Water Flows Uphill to Money

“Life is not fair” is a lesson many people learn in early childhood. Whether it stems from watching popular students get picked first during elementary gym class or being forced to turn over lunch money to school yard bullies, some events in life just seem blatantly unfair.  For many people in California this theme may still ring true because, as the saying goes, “water flows uphill to money”.

A recent comparison of water rates in two middle class neighborhoods in California revealed an extreme example of unfairness. UCLA Blue Print published a Fall 2016 online article on water rate inequities. The piece called attention to the wide disparity in prices that water districts charge. It focused on the differences in water prices for the working class communities of Lynwood and Pico Rivera. In Pico Rivera the annual water bill averaged less than $200 per family a year whereas “in Lynwood, that same amount of water costs a family more than $1,500.”1

What causes such price disparity? The short answer for these residents is it depends upon where the water is coming from. Residents in Pico Rivera get their water locally from groundwater. Residents in Lynwood are “stuck with the privately owned Park Water Company, which purchases water conveyed from elsewhere and has some of the county’s highest rates.”2

Unfortunately such situations aren’t that unusual in California. A quick glance online will reveal several other similar articles. Last fall, the New York Times featured a story on how stingy water users have been fined for using too much water while in upscale Los Angeles hills, a man dubbed “the Wet Prince of Belair” proceeded to use more than 30,000 gallons of water per day — “the equivalent of 400 toilet flushes each hour with two showers running constantly, with enough water left over to keep the lawn perfectly green” and was never fined.3

Meanwhile, this fall, wealthy people in Hillsborough California who clearly can afford to pay for any amount of water they would like to use, are playing bully by suing their town for using Tiered Water Rates to help encourage conservation. What’s the reason behind the lawsuit? The aggrieved residents say “Hillsborough water officials violated Proposition 218, a state law that makes it illegal for government to charge more for a service than it costs to provide.”4

Legal Counsel for the plaintiffs freely acknowledges that it’s not about the money but about the principle.  They feel their “town is running amok.”5 Clearly encouraging saving water in a long-term drought is akin to some socialist movement in a pro-capitalist area. Why save water when they can always buy more?

How incredibly frustrating it must be for California water managers to establish water conservation policy and set rates given such constraints and attitudes. When did water become an entitlement for the privileged and not a resource for everyone?

 

References:

  1. Banks, Sandy. “A Problem: Water and Inequality”, UCLA Blue Print, Fall 2016. Web. 28-December 2016.
  2. Ibid, Banks.
  3. Lovett, Ian. “In California, Stingy Water Users Are Fined in Drought, While the Rich Soak”. New York Times. 21 November 2015. Web. 28 December 2016.
  4. Rogers, Paul. “California Drought: Wealthy Hillsborough Residents Sue, Saying Water Rates are Too High”. Mercury News. 30 November 2016. Web. 28 December 2016.
  5. Ibid, Rogers.

Aquifer Exemptions – the Legal Way to Pollute Groundwater

There is a little known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) called an “Aquifer Exemption” that allows oil, gas and mining industries to legally impact groundwater – including some aquifers set aside for drinking water.  While these industries have purported to install wells and perform activities with no leakage and permanent protection, in truth, nothing is ever permanent. Seals and casings can and will fail over time and begin impacting some of the more pristine aquifers the wells may already penetrate. How did this risky loophole get placed into the SDWA?? A quick look at history may be our guide.

In 1974 America was going through an energy crisis. The OPEC oil nations sanctioned an oil embargo which stopped the US in her tracks. People “frequently faced around-the-block lines” at gas stations when filling-up.1 Gas guzzling V-8’s and V-6’s were the standard American-made cars.

During the same time period, the country was suffering from self-inflicted environmental degradation. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, brought the dangers of prolific pesticide use to light and initiated a grass roots movement to save the environment. By the early 1970’s, several legislative Acts focusing on protecting the environment were created. One of these was the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974.

The goal of the SDWA was to “ensure the purity of the water we consume.”2 However in light of the energy crisis, “Congress added language to the Act mandating the EPA not “interfere with or impede” oil and gas production unless it is “absolutely essential” in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.”3

To accommodate the Congressional mandate, the EPA developed a set of regulations for Underground Injection Control (UIC) in 1980. The UIC regulations included provisions for an “Aquifer Exemption” program which “allows water that would otherwise be defined as a source of drinking water to be exempted from the prohibition on injection.”4 Aquifer Exemptions were deemed necessary for the oil and gas industry to continue exploration.5 For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of oil wastewater is generated and the easiest way to dispose of it is by underground injection.6

The original goal of the Aquifer Exemption program was to identify aquifers or portions of aquifers that are exempt from the definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW); develop rules for EPA review and approval and describe delineation procedures for exempted aquifers.7 However, what has resulted over the last 36 years is a mish-mash of state Aquifer Exemption programs with limited Federal oversight allowing the oil and gas industry as well as the uranium mining industry to freely pollute drinking water aquifers.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation found “Federal officials have given energy and mining companies’ permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.”8 Their investigation cited worrisome examples in Wyoming, California, Texas and Denver.

