“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.

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!