Organic Food and Farm-to-Table Pioneer Alice Waters Is Creating a Revolution in School Lunches
By Don Hazen
When I spoke with Alice Waters, we didn't focus on her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse, or her profound impact on the way we eat today, starting with the concept of farm to table. Rather, we talked about her passionate, decades-long campaign to provide organic school lunches to kids across the country.
Waters has long advocated that growing, preparing and eating food should be considered a centerpiece of the school curriculum, and she is making progress; thousands of schools across America and around the world have adopted some aspect of her Edible Schools Program.
Waters' vision has become the polar opposite of the fast-food industrial complex. Fast food, fast technology, fast everything is the enemy of Waters' reverence for feeding our bodies and souls in healthy and thoughtful ways. The student body in the U.S. totals somewhere between 50 and 60 million students—the population of a medium-sized country. Waters' attempt to prepare and feed nourishing meals to these kids threatens a system that packages and hurdles our kids through lunchtime.
At a time when President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos champion the privatization of the public school system via vouchers and charters, Waters' vision can almost seem quaint or even a bit far-fetched. The school privatization movement is being aggressively led by the wealthiest people in the country, including the Walmart family, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, Reed Hastings and many others. DeVos is proud of cutting funding for school lunches for poor kids—and those lunches are not even remotely like the nourishing, locally sourced lunches Waters has in mind.
Interestingly, the wretched political situation many of us find ourselves in doesn't seem to faze Waters. She does not blink. She is certainly aware of it, but she ignores the Trump apocalypse. She does not wring her hands, waver or go into shock—whatever it is that many of us have done as we suffer symptoms of Trump trauma. Waters simply persists in a straight line with her message, her vision and the eternal hope that eventually people in large numbers will come to understand what is right and true about healthy eating—which is, as far as she is concerned, a hell of a lot of fun.
It was an empty seat that led me to interview Alice Waters. We met a month or so ago. I was at Chez Panisse because Waters' longtime friend Hamilton Fish threw a luncheon to introduce Win McCormick, the new owner of the New Republic. In effect, Fish was introducing himself as the new publisher. Fish had invited a friendly crowd of local independent journalists and media types, including the likes of powerhouse duo Adam and Arlie Hochschild; Deirdre English, once editor of Mother Jones and now at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism; and the documentary producer Steve Talbot.
I was sitting across from Mark Schapiro, author of countless books and articles about the environmental destruction at our doorstep. Meanwhile Waters was gliding around in the background, making sure all was well with the food and the service. She seemed to have a clear sense that she was going to enjoy the festivities and that everything was under control. At some point, she must have spied the open seat at our table, and gracefully welcomed herself to it. It wasn't long before our conversation headed in the direction of healthy food for school kids. I had been aware of Waters' relationship with a local junior high in Berkeley, and how she helped transform it into a dynamic expression of equitable food systems, where students learn and engage with healthy, local, organic foods.
A note: I put this interview together after a bit of time off, and in the meantime, I was upstaged by a long profile of Waters in the New York Times, written by Kim Severson, about Waters' new memoir, Coming to My Senses, The Making of a Counter Culture. In the article, Severson lovingly recognizes Waters' outsized role in the food revolution, even as she's content to be at the controls of just one restaurant. As Severson wrote, "Sprinkled with photographs, the book traces Ms. Waters' years as a European backpacker smitten with France and as a young radical cooking for the Bay Area's antiwar intelligentsia."
Qualities and experiences like these have helped Waters become the rarified mind and voice of a new food movement. I offer a few excerpts from Severson's piece to save me the trouble of more biographical material, and to do her work honor:
"Waters has not set foot in a conventional grocery store for 25 years. She remains devoted to the idea that all food should be organic, beautiful and eaten communally. That approach, which once seemed strident and economically tone deaf, has seeped into everyday food culture. Ms. Waters' image has softened into that of a grandmotherly sage whose wisdom young people especially seem eager to hear."
"'She is responsible for radicchio in the supermarket and the slice of blood orange on your airplane meal,' said the writer David Kamp."
