By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.
By Larry Brand
Millions of gallons of water laced with fertilizer ingredients are being pumped into Florida's Tampa Bay from a leaking reservoir at an abandoned phosphate plant at Piney Point. As the water spreads into the bay, it carries phosphorus and nitrogen – nutrients that under the right conditions can fuel dangerous algae blooms that can suffocate sea grass beds and kill fish, dolphins and manatees.
It's the kind of risk no one wants to see, but officials believed the other options were worse.
About 300 homes sit downstream from the 480-million-gallon reservoir, which began leaking in late March 2021. State officials determined that pumping out the water was the only way to prevent the reservoir's walls from collapsing. They decided the safest location for all that water would be out through Port Manatee and into the bay.
Florida's coast is dotted with fragile marine sanctuaries and sea grass beds that help nurture the state's thriving marine and tourism economy. Those near Port Manatee now face a risk of algal blooms over the next few weeks. Once algae blooms get started, little can be done to clean them up.
The phosphate mining industry around Tampa is just one source of nutrients that can fuel dangerous algae blooms, which I study as a marine biologist. The sugarcane industry, cattle ranches, dairy farms and citrus groves all release nutrients that often flow into rivers and eventually into bays and the ocean. Sewage is another problem – Miami and Fort Lauderdale, for example, have old sewage treatment systems with frequent pipe breaks that leak sewage into canals and coastal waters.
Red tide in recent years has killed large numbers of Florida's manatees, a threatened species. David Hinkel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Problem With Algae Blooms
Just down the coast from Port Manatee, the next three counties to the south have had algae blooms in recent weeks, including red tide, which produces a neurotoxin that feels like pepper spray if you breathe it in. Karenia brevis, a dinoflagellate, is the organism in red tide and produces the toxin.
This part of Florida's Gulf Coast is a hot spot for red tide, often fueled by agricultural runoff. A persistent red tide in 2017 and 2018 killed at least 177 manatees and left a trail of dead fish along the coast and into Tampa Bay. If the coastal currents carry today's red tide father north and into Tampa Bay, the toxic algae could thrive on the nutrients from Piney Point.
A map shows red tide reports just south of Tampa Bay. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Even blooms that are not toxic are still dangerous to ecosystems. They cloud the water, cutting off light and killing the plants below. A large enough bloom can also reduce oxygen in the water. A lack of oxygen can kill off everything in the water, including the fish.
This part of Florida has extensive sea grass meadows, about 2.2 million acres (8.9 billion square meters) in all, which are important habitat for lots of species and serve as nurseries for shrimp, crabs and fish. Scientists have argued that sea grass is also a major carbon sink – the grass sucks up carbon and pumps it down into the sediments.
Once the nutrients are in a large body of water, there isn't much that can be done to stop algae growth. Killing the algae would only release the nutrients again, putting the bay back where it started. Algae blooms can remain a problem for years, finally declining when a predator population develops to eats them, a viral disease spreads through the bloom or strong currents and mixing disperse the bloom.
Agriculture Runoff Poses Risks to Marine Life
The phosphate mining industry around Tampa is a large source of nutrient-rich waste. On average, more than 5 tons of phosphogypsum waste are produced for every ton of phosphoric acid created for fertilizer. In Florida, that adds up to over 1 billion tons of radioactive waste material that can't be used, so it's stacked up and turned into reservoirs like the one now leaking at Piney Point.
The reservoirs are obvious in satellite photos of the region, and they can be highly acidic. To get the phosphate out of the minerals, the industry uses sulfuric acid, and it leaves behind a highly acid wastewater. There have been at least two cases where it ate through the limestone below a reservoir, creating huge sinkholes hundreds of feet deep and draining wastewater into the aquifer.
Since saltwater had previously been pumped into the Piney Point reservoir, acidity is less of an issue. That's because the seawater would buffer the pH. There is some radioactivity, but only slightly above regulatory standards, according to state Department of Environmental Protection, and probably not much of a health hazard.