The travesty behind some of these examples is that Aquifer Exemptions are being allowed in areas where underground aquifers are at a premium. For example, some drought-stricken communities in Texas are so desperate for water they are looking to treat brackish water to make it potable and the cities of San Antonio and El Paso are considering building desalinization plants to supply drinking water. At the same time, environmental officials have “have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining” in Texas.9 A similar situation has played out in California. Areas with the greatest need for groundwater are the same ones where underground injections of oil wastewater have been allowed.10

The misuse of the Aquifer Exemption program has been repeatedly brought to light in recent years.  The issue became so controversial that the General Accounting Office (GAO) was tasked to do a report for Congress. The GAO report found 1) EPA “safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids” and therefore may not “fully protect underground drinking water”11; 2) “EPA is not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities”12; 3) “EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations”; 4) the data EPA collects is “not reliable”, meaning complete or comparable on a national basis13 and probably most frightening  5) the EPA has not incorporated state requirements and changes into federal regulations and “may not be able to enforce all state program requirements”14 In other words the EPA would have a hard time preventing individual states from doing what they are currently doing.

Even more telling are the sheer numbers of class II underground injection wells in some states. As of 2012, Texas had 52,977 class II wells, California had 49,783, Kansas had 16,965, Oklahoma had 11,134 and there are thousands in many other states. While only a small number of these wells have Aquifer Exemptions, the primary concern for any injection well over the long term is leakage and cross contamination of aquifers. In spite of what well-drillers might say, no well cap, casing or seal is permanent. Time always gets its way and when it does, we better be ready.

 

References:

  1. Myre, Greg. “Gas Lines Evoke Memories of Oil Crises In The 1970s”, NPR 10 November 2012, Web. 13 December 2016.
  2. Agee, James L. “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act”, EPA Journal, March 1975, EPA Archives. Web. 12 December 2016.
  3. Thorp, Lynn W. and Noël, John. “Aquifer Exemptions: Program Overview and Emerging Concerns”, Journal American Water Works Association, 107:9, September 2015, p. 53.
  4. Ibid, p. 53.
  5. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  6. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx Media. No date. Web. 14 November 2016.
  7. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  8. Lustgarten, Abrahm. “Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation’s Underground Water Supply”, ProPublica Inc. 12 December 2012. Web 12 December 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. General Accounting Office. “Drinking Water – EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated With Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement” GAO-14-555. July 2014.
  12. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  13. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  14. Ibid, GAO Highlights.

What to do with Fracking Wastewater?

Wastewater from hydraulic fracking has been in the news quite a bit lately and not for good reason.  Concerns over wastewater injections creating or inducing earthquakes and contamination from chemicals in fracking wastewater are a growing concern.

In mid-November, Uproxx.com released a story about wastewater from oil production being sold to drought-stricken California farmers in Kern County at a discount for use on food crops.1 The main concern is the chemicals in the wastewater are considered “proprietary.” Therefore no one really knows what chemicals are being applied to our foods and whether or not they are making their way into the food chain.  Since California grows 40% of our nation’s food should we be concerned?

Andrew Grinberg, Special Project Manager at Clean Water Action, considers the application of oil wastewater on Kern County crops a “chemical experiment on our food supply.”2 Adam Scow, California Director of Food and Water Watch, believes “it’s a bad idea to use water contaminated with chemicals, such as benzene, on crops and to recharge groundwater.”3 This practice has apparently been going on for 20 years.

This isn’t the first time the oil and gas industry has been under scrutiny in California.  In 2015, the California’s Department of Conservation, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources came under fire because they “inadvertently allowed oil companies to inject wastewater — from fracking and other production operations — with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers, a violation of federal law.”4 The EPA found this oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act “shocking”.5

In Oklahoma and southern Kansas underground wastewater injections from hydraulic fracking processes have been linked to earthquakes.  A Forbes.com article noted “some areas in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have hazards from fracking-related induced earthquakes that are similar to parts of California where earthquakes are caused by natural tectonic forces like plate collisions and volcanism.”6

Residents of those two states have responded to the tremors by purchasing earthquake insurance. Insurance purchases in Oklahoma are “up 500% from just five years ago in 2011.”7 Unfortunately coverage of man-made earthquakes is a grey-area for many insurance companies. So it’s best to do some digging and confirm any policy or endorsement covers earthquakes resulting from fracking activities.8

The oil and gas industry is the Titan of the American economy. For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of wastewater are created.9 Given the immense volumes of oil, gas and the resulting wastewater produced, it is imperative we find better solutions for disposal. We can’t continue to pretend that current techniques aren’t impacting the environment. Clearly they are and its time for a change.

