Friday, May 8, 2015

The Western U.S. drought. Is there anything we can do about it substantively and sustainably?

Usage restrictions (including "rationing by price")? Desalination? Pipelines? Rail tank cars? Tanker ships? Towed icebergs? Mass population exodus to locales with adequate local water resources?

07/24/15 UPDATE
“People choose their villain”: Chris Hayes on the epic battles surrounding California’s drought
Exclusive interview: The MSNBC host talks to Salon about covering California's "water wars"

UPDATE: an excellent resource. Dean Farrell's interactive, dynamic "Western Water" map. You can drill down into individual water reservoir levels, updated monthly.

OK, here's a wild-assed idea.

Below, map of the Columbia River Basin. Click to enlarge.

It bears repeating: this is not about diverting anyone else's otherwise usable local fresh water. By the time a river's flow has reached the area just above the salt water line estuary proximate to the river's mouth, upstream locals will have diverted and used all of the water they're going to. What remains will then just flow out into the ocean. Re-directing perhaps 1% of that exit flow into my proposed tubes simply amounts to using water that would otherwise simply become part of the ocean -- eventually having to be re-desalinated one way or another for subsequent human use. Moreover, any net increase in salinity in the immediate area would probably be impossible to measure (unlike the concentrated brine effluent discharge adjacent a desal plant).
"Usable local fresh water?" A friend of mine raises an objection concerning the polluted nature of the outflow, which, in the case of the Columbia River includes radionuclide contamination emanating from the notorious, chronically leaky Hanford nuclear facility upstream. Point taken. Accretive downstream pollution is a problem in every major river around the world, most of which flow through agricultural, industrial, and urban areas that discharge noxious effluents into the flows. The remediative expense is something that would have to be factored in, to be sure.**
Desalination, while not really prohibitively expensive, will not scale. Neither will rail tank car import (read on). An overland pipeline? (From where, precisely?) Forget it: 20 years of environmental impact statements, with concomitant raucous, litigious, ankle-biting political opposition every step of the way. And, while individual conservation efforts are both necessary and laudable (and now required in California), it's not at all clear what the aggregate conservation contribution will amount to. Early indications are not reassuring.

Some critics shrug, the more caustic schadenfreudistas among them welcoming the travails of those Snotty, Preening Californians, who should quit griping and just up and move to wetter regions if things get too onerous. "Environmental purists" among them chime in that the 39 million (and growing) population and land use (mostly agribusiness) are unsustainable, and that the desertification of California and the western U.S. more broadly is inevitable. We should quit trying to "make the desert bloom," quit growing alfalfa, almonds, rice, and other water-intensive crops in a region prone to recurrent, protracted aridity.

Likewise lose the resource-consumptive and polluting Vegan-Horror-totemic feedlot beef cattle, and the resource-wasting golf courses of the Princely Class.

Some long-time incumbent Californians themselves wish that others would just get the hell out and Leave Our Bucolic Paradise to Us. Well-heeled property-owning residents of the tonier locales often bemoan the endless influx of the unruly hordes of their surly demographic Lessers, what with all the lowbrow culture, crime, and social services burdens they bring. Perhaps lost on these gentry is the extent to which their property values and "wealth" (often significantly leveraged) are inextricably linked to a broadly robust thriving, growing economy -- regarding which reliable sources of adequate potable, agricultural, and industrial water are foundational.

etc, etc, etc...


From The Washington Post:
Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’
By Rob Kuznia June 13

RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent...
Yeah, to my point.

So, some will undoubtedly view my idea with disdain, whatever its possible technical merit. They don't want to mitigate/remediate the drought problem, because it would just allow Obnoxious Californians to carry on with their ecologically rapacious economy and lifestyles.

While I obviously disagree with reflexively simplistic policy dilettantes (with their endless "yes, but..." naysaying), the vexing complexities of the issue are equally obvious.
** UPDATE: Google "Columbia River pollution." Bring a Snickers, you're gonna be a while. The lower reaches of the Columbia, in particular from Hanford on down to the river mouth at Astoria, are indeed laden with a depressing toxic stew of chemicals and rad waste. I am neither an engineer nor a forensic hydrologist, so I'm not competent to quantify the cost of removing such toxicity from any export pipe water (though, having spent years working in a forensic level environmental radioanalytical and mixed waste lab in Oak Ridge in the 1980's, I do know a bit about about contamination characterization and quantification assays pertaining to the breadth of environmental matrices).
River mouth outflow filtration-detox cleanup might well turn out in some cases to be more expensive than outright desal. Stay tuned; I'll be looking into it. Generally apropos of the issue, see "Recycled Drinking Water: Getting Past the Yuck Factor." Per "yuck factor" antipathy, the simple truth is that if you are not consuming water directly from remote headwater origin sources, you are using water that has been reclaimed.
Noteworthy in the above-linked "yuck factor" article is that "[Orange County] sends the water underground to replenish the area’s aquifers and to be diluted by the natural water supply." Even were we to return to prolonged rainy seasons in the coming years and decades, replenishing our seriously depleted aquifers will still be necessary (see map below). River outflow capture and diversion might well play a role in that.
Southwest U.S. Aquifers map

Washington State Declares Drought Emergency
Extends beyond the SW, 'eh? Also, from the L.A. Times:
Drought cuts power production of California dams

OK, how about a shorter, smaller scale prototype using the Klamath River outflow (~330 miles to SF bay)?

The Klamath watershed does not go through any significant ag or any industrial areas (timber ops aside). Gotta be much cleaner at the estuary than the Columbia. The basin is mostly a forested, mountainous, rural region. Most recent outflow rate I've see is about 11,000 cu. ft/sec (the average being a bit more than 17k), or, equivalently, about 7.9 million acre feet per yer -- almost the entire state current acre-ft consumption. That unused water is just going out  to sea every day. Capture as much of it as we can.