But the nutrients are a risk. In 2004, water releases from the Piney Point reservoir contributed to an algae bloom in Bishop Harbor, just south of the current release site. In 2011, it released over 170 million gallons into Bishop Harbor again after a liner broke.
Piney Point: Florida's Leaking Reservoir
Map: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND
Another significant source of algae-feeding nutrients is agriculture, particularly cattle ranching and the sugarcane industry. Nutrient runoff from cattle ranches and dairy farms north of Lake Okeechobee end up in the lake. South of the lake, much of the northern third of the Everglades was converted to sugarcane farms, and those fields back-pumped runoff into the lake for decades until the state started cracking down in the 1980s. Their legacy nutrients are still in the lake.
The nutrient-rich water in the lake then pours down the Caloosahatchee River and into the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers, south of Tampa. That's likely feeding the current red tide off the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.
When water from the Everglades region's agriculture is pumped south instead, huge blooms tend to appear in Florida Bay at the southern tip of the state. Some scientists believe it may be damaging coral reefs there, though there's debate about it. During times that flow of water from the farms increased, reefs throughout the Florida Keys have been harmed. Those reefs have become overgrown with algae.
With the current red tide, the coastal currents have carried it north as far as Sarasota already. If they carry it farther north, it will run into the Piney Point area.
Larry Brand is a Professor of Marine Biology and Ecology, University of Miami.
Disclosure statement: Larry Brand has received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, National Park Service, Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Health, Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management, Cove Point Foundation, and Hoover Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- What Is Causing Florida's Algae Crisis? 5 Questions Answered ... ›
- Harmful Algal Blooms Are Increasing Across the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
- Toxic Algae Blooms Set New Records From Coast to Coast ... ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin doesn't identify as a "traditional Democrat."
She has a good reason for this: "I don't really trust the government," she told EcoWatch. "I haven't trusted our government throughout how it's responded to COVID and I don't trust it in terms of how it's going to respond to the climate crisis."
Sen. Maxmin was elected to represent Maine's 13th Senate District this past November. Two years prior, she was elected to the Maine House of Representatives, serving as the 88th District's first-ever Democrat, where she won by canvassing the historically conservative district and talking to people regardless of their political affiliation.
Sen. Maxmin's love for home on her family's farm in Nobleboro, Maine, inspires her work in community organizing, climate advocacy and uplifting the rural voice in electoral politics — a perspective she believes the left abandoned, she wrote in The Nation during her first campaign.
But in a politically divided state that is warming faster than most parts of the U.S., Sen. Maxmin works to implement climate policy that both sides of the political spectrum can get behind. In early March, she introduced the Pine Tree Amendment, which would secure state citizens the right to a healthy environment in Maine's constitution.
The amendment's introduction follows a growing movement that's led by Maya K. van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and founder of the Green Amendments For The Generations, a nonprofit organization that inspires states to amend their constitutions to give every person inalienable rights to "pure water, clean air, a stable climate and healthy environments."
In 2019, two constituents brought the idea for a green amendment to Sen. Maxmin, who liked the idea of including the rights to clean air and water in the state's constitution because it was "much more foundational" than the volatile environmental laws being discussed in the state's capital.
So far, Montana and Pennsylvania are the only states to include green amendments in their state constitutions, but popularity around the movement is growing and similar amendments are being proposed in various states, including New York, New Mexico and Oregon. While the movement's goal is to build enough momentum to implement environmental rights at a federal level, van Rossum said the movement requires the foundation of multiple building blocks — first starting at the local level.
"If we can go state by state, not only are we going to be educating and organizing and building the foundation for the successful passage of a federal amendment at the right time, but in the interim, we will be harnessing the power of the bill of rights section of our state constitutions for the benefit of environmental protection and the people," van Rossum told EcoWatch.
The movement hasn't avoided critics, however, who will ask van Rossum, "What does it mean to have clean water?" since the terminology can be broad. Van Rossum explained that the green amendments put the rights to clean air, water and a healthy environment on par with the rights to free speech and religious freedom.
"Broad language is a characteristic of the bill of rights amendments," she told EcoWatch, adding that the language must provide both a level of guidance and enough flexibility for government officials and courts.
