Archive for August, 2010

Corporate Accountability International wrote up a nice piece on where and how the World Bank has played a leading role in muddling up drinking water for poor countries. Understanding of how the World Bank loans money and it’s relationship to gigantic transnational corporations like Veolia and Suez sheds some light on the top of the largest hurdle towards reliable, sustainable water for everyone. The abridged stories of Armenia, Malawi, Turkey, and the Philipines are told in this quick read. I encourage you to take a look. More information on each country can be found on CAI’s water page.

Download the Thirsty-For-Change PDF

or get it at the website: http://www.stopcorporateabuse.org/privatization


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Not so long ago I mentioned the report put out by the NRDC entitled Evaluating Sustainability of Projected Water Demands Under Future Climate Change Scenarios. It was published this past July and was prepared by Tetra Tech, Inc. out of Lafayette, CA. I had a chance to read it while I was on vacation hiking and mountain biking in the west Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. (Trip Reports coming soon!).

First, here are the links again to the documents:
Tetra Tech Climate Report 2010

Water Risk Fact Sheet

The main use of this report is for water supply management planning. It is a comparison between all the counties of the Lower 48 in order to indicate where the most work needs to be done. It is a baseline comparison to guide future decisions concerning water supply as precipitation and temperature patterns change over the next 20 to 40 years. The reason I want to make this clear is because at first glance the results seem really scary. For example, on page iv maps are shown depicting the Water Supply Sustainability Index for the year 2050. One of these maps is for the scenario of “no climate change effects”. This particular map shows much of California to have either an “Extreme” or “High” risk to water sustainability. This is scary since California is where much of our food is grown. Well, it turns out it’s not as scary after all, although we do need to be very concerned.

First off, this report does not consider “future enhancements in water use efficiency” and does not consider “changes in the rates of use that might be related to climate change.” (pg. 2) In other words, its a business-as-usual scenario where water use practices continue along their present trajectory. To give an example of why this matters let’s look at the two largest uses of water: thermoelectric and irrigation. Thermoelectric is simply the water used to cool off the heat generating process of making electricity. According to the report thermoelectric accounts for about 40% of our total water use here in the Lower 48 and irrigation accounts for 36%. There is an important difference in these major uses. This difference is that irrigation is typically consumptive and thermoelectric is not. This means that after we use water for thermoelectric cooling it can be used again for something else. It doesn’t mean that we do, just that it can be. In terms of water use efficiency, there are incredible improvements to be made in the re-use of water used for thermoelectric cooling. The most significant of which would be incorporating the used water into an industrial ecological process. In other words, in the future we will see a lot more re-use of cooling water for industrial or manufacturing use after it has done it’s cooling. It might even be able to be used for irrigation if a suitable industrial hydrological cycle can be designed. It is also possible that irrigation water could be collected after use removing it from the consumptive use category. This has been demonstrated with hydroponic systems and subsurface collection. Since irrigation and thermoelectric are the two largest uses of water, advancements such as these would significantly improve our water use efficiency. This report shows us the areas of the country where advancements such as these must be implemented to ensure a sustainable supply.

There are also a few things in the report that I question, and maybe others can comment on as well. My first concern is that the areas analyzed are counties. In a study dealing with sustainability of water supply it makes sense to look at the hydrologic cycle for a given watershed as opposed to political boundaries. I understand that counties were analyzed because this report will likely determine appropriations for managing the risk of each county, but it is a disservice in accurately portraying the actual risk to each individual watershed. An example of why this matters is the export of water from one watershed to another. Looking at counties this may not be represented accurately or even at all. Exportation of water from a watershed causes desertification of two watersheds by depleting one water source and inciting development of another. Desertification of the first watershed happens when water is removed from the local hydrologic cycle. A good example of this is Owens Lake in California. Desertification of the second watershed happens when development surpasses its carrying capacity. Development increases because water is being imported from another watershed, so more people can live there. This increases impervious area thus increasing runoff and decreasing recharge while encouraging supplemental groundwater mining which further reduces the volume of water in the local hydrologic cycle. A good example of this is the city of Los Angeles and the surrounding communities.

Another concern I had with this report is that it made the assumption that growth would only occur for domestic supply and thermoelectric cooling and not irrigation, aquaculture, or livestock. This is odd since the population is growing which means we’ll need more food, which means we’ll need more water. It is true that we import lots of food, but this is essentially importing water (food is mostly water), and a close look at the sustainability of water supply shows us that importing and exporting water to and from watersheds is a bad idea. To me, it seems that it would be prudent to assume an increase in water use for irrigation. Now, I should point out that developments in maintaining a sustainable food supply involve a reduction in water withdrawals for irrigation due to embracing natural systems such as permaculture, etc. but for a business-as-usual look we need not take this into account especially if they are not taking into account advancements in water use efficiency. On page 8 the reasons behind holding irrigation water use constant do not make sense to me, so maybe someone can shed some light? The only real reason I can grasp is that we are importing more and more food from China. If that is the case, what about Chinese water use sustainability? Shouldn’t that be a factor in our own sustainability? I think so.

