3 Sustainable Clean Water Ideas for a Warming World

3 Sustainable Clean Water Ideas for a Warming World

Climate Change Brings New Innovation to the Water Environment

The summer of 2018 saw devastating fires blazing all over the world. Nearly 100 people died in raging fires across the southern coast of Greece. More than 50 wildfires scorched Sweden where the temperature north of the Arctic Circle soared into the 90’s causing drought conditions. Record breaking temperatures across the globe from Montreal to Great Britain topped 98 degrees this summer.  In Japan, 22,000 people were hospitalized when temps climbed to 106 degrees. And, in normally cool Oslo, the thermometer climbed to 86 degrees for 16 consecutive days. From Southern California and Arizona to India and Pakistan, withering heat reached a deadly 110 degrees that parched the environment.

ThermometerThe most alarming news is the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded reached 124.3 degrees in Algeria this July.

Fires, heat and drought of this scope and scale seem to be becoming the new normal. These extreme events point to a planet that is warming and perhaps faster than scientists have predicted.

Although the effects of climate change may vary widely in different geographic regions, those areas already hardest hit with drought and arid conditions may be in the most critical need of clean drinking water.

This crisis will only get worse as the earth’s population conceivably could grow exponentially in the next 50 years and adequate supplies of water become even more scarce. In addition to supplying all these thirsty people with clean water, the chilling paradox is the increased demand on already-scarce resources means there is a greater chance that existing water sources will become polluted by human waste, industrial toxins, and contaminated agricultural runoff.

It is human nature to postpone change and sacrifice as long as possible. But it is clear that public service announcements warning residents to save water, take shorter showers, plant resilient gardens, and conserve, is not going to be enough to help avoid a global water shortage.  Fortunately, scientists and researchers are working diligently to solve some very complex problems to provide innovative and sustainable clean water solutions for the future.

Here are three cutting edge ideas for sustainable water supplies that just may help a warming world.

Ancient Bacteria for Modern Water Purification

Anaerobic or oxygen-averse bacteria to treat wastewater is back in vogue… after a billion years. When the earth was a toxic primordial goo, anaerobic bacteria thrived in the oxygen deprived world forming the first signs of life.  Environmental engineers at Stamford University are now bringing back these ancient microorganisms as a more cost-effective wastewater treatment process.

Primordial-bacteriaWastewater treatment plants that use aerobic bacteria must provide oxygen with huge and costly electrically powered blowers for these microorganisms to survive. Anaerobic bacteria treatment processes do not need oxygen and use considerably less energy, making the wastewater treatment process more economical to operate. In addition to saving money, engineers believe these anaerobes can filter household and industrial chemicals better than conventional treatment plants.

Full-scale plants utilizing anaerobic bacteria may soon be capable of processing millions of gallons of wastewater per day into refreshing clean water.

Mega Scale Desalination

Desalination plants may not have been around as long as ancient bacteria, but this technology is not a new concept either.  What is news however, is the increasing role desalination will have in the future. Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is the largest seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant in the world providing 627,000 cubic meters per day (m3/d) or the equivalent to about 166,000,000 gallons of water per day (gpd) to Israelis.

desalination-plant
Shawaikh Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination plant in Saudi Arabia.

Desalination plants which were notoriously expensive energy hogs have become less energy-intensive as technologies have improved. Using renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal along with advanced technologies including thin-film nanocomposite membranes, captive deionization (most suitable for brackish water), forward osmosis, and metal–organic framework (MOF) biological cell membranes that requires very little water pressure, water desalination is becoming more efficient and cost effective. The new cutting-edge membranes can even filter out precious metals such as lithium used in batteries.

Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of desalinated water in the world with its 32 desalination plants and growing, will soon be producing a historic 5 million m3/d or the equivalent of about 1,321,000,000 gpd, a global record of desalinated water. Benefiting from this leading-edge technology, Cape Town South Africa may have averted a catastrophic “Day Zero” when the City’s first desalination plant went online, preventing a water doomsday for its residents.With the world’s oceans holding about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water and with more innovation, desalination may prove to be this thirsty world’s salvation.

 

Drinking Water from the Air

Another old idea that is gaining favor is converting fog into drinking water. Super-sized moisture collection systems could allow people living in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water. Collection traps are made from a 3D mesh that can withstand high wind speeds, while still retaining and accumulating water in storage tanks. With a variety of sizes available, these fog systems can be used for individual needs or supplying water for entire villages.

fog-nets
Super-sized fog nets can capture moisture in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water.