"Yet she continues to play a kind of small ball that, over the years, has proved powerful. She has never expanded Chez Panisse to other cities, or jumped fully into celebrity in ways that could have promoted her agenda. Rather, she prefers to personally cajole every politician, journalist and philanthropist she meets."
And Diego Galicia, owner of San Antonio's Mixtli, called her, "one of the titans of the mythical chefs in this country."
As Severson makes claim, "Ms. Waters is the reason restaurants started naming farms on menus and serving mesclun salads and American-made goat cheese."
Such a reverent profile is no surprise, and I found it easy to engage with Waters' charm, intellect and passion for equitable food systems and her creativity to engage students. With that in mind, on to our interview.
Don Hazen: Let's start out at the beginning with you telling us a little bit about the edible food program and how it came to be.
Alice Waters: The program came to be about 22 years ago when Neil Smith, the principal of Kings School, called and asked me if I would like to come and help him beautify the school. I had been interviewed by someone and I was asked about public education at Berkeley and I said, it's just so depressing that I go by this middle school every day on my way to the restaurant and it looks like it's abandoned. There's graffiti on the walls. The grass isn't kept. It just looks ... What's happened in this city so close to the University of California? How could this happen?
So he invited me over to his school.
DH: He read the interview.
AW: He read the interview. Yes. And so we took a walk around the school and all of a sudden the whole idea came to me.
This is a middle school that was built in 1921 for 500 kids. Now, there are 1,000 kids. The middle school kids—sixth, seventh, and eighth graders—they speak 22 different languages at home. So it's a really good mix of kids and they used to eat in the cafeteria that accommodated 500 kids. As the school grew, they abandoned the cafeteria and they had a snack bar. The kids would pick up food there, or not, or bring it from home, or not eat anything.
DH: That does not sound healthy.
AW: I was walking around and seeing the land and there was a vacant lot. But it was a broken-up black top and weeds and just garbage. I imagined immediately a productive vegetable garden here. I just saw it. I looked at the edge of the school yard where the snack bar was, it looked like we could build a center for the study of gastronomy there. And I saw a cafeteria that could accommodate all of the kids and big enough so that the kids could sit down every day to eat their school lunch.
I was thinking from the very beginning that school lunch would be part of academia. Every kid could feel connected in this way. They would sit down together and they would eat this organic, nutritious, delicious lunch.
DH: So weaving the education of food into the curriculum was always important?
AW: This is learning by doing. It was always in my mind that there would be a garden, not a garden for growing vegetables, but a classroom where every subject could sort of come alive. Whether it's math or science, an art class or even a history class, it could happen in the lab of the garden. Then I imagined that we would take over the old cafeteria, restore it, and make that a kitchen classroom. So that you would be, again, cooking and measuring. It's a math class. You could be writing down recipes and it's an English class. It could be connected in some way with what you were studying.
DH: And this is probably different from the old model of home economics?
AW: Way different. But I always, from day one, imagined a free, sustainable school lunch for every child. I always wanted it to be sort of in the spirit of the project that you'd buy food locally, seasonally, and that the farmers would come to the school, deliver the food. That their values would come into the institution.
When Neil Smith, the principal, came back to me he said, "Oh, this is a little big for me right now." He said, "I'll be back to you," and I never expected to hear from him again. When he called back six months later, I said, "Well, Neil, it's all or nothing." You know?
And he said, "I'm ready to do all of it but just don't talk about the free school lunch part right now. That will be our little secret because I think you'll frighten them with that. They'll wonder how you're getting the money. They're wondering how you're gonna do that. Just let that be our secret and we'll begin with the garden classroom."
Which is what we did.
DH: How were you able to amplify that project to 5,500 edible school projects? There's like a huge leap, right?
AW: I wanted a place that was so compelling that anybody who came to visit would understand it. They'd say, "Oh, I get it. I get that. This is just right as rain. I understand."
And how uncomplicated it is. It really isn't difficult at all. It's a delicious way to think about it.
It really caught on at the school and all the teachers began to use those two rooms as interactive classrooms. They know that when the kids are going to the garden or the kitchen they never miss a class.
