National Almond Day — To Celebrate or Not To Celebrate?

The husk of the almond is not wasted - it is used in cattle feed
The husk of the almond is not wasted – it is used in cattle feed

National Almond Day is February 16, but not everybody is celebrating. While the almond is a nutritious and delicious nut, it is also a water-intensive crop that is grown in one of the most drought-stricken areas of the United States – California. But is it actually the villain it has been cracked up to be? Let’s take a look at some facts.

Almonds contain the highest amount of protein of any tree nut, and they are also packed with fiber, calcium, vitamin E, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorus, and magnesium. This nutritional powerhouse adds a delightful crunch to salads or oatmeal, is easily packaged for a quick on-the-go snack, and can be made into almond butter or almond milk. In addition, almonds contain healthy fats and are frequently included in weight loss plans, as they help curb appetite.

On the flip side, almonds have recently drawn widespread criticism because of their water footprint. It takes roughly 1.1 gallons of water to grow just one almond, and almond trees are almost exclusively grown in water-parched California. California’s mild winters and dry summers, combined with its limited temperature range, make it the perfect climate for growing almond trees, as they are intolerant of extreme cold, excessive heat, and high humidity. In fact, over 99% of America’s almonds and over 85% of the world’s almonds are grown in California — and they account for over 10% of the state’s total water usage.

Alfalfa is primarily grown to feed cattle
Alfalfa is primarily grown to feed cattle

Considering that 98% of the state is under drought and California Governor Jerry Brown mandated that cities and towns cut their water usage by 25%, it’s no surprise that almonds have come under heavy fire. After all, unlike other crops whose fields go fallow on a seasonal basis, almond trees require year-round watering, and the water footprint — 46 gallons of water per each 1-oz. serving of almonds — appears to be an alarming statistic. But let’s look at some additional statistics to put it into perspective. To produce one 4-oz. serving of rice requires about 83 gallons of water, one 0.5-oz. serving of chocolate requires about 130 gallons, and that quarter pound hamburger? A whopping 660 gallons of water. In fact, the California meat and dairy industry accounts for about 47% of the state’s total water usage. Almond opponents note that the amount of land used for almond production has grown by almost 50% over the last ten years. However, it should also be noted that much of the land in question replaced land previously used for growing rice, which is arguably a thirstier crop on a per serving basis.

california_food_supply_farming
California agriculture contributes greatly to America’s food supply

Perhaps the answer is to reduce the amount of agriculture in California. After all, a staggering 80% of California’s developed water is used for agriculture. But consider this: California has the world’s eighth largest economy, and it produces about half of all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the United States. California produces more than 90% of all the domestically consumed tomatoes, strawberries, and broccoli, and nearly 100% of our pistachios, almonds, and walnuts. So unless Americans are willing to forgo many lunch and dinner staples, ending agriculture in California may not be the answer.

Then what is the solution? Admittedly, it is not a simple one. Conservation certainly plays a role, as does the innovation and implementation of new, sustainable technology. Harvesting rainwater, reusing wastewater, desalination, and banking groundwater are existing, viable solutions. Also, considering our nation loses 1.7 trillion gallons of clean, treated water per year to leaks — or about one and a half times the total amount of water used by almond trees per year — repairing our failing infrastructure must be a national priority. Even small changes, like eating one vegan dinner per week or planting white clover instead of grass, can have significant impact when implemented on a large scale.

almond_cake
Almond joy dessert

So on National Almond Day, feel free to enjoy your green beans almondine or indulge in an almond joy dessert, while also being cognizant of our nation’s water crisis. If Americans can implement small modifications to personal habits while committing to investing in infrastructure and sustainable technology, our nation can be assured of having adequate clean, safe water — and almonds — for generations to come.

Happy National Almond Day!
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Desalination: a viable option?

iceberg for water supply
Some people have suggested towing icebergs to places that need freshwater. Photo: SERPENT Project

Drought. Scarcity. Pollution. Climate change. Demand. Overpopulation. These are all issues with our nation’s water supply with which we have become all too familiar. Engineers and water systems are scrambling for solutions, and countless possibilities — some as basic as conservation and water bans and some as complicated as water reclamation and transporting icebergs — have been considered. Communities struggle to meet demand with dwindling supply and a limited budget, and many have begun to give desalination serious consideration.