Combine this idea with giant Atmosphere Water Generators (AWG), which takes moisture or humidity directly out of the air and converts it into potable water.  Even in the driest of lands, the air is loaded with water molecules and enough drinking water converted from AWG’s could provide communities with a continuous and sustainable source of clean water.

On a large scale, the AWG units can be mounted on the roof-tops of commercial or residential buildings.  When powered by renewable energy, these systems can create safe local drinking water efficiently and economically. Water districts and municipalities managing these units, can provide as much as 55 m3 /d or about 14,500 gallons per day, enough to service each building independently with water.

AWG Towers
Large scale Atmosphere Water Generators can be installed on roof tops.

Collected water from both fog collection systems or AWG’s may seem farfetched. But consider this, 80 percent of California’s water goes to irrigate farms and the other 20 percent of water use goes to urban use. Collected water from the air could be used to irrigate crops or other commercial watering needs.

Water conservation and alternative technologies such as fog collection systems and AWG units can supplement our increasing demand for clean water and these ideas just might may make a difference.

 

The Future is for Innovation

Combating climate change and managing our depleting water resources is a reality we can’t ignore. The devasting fires, drought and heat from 2018, is a reminder that our actions today may help avert a global catastrophe in the future. These innovative ideas and others still in development are one step forward to a more sustainable world.

Our future depends on it!

Drinking Water That is Out of This World

Drinking Water That is Out of This World

Reclaiming Wastewater on the Space Station has an impact right here on Earth!

Water—it’s essential for all living beings… and water is essential to make life possible.   It’s an interesting paradox that has kept scientists searching for life in extreme places.

Outer spaceWhen NASA recently announced the discovery of liquid water flowing under an ice cap on Mars, it opened the exciting possibility that life may exist outside our earthly abode.  While it is conceivable scientists may eventually discover life somewhere in our galaxy, a reliable source of water outside earth is fundamental for the possibility of establishing a colony on Mars, exploring the universe and even visiting distant planets in search of life outside earth.

This is the stuff of science fiction…or is it?

Well, let’s get the stars out of our eyes and return to earth.  First, we need to get to Mars and therein lies the challenge. Top on the list is how to provide the essentials for life, such as water, air and the entire habitat for the astronauts to live in as they journey among the stars.

Getting to Space

Establishing a sustainable long-term flight program requires a base to launch manned operations in space. The International Space Station (ISS), which was put into orbit in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2000, currently provides a habitable place for astronauts to live and conduct scientific experiments.

SpaceX Docking in ISSBut hauling tons of supplies and materials to the International Space Station (ISS) is inefficient and extremely expensive. Sustaining a crew of four astronauts on the ISS with water, power and other supplies, costs nearly one million dollars a day.  Even with the reusable SpaceX rocket which regularly provides supplies to the ISS, it costs $2,500 per pound to launch into space. With four astronauts living on the ISS needing approximately 12 gallons of water a day, it is impractical to stock the ISS with the tons of water needed for long periods of time.

It’s no wonder then that rationing, and recycling is an essential part of daily life on the ISS.  The Space Station must provide not only clean water, but air to breath, power, and ideal atmospheric conditions to sustain life outside earth.

And every drop of liquid is important!

Reclaiming Water for Life Support

The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) on the ISS is a life support system that provides atmospheric pressure, oxygen levels, waste management and water supply, and fire detection and suppression. The most important function for ECLSS is controlling the atmosphere for the crew, but the system also collects, processes, and stores waste and water produced by the crew…including the furry lab passengers too.

Yes, even mice waste is recycled.

mouse and waterIf the idea of drinking reclaimed water from mice urine and other waste sources sounds unappetizing, consider this, the water the astronauts drink is often cleaner that what many earthlings drink.  NASA regularly checks the water quality and it is monitored for bacteria, pollutants and proper pH (60 – 8.5).

This highly efficient reclamation system processes and recycles fluid from the sink, shower, toilet, sweat, and even condensation from the air. The ECLSS water recovery system on the ISS uses both physical and chemical processes to remove contaminants, as well as filtration and temperature sterilization to ensure the water is safe to drink.

More Innovation for the Future

Providing the astronauts with clean water from reclaimed wastewater at the Space Station is working fine for what they need right now, but it’s not perfect. The ISS system recovers water at a rate of approximately 74 percent. For longer missions to Mars and beyond, this rate must increase to at least 98 percent to sustain longer journeys into space. Scientists are continuously working on better and more efficient close-looped support systems to reduce water loss and improve ways to reclaim water from all waste products.

bacteriaRecently, NASA invested in a new, lower cost solution to biologically recycle and reuse water developed by Pancopia. Pancopia is a small environmental and energy engineering company located in Virginia that focuses on wastewater treatment and research and development projects. Engineers at the firm have discovered an innovative technology that makes use of a group of bacteria called anammox.  Anammox when combined with two other types of bacteria commonly used in conventional wastewater treatment (nitrifiers and denitrifiers), can remove high levels of organic carbon and nitrogen, the two primary pollutants in wastewater.