In 2013, van Rossum and her team used Pennsylvania's green amendment to win a legal battle against a pro-fracking law. The victory proved the amendment worked, "even in a pro-fracking state with a very conservative court in place, at the time," van Rossum told EcoWatch. And in Montana, the green amendment has been used to rescind a permit for industrial gold mining.
But the amendments do more than protect basic rights to clean air and water, van Rossum explained, adding that they can also empower communities to take ownership over their natural resources. When people's environmental rights are written into the constitution, rural communities that have a deep personal relationship with natural resources can raise their expectations of the government's ability to protect those rights. "This is really returning the power to the people, because we always have to remember that fundamentally the constitution is about the people telling government how they want them to behave," van Rossum said.
This is especially valuable for rural Mainers who are increasingly impacted by climate change but may be resistant to environmental legislation for "really good reasons," Sen. Maxmin added.
"The legacy of climate policy in rural communities has been kind of a heavy-handed government ideology that does not reflect the realities of our rural lives," Sen. Maxmin told EcoWatch, referencing current offshore wind development projects being proposed off of the Gulf of Maine. Fishing communities consider the projects to be controversial, claiming they would jeopardize lobster fishing zones.
Bills such as the Pine Tree Amendment are unique since they don't "impact one person more than the other," Sen. Maxmin said, adding that the amendment is a valuable stepping-off point for future climate policy.
In Maine, the amendment has received bipartisan support from the Legislature's Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. It now faces votes in both the Maine Senate and House of Representatives, where it requires a two-thirds majority approval and approval from the majority of Maine voters.
At the very least, van Rossum stressed how green amendments can encourage important conversations across states and local communities. "There is something intellectually and emotionally very deeply empowering and touching for people when you are talking about their water and their air," she told EcoWatch. "It's just so personal."
Senator Maxmin hopes that the Pine Tree Amendment can encourage further discussion on what a fair clean energy transition will look like, specifically for the frontline communities who would traditionally be displaced from an energy transition. "No matter what, the Pine Tree Amendment gives us all the equal rights, the equal foundation and the equal footing to have these conversations," she concluded.
- Four Environmental Fights on the 2020 Ballot - EcoWatch ›
- PA Supreme Court Finds Parts of Act 13 Unconstitutional, Allows ... ›
By Diane Kim, Ignacio Navarrete and Jessica Dutton
Giant kelp, the world's largest species of marine algae, is an attractive source for making biofuels. In a recent study, we tested a novel strategy for growing kelp that could make it possible to produce it continuously on a large scale. The key idea is moving kelp stocks daily up to near-surface waters for sunlight and down to darker waters for nutrients.
Unlike today's energy crops, such as corn and soybeans, growing kelp doesn't require land, fresh water or fertilizer. And giant kelp can grow over a foot per day under ideal conditions.
Kelp typically grows in shallow zones near the coast, and thrives only where sunlight and nutrients are both plentiful. There's the challenge: The ocean's sunlit layer extends down about 665 feet (200 meters) or less below the surface, but this zone often doesn't contain enough nutrients to support kelp growth.
Much of the open ocean surface is nutrient-poor year-round. In coastal areas, upwelling – deep water rising to the surface, bringing nutrients – is seasonal. Deeper waters, on the other hand, are rich in nutrients but lack sunlight.
Our study demonstrated that kelp withstood daily changes in water pressure as we cycled it between depths of 30 feet (9 meters) and 262 feet (80 meters). Our cultivated kelp acquired enough nutrients from the deeper, dark environment to generate four times more growth than kelp that we transplanted to a native coastal kelp habitat.
Why It Matters
Making biofuels from terrestrial crops such as corn and soybeans competes with other uses for farmland and fresh water. Using plants from the ocean can be more sustainable, efficient and scalable.
Marine biomass can be converted into different forms of energy, including ethanol, to replace the corn-derived additive that currently is blended into gasoline in the U.S. Perhaps the most appealing end-product is bio-crude – oil derived from organic materials. Bio-crude is produced through a process called hydrothermal liquefaction, which uses temperature and pressure to convert materials like algae into oils.