The rest of my concerns with the report are minor so I won’t bring them up, but feel free to comment and let me know if you had concerns.

The development of the sustainability index is a great idea and could be adapted for use at larger and smaller scales. I do think the criteria needs a second look for two reasons. First is the seemingly arbitrary threshold of 25% given in criteria number one. Why is it that the risk to supply is greater if more than 25% of available precipitation is used? I’m just curious as to where this number came from. The second is the criteria does not seem to take into consideration time to recharge for groundwater supply. It says that the risk to water supply is greater if we withdraw greater than 25% of available precipitation from an aquifer. Well, what if the aquifer is a fossil aquifer and takes thousands of years to recharge? what if it is a quickly recharging aquifer that can handle more withdrawal than just 25% of available precipitation? These questions are important. For example, if this criteria deems a county at low risk, then a bottling plant starts sucking water from a fossil aquifer at a rate lower than 25% of available precipitation say good bye aquifer! With that all said, I do understand that a line needed to be drawn, but again, how was that line drawn?

Overall I’m glad this report was published and I think it will get into the right hands. The NRDC has a lot of political clout and hopefully this report will be read by leaders of the counties at greatest risk. Even if those leaders don’t believe in climate change, this report still highlights a need to take action to work towards more sustainable water supply systems. Hopefully this report will also guide legislature to creating water rights laws that take into account the future of our country and not just the interests of the user. We are all stakeholders in these issues. Water is life.

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Blue Gold: World Water Wars is a movie that came out in 2008. It is based on the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the Worlds’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. If you haven’t seen this film, now’s a good time. It highlights an awareness we’d all be silly not to take extremely seriously. Awareness of our water supply, the realities surrounding its management, and what the future may hold. The prospects are chilling but a solution for a sustainable system can be reached. To give you a more recent take on this very problem, read the quote from a recent article by the Australian Associated Press (AAP):

Keynote speaker at Friday’s 19th World Congress of Soil Science in Brisbane, Dr Colin Chartres, says doubling the volume of water is required to double food production.

The article goes on to say that the earth needs to essentially double its food production to sustain the coming population of 9.2 billion in the year 2050. In order to double food production, we need to double our water production! This is, of course, alarming in the sense that it is quite unlikely California is going to double anything having to do with water anytime soon. In fact, California may run out of water! How this situation is handled will likely define the 21st century and beyond. Other countries have their own problems, and globally speaking we’re not doing so healthy when it comes to our water, so how are we supposed to produce this extra food we’re soon to be needing?

Blue Gold: World Water Wars sheds a light on the greed, corruption, politics, follies and success’s surrounding our most precious resource. It casts a harsh light on the corporations that treat water as commercial good and highlights the benefits to public ownership. It takes an intelligent look at how we need to approach water resource management in the coming decades and the hurdles that we’ll meet along the way. Projects such as Blue Alternative where students and volunteers built rainwater catchments to replenish aquifer supplies in the Slovak Republic show us how we can work with our local hydrology to support ourselves in a sustainable manner instead of relying on dams that interrupt the vital flow of rivers. The people of Uruguay lead by example when they amended their constitution to protect the human right to water. Many more stories in the film showcase the struggle for water and the experts seem to share an optimistic viewpoint that there is a solution to this problem well within our reach.

I rented it on iTunes for $2.99, but look for screenings in your area as well.

Watch the Trailer!

Download the Press Kit here with more information on all the speakers!

Enjoy and spread the news!

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Streetsblog.net has some discussion on signaling and cyclists that, as a cyclist and civil engineer, I find rather interesting. Enough so to share it here.

I ride a steel bike (ferrous) most of the time and since I know what detection loops are and how they work, I usually don’t have a problem setting them off  and getting that much deserved green light in front of me. Of course, all cyclists don’t ride steel bikes and many times don’t realize detection loops exist. (I’m not sure what percentage of motorists know they exist!). In fact, it seems the sensitivity settings on the detector loops are not properly set to detect many of the bicycles out there on the road. The Federal Highway Administration is working to imrove this, thus improving transportation and safety for us all!

Making Signal Systems Work for Cyclists

is by David Gibson, P.E. a highway research engineer on the Enabling Technologies Team in FHWA’s Office of Operations Research and Development. He does some interesting experiments, has some great photos and even some diagrams! Click on the photo to get to the article!

Cyclist in a Detection Loop


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