More broadly, we should inventory for "trunk line feeder" potential all U.S. west coast rivers of any appreciable size and flow volume terminating at the Pacific ocean.

While the water flow would be a good bit gravity-driven, ancillary in-transit pumping could powered via tethered floating wave energy buoy generators.

I would mount a sort of "mushroom cap" solar cell array atop these buoys. Let them capture photovoltaic energy during daylight hours as well (particularly during calm seas). Every little bit helps.

We have decades of experience laying undersea cables, worldwide. This idea is not really that much different.


apropos of the overall western U.S. drought problem:
To call the Colorado River the lifeblood of the West is no exaggeration: It is the only truly major river in the mountain West, and seven Western states could not exist in their present fashion without it. What will be interesting, or more likely tragic, in the coming years will be to see if they can exist with a whole lot less of it. When the river was divvied up between the states in 1922 it was based on the optimistic number of 20 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is the amount of water made up by an acre of surface volume at the depth of one foot). What those who did the divvying didn’t know then was that the West was in the midst of one of the wettest centuries in the last thousand years. The optimistic number for total flow that they came up with has not been approached in recent years, and in fact the water supply continues to dwindle. This dwindling is the result of a drought over a decade long, but climate change experts warn that we should not expect the water ever to return to old levels; in fact, they have predicted that the flow will be reduced dramatically, by as much as 35 percent, in years to come. Meanwhile whole cities and mini-societies have grown up around their negotiated share of this particular river, including the 3 million-plus citizens of Phoenix, who, with their watered lawns and golf courses, like to pretend they do not live in the desert. A full fifth of the river’s water is delivered to that city via a 300-mile canal. Then there is the electric hive of Vegas, and the greatest water slurpers of them all, the farmers and residents of California.
From The damnation of a canyon”: The Glen Canyon dam is mind-blowing — unless you’d seen the canyon before it was destroyed"

See the segment "Vegas. the next Anasazi ruin?" below.

MAY 21st 2015 UPDATE

My New Yorker just arrived.
Where the River Runs Dry
The Colorado and America’s water crisis.

...When the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon looked down from its southern rim, in 1540, they guessed that the stream they could see at the bottom must be about eight feet wide. They’d been fooled by the scale of the canyon, but, even so, the Colorado River isn’t huge. It’s nearly a thousand miles shorter than the Mississippi and only a fraction as wide, but it’s a crucial resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States. A congressman in 1928 called it “intrinsically the most valuable stream in the world.” It and its tributaries flow through or alongside seven Western states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—before crossing into Mexico near Yuma, Arizona. It supplies water to approximately thirty-six million people, including residents not just of Boulder and Denver but also of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles, several of which are hundreds of miles from its banks. It irrigates close to six million acres of farmland, much of which it also created, through eons of silt deposition. It powers the hydroelectric plants at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, is the principal source for the country’s two biggest man-made reservoirs, and supports recreational activities that are said to be worth twenty-six billion dollars a year. Some of its southern sections attract so many transient residents during the winter that you could almost believe it had overflowed its banks and left dense alluvial deposits of motorboats, Jet Skis, dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, trailers, mobile homes, fifth wheels, and R.V.s.

All that human utility has costs; the river suffers, in varying degrees, from many of the same kinds of overuse and environmental degradation that threaten freshwater sources around the world. The Colorado’s flow is so altered and controlled that in some ways the river functions more like a fourteen-hundred-mile-long canal. The legal right to use every gallon is owned or claimed by someone—in fact, more than every gallon, since theoretical rights to the Colorado’s flow (known as “paper water”) vastly exceed its actual flow (known as “wet water”). That imbalance has been exacerbated by the drought in the Western United States, now in its sixteenth year, but even if the drought ended tomorrow problems would remain. The river has been “over-allocated” since the states in its drainage basin first began to divide the water among themselves, nearly a century ago, and scientists expect climate change to strain it further, in part by reducing precipitation in the mountains that feed it.

Not long ago, I travelled as much of the Colorado’s length as can be followed in a car. I began near the headwaters, put three thousand miles on three rental cars, and ended, eventually, in northern Mexico, where the Colorado simply runs out. So much water is diverted from the river as it winds through the Southwest that, since the early nineteen-sixties, it has seldom flowed all the way to its natural outlet, at the upper end of the Gulf of California, and since the late nineteen-nineties it has made it there only once. People who drive into or out of the town of San Luis Río Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, sometimes complain about having to pay a six-peso toll to cross a bridge that spans only sand...
Nice article. Great explication of Southwestern U.S. water politics.

From NBC News
Ongoing coverage of the severe drought in California, and its affect on agriculture, food prices and water supply.

Hospitals are water hogs. In drought-stricken California, they're striving to use less.
By Beth Kutscher  | May 13, 2015

California hospitals are reducing their nonessential water use as a severe drought stretches on and threatens much of the West.

Healthcare providers are exempt from many of the mandatory water restrictions, but the state's largest health systems say they have a number of sustainability efforts in place to reduce their water and energy use.

Hospitals are particularly water-intensive businesses. According to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, large U.S. hospitals used about 133 billion gallons of water in 2007. That was about 145,000 gallons per bed, roughly the same as the annual consumption of a four-person household.

Yet healthcare leaders were not ready to share contingency plans in the event that the drought is the new normal. A spokeswoman at the California Hospital Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Common measures that healthcare providers are taking include installing low-flow plumbing in restrooms, reducing how often they pressure-wash outdoor common areas and changing their landscaping to include more drought-resistant greenery...

Below: I've pulled in some relevant thoughts originally posted on some of my other platforms.

First, from my May 1st, 2015 post on one of my other blogs:

Upstream, downstream; what happens to health when there IS no more stream?

