Category — Climate
Recently, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission announced that it was temporarily suspending 19 separate water withdrawal permits due to reduced stream flow levels throughout the Susquehanna basin (which covers land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Most of these withdrawals were linked with natural gas extraction: drilling and fracking can consume up to 7 million gallons of water per well, and wells can be fracked multiple times.
Three weeks ago the U.S. Geological Survey pronounced 61 percent of the lower 48 “abnormally dry.” In the East, where I live, we had a nearly snowless winter, and rainfall levels this spring are, so far, well below normal. I’m sorry it’s so dry, but I’m glad the SRBC has the power to quickly halt large withdrawals. In recent years in the southeast, during abnormally dry or even drought conditions, major water users like Coke and Pepsi were not asked (nor did they volunteer) to cut back on water pumping, even while residents were mandated to restrict their use.
The energy companies affected by the SRBC will scale back operations or they will find water elsewhere, as thirsty people and populations with enough money always do. Already, natural gas companies are buying water from utilities and from private landowners, hauling it away from its home watershed, polluting it with chemicals and compounds, including radioactive material that used to be underground, and then hauling it away to be “recycled” or injected back into the earth. In other words, it’s lost to the hydrological cycle forever.
Individually, these withdrawals for fracking may be small, but they could have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and local hydrology. Nationwide, oil and gas companies are fracking 25,000 wells a year. People who live in shale areas need water for residential and commercial use, of course — but that water is also needed to grow crops, and to support wildlife, wetlands and streams that feed larger rivers.
Communities with abundant fresh water — in watersheds that have been protected using millions of taxpayer and private dollars — are feeling the pressure from both oil and gas companies and, perversely, from bottling companies, who recognize that demand for their product will only rise as industrial activity contaminates drinking water. In upstate New York (where there’s currently a moratorium on high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), the villages of Painted Post and Bath are considering selling municipal water to a Pennsylvania fracking company, while the town of Ephratah is weighing whether to sell land to the California-based Crystal Geyser water company, which would build a bottling plant and tap into the local aquifer.
In Wyoming, some ranchers are making more money selling their water to fracking companies than they can make raising cattle. In Colorado, ranchers are competing with frackers to buy rights to surface water, and the price per acre-foot is rising substantially. In Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, the public water company Aqua America recently evicted 32 families from a mobile-home court in order to build a water withdrawal facility that will provide 3 million gallons a day to the fracking industry.
These water transfers — moving water away from local residents to corporate interests — have me thinking about issues of local control, private property rights, the public trust, local economies, and the future of agriculture. (Where will we get our food if this land continues to move out of agricultural production? In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that 25 percent of dairy farmers with gas wells have abandoned farming.) I hate to prognosticate, but it’s fairly obvious: frictions in these areas will only grow more acute as the population, and its energy and water demand, grows.
May 1, 2012 1 Comment
In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.
Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)
But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)
Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.
If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
March 26, 2012 3 Comments
Just before the holidays, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson went on the Dr. Oz show to talk about drinking-water safety. She concluded with her one wish for a cleaner, greener earth. To my surprise, she wished for more recycling.
Not that again, I groaned. Does anyone really listen to pro-recycling arguments these days? The subject is so 20th century, so fraught with disappointment and misunderstanding.
But what Jackson said was actually quite bold, and it certainly needed saying:
If we could increase our recycling rate from about 39 percent to 80 or 90 percent, Jackson said, “we would do a bunch of things. Certainly, we would have a cleaner environment. We would save a tremendous amount of water and energy. We would create millions of jobs, because recycling, in and of itself, would become a supply chain in our country—a very domestic one. . . . Think of [recycling] as a homegrown jobs program and an environmental program and an energy program and a water program all in one.”
It sounds like magical thinking, but groups like the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been talking about the jobs angle for decades, and groups such as NRDC have harped on the energy and water benefits for even longer. (See “More Jobs, Less Pollution” — a report released last November by NRDC along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, Recycling Works! and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — for data that support Jackson’s claims.)
All we need to do is expand access to recycling programs for residents and businesses, to increase the number of recycling bins in public places, to broaden the range of materials accepted by processors (think textiles, electronics, construction and demolition debris, and agricultural and industrial waste), to limit the use of packaging and other materials that can’t be recycled or composted, to shorten the supply lines between generators of scrap materials and their end users, to develop composting programs that handle food as well as yard and garden waste, and to educate everyone about all these changes. (Oh yeah, and end subsidies that encourage burying and burning waste.)
Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.
Could recycling be that wonderful, magical animal (and pay for itself, too)? One can always dream.
Image: Simpsons Wiki
January 27, 2012 3 Comments
Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.
Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.
For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.
I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)
The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Change.org. Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.
December 7, 2011 No Comments
Visiting the eastern side of California’s San Joaquin Valley recently, I burned a lot of fossil fuel getting the lay of the land. The Valley: flat, semi-arid, and planted wall-to-wall with fruit trees, nut trees, cotton, corn, and alfalfa. Ditches — some of them offshoots of the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal — paralleled roadways and fields, delivering relatively pristine surface water to farms, ranches, and giant dairies. Pumps pulled groundwater for domestic (and sometimes agricultural) use. To the east: the glorious golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada. High above them: the great water factory of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, from whence the Kings, Kern, Tule, and Kaweah Rivers flow west, through the foothills and into the ditches and drains of the valley, where they’re fought over tooth and nail.
I drove east and uphill early one morning to marvel at the sequoias, pay my respects to the General Sherman Tree, and ponder the mindset that, 70 years ago, decreed the nearly half million acres of Kings Canyon off limits to development and exploitation. (Thank you, Harold Ickes, who as Secretary of the Interior hired Ansel Adams to photograph the forests and canyons and sway public opinion.) Sequoia National Park, slightly smaller and to the south, had been established in 1890. Having done little upland research before this trip, I was astounded to see how few roads traversed these tracts. In fact, Kings Canyon is the second largest roadless area in the lower 48, and an astonishing 84 percent of the park is accessible only on foot. The longer I drove — and the more jaw-dropping the views of the John Muir Wilderness and the alpine peaks of the Great Western Divide — the more I marveled at the foresight of political leaders who could leave so much alone. Only around 4,000 people a year, out of 2 million park visitors, venture into the vast mountain fortress of the backcountry, with its granite canyons, subalpine meadows, and glacially scoured lakes — the classic High Sierra landscape immortalized by Adams and countless nature-themed calendars. Despite the low visitation, the protections hold. At a time when states are finding it difficult to finance the repair of such basic infrastructure as bridges and water mains, how would we ever find the political will today, to say nothing of the money, to set aside wilderness for its own sake?
This landscape could have been carved into vacation homes, grazing allotments, timber yards, mines, or ski resorts (Disney tried the latter in the late 1970s, at the southern end of the park). But cooler heads and grander visions prevailed. Today’s visitors surely appreciate the spiritual and aesthetic values of these wildlands, but its managers don’t stress, in their communications with the general public, the topography’s intimate connection with the regional economy. Careening downhill from an elevation of 8,000 feet back to 300, one can’t help noting that the Sierra’s prodigious cascades, streams, and rivers — with the help of dams, ditches and canals — have combined and conspired to make the Valley one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. (And yes, this water is ultimately tainted by agricultural inputs, but that’s a story for another day.)
Top photo: Kaweah Peaks of the Sierra Nevada from Wikimedia Commons. Water rights postcard: Paul Stanton, Duckboy Cards
September 30, 2011 No Comments
I haven’t written much here about fracking for natural gas because others have been covering it longer and better than I, but this story in yesterday’s Pittsburg Tribune-Review, by Richard Gazarik, raised my hackles. I’ll paraphrase:
Gas companies in southwestern Pennsylvania are leasing portions of streams from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission to build a 16.5-mile pipeline to move locally drilled gas to larger markets. Why is an agency that promotes sport fishing making it easier for gas companies to operate in and around waterways used for fishing? Because it’s $36 million short on cash to repair dams in danger of collapse (the dams are classified as high risk because they’re incapable of holding 50 percent of the maximum precipitation that a region could receive). The Fish Commission also plans to sell water to the gas companies for use in drilling operations. (Wait: aren’t surface waters in the public trust—owned by the people? Maybe they’re selling groundwater – the story is unclear.) So far, about one-third of the commission’s waterways—some 14,000 acres–are potential drilling sites.
Environmentalists, including a group already engaged in cleaning up streams polluted by abandoned coalmines, are “concerned.” The pipeline will cross wetlands 71 times and streams 41 times. Kelly Swan, a spokesperson for Williams Production Appalachia, which is pursing a permit to drill under Donegal Lake, a popular trout-fishing spot in Donegal Township, among other sites, minimizes the potential for environmental damage: “Company inspectors will be stationed along the pipeline daily to ensure that construction adheres to state DEP requirements.” Very reassuring: the company guards itself, under requirements set by a notoriously drill-friendly agency. (We’ve seen how well this worked with BP in the Gulf, ExxonMobil in Yellowstone, and so on.)