We're operating on the Montessori principle that children need to be won over. You don't tell them what they can't eat or can't do, you just bring them into a relationship. There's something irresistible. They are empowered and engaged differently and that's really what has happened. It really is the truth that if kids grow it and cook it, they all eat it. My priorities have been teaching three values that we need in order to live on this planet together: stewardship of the land, nourishment, and communication.
So that's at the base of what we're doing. That no matter what class they're taking, they're deeply engaged with nature. That three years they're in school there, they know about real food. They're eating whole grains. They're eating vegetables and fruits. They're falling in love with them. They're really learning how to cook them. They're also doing their math class, yeah.
DH: And of course, those are things they can take on for the rest of their life.
AW: I always say they could give a TED talk… they're very able.
When 85% of the kids in this country don't have one meal with their family, just imagine what that means. Just imagine, life is like a run-on sentence, you never pause. You're always grabbing something. You're eating in front of the television. You're out grazing with your friends, and you're learning and digesting the values of the fast-food culture. And that's what I really believe is destroying this world. We've been indoctrinated from early childhood that more is better.
DH: Do you see any ray of hope that the fast-food industry is coming to understand any of these principles?
AW: You know, people would be hopeful saying, "Well it seems that they're focusing more on health" or "They're not putting so many additives in the food." It's not that there couldn't be fast slow food. I remember this guy who was selling little fish sandwiches on the street. I just thought, "Yeah, that's fresh. That's fast slow food."
It's the way we're packaging and selling. It's as if advertising confers value, and that time is money. You don't want to stand in line anymore. If that guy can make that sandwich faster....
DH: You gotta get out of your car.
AW: Twenty-five percent of people eat in their cars. Of course, it's okay to do that. You know, time is money. Kitchen work is treachery. You know, just order in. Part of it is about taste. The other part is that I want people to come back to their senses. I want them to have the time and focus to really digest the human values. The touching, the smelling.
Maria Montessori was about the education of the senses. That was her big thing. She was very successful in the slums of Naples and in India where people were very poor, very hungry and very deprived. It's interesting that we are sensorially deprived. And not always because of poverty or hunger, but because we have been really indoctrinated into such a way that we don't sit in the present. Technology takes the place of food often.
So it's something way bigger that we're attempting to do. These 5,500 [edible schoolyard programs] are schools that have found us on the internet. They've heard about us in some way and they have taken the time to put their information onto our internet site.
Every time I travel there are people that had never even heard of the Edible Schoolyard, but they have gardens at schools or kitchens or they're doing something about the cafeteria. And in other countries around the world. I was just talking to someone on the phone in South Africa and they want to come and study the Edible Schoolyard Project, but they mentioned three or four garden projects that were happening in Cape Town and I said, "Please tell them to put them on the internet."
DH: I want to hear you say that this movement has so much momentum it's not stoppable, because as you know, we are now in the dark ages politically.
AW: I know. We are. But this is kind of an underground movement. I feel like we're in the underground, and we're passing notes back or we're passing meals to each other. You know, take this and tell that person and do that thing. When I was in Italy last, I heard about the forest schools. This has been going on for probably 10 years, it started in Germany.
Kids are dropped off at the edge of a park or a forest and they are preschool age particularly, three to six, and they just play in nature. Somebody brings in the food that they cook. They're kind of being watched so they don't do something really dangerous. But they're just playing in nature.
And they just started the ocean schools where they go to the seaside and the same thing.... Get reconnected. There's a waiting list of a couple hundred at the school in Rome. It's an international movement.
It allows us to fall in love with nature because she's our mother.
DH: But isn't everybody worried about insurance and accidents and protecting, so that needs to be overcome.
AW: Well everybody is, but that is the fast-food culture indoctrinating us to buy equipment from the stores rather than go out into nature. Make sure you have a backpack. Make sure you have rain umbrellas. Get the special kind of hiking boots, the really expensive kind cause you don't want to fall. Get all of the equipment in case you're in a dark place in the middle of the night and you have to put up a flare. You're so overburdened by the thought of the expense that you don't want to go out there.
DH: Some critics are saying kids do not like the food. Now, under Trump, all the Obama school food programs are hitting a stone wall. What do you think about all this?
AW: You can only imagine what I think.