I've had a pretty good recurrent go at the so-called "upstream" issues pertaining to health, e.g., here, and here, for example. The assertion is made that perhaps 90% of human health is atributable to "upstream" factors outside the clinical care delivery system: genetics (to the extent that they are still considered "outside of care delivery"), lifestyle factors, culture, poverty, pollution, and environmental factors more broadly.

California, where I now live, is in the clutches of a severe and prolonged drought, one possibly lurching toward the catastrophic (statewide, we have less than a year's supply left, by some estimates).

The image above is from a current New Yorker article "The Dying Sea."
The Dying Sea
What will California sacrifice to survive the drought?
by Dana Goodyear

...In early April, the governor of California ordered the state to conserve a million and a half acre-feet of water in the next nine months, a drastic response to an intensifying four-year drought that has devastated small communities in the north, decimated groundwater supplies in the Central Valley, and made the cities fear for the future. To achieve this savings, Californians are starting to forgo some of the givens of life in modern America: long showers, frequent laundering, toilet-flushing, gardening, golf. It can be hard to visualize a quantity of water. An acre-foot is what it takes to cover an acre to the depth of twelve inches: some three hundred and twenty-five thousand gallons. A million acre-feet is about what the city of Los Angeles uses in two years. A million acre-feet, give or take, is also how much runs off to the Salton Sea each year from the farms of the surrounding Imperial Valley. Salty, spent, and full of selenium and phosphates, the excess water flows down to the sea, where, two hundred and thirty feet below sea level, it evaporates under a blistering sun...
Indeed. In our household, we have reduced the frequency and length of our showering, reduced toilet flushing, -- "if it's yellow, let it mellow" -- and routinely capture the water that runs from the taps while awaiting needed hot water. The yard is slowly turning brown, as are the surrounding hills of Contra Costa County. The terms of our lease state that "drought conditions are not considered 'acts of God' for purposes of this agreement, and the lessee shall be responsible for maintaining the vegetation on the property in healthy condition through application of sufficient irrigation watering." While that provision is probably unenforceable in the wake of Governor Brown's recent statewide drought Executive Order, it would not surprise me were my landlord to dun us for "landscape damage" by withholding some of our $3,000 deposit were we to move.

There are projections that residential water rates may soon triple. Critics of that approach bemoan the anti-regulatory "libertarian" socioeconomic "efficient markets" tactic of "rationing by price," given that the most affluent residents may simply shrug their shoulders and pay. After all, there are tee times to be had, Lexuses to be washed, and pools to remain filled.

We've been considering buying a house, one closer to my wife's office, but -- current market prices and earthquake considerations aside -- predictions are emerging forecasting a severe housing market downturn by 2017 or so should the drought persist and worsen. At our ages, we don't have time to make a bad housing move and slide -- well,  "underwater." We're fortunately now among the very small minority of incipient retirees with money in the bank (including healthy IRAs), positive net worth, no debt, and positive cash flow. A mortgage gone south might well negate all of that.

Portugal is starting to look pretty good. ;)

LOL. Everyone should have my problems.

Back to "The Dying Sea." and "upstream health issues."

Between the needs of the city and the farmers sits the Salton Sea, which conservation will destroy. “The sea is the linchpin between Colorado River water and urban Southern California,” Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a water-policy think tank, says. Without the inflows, the sea, already shrinking, will recede dramatically, exposing miles of lake bed loaded with a hundred years’ worth of contaminants. Much of the wildlife will disappear—poisoned, starved, or driven off. The consequences for people around the region could be dire, too. Before irrigation, the valley was plagued by violent dust storms. With the water gone, the lake bed could emit as much as a hundred tons of fine, caustic dust a day, leading to respiratory illness in the healthy and representing an acute hazard for people with compromised immune systems. No one knows how far that dust can travel on the wind. Mary Nichols, the state’s top air-quality official, says, “The nightmare scenario is the pictures we’ve all seen of the Dust Bowl that contributed to the formation of California in the first place.”
Last year, when Axel Rodriguez was four, he started coughing, a weird cough that sounded like a drum, deep and percussive, and scratchy, as though something inside his chest were trying to claw its way out. The cough would go away for a few days, only to come back stronger.

Axel’s mother, Michelle Valdez, is twenty-four, with straight, dark waist-length hair and, behind studious glasses, eyes made up like Cleopatra. She told me recently that the problem had started in August, when the family moved into a new house, a pale-yellow stucco rental in Calexico, about thirty miles south of the Salton Sea. “The houses in this area catch a lot of dirt,” she said—from the cars on the heavily trafficked road nearby, from the grass that the landlord insists on mowing, from neighboring Mexicali, the polluted city of a million just across the Mexican border, and, most of all, she said, from the farm fields throughout the valley. “We are in a hole here,” she said. “All the nasty stuff just sits in it.”

In September, the cough came and didn’t let up for two weeks. “Morning, afternoon, evening, it was cough, cough, cough,” Valdez said. Axel missed school, and his throat got so swollen that he could barely eat. He became a regular at the emergency room. Valdez and her husband, Antonio Marron, plied Axel with cough syrups, drops, Claritin—they’d been told he had allergies—and when those didn’t work they contemplated taking him to Mexicali for an herbal cure. “I was very desperate,” Valdez said. The medicines were also putting pressure on their finances. At the time, Marron was making about two hundred dollars a week working at Best Buy; Valdez stayed home, taking care of Axel and his sister, Ana, who is three.

One windy, cold morning in September, Axel told his mother that his chest hurt and he couldn’t breathe. Marron covered Axel’s face with a blanket and took him to the emergency room again. His lungs were swollen and full of mucus. This time, Marron was told what the family had already begun to suspect: Axel had asthma. At the hospital that day, they met a nurse, Aide Fulton, who runs the Imperial Valley Child Asthma Program. She began to educate them about how to manage a chronic condition in an environment seemingly designed to aggravate it.