 

References

  1. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  2. Uproxx Reports. “Oil Wastewater”- video. Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  3. Uproxx, Ibid.
  4. Cart, Julie. “Lawmakers grill state oil regulators on oversight failures.” Los Angeles Times. 10 March 2015. Web. 6 December 2016.
  5. Cart, Ibid.
  6. Conca, James. “Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards in Parts of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California.” Forbes Media LLC. 7 September 2016, Web. 6 December 2016
  7. Conca, Ibid.
  8. Hickman, Bobby. “Fracked! Are you covered for man-made earthquakes?” com. Quinnstreet Inc. 10 May 2012. Web. 6 December 2016
  9. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016.

“Protein Gets Out Protein”

Do you remember the Era Plus detergent commercial from 1987 which touted the use of protein as an ingredient to help get out protein stains like grass and food? Essentially what they were saying is “like dissolves like.”  Even though water is known as the “universal solvent” because it has both a positive and negative charge, there are some things water simply won’t dissolve, like oils and grease.

So why am I mentioning it? Fracking is occurring at alarming rate around the country. The process uses a water-based concoction of chemicals to force oil and natural gas out of tight shale formations. If oil and water don’t mix then what are the chemicals they include to help extract the oil from the formation? Well most of the oil companies will tell you that’s “proprietary” information – meaning they it’s a trade secret and they don’t have to tell you.

Dr. Dave Healy of the University of Abedeen, U.K. noted in a July 2012 study that while there isn’t a lot of peer reviewed scientific research into the potential environmental impacts of fracking, he believes “there are potentially significant risks from the nature and fate of the fluids used in the drilling and fracturing processes as well as the effects of the natural gas released.”

The FracFocus online chemical disclosure registry states “although there are dozens to hundreds of chemicals which could be used as additives, there are a limited number which are routinely used in hydraulic fracturing.”  On their website they list 58 chemicals commonly used in hydraulic fracking.1 Some of these are petroleum distillates or oil derivatives that act as “carrier fluids” or lubricants to help transport materials into or out of the wellbore; essentially they are petroleum products which help get out petroleum products.

Petroleum distillates are a class of hydrocarbon solvents which include mineral spirits (paint thinners), kerosene, naphtha (used in moth balls), and Stoddard solvent (dry cleaning solvent). They are controversial among environmental and water advocates because of known or suspected health impacts. Naphtha, for example, may have chemical components which are carcinogenic or teratogenic such as benzene and toluene.

Do these chemicals sound like anything you’d like deliberately pumped into the ground under high pressure?

References:

  1. Healy, Dave. “Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking’: A Short Summary of Current Knowledge and Potential Environmental Impacts”. University of Aberdeen, UK. July 2012.
  2. “What Chemicals are Used?” FracFocus. No date. Web. 27 November 2016.

Is Fracking America’s Crack Cocaine?

Most of us know the horrors of crack cocaine addiction.  Many of our jails, half-way houses and streets are filled with people who cannot get enough of this dangerous drug. The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) website reports “a person can become addicted after his or her first time trying crack cocaine.” Users quickly develop a tolerance for the drug and need more and more to sustain their high. They often resort to all sorts of risky behaviors to obtain their drug of choice.1 Is America doing the same thing with its dependence on oil?

Gone are the easily accessible oil fields which fueled our nation in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Prolific reminders of their powerful influence scatter the country side with their rusted, iron bones. Abandoned oil and gas wells are everywhere.  NPR’s StateImpact website reported “There are probably around 200,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We know where just a slim fraction – probably four percent – of these wells are.”2 How many more are there across the country? No one knows for sure.

As America’s dependence on oil continues to grow, our nation engages in riskier and riskier behaviors to get its oil fix. No one can forget the havoc created by the Deepwater Horizons incident that began on April 20, 2010 and continued a full 6-months until September 19, 20103. That one spill delivered a toxic shock of 154,000,000 gallons of crude oil to the Gulf of Mexico.4 According to a BBC.com news story released November 15th, 2016, “researchers in Louisiana have discovered traces of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the feathers of birds eaten by land animals.”5 In other words, oil has entered the Gulf’s food chain.

Our insatiable thirst for oil has led us to create some controversial technological cures to support our habit – fracking being the main one. Conflicting health and environmental reports are everywhere. It should come as no surprise that a recent comprehensive report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API) by Catalyst Environmental Solutions plainly stated it found “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing.”6 Yep, as the title suggests and the US EPA has reported there’s no drinking water impact from fracking!7 Seems a little unbelievable to me.