The combination of these three organisms naturally adjust to changes in the system and eliminates pollutants faster and more reliably than traditional wastewater treatment operations.  And, the cost is significantly less to operate than conventional systems, which requires a lot of energy and consumables to run. In addition, the stability of the anammox process reduces costs by requiring fewer manpower hours to monitor and operate.

Back on Earth

What does all this water and wastewater reclamation innovation mean for us on earth?

Desert in WaterPancopia is currently working on a similar system used on the ISS for municipal wastewater facilities. Using the technology developed for the Space Station, other areas in the world with limited access to clean drinking water, will soon be able to utilize this advanced water filtration and purification system.

This innovative water recycling system initially intended for the astronauts, now has the potential to cut treatment expenses to less than half the current costs for municipal customers, while providing sustainable crystal-clear drinking water especially in arid and drought-stricken communities across the globe.

Man’s search for extraterrestrial life and desire to travel through space may actually have its greatest impact right here on Earth—clean water!

Climate Change and Stormwater: The Perfect Storm

stormwater-runoffStormwater runoff is a concern year-round, but even more so in the spring when snow is melting and rain is abundant, particularly in humid continental climates. Stormwater starts as precipitation such as snow, sleet, and rain, which lands on natural ground cover such as forests, grass, or gardens. In a natural environment, stormwater soaks into the ground and is filtered by layers of dirt and rock, then finds its way to our groundwater and drinking water supply. Due to urbanization, stormwater in developed areas does not land on natural ground cover but instead washes off roads, driveways, parking lots, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces, becoming stormwater runoff. Stormwater runoff picks up road salt, chemicals, oil, bacteria, sewage, sediment, and garbage, then washes these pollutants into ditches and storm drains, contaminating our streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. To make matters worse, climate change exacerbates stormwater runoff and contributes greatly to the impairment of surface water supplies.

How Climate Change Exacerbates Stormwater Runoff

flash-flood-stormwater
Climate change will likely bring more intense storms to all areas of the country.

A study by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado published in December 2016 indicates that climate change will likely bring more intense, frequent, damaging storms to all areas of the country, particularly to the Northeast and the Gulf Coast. In fact, studies show that storms in these areas could become up to five times as frequent and bring 70% more rain if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. Storms of this magnitude will likely cause flash floods, landslides, and an overabundance of stormwater runoff – far more than current municipal stormwater systems are designed to handle.

California has recently been experiencing severe drought combined with intense storms.

The study also indicated that regions such as the Pacific Northwest and central United States will likely become drier, but with more intense, extreme rainfall. We have already seen this in northern California, where the Oroville Dam suffered serious damage after drenching rains in February. Prior to these rains, the state had been plagued by severe drought. Rising temperatures increase atmospheric humidity, causing extreme precipitation and an increased risk of flash flooding. And while it may seem counterintuitive, drought only intensifies the problem. Drought leads to less vegetation and more firmly packed soil, both of which inhibit infiltration. When heavy rains follow drought, soil tends to erode, washing remaining plants away as well. Regular, gentle rain is the key to restoring soil, and without it, soil degradation will only intensify.

Managing Increased Stormwater Runoff

Unfortunately, the above-mentioned factors will likely lead to an increase in stormwater runoff and its accompanying problems. Municipal stormwater systems, already faced with increased nutrient regulations, will likely become overwhelmed, resulting in backups, localized flooding, and increased runoff of contaminants such as bacteria and nutrients into waterways.  Also, combined stormwater and wastewater systems overwhelmed by extreme precipitation will release more combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into our rivers, lakes, and streams, degrading water quality and affecting aquatic life. At the same time, drought exacerbates the problem by lowering water levels, leading to more concentrated levels of pollutants in our waterways. These combined factors cause water quality deterioration and create major problems for water treatment plants. Already facing dwindling budgets, municipalities will have difficulty meeting water quality standards if stormwater runoff continues to increase unabated.

Fortunately, successfully managing stormwater runoff is a realistic goal with proper planning and incorporation of best management practices (BMPs). Systems that proactively develop strategies to address stormwater runoff will find themselves far better prepared to manage both increased stormwater and more stringent regulations. Stormwater management strategies include the following:

  1. Rain gardens are a beautiful and sustainable way to manage stormwater.

    Increase the use of Low Impact Development. Low Impact Development (LID), also known as green infrastructure, is a stormwater management approach that maintains natural hydrology during site development. LID minimizes impervious surfaces and utilizes existing natural site features along with conservational controls to manage stormwater. Examples of LID design include bioretention basins, grassed swales, and rain gardens.

