact 14 different infectious diseases. (Much of their research can be found on their website at www.who.int.)

As the pendulum swings backward on climate change initiatives here in the United States, it’s good to know there are organizations and associations with a more progressive agenda.  At some point, our right-leaning government will have to come back to center and start acknowledging climate change is real. Our planet cannot afford to have one of the top industrialized nations in the world continue to favor the partisan interests of a few at the expense of the many.

Until commonsense prevails and public policy changes, pesky mosquitoes in some parts of the world will continue to be the source of pestilence around the world.

Are we collectively prepared to accept this outcome?