Around the same time, Valdez had an episode herself, a tightening in her chest that felt as if someone were squeezing her with a belt. She went to the hospital, and learned that she’d lost a quarter of the capacity of her right lung. The diagnosis was chronic obstructed pulmonary disease, a condition associated with lifelong smoking. Valdez, who is not a smoker, has a genetic predisposition to C.O.P.D., but this was her first experience of it. She said, “I told my husband, ‘I never had an attack until you brought me here!’ ” Not that Marron has been spared. His current job, installing alarm systems, has him in and out of doors all day, and he recently came down with an infection in his lungs.

The valley is eighty per cent Latino and mostly poor. It also has the state’s highest rate of asthma-related hospitalization for children. The Imperial Valley Child Asthma Program is the only free asthma-education program in the county, and it operates on an average budget of a hundred and forty-six thousand dollars a year. Fulton told me that in the past few years there has been an increase in referrals from the towns adjacent to the Salton Sea. (At one school, in the seaside town of Calipatria, sixty-five children are ill.) “We already have an unmet need,” she said. “What are we going to do when the Salton Sea dries out?” She is thinking of her clients, and she is thinking of herself. Her husband has asthma, her oldest daughter has asthma, and, after twenty-five years in the valley, she has it, too. “The issue of the sea is a bomb,” she said. “It’s a monster coming to get us all.”...
I've been following southwestern drought issues for years. Dozens of millions of us in the region are at increasing risk across a variety of fronts -- including health.

Started posting about the drought when I lived in Vegas. See my post "Las Vegas: The next Anasazi Ruin?"

I recently updated the Excel sheet I've long kept to track the inexorably declining water levels in Lake Mead.

The all-time high water level of Lake Mead came in July 1983 at 1,223 feet above sea level. It has dropped some 145 vertical feet since then. That is a lot of water. The Colorado River Rocky Mountains watershed source snowpack has been steadily declining for decades. The Sierra Nevada watershed snowpack, source of California's hydrological cycle water, hit an all-time low this year.


Shot this with my iPhone while having lunch with my wife and a friend at Marche Bacchus bistro in Summerlin, on the shore of the artificial lake at the "Desert Shores" master community up on the NW side of the Vegas valley

No "bathtub ring" here. Posted it to Facebook: "Drought? What drought?"


It's a southwestern US crisis writ large, but, California, with its 39 million population and huge economy is Ground Zero.
California snowpack survey canceled: 'Drought is severe'

State water officials had planned to make the trek back to the Sierra Nevada in the coming days to conduct their snowpack measurement Friday.

But Thursday they announced they wouldn’t bother. For the second consecutive month, there won’t be any snow to measure.

“This is just another piece of information in a series of increasingly dismal findings,” said Department of Water Resources spokesman Doug Carlson. “It nails down that the drought is severe – maybe as severe as any in our history.”

The latest disappointing news comes a month after Gov. Jerry Brown stood on a field at Phillips Station – where this week’s manual measurement was to occur – and announced California’s first mandatory statewide water use cuts to combat the ongoing drought. It was the only April 1 survey since 1941 without any snow.

Officials say conditions have gotten even worse since then. 

Though the manual measurement east of Sacramento often provides a backdrop for media coverage, the state uses electronic sensors up and down the Sierra to measure the water content of the snow. Snowpack accounts for about 30% of the state's water supply when it melts in the late spring and summer and replenishes reservoirs.

On April 1, statewide measurements showed that the snowpack’s water content was just 5% normal for that date, the lowest in records going back to 1950. Thursday’s readings indicate the snowpack’s water content is half an inch or about 3% of normal for this time period...
The Political Opportunity of a Drought
California Governor Jerry Brown's push for massive cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions turns a crisis into an opportunity to legislate.

“I can tell you, from California, climate change is not a hoax," California Governor Jerry Brown told Martha Raddatz earlier this month. "We’re dealing with it, and it’s damn serious.”

The key word missing from Brown's widely disseminated Sunday morning show soundbite was "drought." While his appearance on This Week was ostensibly meant to be about California's worst-ever drought on record, he parlayed the segment into a broader conversation about climate change.

With alarming reports about water shortages and the state's warmest-ever winter, Brown has successfully folded the issue of the drought into a broader slate of ambitious environmental reforms. But even as he puts together billion-dollar relief packages and labels climate-change opposition "immoral," he does so without explicitly linking the drought to global warming.

Even though reports from agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have refrained from laying the historic drought at the foot of global warming, Brown has used the general sense of crisis to move ahead on climate-change issues. Brown's efforts are not only affecting California, but the rest of the country as well.

In an executive order on Wednesday, Brown called for the most aggressive cuts to carbon emissions in North America. The order establishes that California "must cut the pollutants to 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2030, more than a decade after he leaves office," the Los Angeles Times reported.

“California is taking the most aggressive steps to deal with pollution and the effects of climate change,” he told a roaring crowd at a climate-change conference in California.

As Bloomberg notes, in order to achieve this new target, the state will have to "require utilities to get more electricity from low-pollution sources, compel industries to cut smokestack emissions further and encourage greater numbers of cleaner cars on roads." One likely upshot is that California's efforts are going to impact businesses and utilities in other states, making the Golden State's policy a meaningful factor elsewhere in the country...
How will all of this affect human health? What will happen if/when the stream runs dry? We may begin finding out in relatively short order.

"What will California sacrifice to survive the drought?"
Poor people? Their livelihoods, their health? Remember, When it comes to health, your zip code matters more than your genetic code.

Another adverse health consideration linked to protracted drought? Elevated rates of  severe, widespread wildfires and the environmental (and respiratory) damage they cause. Below, estimate 2015 wildfire rate increases.

California's Drought Has Killed Over 12 Million Trees In The Last Year

California's historic drought is having a major impact on the state's forests.