Desalination, or the process of removing salt from water, used to be summarily dismissed as a supply option due to its expense and energy consumption. However, in light of the increase in water scarcity, desalination has become a feasible option for many water-stressed communities. Already commonplace throughout the Middle East, desalination plants are now popping up all over southern California and Texas. Let’s look at some facts about global desalination:

  • carlsbad desalination plant
    When complete, the Carlsbad, CA desalination plant will be the largest in the western hemisphere

    Dubai sources over 98% of its potable water supply from desalination

  • Global leaders in desalination are Saudi Arabia with 17% of global output, United Arab Emirates with 13.4%, and the United States with 13%
  • Nearly 70% of Israel’s domestic water consumption comes from desalination
  • Most desalination plants are in the Middle East, where energy is less expensive and environmental regulations are less stringent
  • Currently under construction, the $1 billion, 50 mgd Carlsbad desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA will be the largest in the western hemisphere when completed
  • Costing $2 billion, the Sydney, Australia desalination plant has not produced any water since 2012 due to high dam levels

desalination diagramThe most commonly utilized desalination technology is reverse osmosis (RO), which was invented in California in the 1950s. RO uses high pressure to force water through fine membranes that leave the salt behind. For every two gallons of salty water, only one gallon is made available as freshwater. The whole process utilizes an exorbitant amount of energy, with energy accounting for up to half the total cost of desalination. In fact, desalinated water costs about $2,000 per acre-foot, which is approximately the amount of water used by a family of four in six months. Because less salty water requires less energy for processing, the most cost-effective desalination plants treat brackish, or slightly salty, water rather than seawater.

desalination fish
Impinged fish

There are some environmental concerns surrounding desalination as well. The highly concentrated salt brine left behind requires disposal. However, because it is twice as dense as seawater, it sinks to the ocean floor and spreads, suffocating bottom-dwelling marine life. Therefore, the brine byproduct must be mixed with freshwater, typically in the form of treated wastewater or cooling water from a power plant, prior to being released into the ocean. In addition, fish and other marine life are often sucked toward the intake pipes where they are killed on the intake screens (impingement), and smaller marine life, such as plankton, larvae, and fish eggs, pass through the screens and are killed during the desalination process itself (entrainment). Fortunately, there have been some recent innovations to address these concerns. For example, subsurface intakes pull seawater from beneath the seafloor, virtually eliminating impingement and entrainment. An added bonus to subsurface intakes is the fact that the sand acts as a natural filter that pre-filters the water, reducing the plant’s chemical and energy usage.

central_valley_california
California’s Central Valley is largely agricultural and relies heavily on irrigation

This summer, HydroRevolution, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based agricultural and commercial water producer WaterFX, announced its plans to build California’s first commercial solar desalination plant in the state’s heavily agricultural Central Valley. The plant will run solely off solar thermal energy and will utilize Aqua4, a new desalination technology that produces only solid salt and freshwater, with zero excess discharge. In addition, it will utilize unusable irrigation water from a 7,000-acre ditch rather than seawater. The plant will provide the necessary freshwater for the area’s irrigation needs without the energy consumption or concentrated briny discharge of traditional desalination plants. Admittedly, having the 7,000-acre ditch from which to draw the water helps immeasurably, and isn’t an option for most other areas.

But desalination isn’t only being used in the southwestern part of the country. In Massachusetts, the Town of Swansea recently opened the first publicly held desalination facility in the Northeast. A coastal town, Swansea experienced a population boom that led to groundwater supplies running low, which in turn allowed seawater to seep into the aquifers. The result was a water crisis that forced the enactment of water bans, steep fines – and even left 30% of the town without water for a brief period one summer.

