Category Archives: Rivers and Watersheds

As Flint Lawsuits Pour in, Leaded Tap Water Found Far Afield

Flint River

Flint River in the 1970s. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I worked recently for a United Nations-affiliated international non-governmental organization in Geneva, Switzerland, named WaterLex. It specializes in finding sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide. Much of its work involves educating parliamentarians and others about the human rights to water and sanitation, established in 2010, and how they can be mixed into practices such as integrated water resources management.

In that context, I was accustomed to hearing about water crises in African and South American countries where municipalities often lacked adequate infrastructure for water provision. So I started to think I knew a thing or two about a government’s obligation to realize the human right to water for its population. Then, while I was still living in Switzerland, came news of Detroit, Mich., shutting off water to customers who hadn’t paid their bills. A similar situation came to light in Baltimore, Md. In those places, a cry rose up for aggressive action to uphold the human right to water, with a focus on the issue of affordability.

In the U.S., a country where infrastructure has been in place to provide freshwater to most homes in most municipalities for more than a century, invocation of the human right to water was a surprising and unsettling thing to hear.

But the water crisis in Flint, Mich., cranks up the volume to a whole new decibel level, and rightly so. The allegations are appalling: Officials knowingly allowed households in a city of 100,000 to drink, cook and bathe in water fouled by lead and other contaminants from lead pipes corroded by polluted Flint River water, following a money-saving switch to that water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. Documentary filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore, among others, is calling for criminal prosecution of Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder. With young children at risk of brain damage and other health problems, it’s not difficult to picture an approaching flood of lawsuits. Fixing Flint’s water is expected to take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Worse, too much lead in municipal water is not limited to Flint. News reports point out city after city in several states where aging infrastructure and improper maintenance have been creating similar problems.

Note to cities and towns: Before that water infrastructure gets to be about a century old, you have to increase the amounts of money and effort put into its upkeep or replacement. If not, you’re likely to soon be taking away your people’s human right to water, and that will always end up being a bigger bill to pay in the end. Oh, and … though it used to go without saying … don’t poison everyone.

Learn more:

Possible lead exposure-miscarriage link probed in Flint water crisis – MLive.com

Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed $360 million for Flint water fixChristian Science Monitor

Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to FlintThe New York Times

Amid Flint water crisis, the lawsuits are piling up – CBS/The Associated Press

How scientists failed the public in Flint water crisisLos Angeles Times

10 Things They Won’t Tell You About the Flint Water Crisis. But I Will. – MichaelMoore.com

Flint Water Crisis – Wikipedia

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater

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Filed under Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, North America, Pollution, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Resources

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste

LAimages

The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

 

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater

dam-reservoir

Here’s a frightening word of the day: “evapotranspiration.” It simply refers to water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation, or after being consumed and released into the air by plant life. It wasn’t so ominous last week, but it is this week because a new study in the journal Science puts it in a new context: unsustainable human use of freshwater.

Essentially, the study finds human have used 18 percent more of the planet’s freshwater than we previously thought, because we’ve underestimated the impact of our water-management systems, such as irrigation, dams and reservoirs. They cause more water to be lost to the atmosphere than would occur naturally, effecting precipitation patterns. Gather a lot of water in one place, like a reservoir, for instance, and more of it evaporates across the greater surface area exposed to air. The researchers studied the ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation between 1901 and 2008, finding a significant increase in the latter half of the time period.

The additional 18 percent tips our water use into the unsustainable category given the increasing human population, the researchers warn. As Chelsea Harvey writes in her article about the study in The Washington Post, “The study highlights a critical need for better monitoring of our freshwater use and the ways our management techniques can affect the water cycle, as [study co-author Fernando] Jaramillo noted that the current effects of human water management ‘are even larger and more recognizable than the effects of atmospheric climate change.’”

Read more:

Alarming research finds humans are using up far more of Earth’s water than previously thought – The Washington Post

Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint – Science

Related posts:

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California

Image: iStockPhoto.com

When drought-struck California moved to curb consumers’ use of water, I wrote about agriculture’s massive and under-regulated use of water. On Friday the state moved to cut many farmers’ use of water, in terms of some of the older rights-holders who divert water from Central Valley rivers and streams. In spring, cuts were made to thousands of junior rights holders’ usage, including many growers. This is more than the state did when it curtailed Big Ag’s water use nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, the last time it made such a move. What it hasn’t done is to move strongly to curtail the industry’s waste of the water it’s allocated to use, which is to say …  it’s allowed to use most of it (about 80 percent).

Just for “fun,” here’s an annoyingly educational reminder that most Americans make the California drought worse by eating the food grown there. That’s not to say they should forego the glorious bounty and cramp the world’s 8th largest economy, but some would argue just that, more or less. Let’s say that some of Cali’s major crops — rice, almonds, avocados — should be grown where there is ample water because they need so damn much of it. Maybe not so much compared to raising beef, but still — a lot.