Also released this month was a report prepared by two groups of physicians the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Physicians for Social Responsibility with completely different results. Their document titled “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”8 highlights several public health concerns. Their article reviews the “scientific literature available from 2009-2015—which… included 685 peer reviewed papers—69 percent of original research studies on water quality found potential for, or actual evidence of, water contamination; 87 percent of original research studies on air quality found elevated air pollutant emissions; and 84 percent of original research studies on human health risks found signs of harm or indication of potential harm.”9

Doesn’t it make you wonder how the EPA did their assessment? 

 

References:

  1. Patterson, Eric, “Crack Abuse”; Drug Abuse. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  2. “Perilous Pathways: The Danger Of Drilling Near Abandoned Wells”; StateImpact NPR. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  3. “Deepwater Horizon oil spill”; Wikipedia. no date. Web. 19 November 2016.
  4. Gill, Victoria, “BP Deepwater Horizon oil in land-animal food chain”; BBC News.  16 November 2016. Web. 19 November 2016.
  5. Ibid, Gill.
  6. “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing”; report for American Petroleum Institute by Catalyst Environmental Solutions, November 2016.
  7. “U.S. EPA. Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (External Review Draft)”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-15/047, 2015.
  8. “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”, compiled by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility, Fourth Edition, November 17, 2016.
  9. Ibid, p. 4

“Honey, go check the pump”

As you head to the kitchen to make your first pot of morning brew, imagine turning on the faucet and no water comes out.  How would you feel? What thoughts would go through your head?

If you’re a rural homeowner, you may wonder if the circuit breaker got tripped for your water pump or worse, maybe you need a new pump.  How flabbergasted would you be to find out there’s no water in your well?  This is not a scene from some apocalyptic movie. It’s already happened in several communities in Arizona due to groundwater overdraft.  Overdraft occurs when the level of water under the ground (the water table) is lowered often due to excessive groundwater pumping.

On June 7 2015, AZCentral.com featured a story on a similar scenario in the Willcox area of Cochise County.  Jen and Ralph Score came home from church to find their well had run dry. Willcox farmers John Hart and Jim Graham both noticed groundwater levels dropping and mentioned increasing costs to pump water for their crops.

This was not the first time homeowners turned on their taps to find nothing there. In 2014, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) responded to concerned Cochise County residents by conducting a survey of well conditions in the Willcox Basin area. The results were startling. Of the 60 responses, 18 wells had gone dry, 9 had declining water levels or lowered production and 27 reported nearby wells going dry and/or concern over current conditions. Only 2 respondents had no current well problems.  (www.azwater.gov/azdwr/PublicInformationOfficer/documents/WellSurveyResults.pdf)

Much to his credit, newly elected Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced the formation of the Arizona Water Initiative in the Fall of 2015. The initiative continues the work of ADWR’s 2015 “Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability.” In Track One of his plan, called the Planning Area Process, “ADWR will identify and prioritize the 22 planning areas” with the express intent to “work together with local stakeholders to create solutions that Arizona can then implement to meet future water demands.”

At the first Arizona Water Initiative meeting for the Cochise Planning area in March 2016, Frank Corkhill, Chief Hydrologist for ADWR, rattled off a litany of declining ground water levels determined from index wells in the area. The four largest declines being Willcox  144 feet decline since 1966, San Simon 174 feet decline since 1962, Bowie  181 feet decline since 1947 and Kansas Settlement 186 feet decline since 1964. Also of concern, the rapid decline in Sunsites at 100 feet since 1990.

At the same meeting ADWR Assistant Deputy Director Gerry Walker gave a general outline of ground water management tools under the State’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act. She talked about Active Management Areas (AMAs) established for five urban areas and Irrigation Non-expansion Areas (INAs) in three agricultural areas where over pumping was a concern at the time the Act was established.  In the rest of the state, mostly rural areas, wells must be drilled legally but are only subject to “beneficial use” – essentially allowing a well owner to pump as much as they want.

Most rural well owners are alright with beneficial use – as long as the water continues to flow. What caused the biggest concern for the audience that day was Walker’s comment that groundwater is a “public resource.” You see in Arizona’s early water history that simply wasn’t the case. Water was granted to pioneers and settlers under a system called Prior Appropriation – basically first in time, first in right.

That public resource comment really irked some of the long time ranching families and others sitting in the room. Many of whom strongly feel that if the State tries to regulate rural water they’ll just drill more wells and drill them deeper which will only add to the water problem.  To these folks, it’s a property rights issue and the water under their property is not a public resource – it’s theirs.

If you were a water policy expert in Arizona, how would you handle such a challenge?

 

© Sandra Hurlbut,  2016