These oils can be processed in existing refineries into bio-based fuels for trucks and planes. It's not practical yet to run these long-distance transportation modes on electricity because they would require enormous batteries.
By our calculations, producing enough kelp to power the entire U.S. transportation sector would require using just a small fraction of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone – the ocean area out to 200 nautical miles from the coastline.
How We Do Our Work
Our work is a collaboration between the USC Wrigley Institute and Marine BioEnergy Inc., funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E MARINER (Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources) program. The research team includes biologists, oceanographers and engineers, working with scuba divers, vessel operators, research technicians and students.
We tested kelp's biological response to depth cycling by attaching it to an open ocean structure we call the "kelp elevator," designed by the team's engineers. The elevator is anchored near the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on California's Catalina Island. A solar-powered winch raises and lowers it daily to cycle the kelp between deep and shallow water.
We depth-cycled 35 juvenile kelp plants for three months and planted a second set at a nearby healthy kelp bed for comparison. To our knowledge, this was the first attempt to study the biological effects of physical depth cycling on kelp. Prior studies focused on artificially pumping deep nutrient-rich water to the surface.
A diver at the 'kelp elevator.' Maurice Roper, CC BY-ND
Our results suggest that depth cycling is a biologically viable cultivation strategy. Now we want to analyze factors that can increase yields, including timing, water depth and kelp genetics.
Many unknowns need further study, including processes for permitting and regulating kelp farms, and the possibility that raising kelp on a large scale could have unintended ecological consequences. But we believe marine biomass energy has great potential to help meet 21st-century sustainability challenges.
Diane Kim is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Senior Scientist, USC Wrigley Institute, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Ignacio Navarrete is a Postdoctoral Scholar and Research Associate, USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Jessica Dutton is an Associate Director for Research, USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies / Adjunct Assistant Professor (Research), USC Environmental Studies Program, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Disclosure statement: Diane Kim owns shares in Holdfast Aquaculture LLC, which works on aquaculture for food, primarily focusing on mussels and oysters in Southern California. The company does not work on bioenergy. Research described in this article was funded in part by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), U.S. Department of Energy. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof. Ignacio Navarrete receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for work described in this article. Jessica Dutton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- How to Harvest Seaweed - EcoWatch ›
- Climate Change Threatens Kelp Forests With Invasions of Weeds ... ›
Installing solar panels over California's network of water canals could save the state an estimated 63 billion gallons of water and produce 13 gigawatts of renewable power every year, according to a feasibility study published in Nature Sustainability.
California moves more water than any other system in the world, with 75% of the state's available water in its northern third and the southern two-thirds accounting for 80% of the state's demand.
Covering the canals with solar panels would reduce evaporation by shading the canals from the sun (along with the co-benefit of reducing canal-choking plant growth) and the cooling effects of the water could boost solar panel efficiency.
The final third of this win-win-win is the land elsewhere that won't need to be covered by a solar farm, Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law, told Wired.
Kiparsky likened it to the obvious preference for putting solar panels on one's roof, instead of in the middle of the backyard.
"You're taking something that's already been altered by human activity and doubling up on the benefits it provides. That's the profound piece," he said.
For a deeper dive:
By Anna Huber
- The importance of water – and its vital role in tackling global challenges – is not fully understood or communicated within water-rich nations.
- On a personal, political and global level, there are many actions we can take to change the way we use and manage water.
- World Water Day 2021 focuses on the value of water and how it impacts our everyday life, social and economic stability, climate change and the achievement of SDGs.
Today's World Water Day revolves around the social, economic and environmental value of water, and the essential role it plays in everyone's life. From determining where the world's oldest cities were built and where conflicts break out, to ensuring that we can access internet services and stop the spread of COVID-19 today, the significance of the role that water plays in the world cannot be understated. Water means equality: local water resources and separate toilets can determine whether a girl accesses education, while globally, it impacts the distribution of wealth.