DH: But for the record …
AW: In terms of kids not liking the food, I am shocked. I know that it's not true. I know that when kids are not educated about healthy food, they have a resistance to it. The resistance comes, again, from the fast-food culture.
DH: What is the big picture you see for the future?
AW: I think we need these models around the state of California. Because we want to focus here first. I think there are other right places, you know, in Vermont, maybe even in Virginia, New Orleans, and other places that I have visited recently that have farmers that are organized, that have great need, that love children, and really have interesting people in government positions. And actually have the possibility of growing that food for the schools.
The biggest thing right now, is supporting the people who take care of the environment. We must take care of the people who take care of the land. And so, if 20% of the population is in school, and they are asked to buy this food from farms. I mean at the real cost without a middleman, it could be amazing. It could change farming overnight.
DH: How about one overarching, inspirational, motivational statement about your passion. What would it be? How would you weave all the elements together?
AW: We still need to learn how to talk about food and education, because they haven't been talked about together, really. Education depends on our good health. It depends on our understanding of the environment and somehow we got those separate. I mean, John Dewey understood that. We went down another path and we have to come back to it.
If our public school system is a truly democratic institution. It's the place where we can reach every child in this county from kindergarten. What an opportunity to edibly educate them. I don't just mean a glorified cooking class. I've never thought of it that way. I have always thought of it as a way to empower students to learn, to give them confidence, and to nourish them. So, I think the centerpiece has to be a free, sustainable school lunch for every child.
DH: What about charter schools? What about voucher programs? What about, Reed Hastings, the Netflix guy, who wants kids to sit in front of their computers all day, not even in school, and learn?
AW: Well, I'm talking about every child. I'm talking about equality. That's right, never wrong. We all deserve an education and a nourishing school lunch.
DH: How will we get a free school lunch for every child? Through private programs like the Edible Schoolyard? Or through legislation?
AW: I think it's going to happen through education. We have a health care crisis. One in two kids is going to have diabetes. Now we need to educate children about health basically from birth. It's just ... crazy to think that we don't have to worry about it, the health care cost. So we really need an edible education. It's about kids. It's about getting politicians' attention to help to figure out how this could happen. Maybe it's a soda thing. Maybe it's a real estate tax. Maybe it's a rural development. Maybe it's all of these things together that make this happen, but it's essential that it ... I mean, we're, as Carlos Petrini [founder of the International Slow Food Movement] says, we're on a train and it's going off the edge of the cliff.
We have to stop the track and get off. Now we're in a jungle. We don't know how we're going to get out but we'll find a way. I've always believed in people power. I saw it happen when we organized around the AIDS crisis....We made an AIDS quilt that covered the entire mall. Everybody had a part in it and we can do this. I want to partner with Habitat for Humanity and rebuild every school in the state of California. We haven't paid any attention to what's happened to our schools for at least 30 years.
I remember when I came to Berkeley. That was in '64. We were the number-one university on the planet and we were number one in academic excellence from K-12. We are now number 47. It's so sad. And fast food has taken over our public schools so that we're trying to educate kids to make money. I mean, that's the goal, to get online, to do it fast, cheap, and easy. Whatever it takes.
DH: How about getting a real education?
AW: How about getting to meet, to know the people who are in your class? How they're touching your life. There are other pathways into our minds: touch, taste, smell, hearing, seeing, and we've closed these down. We don't go into a market and see anything out in the open. It's all in a package. You don't smell it.
Unless we go to a farmers' market we don't experience that. We don't cook anymore. We just order in. It's not just what we're eating, it's how we're eating. And that's what I'm really drawn to address with this project. The dinner table is a rite of civilization and we need to participate in that to keep our families together, to keep our communities together.
They're talking about rural development. How to keep people on the land, how to bring them back to the land, which is exactly what we need to be doing in this country and which is exactly what this project could do, this initiative. If we purchase food from local people it will put people into business in Bakersfield. And we're supporting the small local companies.
But fast-food culture would have us believe that this is too much work. Well, at Chez Panisse we have 85 people we buy from during the whole course of a year. We only feed 500 people a day. But it's a pleasure to talk to the farmers. That's my favorite part, always was.
