Manipulating Moisture for Mankind?

What’s for dinner? A glass of man-made water and maybe a side of crow.

Last year, I was intrigued by various articles I read involving extracting water from the air and I posted a skeptical blog on my findings. Frankly, I thought the idea was somewhat preposterous, especially when some of the discussions mentioned extracting moisture from desert environments. After all, deserts are deserts precisely because they lack moisture. So how could moisture really be extracted from anything so dry?

Yet, here it is a year later and there’s now credible research that suggests we have the capability of doing just that – generating water from the air in even the most arid environments. Let’s take a look at some new water harvesting systems being developed.

On March 22, 2018, Science Daily reported that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had field tested a new water harvesting technology that “can extract clean drinking water right from the air, even in the driest of deserts.” This method uses metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) as a “high-surface area material” which allowed researchers to extract potable water from the air even when the humidity was as low as 10%, using a device solely powered by sunlight.

These results are very encouraging since most water-from-air devices require much higher humidity levels to operate and also require substantial power for water production. The MIT device was field tested at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, AZ.

On the other side of the globe, Uravu – a technology start-up in Hyderabad, India is developing a residential water vapor collection device which can be placed on home rooftops. This two-part design “uses a proprietary water-absorbing material that sucks vapor from the air and uses solar thermal energy to convert it into water” without the need for electricity or moving parts.

The proprietary hydroscopic material absorbs water vapor overnight and stores it for conversion to liquid water by a solar collector the following day.  The solar collector rapidly heats the water vapor which changes it to a liquid as it cools.

The Uravu prototype produces about 50 liters (~13 gallons) of water per day and the company’s goal is to raise that to 2,000 (~ 530 gallons) liters per day.

Researchers out of Virginia Tech are exploring ways to improve the efficiency of fog harvesters.  The structure they created is called a fog harp. This mechanism is well named since it really looks like a primitive musical harp.  It’s essentially “a vertical array of parallel wires” which catches water vapor suspended in fog as the wind blows over the wires.

fog harp - Virginia Tech
“Study co-author Josh Tulkoff constructs a large prototype of the fog harp, which consists of a vertical array of 700 wires and is based on initial experimental results.” Photo Credit: Virginia Tech. 

 

The fog harp technology is a significant improvement over traditional fog nets which have been employed since the 1980’s in higher humidity areas. By using wires on the fog harp, investigators have been able to collect water vapor that may be lost when using the fog nets. Virginia Tech researchers noted a threefold increase their collection capacity using the fog harp as compared to fog nets.

Fog nets can be very finicky. The conundrum the scientists were looking to solve with the fog nets was really a spacing issue. “If the holes in the (fog net) mesh are too large, water droplets pass through without catching on the net’s wires. If the mesh is too fine, the nets catch more water, but the water droplets clog up the mesh without running down into the trough and wind no longer moves through the nets.” The use of parallel wires has seemingly solved this long perplexing puzzle.

All I can say is what a difference a year makes… any maybe, please pass the salt & pepper.

Celebrating Green Victories!

 

Clovers
Image source: Synthesio.com

 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day and the “wearing of the green”, let’s take a look at some recent positive news about the environment:

Repurposing Plastics – On March 12th, 2018, Thomas Reuters Foundation revealed an encouraging story about Watamu, Kenya, a small Indian Ocean Resort village whose new mission is to take-on plastic waste. The country banned the sale and use of plastic bags in February and the environmental ministry is planning a plastic bottle buy-back program starting in April. Some of interesting and innovative things people have been creating with plastic refuse run the gamut from fences to furniture to houses, and even a plastic ship to raise awareness about recycling plastic. See for yourself here.

From Farmland to Forests – The Jackson Hole News and Guide reported to the Associated Press on March 13th, 2018 that more than 1.5 square miles of remote ranchland from the former Upper Gros Ventre River Ranch is being added to the Bridger-Teton National Forest, completing the largest land transfer to that national forest in years. The ranchland was donated it to the Trust for Public Land at the end of 2014 by former Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. Money from the transfer ($3 million) will be put in a “land action fund” to support the protection of open space in Jackson Hole.

Getting the Lead – And More – Out!Science Daily revealed on March 14, 2018, that researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and colleagues from University of California Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory may have found a commercially viable and environmentally safe way to remove heavy metals from municipal drinking water “in seconds.” The solution uses metal organic frameworks (MOFs) combined with a polymer to “quickly and selectively remove high amounts of heavy metals like lead and mercury from real-world water samples.” Samples with high concentrations of lead were reduced to 2 parts-per-billion, a level acceptable by both the EPA and the World Health Organization for drinking water.

Oklahoma Finally Faces Facts on FrackingReuters reported on February 27th, 2018 that the Oklahoma Corporate Commission established new rules to help reduce the risk of earthquakes at fracking sites in the central and southern part of the state. Fracking and related underground injection of fracking wastewaters have been repeatedly shown to cause earthquakes. Data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey revealed in 2015 there were 903 magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes versus just 41 of that intensity five years earlier – that’s an increase of 2,200%. Maybe it really is a good thing Scott Pruitt is in Washington instead of his home state… Good for Oklahoma, anyways.

If you know of other cool, green happenings going on, please let me know!

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.