According to Robert Marquis, who has acted as Swansea’s water manager for over 40 years, “We just couldn’t support a burgeoning population or commercial growth,” he said. “Anything that came into Swansea, we were objecting to it if it was going to be water intensive.”

Designed with the help of Tata & Howard’s own John Cordaro, P.E., the Swansea desalination facility has been online for over a year, and took home a third place global finish at the 2014 Global Water Awards, losing only to Dubai, Singapore, and Sorek, Israel.

reverse osmosis membrane
A semipermeable reverse osmosis membrane coil used in desalination

There is one matter with RO that, while a non-issue in sunny southern Californian, is a primary concern to the Northeast: RO filters are delicate and highly intolerant of ice, and cease being functional below 36°F. To address this issue, Swansea installed two miles of pipes in order to sufficiently heat the incoming river water prior to its entering the plant.

For water-stressed Swansea, desalination has been a successful solution. But nearby Brockton, Massachusetts has not realized the same benefit from their desalination facility. Costing roughly $120 million, the plant was constructed to utilize brackish river water as opposed to seawater, which Brockton officials believed would make the whole process affordable. However, seven years later, the water produced by the Brockton desalination plant is still too expensive, so the city has turned to a local lake as its source, leaving the costly desalination plant largely in disuse.

While desalination is heavily utilized throughout the Middle East, it has only recently come under serious consideration in the United States. As water scarcity increases due to population growth, climate change, and growing demand, alternative water source options are receiving close attention. Once not even considered due to energy costs and environmental concerns, desalination has become a frequent and sincere topic of conversation for meeting future needs. And with further advances in technology that address both energy usage and environmental impact, there remains a strong possibility that desalination could become a widely acceptable solution nationwide. Now if folks could just get on board with water reclamation
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Does west coast drought affect east coast life? You bet.

USGS drought monitor week of 8.4.15
USGS drought monitor week of 8.4.15

Drought. Every day, there are multiple news stories about the historic drought affecting America’s west and south. In April, Governor Jerry Brown mandated that Californians cut their water usage by 25%. Almond growers are being lambasted for growing a thirsty crop, golf courses are allowing their greens to turn into browns, and aquifers are being depleted at a rate far greater than they are being replenished. The outlook is bleak. Seven states are literally running out of water, and scientists are scrambling to try to address the unprecedented drought.

Yet in the midst of all of this, New Englanders are rather lackadaisical. After all, Lowell, Massachusetts just experienced the snowiest winter on record with an unprecedented 120.6 inches, earning the city the title of “snowiest city in the United States” for the 2014-2015 winter, and the summer has been fairly mild. On August 6, the USGS drought monitor showed a couple of areas of mild drought, but New Englanders have come to expect regular, soaking rains, and nobody seems too concerned. After all, New England isn’t affected by the exceptional drought of the west coast. Or is it?

Extreme Weather on Both Coasts

Newton's Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; and while the law refers to motion, it can also be applied to weather. The severe drought and high heat of the west is directly related to the cold and snow in the northeast, and both extremes have been attrributed to global climate change. In the period of January to March of 2015, New England experienced its coldest winter on record. Providence, RI, Worcester, MA, and Hartford, CT broke all cold records during that time, while Boston, MA experienced its third coldest winter on record, with its top two coldest periods dating all the way back to the 1800s. On the opposite coast, Sacramento, CA experienced its hottest March on record, with temperatures rising to those that are more typical to May than March. Weather balances the atmosphere, so when an extreme takes place in one geographic location, the opposite extreme will occur somewhere else in the world.

“Ridiculously Resilient Ridge”

Photo Brett Albright/NWS San Diego
Photo Brett Albright/NWS San Diego

Stanford University Ph.D. candidate Daniel Swain, who writes The California Weather Blog, coined the alliterative nickname for the high-pressure area that sits over the eastern Pacific Ocean for months at a time. And, like the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge itself, the name has stuck. The ridge is basically a mountain of air that stalled off the coast of California and British Columbia, causing any storms that would typically hit California to trend farther north instead to the Alaskan panhandle and northward. The trough, just as alliteratively coined the “Terribly Tenacious Trough” by Jennifer Francis, Research Professor at Rutgers University, in turn sat over the east coast, bringing with it unusually cold, wet weather. This weather pattern, which would be typical if it lasted just a short period of time, has been extreme in that it has been incredibly persistent, developing for months at a time since 2012. In addition, climatologists are scratching their heads over it, as there is no clear reason why it has been so persistant.