Another not-fun thing: Sucking up the groundwater is making the surface of California sink faster than ever before, and it’s going to cost a lot of money as infrastructure like bridges and roads suffers damage.

Related post:

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Read more:

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water – The New York Times

California Move to Restrict Water Pumping by Pre-1914 Rights HoldersLos Angeles Times

Drought-Ravaged California Orders Record Water Cuts on FarmersThe Guardian

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

California Is Literally Sinking Into the GroundMother Jones

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet.

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Shortage

Set Heading for World Water Week in Stockholm

4951481766_c8dced02ba_z

In a couple of days I’ll join colleagues from WaterLex at one of the most prominent events in the world of water-related agencies, NGOs, services, and the like — World Water Week in Stockholm, which runs Aug. 31 – Sept. 5 in the Swedish capital, under the auspices of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The theme this year, for this and other events around the world, is “energy and water,” two vital forces that are always interconnected.

WaterLex will exhibit in a booth shared with other organizations in the Swiss Water Partnership, and we’ll also put on a lunchtime side event on Monday, Sept. 1: Water & Energy Nexus: Smart Investments to Help Realize Human Rights. Co-convened with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the event’s panel discussion will explore how wastewater reuse for energy production can serve populations’ rights to adequate sanitation and a safe and healthy environment, while also making for a valuable investment in sustainability. Check out the speakers and topics. I’ll be the guy “moderating” (more like trying to keep up) or running around with a camera, taking photos for the press materials.

It will be my first time in Stockholm, so I hope to get around town a bit. A colleague recommended the Vasa Museum, the only preserved 17th century ship in the world. It heeled over and sank only minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, and was raised in 1961. And of course there’s a museum dedicated to Abba.

Related posts:

WaterLex: A New Role for Me, Working on Water Law and Human Rights

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

WaterLex Helps Put the Human Right to Water Into New Legal Frameworks

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

 

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Filed under Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources

China’s Virtual Water Flows: The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get Thirstier

Virtual water flows in China. Copyright 2014 American Chemical Society.

New research shows that China’s wealthier and wetter southern provinces are draining already-scare water supplies from arid northern provinces, exacerbating shortages and increasing risk of crisis conditions.

The study, conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) with the University of Maryland and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, uses the economic concept of “virtual water.” That refers to water tracked through trade of goods that require water to produce, as most do. The researchers say it is the first study to take water scarcity into account rather than treating all water as equal in the analysis.

The researchers say the study helps lay the groundwork for better water-resource management. One upshot is the idea that it might be smarter on the whole not to import water-intensive goods from the dry north to the wet south, even as the country gears up massive efforts to divert water in the other direction because of the shortages.

Read more:

The study: Virtual Scarce Water in ChinaEnvironmental Science & Technology

China’s arid north feeds water-rich south – Reuters

Following China’s water: a threat of scarcity – Nature World News

China’s hidden water footprint – Phys.org

Virtual water highlights China’s hidden water footprint – Science 2.0

Related posts:

 China Plans to Desalinate Vast Amounts of Sea Ice

China Raises Water Prices for Top Users

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Asia, Climate Change, Drought, Industry, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water Shortage

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Temporary Waterways Need Protection, Too

Image: hunting-washington.com

Image: hunting-washington.com

Temporary waters are waterways that don’t always have a visible connection to nearby surface waters, such as rivers and lakes, during the course of a year. Nevertheless, that dry stream bed or marsh area is part of the larger water network. A study released earlier this month in the journal Science outlines the value of temporary waters and describes how numerous countries do not include such waterways in their legal frameworks. Leaving temporary waterways outside of the law also leaves them vulnerable to human activity, like development and pollution, which can damage the surrounding water network. The study’s authors point out that the numbers of temporary waterways are underestimated in various parts of the world, and that their frequency will increase due to climate change.

Read more:

Temporary waters and intermittent streams at risk: International scientists urge science-based policy – National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center

Why should we care about temporary waterways? – Science

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Filed under Conservation, Industry, Law, North America, Pollution, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Water Resources

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Watercyclesummary

The world has a finite supply of accessible freshwater. By some estimates, less than 1% of the naturally occurring freshwater on earth is accessible to humans; the rest is locked up in ice or too deep and dispersed in the ground for us to get. The phrase “peak water” refers to the point at which we’re consuming available freshwater faster than it can be replenished by nature through the hydrologic water cycle to the usual sources, such as lakes, rivers, and shallow underground aquifers, many of which are already dangerously depleted.

