Cow-tastrophe in the Making – Environmental Impacts of the Cattle Industry.

Years ago I remember reading reports on the connection between the cattle industry and global warming.  The articles spoke about how cow flatulence (cow farts) produced excessive amounts of methane, one of the worst gases contributing to global warming.  I dismissed the stories mainly because the reporters’ irreverent slants on cow farts impacting our atmosphere seemed laughable.  Now I’m not so sure.

Recently I watched the document “Cowspiracy” by Kip Andersen and was shocked by some of the information revealed. I’ve watched many, many documentaries and have been involved in the environmental movement for decades, but Andersen’s movie left me with an immediate visceral impact. If true, the cattle industry is one of the leading causes of not only climate change but habitat destruction, water pollution and other impending ecological crises.

How could I have missed this HUGE ominous impact to our global ecosystem? Was I living under a rock? I had to know more.

I set to work researching peer-reviewed scientific information on the environmental impacts of this industry. I wish I could report Andersen’s movie was off-base but I can’t. In fact, the information I found was personally devastating. It immediately made me question some of my own behaviors which may be having a bigger impact on the environment than I could ever imagine.  After years and years of conserving, recycling and being an environmental advocate, it seems my good intentions have been short sighted.

Recently, my blogs have been focusing on water use and contamination issues from hydraulic fracking.  I know the fracking industry uses a huge amount of water – 100 billion gallons of water every year in the US – but I was shocked by Andersen’s disclosure that animal agriculture uses 34 TRILLION gallons of water annually in the US – 340 times that of fracking! WOW!

He points out that our personal (domestic use) of water in the US accounts for only 5% of the total water use but agriculture uses 55% of all the water in the economy. Yet all the conservation efforts proposed by the EPA and other groups are focused on getting us to reduce our personal consumption of water. Clearly the focus needs to be elsewhere.

Recent attention has been given to the concept of “embedded water” which is the hidden water needed to create a product. A National Geographic website page called “The Hidden Water We Use” reveals that 1,799 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef. This figure includes 6.6 pounds of grain for feed plus irrigation water, 36.2 pounds of roughage or grasses for feed plus irrigation water and 18.6 gallons of water for drinking and processing per pound of beef.

According to the Home Water Works Organization website, the average American shower uses 17.2 gallons and lasts 8.2 minutes.  If we assume a quarter pound burger uses 450 gallons of water, then just one burger is equivalent to almost one month of daily showers. What an eye-opener!

Consider the larger impact on our globe. McDonalds sells 6,480,000 burgers per day world-wide. If we assume they are all quarter pound patties, then 2.9 billion gallons of water have been used to produce this daily allotment. Now multiply that by all the other burger chains and restaurants selling hamburgers. Now add the steakhouses… Get the picture?  It’s the domino effect on our water supplies.

Clearly our conservation focus should also be on our food consumption habits and not just our home. I’m not saying don’t conserve water at home. Let’s face it, wasting water is wasting water. There’s no need for it. However, if we can make a greater impact on protecting our water resources by changing our diet, isn’t it worth it? Especially when almost all nutritionists purport that a plant based diet is better for our health and is also environmentally sustainable, unlike cattle production.

Of course the water resource issue of the cattle industry is just one small piece of the bigger environmental puzzle. I encourage you to watch Kip Andersen’s “Cowspiracy” documentary for some startling conclusions to this controversy. You can stream it on Netflix or purchase it online.

Also, consider downloading the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options” (2006). This information is too important not to know.

What if by changing our diet we could nip climate change in the bud? Would you do it?

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.

The Hard Truth about Soft Water

Salt… It’s a known killer but probably not in the way you think. Most of us know the health impacts of too much salt in our diets, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and edema. Though few of us probably think about how salt from our water softeners may hurt our landscape plants.

“Hard water” is water containing large amounts of naturally occurring calcium, magnesium or other minerals. These minerals interfere with the cleaning power of household soaps and detergents by reducing soap’s ability to lather.  They react with ingredients in soap to produce a sticky scum which can cause plumbing problems.

Calcium and magnesium tend to be less water soluble than sodium and will “precipitate” or come out of solution as a pasty “scale”.  You may have seen evidence of scale as a white coating on the inside of your tea kettle, hot water heater, pipes or other containers which hold water. Scale impedes water flow through pipes and is a poor conductor of heat creating two undesirable situations for your household.