“Free the Rivers” – Benefits of Historical Dam Removal

Long before the Standing Rock Sioux reminded us that “Water is Life!”, pre-colonial Americans deeply understood this simple truth in a way none of us can now imagine.  Rivers were their lifeblood; something they respected and ultimately put to use to make their lives easier. What resulted from their early ingenuity were thousands of dams used to operate early industrial operations, such as grist mills or sawmills. Many of these historical dams are well over 100 years old, in disrepair and no longer serve their original intended purpose. They also continue to impede the natural processes of river ecosystems. What can be done about these unneeded remnants of American history?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Rivers, and other river restoration organizations have some answers. These groups are working hard to “free the rivers” by supporting dam removal projects across the country. Working in partnership with individuals, communities and government agencies, they have made great strides in restoring river habitats, improving fish breeding grounds, all while supporting the cultural and historical significance of this early American phenomenon.

This is no easy task, to be sure. Especially when you consider the magnitude of the impacts imposed on rivers by dams. The Penobscot River in Maine is a great example of how rivers can be restored. The Penobscot is New England’s second largest river with a length of 109 miles and which drains an area of 8,570 miles. Until recently, this river system had 119 dams which, the TNC noted, restricted fish migrating from the ocean to about 30 miles of navigable river.

Penobscot
Destruction of Veazie Dam on Penobscot River. Photo: Penobscot Trust/Flickr

TNC worked with several other groups to negotiate the removal of two hydropower dams and to build a fish bypass on a third dam. The results have been impressive. TNC reported in the same article, that “past counts of just a few thousand river herring have blossomed to more than 1.8 million in 2016. Researchers also documented three short-nosed sturgeon swimming farther upriver than they’ve been seen in 200 years.”

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in 2011 on the Elwha River in Washington. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, were removed and the river’s comeback has been vigorously studied and supported since then.

(Watch a video of the Elwha Dam destruction here.)

River recovery studies on the Elwha River have come back overwhelmingly positive. High Country News reported that in 2016, “biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided.”

However, it’s not just fish that benefit from dam removal. Entire ecosystems are being stimulated and returning to a more natural state. Sediments once held back behind the dams, are now forming beaches and helping to reshape the rivers paths. Animals, such as otter and smaller rodents, are returning to areas along the river.

Even plants have made an impressive recovery. High Country News reported “Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.”

Even more encouraging is that dam removal projects seem to be on an upswing. American Rivers notes that between 1912 through 2016, 1384 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2016 alone, 72 dams were removed to help restore rivers. Overall, the United States has roughly 90,000 dams.

(American Rivers website features a map of U.S. dam removal projects here.)

A quick website review of dam removal projects in the U.S. reveals, that in addition to national groups like The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers, there are a large number of local groups emerging across the country to advocate dam removal. Groups, such as, “Free VT Rivers”, “Connecticut River Conservancy”, “Idaho Rivers United”, “River Alliance of Wisconsin”, are just a few of the many groups working to help restore river ecosystems.

It’s obvious that dam construction has played a vital role in America’s economic development and will continue to do so for a long time. However, it is encouraging to know that more and more people are supporting the dismantling of historical dams that no longer support their original intention, so-called “deadbeat dams,” as well as advocating the removal of dams that have severely impacted river ecosystems.

To learn more about the overall benefits of dam removal, visit American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy or do a web search on river restoration organizations in your state.

There are many ways to help restore rivers. What will yours be?

Is Water Service a Privilege?

A disturbing trend involving access to water is emerging in the United States. People in communities around the country are struggling to stay connected to their local water services, primarily due to large price increases. Lower-income households are being hit the hardest and unlike with other utilities, financial assistance is usually not available. This begs the question of whether access to water should be considered a moral obligation or a privilege?faucet

Certainly, in our country’s early history, access to water was far from a God given right. Early pioneers had to walk to creeks, streams or rivers to get the water they needed for daily life. Over time, technology in the form of windmills and wells and then electric pumps and wells, made getting water from the ground easier and easier. Now our country has a vast system of dams, reservoirs, canals, wells and pipes to deliver water precisely where and when it is needed.

In this modern era of seemingly abundant water, should access be limited to only those who can pay for it? Our gut reaction may be ‘no’ but our wallets may be saying something else.

There are several reasons for the substantial increase in water service costs. In December 2017, Michigan State University (MSU) published research concluding the main reasons behind rising water rates include aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Other factors contributing to burgeoning water prices are mentioned in a 2017 Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study. This study discusses the need to recover costs due to declining demand (often a result of conservation programs) as well as rising operations and maintenance costs, all of which contribute to higher rates.

A loss of government funding hasn’t helped the situation. As noted in a University of Pennsylvania online article, Congress switched from offering grants which covered up to 75% of water infrastructure, to offering loans. This change means that local communities are now fully responsible for their water projects and are expected to repay the loans. Due to all these issues, cities and towns have raised rates to cover costs.

Exactly how to handle increasing service costs is a compelling conundrum. In 2016, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) highlighted the growing problem of water unaffordability in the United States. The UUSC report notes the “cost of household water services has risen 40% from 2010 to 2015” in some major U.S. cities.  Couple this with MSU research projections estimating  that “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent” and you can quickly see the significance of the problem.

Rising rates combined with inflation have crippled lower-income households. The UUSC report notes that in “some communities’ water and sanitation services command 4–19% of monthly household income, well beyond what could be considered affordable” for people in the lowest 20% income bracket. Internationally, its agreed that expenses for water and sewer services should not exceed between 2-5% of household income.

As troubling as all this data is, the crux of the problem may lie in the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country. As reported in a March 22, 2016 Circle of Blue online article, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Census Bureau has data showing the income of the top 5% of American households increased 60% between 1980 and 2014 while the bottom 10% had incomes that fell over the same period.

As the old saying goes, “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer” and now there’s data to prove it.

 

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.