Whether we’re nearing the point of peak water, already there, or well past it is a question under ongoing discussion. One point of confusion is that water volume and use vary widely by region. Some areas are nearing or past peak water, others aren’t. Another factor is that climate change is throwing the status quo of water abundance or scarcity by region into flux. Look at the 2013 research showing that heavy pollution from the U.S. and Europe from the 1960s into the 1980s effectively changed weather patterns, becoming a primary cause of Africa’s long, widespread, and deadly Sahel Drought. What will happen because of today’s pollution from the world’s most prolific sources? (e.g., China).

And those who don’t see water and climate change as parts of the same series of problems should note: “The hydrologic cycle is the climate cycle,” says hydro-climatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, in a video interview that lays out overlapping problems. Water, climate change, and energy production are all inextricably linked. In fact, links between water and energy make up the theme of this year’s World Water Day, coming up on March 22.

It’s worth noting that water scarcity is a crucial element of the resource crises cited in the upcoming NASA-funded study predicting a “perfect storm” within a few decades that could end global civilization. The study looked closely at the fall of previous complex societies, such as the Mayans and Romans, and found parallels with our unsustainable overuse of resources — particularly the massively unequal use by wealthy versus poor.

However close to “peak” we may be, no sustained sense of urgency over water scarcity is apparent in mainstream media. In part this is because water supplies are local or regional, not global, and in part it’s because these problems take a long time — and a much longer attention span than a 24-hour news cycle has — to address. So you see localized articles about regional droughts and potential conflicts over resources, though rarely anything that puts the worldwide water crisis in perspective and looks ahead to cross-cutting solutions (e.g., large-scale renewable-energy power production that requires much less water than nuclear or fossil-fuel-based power, combined with modern and far-reaching conservation measures addressing agricultural, industrial, and residential water use and re-use).

Compared to today’s world, our near-future planet will have double the human population, even more-severe climate change, and yet the same old freshwater, redistributed. Perhaps it’s too easy to push off the worry, as we think we’ll get serious about conservation before it’s too late. Or that governments and industry will join together to provide desalinated water wherever necessary — somehow without the troubling environmental costs of today’s practices — before vast human populations must migrate or die.  Or that those fresh and brackish aquifers recently discovered under the oceans will push the point-of-no-return a few decades further into the future. Well, someday, after the fights over the rights, maybe somebody will throw billions at drilling into those aquifers. Because someday they’ll have no choice. And then those reserves will be sucked dry, too.

You might say we have no choice other than to better manage our freshwater.

Read more:

UPDATE: CHARTS: How power generation threatens water supplies, and climate change threatens both – ClimateProgress

UPDATE: NASA-funded study: Industrial civilisation headed for “irreversible collapse”? Natural and social scientists develop new model of how “perfect storm” of crises could unravel global systemThe Guardian

Are we on the path to peak water? – Climate Central (with infographic)

Peak water is here – Daily Kos (links to video interview with Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute)

Peak water (background) – Wikipedia

Pollution in Northern Hemisphere helped cause 1980s African drought – Washington University

Related posts:

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Africa, Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, Europe, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Pollution, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

UNICEF tap project phone

A lot of us incessantly check email, apps and websites on our smartphones. We joke, semi-seriously, about the addiction. Well, now we have help in our struggle that provides built-in motivation, because taking advantage of it will directly benefit others trapped in a far worse struggle.

Take part in UNICEF’s Tap Project, and for every 10 minutes you manage not to touch your phone, a donation will be made to provide help to the 768 million people around the world who lack access to clean water. And if you can’t put the thing down during the day, take heart: You can rack up time while you sleep. Whatever time you log, the donated funds will finance construction and maintenance of water wells, water pipes to rivers, and purification equipment, according to UNICEF.

Using the browser on your phone, go to uniceftapproject.org to take part.

Read more:

UNICEF Tap Project

Do without your phone and improve someone’s water – Fast Company Co.Exist

If you put down your cell phone for 10 minutes, a child will get a day’s worth of clean drinking water – Time

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Human rights, Middle East, NGOs, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, South America, United Nations, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Image courtesy of Ca.gov

Image courtesy of Ca.gov

Alexis C. Madrigal’s new piece in The Atlantic, which he tweeted is his most ambitious yet, is a good read. It has great descriptions of California’s ongoing, larger-than-life efforts to stay hydrated in a place where nature simply won’t cooperate. The article centers on Gov. Jerry Brown’s $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which proposes to dig two tunnels under the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If built, they’ll be longer than the Chunnel connecting England and France under the English Channel.

Read more:

American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga
A $25 billion plan, a small town, and a half-century of wrangling over the most important resource in the biggest state
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

Recent related posts:

Serious Water Conservation Requires Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

California’s State-of-the-State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

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Filed under Agriculture, Conflicts, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Technology, Water Shortage