The byproducts created by water softeners are what can harm plants.  Most softeners contain several cubic feet of plastic resin coated with sodium ions. As tap water flows through the conditioner, the positive calcium and magnesium ions are “exchanged” with the positive sodium ions on the resin. They essentially switch places. The calcium and magnesium ions stick to the plastic resin and the sodium ions are released into the tap water. This is why softened water has a mild salty taste.

Eventually the plastic resin becomes loaded with calcium and magnesium and needs to be “recharged” with sodium. That’s where the sodium chloride pellets we buy come into play. Every few days, the water softener flushes out the hard minerals with a concentrated brine solution and replaces those minerals with sodium. The excess salts are discharged as part of household wastewater.

If landscape plants are watered with soft water, they can be “burned” by the sodium in the softened water. Symptoms of salt injury include stunted growth, yellowed foliage and leaf margins which begin to curl and turn brown. These symptoms are similar in appearance to drought stress and can be easily misinterpreted in our arid environment.

So what to do? Fortunately most professional installers are aware that water for outside use needs to remain separate from household water and they take the necessary steps to keep them apart.  Occasionally this separation step gets bypassed. In such cases, homeowners concerned about their landscape plants can switch to potassium chloride as their water softening salt.  Potassium is a macro-nutrient that plants need and won’t harm plants like sodium.

While at the Water Wise program, I perform residential on-site visits and was often asked whether it is important to separate soft water from outside spigots. Many of these visits were for people just moving to Arizona from moister states and they are not familiar with our dry climate. My response was usually very simple. Moist locations have a lot more precipitation than we do which helps flush salt out of the soil and away from plants, minimizing damage. Here salts build up in soils.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use water softeners? No, but it does suggest you need to have a better understanding of how your plumbing should complement your plants. Before installing a conditioning system, get details on how it will be installed and be sure the installers know about your landscape needs.

If you already have a system installed that does not separate inside and outside waters, consider switching to potassium chloride as your water softening salt. Your plants will thank you if you do!

 

What’s a Wildlife Guzzler?

Wildlife guzzlers….have you heard of them? They sound like a two-can party hat worn by the frat boys in “Animal House” but they are not. They are simple devices that collect rainwater for use by animals in rural or remote areas.

guzzler-image
Image Source: Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service

Guzzlers can range from homemade designs using 30 or 55 gallon plastic barrels to in-ground, networked systems holding 25,000 gallons of water.  The size of the guzzler depends on the type and amount of animals using the guzzler. Small guzzlers can provide water for birds and small animals, whereas larger guzzlers would provide water for cattle and other large animals.

Other design factors include the location of existing water sources, mobility of animals, local rainfall patterns and the ability to maintain the site. Good planning is important before construction begins.

Historically, guzzlers have been used by state and federal highway departments to reduce the number of animal fatalities by vehicles in rural areas.  The watering stations are placed in undeveloped areas to lure animals away from roadways and reduce the need for the animals to cross highways in search of water.

Another use for guzzlers is to avoid wildlife and human interaction in populated areas. As the drought in Arizona continues into its 20th year, there is growing concern about the potentially dangerous mix of large predatory animals, such as mountain lions and bears, coming closer and closer to human environments looking for water.

In our state, Arizona Game & Fish has installed more than 850 wildlife watering stations of various designs since their first “Arizona guzzler” in 1946.  Two new watering stations are located here in the Huachuca Mountains – Black Canyon and West Hunter Canyon in the Coronado National Forest.  Both of these designs were developed to reduce animal – vehicle strikes.

There are many benefits associated with the use of guzzlers. The Arizona Big Horn Sheep Society notes that where water sources are few, artificial water devices increase game bird, amphibian and big horn sheep populations.

Wildlife guzzlers are also becoming mainstream. Guzzlers have primarily been built by conservation districts, government agencies and land trusts, but now scout troops, landowners and environmental organizations are creating them as special projects.

There are economic benefits to installing guzzlers too. Ranchers in the Big Bend area of Texas have installed wildlife guzzlers to increase mule deer populations on their land. These ranchers earn extra money by leasing hunting rights to sportsmen. In this case, water guzzlers provide an economic incentive for ranchers and are a fringe benefit to other wildlife species in the area, providing a win-win scenario for everyone – except maybe the mule deer.