It's really the communication and exchange that builds communities. It's not something you can legislate. It's that you're giving me the best bread I ever had and I'm so happy to give you money for it. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than stand in line and give money for your bread.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
On Thursday, April 22, the world will celebrate Earth Day, the largest non-religious holiday on the globe.
This Earth Day falls at a critical turning point. It is the second Earth Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and follows a year of devastating climate disasters, such as the wildfires that scorched California and the hurricanes that battered Central America. But the day's organizers still have hope, and they have chosen a theme to match.
"At the heart of Earth Day's 2021 theme, Restore Our Earth, is optimism, a critically needed sentiment in a world ravaged by both climate change and the pandemic," EarthDay.org president Kathleen Rogers told USA TODAY.
Last Earth Day marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated digitally to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will largely be the case this year as well.
"Most of our Earth Day events will be virtual with the exception of individual and small group cleanups through our 'Great Global Cleanup' program," EarthDay.org's Olivia Altman told USA TODAY.
Tuesday, April 20: A Global Youth Summit begins at 2:30 p.m. ET featuring young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor. This will be followed at 7 p.m. ET by "We Shall Breathe," a virtual summit organized by the Hip Hop Caucus to look at issues like the climate crisis, pollution and the pandemic through an environmental justice lens.
Wednesday, April 22: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET, Education International will lead the "Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit." Talks will be offered in multiple languages and across multiple time zones to emphasize the importance of education in fighting the climate crisis.
Thursday, April 22: On the day itself, EarthDay.org will host its second ever Earth Day Live digital event beginning at 12 p.m. ET. This event will feature discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day's theme of restoring our Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.
"EARTHDAY.ORG looks forward to contributing to the success of this historic climate summit and making active progress to Restore Our Earth," Rogers said in a press release. "We must see every country rapidly raise their ambition across all climate issues — and that must include climate education which would lead to a green jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an educated and civically engaged citizenry around the world."
EarthDay.org grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million U.S. residents to call for greater environmental protections. The movement has been credited with helping to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to pass landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts. It has since gone on to be a banner day for environmental action, such as the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. More than one billion people in more than 192 countries celebrate Earth Day each year.
This legacy continues. The organization called the scheduling of Biden's summit a "clear acknowledgement of the power of Earth Day."
"This is a critical stepping stone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. In concert with several planned parallel EARTHDAY.ORG events worldwide, Earth Day 2021 will accelerate global action on climate change," EarthDay.org wrote.
Super-emitters are individual sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills or dairy farms that produce a disproportionate amount of planet-warming emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon Mapper, the non-profit leading the effort, hopes to provide a more targeted guide to reducing emissions by launching special satellites that hunt for sources of climate pollution.
"What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, told BBC News. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck."
The new project, announced Thursday, is a partnership between multiple entities, including Carbon Mapper, the state of California, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Planet, a company that designs, builds and launches satellites, according to a press release. The project is being implemented in three stages.
The initial stage, which is already complete, involved the initial engineering development. NASA and Planet will work together in the second stage to build two satellites for a 2023 launch. The third phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.
The satellites will include an imaging spectrometer built by NASA's JPL, NASA explained in a press release. This is a device that can break down visible light into hundreds of colors, providing a unique signature for chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide. Most imaging spectrometers currently in orbit have larger pixel sizes, making it difficult to locate emission sources that are not always visible from the ground. However, Carbon Mapper spectrometers will have pixels of around 98 square feet, facilitating more detailed pin-pointing.
"This technology enables researchers to identify, study and quantify the strong gas emission sources," JPL Scientist Charles Miller said in the press release.
Once the data is collected, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors via an open data portal to help repair leaks.
"These home-grown satellites are a game-changer," California Governor Gavin Newsom said of the project. "They provide California with a powerful, state-of-the-art tool to help us slash emissions of the super-pollutant methane — within our own borders and around the world. That's exactly the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking solution we need now to address the existential crisis of climate change."
By Jenna McGuire
Commonly used herbicides across the U.S. contain highly toxic undisclosed "inert" ingredients that are lethal to bumblebees, according to a new study published Friday in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The study reviewed several herbicide products and found that most contained glyphosate, an ingredient best recognized from Roundup products and the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and worldwide.