Economic Impact

This car was almost completely covered after a blizzard in January 2015
This car in Massachusetts was almost completely covered after a blizzard in January 2015

New Englanders took a significant economic hit during the extreme winter of 2014-2015 due to exhausted snow removal budgets, damaged property, and high utility and heating bills. Ice dams and roof issues from the excessive amount of snow caused damage to many homes, and insurance companies are still reeling from the claims processed over the winter, which also included higher than average vehicle and accident claims. Many accidents were attributed to the severe winter and snowfall, and to the gargantuan snow piles that made driving and maneuvering in parking lots even more treacherous. And even more problems ensued when the snow began to melt in the spring.

Flooding

Flooding is not just caused by extreme rainfall but is in fact influenced by many factors, such as soil conditions and sea level. In the northeast, excessive precipitation, like the record snowfall experienced this past winter, increases soil moisture content, which in turn increases the potential for flooding. In addition, northeast sea levels have risen over a foot since last century, which already puts New Englanders at increased risk for flooding.

Food Supplies

It takes about 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of almonds
It takes about 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of almonds

California grows more food for consumption in the United States than any other state. In fact, nearly half of all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the entire country are grown in California, and the state is the fifth largest supplier of food in the world. Growing over 450 different crops, California is the exclusive U.S. producer of many crops including almonds, artichokes, clover, dates, olives, pistachios, and raisins. In addition, California also produces almost all of the grapes, lemons, lettuce, and tomatoes grown in the nation.

Prices of these crops have already risen, and are expected to rise even more. 80% of the water used in California is used by farmers and ranchers, and with the exceptional drought, many farmers have had to leave their fields fallow or pay to pump water from the ground. The economic hits to farmers are passed onto consumers, resulting in higher priced produce and nuts for the rest of the nation. If the drought continues, California farmers may be forced out of business, resulting in national food shortages. And over on the opposite coast, Florida experienced freezing temperatures that affected the 2014-2015 orange crop, resulting in the smallest yield of oranges since the 1964-1965 season.

Looking Ahead

"The blob" is a very large area of warm water that scientists are hoping may end the California drought
“The blob” is a very large area of warm water that scientists are hoping may end the California drought

At this time, forecasters are hoping that the extreme drought in California may be coming to an end. The combination of El Nino and “the blob” create a high possibility for a temperate, wet winter in the Pacific Northwest, and California residents and businesses are keeping their fingers crossed — as should New Englanders. Once again referring to Newton’s Third Law, we can safely assume that a mild, wet winter for California would likely produce a mild, dry winter for the east coast. And that is something the whole nation should celebrate.Subscribe-to-our-newsletter1

60 Minutes water episode sparks some debate

drought_californiaOn May 31, 2015, 60 Minutes aired an episode on water that discussed the depletion of our nation’s groundwater. 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl met with Jay Famiglietti, a leading groundwater expert and Earth sciences professor at the University of California, Irvine, in an effort to shed some light on the drought affecting California. The report was alarming, noting that we are pumping out our nation’s groundwater faster than it can replenish itself. And while reclaimed water was discussed as a possible solution, with Ms. Stahl dramatically drinking water that had been wastewater just 45 minutes earlier, at least one reporter thinks the 60 Minutes water report fell somewhat flat.

Clark Wolf, a contributor for Forbes Magazine, accused the popular Sunday evening news show of only showing half the story. While 60 Minutes successfully explained the realities of groundwater and aquifers, Wolf notes, the popular news program failed to illustrate the greater implications or, beyond reclaimed water, provide any type of long-term, viable solution. In addition, Wolf notes that California’s agricultural sector needs to look towards more sustainable growing methods.