Access to water shapes economic development. An estimated $260 billion is lost globally every year due to the lack of basic water and sanitation. Neglecting water risks (pollution, over-usage, climate change impacting freshwater) will amount to US$301 billion in costs – five times higher than if we would face them. Without clean water, one-fifth of the US economy would come to a stop.
Water also carries significant implications for climate change: improved wastewater treatment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also supplying us with energy – being already the most renewable source. Recognising its scarcity value, water is now being traded as a commodity on the wall street next to oil and gold.
Yet, water is often still treated as an infinite resource in water-rich nations, being polluted to worrying levels. Its importance drowns under the range of diverse global issues that compete for our attention. Let's get this right: in order to have enough water for a continuously increasing population, we must manage water more wisely. Without water, we cannot grow food, continue industrial production, stop climate change or achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How can we ensure water is properly valued? Here are steps individuals, governments and companies can take to prioritize water and create positive outcomes.
1. Steps Individuals Can Take to Prioritize Water
Valuing water as an individual means we must stop polluting and start reducing daily water use (SDG 3, 13, 14).
Did you know that millions of people still dispose of their medicines in toilets, and that discarded plastics pollute our rivers and oceans, with microplastics found in 81% of our urban drinking water. Or that contrary to popular belief, water pollution does not decrease with economic growth, but expands? Tackling water quality can be simple: think before you flush or throw anything into waterways.
Did you know that a running tap wastes 4-8L of water/minute, while showers take up 9-19L/minute? Each T-shirt absorbs 2700L of water, while red meat production consumes 5,000-20,000L per 1kg. By closing the taps and shopping mindfully, collective action by individuals could have a significant impact on saving water.
As a citizen of your country, you can influence political decisions by signing petitions, such as the Water Act in the US, or contacting your local government representatives to support or challenge water allocations. You can also join social movements, such as the youth organization MyH2O that collects, measures and uploads water quality data in rural China on to an open platform, or voice your water solutions on UpLink.
2. Measures Governments Can Take
Valuing water on the policy level implies featuring water as a key element in cross-sectoral policy documents and enforcements (SDG 10, 11, 16).
Only a few countries, such as South Africa and Slovenia, have water access written into their constitution as a human right. Many have signed a water charter, such as the US or the European Union, that recognizes the importance of water, but do not enforce their guidelines.
Governments can raise awareness of their citizens' water footprint and offer tax incentives to be less wasteful e.g. financially rewarding water conservation rather than charging for its consumption, while also engaging businesses to establish water-positive behavior. This might include setting limits for water consumptions and pollution, but also collecting data on the national water footprint. A clearer water statistic can help inform water resource management, governance and policies.
Globally, governments can demand that water be featured as the enabler to achieve the SDGs and Paris Agreement.
3. What Companies Can Do to Improve Their Water Management
Valuing water in the private sector relates to practices, pollution and partnerships (SDG 7, 8, 9, 12 and 17).
Many companies have improved their water usage in innovative ways. Companies such as Colgate- Palmolive have set their own internal water pricing, paying more than the current below-cost price for industrial water supply. Not only does that prepare companies for the inevitable cost increase, but it also signals that water should be valued more. Others have committed to give back more water than they consume, such as Microsoft, or are working on a transformational investment framework for water, such as DWS.
Private sector action to reduce water pollution is still dangerously lacking. Water pollution: CDP, 2020
There has been much less progress in relation to water quality, however, with only 4.4% businesses showing improvement in their water pollution reduction targets. If current available technologies were fully utilized, companies could aim to release water in an even cleaner state to the environment than how it was extracted.
Finally, valuing water means to foster partnerships, such as 50L Home or the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative. This includes engaging local communities that sit at the source of water, following policy guidelines and collaborating with other private-sector companies.
In a nutshell, if individuals, governments and companies want to tackle our biggest global challenges, we should start by taking concrete actions to value water.
Reposted with permission from the World Economic Forum.
- California Faces 'Critically Dry Year' - EcoWatch ›
- Severe Drought Could Impact Yellowstone's Old Faithful Geyser ... ›
By Tara Lohan
One of President Joe Biden's first acts in office put an end to a decade-long fight over the Keystone XL — a pipeline that would have carried climate-polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada into the United States.