While the devastating impacts of glyphosate on bee populations are more broadly recognized, the toxicity levels of inert ingredients are less understood because they are not subjected to the same mandatory testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"Pesticides are manufactured and sold as formulations that contain a mixture of compounds, including one or more active ingredients and, potentially, many inert ingredients," explained the Center for Food Safety in a statement. "The inert ingredients are added to pesticides to aid in mixing and to enhance the products' ability to stick to plant leaves, among other purposes."
The study found that these inert substances can be highly toxic and even block bees' breathing capacity, essentially causing them to drown. While researchers found that some of the combinations of inert ingredients had no negative impacts on the bees, one of the herbicide formulations killed 96% of the bees within 24 hours.
According to the abstract of the study:
Bees exhibited 94% mortality with Roundup® Ready‐To‐Use® and 30% mortality with Roundup® ProActive®, over 24 hr. Weedol® did not cause significant mortality, demonstrating that the active ingredient, glyphosate, is not the cause of the mortality. The 96% mortality caused by Roundup® No Glyphosate supports this conclusion.
"This important new study exposes a fatal flaw in how pesticide products are regulated here in the U.S.," said Jess Tyler, a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the question is, will the Biden administration fix this problem, or will it allow the EPA to continue its past practice of ignoring the real-world harms of pesticides?"
According to the Center for Food Safety, there are currently 1,102 registered formulations that contain the active ingredient glyphosate, each with a proprietary mixture of inert ingredients. In 2017, the group filed a legal petition calling for the EPA to force companies to provide safety data on pesticide formulations that include inert ingredients.
"The EPA must begin requiring tests of every pesticide formulation for bee toxicity, divulge the identity of 'secret' formulation additives so scientists can study them, and prohibit application of Roundup herbicides to flowering plants when bees might be present and killed," said Bill Freese, science director at the Center for Food Safety. "Our legal petition gave the EPA a blueprint for acting on this issue of whole formulations. Now they need to take that blueprint and turn it into action, before it's too late for pollinators."
ATTN @EPA: Undisclosed "inert" ingredients in #pesticide products warrant further scrutiny! ➡️ A new study compared… https://t.co/bdFwXCVHsD— Center 4 Food Safety (@Center 4 Food Safety)1618592343.0
Roundup — also linked to cancer in humans — was originally produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto, which was acquired by the German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer in 2018.
The merger of the two companies was condemned by environmentalists and food safety groups who warned it would cultivate the greatest purveyor of genetically modified seeds and toxic pesticides in the world.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
By Ayesha Tandon
New research shows that lake "stratification periods" – a seasonal separation of water into layers – will last longer in a warmer climate.
These longer periods of stratification could have "far-reaching implications" for lake ecosystems, the paper says, and can drive toxic algal blooms, fish die-offs and increased methane emissions.
The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that the average seasonal lake stratification period in the northern hemisphere could last almost two weeks longer by the end of the century, even under a low emission scenario. It finds that stratification could last over a month longer if emissions are extremely high.
If stratification periods continue to lengthen, "we can expect catastrophic changes to some lake ecosystems, which may have irreversible impacts on ecological communities," the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief.
The study also finds that larger lakes will see more notable changes. For example, the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems, are already experiencing "rapid changes" in their stratification periods, according to the study.
As temperatures rise in the spring, many lakes begin the process of "stratification." Warm air heats the surface of the lake, heating the top layer of water, which separates out from the cooler layers of water beneath.
The stratified layers do not mix easily and the greater the temperature difference between the layers, the less mixing there is. Lakes generally stratify between spring and autumn, when hot weather maintains the temperature gradient between warm surface water and colder water deeper down.
Dr Richard Woolway from the European Space Agency is the lead author of the paper, which finds that climate change is driving stratification to begin earlier and end later. He tells Carbon Brief that the impacts of stratification are "widespread and extensive," and that longer periods of stratification could have "irreversible impacts" on ecosystems.
For example, Dr Dominic Vachon – a postdoctoral fellow from the Climate Impacts Research Centre at Umea University, who was not involved in the study – explains that stratification can create a "physical barrier" that makes it harder for dissolved gases and particles to move between the layers of water.