Drill-site construction fragments forests and disrupts wildlife, including fish and the invertebrates they feed on (yes, the Fish Commission stocks Donegal Lake; it also limits boating to craft powered by electric motors and human power. In other words: no gasoline engines.) Wells can impact water quality and quantity. Fracked wells require many millions of gallons of fresh water that, after being contaminated with a variety of potentially toxic chemicals, is hauled away to be treated before it’s discharged (rules vary by state: in some places, fracking water is spread on roads to control dust; in other states, it’s discharged untreated into creeks or held in containment lagoons until it evaporates). But wastewater treatment plants, which make money off this deal, often don’t know the exact makeup of the water they’re treating, nor do they have the capacity to remove all contaminants. Some plant operators are concerned with fracking water’s high levels of salts, including bromide, which can interact with chlorine (used to deactivate bacteria in drinking water as well as wastewater) to form disinfection byproducts, which the EPA regulates because they’re harmful to humans (if consumed over a long period of time). Surely, they harm aquatic creatures at far lower levels.
This plan—to abet gas drilling around wetlands and fish habitat that provides recreation and a funding source for an agency charged with protecting a natural resource; in an area with dams unable to hold back current floods, let alone the 100-year floods we seem to keep getting (engineers believe it was flooding and scouring that exposed and then ruptured the pipeline under the Yellowstone River earlier this month) — seems so egregiously wrong-headed to me–an ever-tightening spiral of adverse consequences–that I can’t imagine it going forward. And then I remember that all fracking operations take place in similarly vulnerable contexts: in or near forests, near wetlands, streams, scenic areas, plant habitat, animal habitat, farmland, ranchland, watersheds, people habitat—in short, on any economically feasible and geologically propitious piece of our one and only planet Earth.
July 11, 2011 No Comments
I recently watched two documentaries about humans’ uneasy relationship to the earth. Home, a tour-de-force of aerial cinematography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, depicts both planetary splendor and the extent to which we’ve altered nature (not for the better). The Economics of Happiness, by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick and John Page, links environmental and social crises (such as unemployment and civil unrest) in the developing world. What both films have in common, besides the keening world music that’s become de rigueur in socially conscious films set in faraway places, is an exaltation of the rural over the urban, the local over the global, and a romanticizing of farming. Home offers little in the way of solutions for planetary peril (though it cites a few good-news examples at its conclusions, to show that change is possible), while The Economics of Happiness finds salvation in re-localization, the transition movement, and the rejection of hyper-consumerism.
I see a lot of documentaries lamenting the industrialization of food and water, the sorry state of our soils and forests, the darker side of consumption (waste, pollution, greenhouse gases, etc.). I daresay the audience for these films arrives hip to their messages, but still I’m happy such movies are making the rounds if they can inspire more individuals to make more changes for the better, and also—and more importantly–to make changes collectively: to organize get-out-the-vote drives, for example, or boycotts of corporations that don’t share one’s values; to defect from multinational banks to local institutions; to join and support campaigns that focus on companies that pollute or use toxic ingredients.
Still, there’s a cynic in me that says, as the credits roll, “Tried that – didn’t work” or “It’s taking too long: we need a sustainable energy policy now!” And then there’s the tiny nihilist in me that said, when Cyclone Yasi ripped through Queensland, “Good! Maybe now the politicians will listen,” because $5 billion worth of destruction speaks louder than words. Global warming is wreaking havoc: the planet is experiencing more devastating floods and droughts; food prices are rising; insurance rates too.
There’s one thing that bothered me about Home, which is a truly beautiful film and will surely spur viewers fifty years hence, when so much of the splendor it depicts is gone, to ask what the hell took us so long to act. The documentary, which is showing for free at Manhattan’s Village East Cinema from February 4 – 10th, is sponsored by the multinational holding company PPR, which includes such luxury purveyors as Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL, and Bottega Veneta, and had sales in 2009 of $21.7 trillion. The net income of the LVMH group of luxury brands, which includes Moet & Chandon and Louis Vuitton (and had nothing to do with this film) rose 73 percent in 2010; sales in 2010 were $28 billion. According to the New York Times, the spike in luxury sales is driven by the newly affluent, mostly in Asia.