Biden's Executive Order said the Keystone XL's approval "would undermine U.S. climate leadership" and that instead he would instead "prioritize the development of a clean energy economy."
Tara Houska of Couchiching First Nation hopes the Biden administration makes good on that promise — and its implications beyond Keystone.
Houska, an attorney and Indigenous rights advocate, is the founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous-led resistance against another cross-border tar-sands pipeline — Line 3. Construction has already begun on this 340-mile-long Enbridge pipeline, which would carry nearly a million gallons a day of tar-sands crude across northern Minnesota — crossing 200 water bodies — en route from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
Environmental organizations have joined Native groups, including the nonprofit Honor the Earth, as well as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe in raising legal challenges and joining on-the-ground resistance efforts.
The Revelator spoke with Houska about what's at stake with Line 3, how Standing Rock helped grow a movement, and why we should rethink what direct action means.
How did you get involved in being a water protector?
When I was in law school, I started doing tribal law work and ended up in Washington, D.C. representing tribes all over the country. At the same time there were serious environmental issues coming through D.C. My first internship was at the White House when Obama was reviewing Keystone XL and I saw a lot of breakdowns in the efficacy of the federal system and a lack of movement.
When the Cowboy Indian Alliance staged a protest in 2014 against the Keystone XL pipeline, I went. It was my first protest. After that I kept working on environmental justice issues for tribal nations, and then two years later a group of runners from Standing Rock came out to D.C. [to raise awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry Bakken crude across the Plains].
I listened to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard [from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe] on Facebook Live ask for help. I could tell she meant everything she said, so I just packed up my stuff, rented a car and drove out to North Dakota.
I planned on being out there [at the Standing Rock protest camp] for a weekend. I ended up staying six months.
Something was different about this Native tribe saying no. There've been lots of tribes that have said no for hundreds of years, but these guys weren't just saying it, they were putting their bodies in front of the machines and refusing to move. The groundswell of youth, the encampment, the legal fight against the federal government — it all came together in this moment.
I think for a lot of tribal people it felt different. We were very united in the struggle.
It was also eye-opening for a lot of other people around the world. Mostly because I don't think a lot of people are even aware that Native people still exist. And that we're still very much engaged in an ongoing struggle for our land and water against either the United States or these foreign interests.
And now you’re engaged in a similar struggle against another Canadian energy company — Enbridge. What’s at stake with Line 3?
After the ground fight at Dakota Access ended and they bulldozed our camp, I went back to D.C., but I had a hard time coming back to the world as I understood it, because it'd been changed.
So in 2018 I founded the Giniw Collective. It was in response to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission unanimously approving Line 3 after years of work and tens of thousands of comments and engagement against the project by Minnesotans.
I started building and finding others to build with, to create a strong resistance community that was also engaging in traditional foods and establishing foundational relationships with the land.
-30 today on the #StopLine3 frontlines here in Anishinaabe territory...stay warm, stay strong ✊🏽❤️ https://t.co/OgZebBpnMF— tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ (@tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ)1613014157.0
Line 3 is much more personal because it goes through my own people's territory. To me, the critical piece of this is not just the drinking water and the emissions and all those irrevocable harms of expanding the fossil fuel industry — particularly the tar-sands industry — but it's also specifically about the threats to wild rice.
[Northern] wild rice is at the center of our people's culture and connection to the world. This is the only place in the world that it grows. This is where the creator told us to come — to where the food grows on water. And to me, Line 3 is an extension of cultural genocide to put something like that at risk.
Construction has already begun. Where do things stand legally with efforts to stop it?
There's a set of legal opinions due March 23 that are very critical in terms of the feds hearing what we are bringing forward, particularly from the tribal nations that have signed onto these lawsuits and are impacted directly by Line 3.
Then there's also an ongoing lawsuit by the Minnesota Department of Commerce against the Minnesota Public Utility Commission. The state is actually suing itself for not being able to demonstrate that there's a need for this project. The tar sands and oil products that will go through the pipeline are for foreign markets. They're not for Minnesota or the United States.