So who is right? You can find the 60 Minutes video and transcript here and Wolf’s article here in order to form your own opinion. But no matter which news piece is perceived as more accurate, one thing is certain: people are finally talking about water, its scarcity, and how we can protect it for future generations. And we can all agree that that is a good thing.

Powering Vehicles from Discarded Food: East Coast Meets West Coast

food waste graphic useLast month, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law the Commercial Food Waste Ban, which will go into effect on October 1, 2014. This law targets commercial institutions who produce more than one ton of organic waste per week, such as hospitals, restaurants, schools, hotels, and supermarkets. Once the ban takes effect, this waste food, which accounts for 25% of the waste stream in the Commonwealth, will need to be recycled rather than discarded. Recycling food waste has many advantages. First, it brings awareness to businesses to simply be more mindful in food ordering, preparation, and potential donation in order to decrease the overall amount of food waste they produce. Next, it decreases food waste in landfills, and thus mitigates the amount of greenhouse gas entering the atmosphere from decomposition. Finally, it provides a clean energy source. And that is something this country desperately needs.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is one way to dispose of organic waste that has the added benefit of producing clean energy. AD uses microbes to break down organic waste in an oxygen-deprived chamber, producing biogas, a clean and potent energy. Biogas is produced not just from food waste, but from any organic waste matter, including human waste, and is a clean energy option for heating and cooling, electricity, and powering vehicles. Wastewater treatment facilities that currently incorporate AD in their treatment processes could potentially be modified to handle food waste as well, and the Commonwealth is offering up $1M in grant funding for public facilities to do just that. In fact, the first grant of $100,000 has already been awarded to Massachusetts Water Resources Agency (MWRA) to process food waste at its wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island.

AD eggs at Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, New York Courtesy of New York City Department of Environmental Protection
AD eggs at Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, New York, photo courtesy of New York City Department of Environmental Protection

Connecticut and Vermont have passed similar laws, but they are using a more gradual approach. Both states currently only require businesses that are located within 20 miles of a suitable recycling facility and produce more than two tons of food waste per week to recycle, but expect full compliance by 2020. New York City is also implementing a food waste ban as a result of the success of its recently completed Food Waste Challenge, a six-month trial in which businesses voluntarily participated by donating unused food as well as diverting their scraps to a local treatment plant. The City noted that a key part of the initiative was food donation, as more than 25% of food waste diversion was a result of donations to local food banks. And businesses are supportive. Melissa Autilio Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, commended the program and supported the litigation. “The Food Waste Challenge proves that sending less to landfills is good for both business and the planet,” Fleischut said in a press release. “The New York State Restaurant Association looks forward to working with the city to advance this initiative in a responsible way that works for everyone.”

On the other side of the country, waste-powered cars are swiftly becoming a reality. Hyundai, who has been working with the University of California, plans to begin leasing a fuel-cell version of its Tucson crossover that can travel about 480 kilometers on a tank of hydrogen, which is produced from AD and has zero emissions. The eco-friendly Tucson, which will only be available to California residents, has low lease rates which include free fuel from nearly a dozen hydrogen pumps around the state. Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and GM are starting to sell hydrogen cars in California as well.

A recently opened filling station in California that utilizes methane from landfill sources
A recently opened filling station in California that utilizes methane from landfill sources

California has long been a pioneer in green technologies. However, Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to actually implement a comprehensive ban on organic waste. While utilizing waste for energy has largely been voluntary and thus slow-moving, this legal mandate will force large-scale organic waste processing facilities into production, either through retrofitting of existing facilities or new construction. And these new processing centers will produce large amounts of biogas. So will the east coast finally start seeing the alternative fuel filling stations and vehicles that are currently reserved only for the west coast? Let’s hope so. If we could combine east coast legal mandates with west coast alternative fuel technology, the nation could see zero emissions vehicles running on discarded organic scraps and sewerage. Keep excess garbage from our landfills while powering pollutant-free vehicles? Now that’s a win-win.

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