This can prevent the oxygen from the surface of the water from sinking deeper into the lake and can lead to "deoxygenation" in the depths of the water, where oxygen levels are lower and respiration becomes more difficult.
Oxygen depletion can have "fatal consequences for living organisms," according to Dr Bertram Boehrer, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who was not involved in the study.
Lead author Woolway tells Carbon Brief that the decrease in oxygen levels at deeper depths traps fish in the warmer surface waters:
"Fish often migrate to deeper waters during the summer to escape warmer conditions at the surface – for example during a lake heatwave. A decrease in oxygen at depth will mean that fish will have no thermal refuge, as they often can't survive when oxygen concentrations are too low."
This can be very harmful for lake life and can even increase "fish die-off events" the study notes.
However, the impacts of stratification are not limited to fish. The study notes that a shift to earlier stratification in spring can also encourage communities of phytoplankton – a type of algae – to grow sooner, and can put them out of sync with the species that rely on them for food. This is called a "trophic mismatch."
Prof Catherine O'Reilly, a professor of geography, geology and the environment at Illinois State University, who was not involved in the study, adds that longer stratified periods could also "increase the likelihood of harmful algae blooms."
The impact of climate change on lakes also extends beyond ecosystems. Low oxygen levels in lakes can enhance the production of methane, which is "produced in and emitted from lakes at globally significant rates," according to the study.
Woolway explains that higher levels of warming could therefore create a positive climate feedback in lakes, where rising temperatures mean larger planet-warming emissions:
"Low oxygen levels at depth also promotes methane production in lake sediments, which can then be released to the surface either via bubbles or by diffusion, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change."
Onset and Breakup
In the study, the authors determine historical changes in lake stratification periods using long-term observational data from some of the "best-monitored lakes in the world" and daily simulations from a collection of lake models.
They also run simulations of future changes in lake stratification period under three different emission scenarios, to determine how the process could change in the future. The study focuses on lakes in the northern hemisphere.
The figure below shows the average change in lake stratification days between 1900 and 2099, compared to the 1970-1999 average. The plot shows historical measurements (black), and the low emission RCP2.6 (blue), mid emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red) scenarios.
Change in lake stratification duration compared to the 1970-1999 average, for historical measurements (black), the low emission RCP2.6 (blue) moderate emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red). Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The plot shows that the average lake stratification period has already lengthened. However, the study adds that some lakes are seeing more significant impacts than others.
For example, Blelham Tarn – the most well-monitored lake in the English Lake District – is now stratifying 24 days earlier and maintaining its stratification for an extra 18 days compared to its 1963-1972 averages, the study finds. Woolway tells Carbon Brief that as a result, the lake is already showing signs of oxygen depletion.
Climate change is increasing average stratification duration in lakes, the findings show, by moving the onset of stratification earlier and pushing the stratification "breakup" later. The table below shows projected changes in the onset, breakup and overall length of lake stratification under different emission scenarios, compared to a 1970-1999 baseline.
The table shows that even under the low emission scenario, the lake stratification period is expected to be 13 days longer by the end of the century. However, in the extremely high emissions scenario, it could be 33 days longer.
The table also shows that stratification onset has changed more significantly than stratification breakup. The reasons why are revealed by looking at the drivers of stratification more closely.
Warmer Weather and Weaker Winds
The timing of stratification onset and breakup in lakes is driven by two main factors – temperature and wind speed.
The impact of temperature on lake stratification is based on the fact that warm water is less dense than cool water, Woolway tells Carbon Brief:
"Warming of the water's surface by increasing air temperature causes the density of water to decrease and likewise results in distinct thermal layers within a lake to form – cooler, denser water settles to the bottom of the lake, while warmer, lighter water forms a layer on top."
This means that, as climate change causes temperatures to rise, lakes will begin to stratify earlier and remain stratified for longer. Lakes in higher altitudes are also likely to see greater changes in stratification, Woolway tells Carbon Brief, because "the prolonging of summer is very apparent in high latitude regions."
The figure below shows the expected increase in stratification duration from lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (center), and high (right) emission scenarios. Deeper colors indicate a larger increase in stratification period.