According to an aerial survey conducted last month by the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 12 million forest trees have died in Southern California and the southern Sierra Nevada mountains over the last year. The report credits unusually high temperatures, a diminished snowpack and a severe lack of rainfall with drying up the trees, leaving the region susceptible to forest fires.

Of the more than 4.2 million acres surveyed in Southern California, researchers found 164,000 acres with high tree mortality. They found approximately 2 million trees had died over the last year.

In the southern Sierras, researchers found over 10 million perished trees in 4.1 million acres. There, mortality is "widespread and severe" in the foothills among ponderosa, gray pine, blue oak and live oak trees.

Jeffrey Moore, the acting aerial survey program manager for the region, told the Los Angeles Times he expects the mass tree mortality to continue throughout the summer...

California drought: Can railroads come to the rescue?
CNBC: Jeff Daniels, @jeffdanielsca

As California's four-year drought worsens and water supplies dwindle in the state, an old technology—railroads—could play a role in alleviating some water shortages.

"We certainly have that capability today," said Mike Trevino, a spokesman for privately held BNSF Railway, which operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America. "We carry chlorine, for example. We carry liquefied commodities."
Experts say the East Coast's plentiful water could cost cents per gallon to Californians and provide a stable, potable water supply for small communities. Obstacles include identifying a state willing to share some of its water, and securing the construction funds for key infrastructure work, including terminals that can handle water...
 Yeah. I was on that years ago.

From the CNBC article:
"Experts say the East Coast's plentiful water could cost cents per gallon to Californians and provide a stable, potable water supply for small communities."
That is simply not true, at least in the sense that the "cents per gallon" assertion is meant to imply that the cost would be trivial, consequently making large-scale rail water transport economically viable. An acre-foot of water weighs 1390 tons. This acre-foot would fill 10 of the largest DOT-111 rail tank cars, each of which has a tare (empty) weight of 62 tons. At the usually cited 5 cents per ton-mile rail freight transport cost, you're looking at $100 per mile per acre-foot. Forget the "east coast." Assume, for the sake of illustrative argument, that you could drop a "straw" into Lake Superior (with its massive 2,903 cubic miles of water) -- at, say, Duluth -- pump it into rail tank cars and transport it ~2,000 miles to parched California. (Those living around Lake Superior would never miss it, but they'd invariably Primal-Scream howl that the exporters were going to drain the lake dry for the benefit of San Joaquin Valley walnut growers and other SoCal billionaires.)

I get 62 cents per gallon just for the transport. "Provide a stable, potable water supply for small communities?" I rather doubt that it would be affordable for small communities.
Even were we to, say, alternatively route such hypothesized RR water tankers to the headwaters of the Colorado River Watershed northwest of Denver, up just past the Continental Divide (about 1,100 miles from Chicago or Duluth) to then discharge the water into the headwaters streams for subsequent gravity-borne southwestward downhill flow, you're still talking perhaps 32 cents per gallon (and you'd lose a bunch of it to evaporation across the rest of the journey).
Other issues: the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as (most importantly) the nation of Canada are unlikely to say "yeah, sure, by all means, help yourselves." (My sister lives in Marquette, MI, on Lake Superior. "Yoopers" have rebuffed repeated proposals to tap the lake for years.) Even moving the "straw" loading terminal south to Lake Michigan might not take Canada out of the policy picture (given the zero-sum fungibility of water), and would add ticked-off locals residing in Illinois and Indiana to the "not-in-my-backyard" states-level fray.

Moreover, there are only an estimated 300,000 DOT-111 rail tank cars in the north American freight market standing stock inventory, hauling every imaginable liquid commodity. While the image of a "rolling water pipeline" might present an alluring visual, it seems impractical to me at requisite scale. California alone consumes an estimated 8.5 million acre-feet of water per year. 10 rail cars per acre-foot? Do the math.

One tough problem.


Interesting "Seawater Desalination" post by the San Diego County Water Authority.

Outside-the-Box Afterthought on Desal

Two inherent liabilities of desal are [1] intense power consumption and [2] the brine effluent. Related to the first concern are the environmental impact of burning dirty extractive fuels to generate the electricity for the reverse osmosis process.

OK, rotate two of our ten nuke carriers in and out of station offshore (one off the northern coast, one off the south) to provide desal energy (far enough offshore to effectively mitigate the brine concentration problem on land), pumping the water into conventional tankers for subsequent distribution. Typical long range tanker ship capacity is about 20 million gallons (61 acre-feet).

The Navy could still do their routine training ops while powering desal production.

Gets around the problems of dirty hydrocarbon fuels emissions, prohibitive civilian nuke plant licensing obstacles, and ground-based nuke plant California earthquake concerns.

I know. Crazy.

Whatever. There are no cheap solutions. Cheaper than the socioeconomic (and broader misery index) upshot of a new dustbowl, though.

From a 2011 post on another of my blogs.

Vegas: The next Anasazi ruin?

Lake Mead, which now supplies the Las Vegas Valley with 90% of its water, has dropped 128 vertical feet since January 2000, and is now at roughtly 43% of capacity (I track these data monthly and drop them into Excel, from which I generate the above graph). It came back up 4 feet in December 2010, owing mainly to severe and sustained west coast and Rocky Mts watershed rains and snows, but, will likely again continue to decline. I shot the photos below in June 2009. The lake has dropped another 9 feet net since then.

When my wife and I relocated to Las Vegas in 1992, 1/3rd of the area's water came from the Spring Mountains watershed to the west of the valley, but the western watershed groundwater levels comprising that resource have declined significantly as well (for the most part owing to our sustained drought and -- until recently -- intense population influx). Below, Lake Mead at Hoover Dam during happier hydrological times.