Even those with environmental consciences only half-raised understand that less consumption means fewer greenhouse gas emissions (from mining raw materials, converting them into consumer goods, transporting them around the world and, ultimately, disposing of them). Is the Home sponsorship, which exalts the most conspicuous consumption, a form a greenwash? Are Gucci et al trying to tell us we can stay atmospherically comfortable and still have this season’s lambskin box bags? Maybe we can: after all, cheap prices (and goods that quickly fall apart) propel consumption. If prices reflected social and environmental costs, and goods were made to last, not break (do YSL dresses stand up to repeated washing? I wouldn’t know), I might get behind this movement. Yes, it would raise the cost of everything for consumers, but it might also, on the back end, save taxpayers money on environmental remediation and social services (were toxics to be eliminated from production of those goods, for example). But this scheme demands that the Gucci’s and the Vuitton’s (and the Wal-marts and the Targets) quit producing and promoting new styles as the seasons change, and I doubt that’s going to happen.
And so the growing middle classes of the developing world follow in our western footsteps, joining the work-spend treadmill that’s trashing the planet and making so many of us miserable. There’s plenty to like in Norberg-Hodge’s and Arthus-Bertrand’s films, and much to spur debate. See them if you can. (Home is on YouTube, but it’s more powerful on a big screen.)
February 8, 2011 No Comments
How do you get people to pay serious attention to lowering greenhouse gas emissions? Some say we need to make reduction our national, or global, moon shot, or remake climate-change activism as a patriotic calling on par with past wartime efforts.
Time magazine’s Ecocentric blog has a piece about a (theoretical, at this point) energy rationing scheme in Britain, in which citizens would be allotted energy credits, or “tradable energy quotas” (TEQs). Spend them on fuel or energy, and if you run out you can buy or trade them with others who’ve got extras because they’ve purchased sustainable low-emissions energy, which subtracts fewer TEQs from one’s account than high-emissions energy, or they generally live lower on the hog, or perhaps even hogless. (Read a report on the proposal by the Lean Economy Connection on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil here.)
The last time Britain implemented a rationing program was, of course, during World War II. The piece asks, “Does the British public believe that climate change or fuel scarcity are threats akin to Nazism?” And if they did, would that be enough to get them to make sacrifices for the good of the planet? (This short piece doesn’t address the impact on the poor, but the foundation report deals with it briefly here.) The piece ends with this: “Brits and Americans and everyone else in the rich nations may end up deciding that they would simply prefer the good life now, even if it means continuing on this absurd and relentless march into a furnace of their own creation.” Is it just me, or is this metaphor a little tasteless?
January 20, 2011 No Comments
I just learned about a new nonprofit, called ShaleTest, that helps low-income families test their water, soil and air for pollutants linked to shale-gas (natural gas) drilling. According to a story in the Denton Record Chronicle, “The organization has gathered state-of-the-art equipment, trained volunteers and made arrangements with laboratories to analyze results. It will follow a specific set of guidelines drafted by Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who received a 1999 MacArthur Fellows ‘genius grant’ for her environmental work.”
The organization has already received offers of help from scientists in Colorado and Pennsylvania; requests for help from residents in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas; and has already trained volunteers in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
Environmental testing is terribly expensive for individuals,and state governments, already cutting back on environmental spending, can offer little help. (New York’s Governor Paterson recently fired Pete Grannis, commissioner of N.Y.’s Department of Environmental Conservation, after Grannis resisted an order to lay off 209 staff members; this is not good news in a state poised for a hydrofracking boom.)
ShaleTest sounds like a great idea: I like the volunteerism, the pooling of resources and knowledge. (I just hope the group has the resources to conduct tests and collect data before drilling operations commence — it’s difficult to link contamination to a particular project if you can’t show the absence of contamination before it began.) To learn more about the group and about shale-gas drilling, or to donate money to the cause, visit ShaleTest.
October 26, 2010 1 Comment
The Wall Street Journal has a piece today on motivating individuals to conserve energy and water. I posted on the power of peer pressure recently (here), so perhaps this is just piling on, but the Journal adds more data about how such tactics work in countries other than the U.S. , a little bit about how long positive behavioral changes stick, what types of businesses have successfully used this psychology, and how competitions to reduce energy or water use might backfire. No one addresses whether it’s okay to lie to folks about their neighbors’ or peer group’s behavior (since much of this behavior is private).
October 18, 2010 1 Comment