Expected increase in stratification duration in lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (centre) and high (right) emissions scenarios. Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The figure shows that the expected impact of climate change on stratification duration becomes more pronounced at more northerly high latitudes.
The second factor is wind speed, Woolway explains:
"Wind speed also affects the timing of stratification onset and breakdown, with stronger winds acting to mix the water column, thus acting against the stratifying effect of increasing air temperature."
According to the study, wind speed is expected to decrease slightly as the planet warms. The authors note that the expected changes in near-surface wind speed are "relatively minor" compared to the likely temperature increase, but they add that it may still cause "substantial" changes in stratification.
The study finds that air temperature is the most important factor behind when a lake will begin to stratify. However, when looking at stratification breakup, it finds that wind speed is a more important driver.
Meanwhile, Vachon says that wind speeds also have implications for methane emissions from lakes. He notes that stratification prevents the methane produced on the bottom of the lake from rising and that, when the stratification period ends, methane is allowed to rise to the surface. However, according to Vachon, the speed of stratification breakup will affect how much methane is released into the atmosphere:
"My work has suggested that the amount of accumulated methane in bottom waters that will be finally emitted is related to how quickly the stratification break-up occurs. For example, a slow and progressive stratification break-up will most likely allow water oxygenation and allow the bacteria to oxidise methane into carbon dioxide. However, a stratification break-up that occurs rapidly – for example after storm events with high wind speed – will allow the accumulated methane to be emitted to the atmosphere more efficiently."
Finally, the study finds that large lakes take longer to stratify in spring and typically remain stratified for longer in the autumn – due to their higher volume of water. For example, the authors highlight the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems.
These lakes have been stratifying 3.5 days earlier every decade since 1980, the authors find, and their stratification onset can vary by up to 48 days between some extreme years.
O'Reilly tells Carbon Brief that "it's clear that these changes will be moving lakes into uncharted territory" and adds that the paper "provides a framework for thinking about how much lakes will change under future climate scenarios."
Reposted with permission from Carbon Brief.
By Robert Glennon
Interstate water disputes are as American as apple pie. States often think a neighboring state is using more than its fair share from a river, lake or aquifer that crosses borders.
Currently the U.S. Supreme Court has on its docket a case between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and another one between Mississippi and Tennessee. The court has already ruled this term on cases pitting Texas against New Mexico and Florida against Georgia.
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests' ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Alabama, pay attention to Supreme Court ruling against Florida in water war #Water #SDG6 https://t.co/wIjdoY6Ccr— Noah J. Sabich (@Noah J. Sabich)1617800452.0
Dry Times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions. California's reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California's Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued "remarkably bleak warnings" about cutbacks to farmers' water allocations.
The Colorado River Basin is mired in a drought that began in 2000. Experts disagree as to how long it could last. What's certain is that the "Law of the River" – the body of rules, regulations and laws governing the Colorado River – has allocated more water to the states than the river reliably provides.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river's annual flow.
But diversions and increased evaporation due to drought are reducing water levels in the reservoirs. As of Dec. 16, 2020, both lakes were less than half full.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains' east slope.
Utah Stakes a Claim
The most controversial proposal comes from one of the nation's fastest-growing areas: St. George, Utah, home to approximately 90,000 residents and lots of golf courses. St. George has very high water consumption rates and very low water prices. The city is proposing to augment its water supply with a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which would carry 86,000 acre-feet per year.
Truth be told, that's not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah's unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
In a joint letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, the other states implored the Interior Department to refrain from issuing a final environmental review of the pipeline until all seven states could "reach consensus regarding legal and operational concerns." The letter explicitly threatened a high "probability of multi-year litigation."
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a $9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah's share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted "huge, huge litigation."
How huge could it be? In 1930, Arizona sued California in an epic battle that did not end until 2006. Arizona prevailed by finally securing a fixed allocation from the water apportioned to California, Nevada and Arizona.
Litigation or Conservation
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court's original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation's highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of "nonfunctional turf" – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region's water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia's water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide "clear and convincing evidence." Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
Robert Glennon is a Regents Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Arizona.
Disclosure statement: Robert Glennon received funding from the National Science Foundation in the 1990s and 2000s.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.