Community oriented guzzler projects have also sprung up. The Hill Country Master Gardeners in Texas, part of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, have gotten together with the Boys and Girls Club of Fredericksburg to make a birdbath guzzler at their Native Plant Center.  Detailed plans of their simple guzzler design are posted on http://www.hillcountrymastergardeners.org/articles2/others_art2/guzzler_brochure.pdf.

It’s exciting to think the Hill Country Master Gardeners and Boys and Girls Club might be on to something. Their simple design could easily be duplicated by scout groups or other civic organizations. Every southern Arizona community could benefit from teaming up to build rainwater catchment guzzlers for wildlife, and we can all drink (water) to that!

“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

East Meets West

Living in the arid west, most of us are keenly aware of how precious water is.  Just being outdoors in the sun for a bit is subtle incentive to drink water to quench our thirst. Most of us don’t leave home without a bottle of water in our car, purse or backpack. It’s just natural to bring water with us.

This hasn’t always been the case in eastern states. Certainly when I was growing up in the northeast, we never carried bottled water with us. In fact, I don’t even remember bottled water being available as a child. Water was always close by so why would anyone buy it?

The convenience and easy accessibility of water in the east has dramatically changed. Incidents of contamination, crumbling infrastructure and unexpected drought have left many eastern locales scrambling for solutions to an uncommon problem – how to provide potable water of sufficient quality and quantity under stressful conditions?

Who can forget the water crisis of Flint Michigan this past year? What started out as an attempt by officials of an impoverished city to find a cheaper source of water turned into one of the greatest public health crises in decades.

In spite of Flint’s overt oversight, a more insidious threat may be the crumbling infrastructure of our aging cities.  While Arizona may have just celebrated its centennial, many eastern cities are hundreds of years old. It’s hard to imagine Boston was founded in 1630 – almost 400 years ago!

Many aging cities are cash strapped and infrastructure repairs only occur during some kind of local crisis; broken water mains being an almost common occurrence. Circle of Blue Water News reported in a 2012 article entitled ‘America’s Water Infrastructure Shows its Age’ that “hundreds of billions of dollars are needed for renovation and improvement.”

Fortunately, the legislature may be finally listening. On September 19, 2016, the Senate passed the “Water Resources Development Act” which would authorize $10.6 billion to conduct feasibility studies for 30 large projects, provide money for sewer overflows and lead pipe removal (in Flint and other cities), create a water loan program called WIFIA, restore Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes and other measures. The Bill still needs to pass the House which may have its own, less costly version. Re-negotiations are likely and the legislature will need to act quickly to enact this law since there are only a few weeks left before the election.

While the House and Senate have been hammering out Bills to combat infrastructure problems another, unforeseen dilemma occurred for many eastern towns and cities over this summer – drought!  Reports of widespread drought in northeastern and southeastern states were rampant. Especially hard hit areas included New England and Georgia.

Online news source WXShift (Weather Shift) recently reported “Three months ago, only 8 percent of the Northeast was in a moderate drought. That number has swelled to 39 percent in the most recent Drought Monitor, released on Thursday (September 22, 2016)”.  (See U.S. Drought Monitor at www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu).

To put that in perspective, Boston received only 38% of its typical rainfall from June through August; 3.92 inches. (By comparison, Sierra Vista logged 4.86 inches of rainfall from June 15 – July 15, according to University of Arizona CLIMAS Monsoon Summary data.) The situation has become so urgent that the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton started to ramp up water conservation efforts, calling for the elimination of outdoor watering by residents and businesses around the state to avoid stressing drinking water reservoirs.

Similar concerns were reported by various local news agencies in Ohio, upstate New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and others. Areas once accustomed to dependable water are being forced to consider alternative measures to keep water supplies flowing to customers. Is this just a foreshadowing of things to come? It depends upon who you talk to.

As scientists continue to accumulate data showing rising tides, record high heat, rapid melting of polar ice, and significant changes in precipitation patterns,  one has to wonder if the oft used slogan attributed to water in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting for” may soon be relevant to the East.

-Sandra Hurlbut