  2. Minimize impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, and rooftops prevent infiltration. Install pervious pavements on driveways and walkways, stormwater bumpouts on streets, and tree boxes on sidewalks. Also, disconnect impervious surfaces by installing grass or gravel buffer zones. Lastly, plant green roofs and roof gardens to greatly reduce stormwater runoff while enhancing the environment.
  3. Protect and create wetlands. Wetlands are of great value due to their ability to retain water and recharge groundwater. Constructed wetlands provide the same benefit as natural wetlands and help to mitigate water pollution.
  4. White clover is native to New England, drought resistant, and soft under the feet.

    Landscape with native flora. Native trees and plants provide habitat for and attract birds, butterflies, and other beneficial local wildlife, and are acclimated to local rainfall amounts and climate. Unlike turf grass, native plants require very little maintenance because they are naturally resistant to local pests and disease. Because they do not need fertilizers, pesticides, or supplemental watering, they are easy and inexpensive to maintain and are environmentally friendly.

  5. Plant trees. Trees help to manage stormwater by reducing erosion and runoff along streams and waterways. They also help to cool urban areas and improve the air quality.
  6. Separate combined sewer overflows. By separating the collection of sewage and stormwater, overflow of sewer systems and treatment plants during rainy periods prevents the mixing of the surface runoff, which is lightly polluted, with municipal wastewater, which is highly polluted.


In Conclusion

Climate change and stormwater runoff together create the perfect storm for water quality degradation. We are already seeing the effects of climate change on our nation’s infrastructure, and unless we address these complications now, we will likely find ourselves increasingly burdened by boil water orders and expensive water treatment projects. Fortunately, by proactively making some simple and largely inexpensive environmental improvements, we can protect our nation’s water bodies for future generations.

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.

Where Our Water Comes From [INFOGRAPHIC]

Only 1% of our world’s water is usable by humanity. The drought conditions in the United States have brought water conservation to the forefront of people’s minds, and conservation is certainly necessary. But we also need to invest in infrastructure and implement efficient practices including reclamation if we are to protect our world’s most precious resource now and in the future.

Where our water comes from:

 

Where-Water-Comes-From

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Running Out Of Water

Data released by the U.S. Drought Monitor1 last month indicates that over 30% of the United States is experiencing at least moderate drought, and that seven states are actually running out of water. California, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas are experiencing severe drought over more than half their land area. Severe drought, or D2 on a D0-D4 scale, is designated when crop or pasture losses are likely, water shortages are common, and water restrictions are imposed. Even more alarming, six of the seven hardest hit states are experiencing extreme drought over more than 30% of their land area. Extreme drought, or D3, is designated when there are major crop/pasture losses as well as widespread water shortages or restrictions. In addition, two states are experiencing exceptional drought, which is the highest drought classification possible. Exceptional drought, or D4, is designated when there are widespread crop/pasture losses as well as water emergencies created by shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells. 25% of the state of Oklahoma and 30% of the state of California have been designated D4.

Dought Map

The impact of severe drought is far-reaching. Drought has a major impact on crops like winter wheat, which is grown extensively in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In addition, reservoir levels are alarmingly low. Arizona’s well levels are at two-thirds of their normal level, New Mexico’s are at half, and Nevada’s are only about one-third of their usual average. In Texas, the city of Wichita Falls has made headlines recently by proposing to become the first city in the nation to draw their public drinking water directly from treated wastewater. Arizona fell victim to raging wildfires last month that are just now coming under containment. And then there’s California. The entire state is suffering from severe drought, and the majority of the state is under extreme drought. Many Californian farmers have been forced to leave their fields unseeded due to restrictions on agricultural water use. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency because the state is literally running out of water. If something doesn’t change, it is estimated that California has less than two years of water remaining.

So what can we do? One of the easiest and most effective solutions is water conservation. California has a large population, and Gov. Brown has asked residents to cut their water usage by 20%. Our Earth Day blog provides a comprehensive list on water conservation around the home. In addition, farmers will need to adopt practices that lessen the effect of drought. Most importantly, we will need to rethink water. Maybe it’s time to overhaul toilets to become waterless, to broadly use treated wastewater for irrigation, or to engineer affordable, sustainable desalination methods so we can tap into our vast oceans. Whatever methods we use, one thing is certain: the nation’s water crisis needs to be an urgent priority on which we all must work together to solve. Our future depends on it.

1The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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