In response to the dramatic lake level decline, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has proffered a plan to construct a pipeline into Lake Mead via which to obtain water from the northern rural ranching and mountain areas of eastern Nevada along the Utah border. But, the political pushback against this proposal has proved quite formidable. Critics call it another "Owens Valley" debacle, arguing that rural Nevadans (and nearby rural Utah residents). should not be sacrificed for the benefit of even more Las Vegas urban growth just to further enrich developers and the gaming industry.

Clark County, NV (the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area) is now home to some 2 million residents.

It is, long-term, an ecologically unsustainable region, and, absent gaming, would likely be another (perhaps slightly larger) Barstow -- one more dessicated, hardscrabble truck and rail stop of 30 to 40,000 people along the route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Everything is brought in here by truck, rail, or aircraft. With the exception of water (for now).


[Click above to go to the story]
"Las Vegas was first settled for its springs, springs that made it an oasis in the desert. Although those springs have decades since run dry, water is still the most import resource to Las Vegas and the dry Southwest.

And by all indications the region is only going to get dryer. Scientists predict devastating effects from global warming, conservationists are calling for a halt to growth in Southern Nevada as a way to preserve supplies and water managers are looking to ever more creative ways to reduce reliance on the overburdened Colorado River. A Colorado River reservoir at Lake Mead is the source of 90 percent of the valley's water supply. Water levels there have fallen steadily for nearly a decade..."
Consider some attributes of sea water.

One acre-foot of sea water (325,851.4 gallons) weighs roughly 1,390 tons and contains about 40 tons of salt, and another 7 tons of lesser chemical constituents. The technologies for transforming salt water into potable fresh water are relatively mundane (albeit energy intensive). A net 96,500 acre-feet of potable desal water (100,000 acre-feet less the brine constituents) could serve perhaps 300,000 household per year. But, beyond the KwH energy cost of production, there would remain [1] the considerable expense of transporting it to the destinations of need, and [2] environmentally benign disposition of the 4.76 million tons of the residual chemicals (mainly salt), which are typically simply slurried back into the oceans proximate to the desalination plants.

You can just to a little transport arithmetic starting with a gallon of fresh water (post-desal processing) at 8.35 lbs: equivalently ~1360 tons per acre-foot. Use the rough rail freight shipping estimate of a nickel per ton-mile. Haul it 300 miles. About 20 grand, plus the cost of desal production. Pretty expensive alternative to the natural (and, of late in the west, chronically inadequate) hydro cycle.

Given that pipeline pumping of desalinated water several hundred miles up to higher elevations such as Las Vegas (2,160 ft above sea level) is a non-starter (as would be the use of rail tank cars; we don't have enough for just this singular "rolling pipeline" purpose), trade-off/diversion proposals have been floated in recent years in which Nevada would fund additional desal capacity in California in return for diversion of an equivalent volume of downhill-flow water from the Sierra Nevada range watershed inventory. But, myriad California agricultural, environmental, and energy concerns have thus far sufficed to stifle such initiatives. 


News from May 2008:

Spain's worst drought in decades has forced the city of Barcelona to begin shipping in drinking water in an unprecedented effort to avoid water restrictions.

For the first time ever, tankers began to deliver desperately needed drinking water to the parched region of five million people. Incredibly, Spain has seen almost no rain in the last eighteen months. Water levels have dropped so low in local reservoirs that a long forgotten medieval village has emerged from beneath a rapidly drying lake.

Sixty six tankers are expected to deliver water over the next few months. Meanwhile the Spanish government appears to have given up relying on rainwater. They are now constructing a desalination plant that will supply 60 billion litres of water a year to the parched region.
California drought: Can railroads come to the rescue?

(CNBC) As California's four-year drought worsens and water supplies dwindle in the state, an old technology—railroads—could play a role in alleviating some water shortages.

"We certainly have that capability today," said Mike Trevino, a spokesman for privately held BNSF Railway, which operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America. "We carry chlorine, for example. We carry liquefied commodities."
Experts say the East Coast's plentiful water could cost cents per gallon to Californians and provide a stable, potable water supply for small communities. Obstacles include identifying a state willing to share some of its water, and securing the construction funds for key infrastructure work, including terminals that can handle water....
See also my KHIT post "Upstream, downstream; what happens to health when there IS no more stream?"


From a couple of other posts of mine.

UPDATED January 13th, 2013. Scroll through.

Above and below, shots I took at my in-laws' northern Alabama farm recently.
They will lose hundreds of acres of corn, despite being on the "periphery" of the drought zones.

Above, one of my Lake Mead / Hoover Dam shots not too long ago.
Colorado, June 2012
By Robin McKie, The Observer
Saturday, August 11, 2012 18:55 EDT

"Sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing at a far greater rate than previously expected, according to data from the first purpose-built satellite launched to study the thickness of the Earth’s polar caps.

Preliminary results from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 probe indicate that 900 cubic kilometers of summer sea ice has disappeared from the Arctic ocean over the past year.

This rate of loss is 50% higher than most scenarios outlined by polar scientists and suggests that global warming, triggered by rising greenhouse gas emissions, is beginning to have a major impact on the region. In a few years the Arctic ocean could be free of ice in summer, triggering a rush to exploit its fish stocks, oil, minerals and sea routes.

Using instruments on earlier satellites, scientists coul
d see that the area covered by summer sea ice in the Arctic has been dwindling rapidly. But the new measurements indicate that this ice has been thinning dramatically at the same time. For example, in regions north of Canada and Greenland, where ice thickness regularly stayed at around five to six meters in summer a decade ago, levels have dropped to one to three meters..."

Click to enlarge. Web link here.

Climate scientist Tim Flannery ("The Weather Makers"):
...the power and seduction of fossil fuels will be hard to leave behind. If humans were to look to biomass (all living things, but in this case particularly plants) as a replacement, we would need to increase our consumption of all primary production on land by 50 percent. We're already using 20 percent more than the planet can sustainably provide, so this is not an option...

In 1961 there was still room to maneuver. In that seemingly distant age, there were just 3 billion people, and they were using only half of the total resources that our global ecosystem could sustainably provide. A short twenty-five years later, in 1986, we had reached a watershed, for that year our population topped 5 billion, and such was our thirst for resources that we were using all of Earth's sustainable production.

In effect, 1986 marks the year that humans reached Earth's carrying capacity, and ever since we have been running the environmental equivalent of a budget deficit, which is sustained only by plundering our capital base. The plundering takes the form of overexploiting fisheries, overgrazing pasture until it becomes desert, destroying forests, and polluting our oceans and atmosphere, which in turn leads to the large number of environmental issues we face. In the end, though, the environmental budget is the only one that really counts...

...By 2001 humanity's deficit had ballooned to 20 percent, and our population to over 6 billion. By 2050, when the population is expected to level out at around 9 billion, the burden of human existence will be such that we will be using -- if they can still be found -- nearly two planets' worth of resources." [pp. 78-79]
Think about that.

As I wrote in February 2009 on another of my blogs:
We can choose to continue to drill, mine, cut down, and grind up the planet in pursuit of short-term business-as-usual, unevenly distributed consumerist comforts, but the day of tragically harsh mass reckoning draws ever closer. The lessons to be drawn from Jared Diamond's "Collapse" are compelling in this regard. There is no shortage whatsoever of constructive and remediative work to be done in support of a sustainable and broadly prosperous future for all of humanity. But, let's not kid ourselves that an unregulated "invisible hand free market" alone will suffice to insure its emergence. Recent economic history alone refutes that assertion.

To be sure, the U.S. comprises only ~5% of world population, and the responsibility of our federal government is constitutionally bound as a priority to address the "general welfare" of our own citizenry. However, we consume about 25% of the world's resources in the aggregate, and, given that our politicians never pass up an opportunity to extol the U.S. as "the greatest nation on earth," perhaps we might start acting like it in the area of sustainability leadership, for, in the end, humanity will survive or perish as a planet-wide species.
WASHINGTON -- The amount of heat-trapping pollution the world spewed rose again last year by 3 percent. So scientists say it's now unlikely that global warming can be limited to a couple of degrees, which is an international goal.
The overwhelming majority of the increase was from China, the world's biggest carbon dioxide polluter. Of the planet's top 10 polluters, the United States and Germany were the only countries that reduced their carbon dioxide emissions.
Last year, all the world's nations combined pumped nearly 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, according to new international calculations on global emissions published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change. That's about a billion tons more than the previous year.
The total amounts to more than 2.4 million pounds (1.1 million kilograms) of carbon dioxide released into the air every second.
Because emissions of the key greenhouse gas have been rising steadily and most carbon stays in the air for a century, it is not just unlikely but "rather optimistic" to think that the world can limit future temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), said the study's lead author, Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway...
"...Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between.

Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the year, last later into the fall, threaten more homes, cause more evacuations, and burn more acreage. In Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and fall storms now cause more erosion and damage that is severe enough that some communities are already facing relocation. ...

These and other observed climatic changes are having wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and most sectors of our economy. Some of these changes can be beneficial, such as longer growing seasons in many regions and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But many more have already proven to be detrimental, largely because society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate of the past, not for the rapidly changing climate of the present or the future.


German sculpture, "politicians discussing global warming."


Also, from an April 2008 post of mine on another blog.


1/7,000th, ~ 0.000142857143.

According to Alun Anderson of New Scientist" (as seen in a post entitled "The Sunlight-Powered Future" in response to the question "what makes you optimistic, and why?" at,

"I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there..."
I've checked a few other sources (e.g., here and here, among others), and his "7,000x" assertion seems well within the ballpark, certainly precise enough for the point I wish to proffer here.

Which is simply this: anyone arguing that we cannot relatively rapidly achieve a net aggregate large-scale solar energy capture-conversion-production-distribution efficiency rate of less than two one-hundreths of one percent (worldwide energy consumption per unit period divided by total solar energy accrual per the same period) is either ignorant or lying.

Yes, this 24/7 7,000x planetary solar energy input is unevenly distributed (both geographically and temporally), with much of it falling on the 3/4ths of the earth's surface covered by water. Of course. But, even that is subsequently transformed relentlessly planet-wide into the copious energy we see ongoing in weather, wind, and waves. Consider wave energy alone for a moment.

"Ocean waves have the highest energy density of any renewable energy source..."

Finavera is but one of the many companies moving ahead with such technology.

How about direct large-scale solar photoelectric conversion?

The above photo is of a 15 megawatt solar facility now coming online on 140 acres of desert proximate to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas where I live. Nellis expects to save a million dollars a year in electricity cost (not to mention the externality greenhouse gases that will not be emitted). Do a little arithmentic: 140 acres = 0.21875 sq. mi., so 15 megawatts/0.21875 = roughly 68.6 megawatts solar energy generating potential per square mile of desert.

Arizona Public Service Co. has even bigger plans than Nellis's:

PHOENIX (AP, 2/21/08) - Arizona Public Service Co. said Thursday it will build a solar-power plant with enough capacity to serve 70,000 customers.

The 280 megawatt Solana Generating Station would be the largest solar-power facility in the world if operational today, the company said.

Arizona Public Service commissioned Abengoa Solar Inc. to build the plant near Gila Bend, Ariz., 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. Arizona Public Service, a renewable energy provider, expects the plant to be operational by 2011.

Arizona Public Service estimates the value of produced energy to be about $4 billion over 30 years and said it will bring more than $1 billion worth of economic benefits to the state of Arizona. Solana will create about 1,500 construction jobs and employ about 85 skilled technicians when operational, the company said...
Consider also some of the work of BrightSource Energy.

Examples are numerous, and increasing. Those living in Vegas may have driven past the two of these (below) now installed and operating along Flamingo on the north side of the UNLV campus: 25kW each, Stirling engine solar collector/concentrator generators.

 So, Alun Anderson is optimistic. What of the pessimists, the naysayers? I find too much of the anti- green conversion crowd fixated on Perfectionism Fallacy straw men (i.e, 'that your proposed solution entails any arguable residual downsides whatsoever fully negates it'). Some of it, again, is ignorance. Some of it is vested interest intransigence. Many of those with significant financial stakes in status quo hydrocarbon/greenhouse gas emitting industries are frantically circling their rhetorical wagons (I'm sorry, "clean coal" is an oxymoron).

Nothwithstanding my enthusiasm for the "green" imperative, I have to recognize that a large scale transition will indeed not be "perfect," that, beyond the self-interest crowd's amply-funded foot-dragging, it will be rife with missteps, failed promise, and outright chicanery. Consider a recent article in Harper's, "The next bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow's big crash":
...We have learned that the industry in any given bubble must support hundreds or thousands of separate firms financed by not billions but trillions of dollars in new securities that Wall Street will create and sell. Like housing in the late 1990s, this sector of the economy must already be formed and growing even as the previous bubble deflates. For those investing in that sector, legislation guaranteeing favorable tax treatment, along with other protections and advantages for investors, should already be in place or under review. Finally, the industry must be popular, its name on the lips of government policymakers and journalists. It should be familiar to those who watch television news or read newspapers.

There are a number of plausible candidates for the next bubble, but only a few meet all the criteria. Health care must expand to meet the needs of the aging baby boomers, but there is as yet no enabling government legislation to make way for a health-care bubble; the same holds true of the pharmaceutical industry, which could hyperinflate only if the Food and Drug Administration was gutted of its power. A second technology boom—under the rubric “Web 2.0”—is based on improvements to existing technology rather than any new discovery. The capital-intensive biotechnology industry will not inflate, as it requires too much specialized intelligence.

There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water. Indeed, the next bubble is already being branded. Wired magazine, returning to its roots in boosterism, put ethanol on the cover of its October 2007 issue, advising its readers to forget oil; NBC had a “Green Week” in November 2007, with themed shows beating away at an ecological message and Al Gore making a guest appearance on the sitcom 30 Rock. Improbably, Gore threatens to become the poster boy for the new new new economy: he has joined the legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which assisted at the births of and Google, to oversee the “climate change solutions group,” thus providing a massive dose of Nobel Prize–winning credibility that will be most useful when its first alternative-energy investments are taken public before a credulous mob. Other ventures—Lazard Capital Markets, Generation Investment Management, Nth Power, EnerTech Capital, and Battery Ventures—are funding an array of startups working on improvements to solar cells, to biofuels production, to batteries, to “energy management” software, and so on...
Yeah (read that entire article, very interesting). Still, we must, and we can move on and out of the fossil fuels epoch (and I would include in that its net destructive baby cousin "biofuels," e.g., corn-based ethanol). With all deliberate speed, I think. Change or die.


[ AP photo/Goldsboro/News-Argus/Brent Hood]

In addition to the exigent imperative of a broad worldwide conversion to non-greenhouse gas energy sources, much more can readily be done in the area of industrial energy waste reduction. See Lisa Margonelli's article "Waste Not: A steamy solution to global warming" in the May 2008 Atlantic Monthly.
"Forty years ago, the steel mills and factories south of Chicago were known for their sooty smokestacks, plumes of steam, and throngs of workers. Clean-air laws have since gotten rid of the smoke, and labor-productivity initiatives have eliminated most of the workers. What remains is the steam, billowing up into the sky day after day, just as it did a generation ago.

The U.S. economy wastes 55 percent of the energy it consumes, and while American companies have ruthlessly wrung out other forms of inefficiency, that figure hasn’t changed much in recent decades. The amount lost by electric utilities alone could power all of Japan.

A 2005 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that U.S. industry could profitably recycle enough waste energy—including steam, furnace gases, heat, and pressure—to reduce the country’s fossil-fuel use (and greenhouse-gas emissions) by nearly a fifth. A 2007 study by the Mc Kinsey Global Institute sounded largely the same note; it concluded that domestic industry could use 19 percent less energy than it does today—and make more money as a result.

Economists like to say that rational markets don’t “leave $100 bills on the ground,” but according to McKinsey’s figures, more than $50 billion floats into the air each year, unclaimed by American businesses. What’s more, the technologies required to save that money are, for the most part, not new or unproven or even particularly expensive. By and large, they’ve been around since the 19th century. The question is: Why aren’t we using them?..."

"...Ultimately, making better use of energy will require revamping our operation of the electrical grid itself, an undertaking considerably more complicated than, say, creating a carbon tax. For the better part of a century, we’ve gotten electricity from large, central generators, which waste nearly 70 percent of the energy they burn. They face little competition and are allowed to simply pass energy costs on to their customers..."

"...Technocratic changes to the grid and to industrial plants don’t easily capture the imagination. Recycling industrial energy is a solution that looks, well, gray, not green. Steel plants, coated with rust, grime, and a century’s worth of effluvia, do not make for inspiring photos. Yet Casten, pointing to the 16 heat-recycling contraptions that sit on top of the coke ovens at the East Chicago steel plant, notes that in 2004 they produced as much clean energy as all the grid-connected solar panels in the world. Green power may pay great dividends years from now. Gray power, if we would embrace it, is a realistic goal for today."

The United States, representing ~5% of world population, consumes in the aggregate roughly 25% of total energy production, an egregious excess that cannot long continue. But, the closer we look (if only we take the trouble), the more low hanging fruit we see right in front of our eyes.


Anthropocene-related posts on my blog.