What about at the federal level?
There's also this huge push on [President Joe] Biden, who canceled Keystone XL on day one and has centered himself as the climate president. We're looking to the administration to intervene on something that's an obvious climate disaster.
How can we say we'll cancel one pipeline but build another? It's the same types of violations and the same types of climate impacts coming out of the Alberta tar sands.
Building Line 3 will have the equivalent emissions of building 50 new coal power plants. That's insane.
We are seeing progress, though. We just secured another meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality. I had a number of meetings with members of the Biden transition team and different agencies. I know [National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy was just questioned a couple of weeks ago by Showtime about Dakota Access and Line 3. So the message is getting into their ears. It's just that we need to hear some response.
Where are you finding inspiration now?
The pieces that inspire me the most and give me the most hope are seeing people engaged in resistance during a pandemic to defend the planet and defend life for someone who's not even born yet. That's incredibly powerful to be part of and to see that happen in real time.
To watch someone harvest wild rice for the first time, to watch someone stop destruction of a place in real time for a day — that's really powerful. To see young people finding their voices and using their bodies to try to protect what's supposed to be their world. They are literally fighting for life and their right to a future. That's a really beautiful thing to see, and it's really inspiring and hopeful.
We've trained hundreds of people over the last two and a half years in direct action. I try to push folks to think about direct action not just as being about getting arrested or something like that. To me, it's about standing with the Earth in a real way, putting something at risk and being uncomfortable. I don't think that we're going to solve the climate crisis comfortably. I don't think we're going to solar panel or policy-make our way out of this massive existential threat we're facing.
To take action is to do something in community with the Earth. To think about our own connection to her in everything that we do. I like to remind people that Native people are 5% of the world's population and we're holding 80% of the world's [forest] biodiversity.
That isn't by accident or happenstance. That is because we have a deep connection to the Earth and an understanding that the Earth is a living being, just like we are.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
- Water Protectors Arrested in Minnesota After Chaining Themselves ... ›
- Indigenous and Climate Leaders Outraged Over Minnesota Permits ... ›
Most of Jackson, Mississippi, still lacks safe water, a month after the severe winter storm in mid-February ravaged the city's water system and left much of the population without any running water at all for three weeks.
Even now, city officials cannot show the water is potable, forcing those residents for whom service has been restored to boil water to drink, brush their teeth, and attempt to clean themselves.
That Jackson's water infrastructure needed improvement did not come as a surprise, and for residents of the 80% Black city, the racism is clear.
"We have to recognize the role that [racism] plays, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told NPR.
"We have to realize that issues of race are as American as apple pie."
For a deeper dive:
Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, Clarion Ledger, NPR, New York Times, NBC, AP, CNN, Slate; Commentary: CNN, Keri Leigh Merritt op-ed; Climate Signals background: February 2021 polar vortex breakdown and central US winter storms
- Can Countries in a Water Crisis Resist Coronavirus? - EcoWatch ›
- The Climate Crisis is a Water Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Every Mississippi Beach Is Closed Due to Toxic Algae - EcoWatch ›
In Yellowstone National Park, large crowds watch in awe as Old Faithful erupts with a roar, launching a spire of water about 150 feet in the air.
Old Faithful erupts at regular intervals throughout the day, but it was not always so predictable.
Fossilized wood found on Old Faithful's geyser mound suggests that the geyser once stopped erupting long enough for trees to grow there.
"Trees do not grow on active geyser mounds," says Shaul Hurwitz of the United States Geological Survey.
His team sent samples of the wood for radio carbon dating, and found that all were from the 13th and 14th centuries.
"So looking into it, we found out that that was probably one of the driest periods in the region for last 1,200 years," Hurwitz says.
He says that as climate change causes more severe droughts, something similar could happen again.
"There's a chance that some of the geysers will change their frequency of eruptions and maybe even stop erupting, depending on the availability of water," Hurwitz says.
A complete shut-off is not likely – it would take many years of continued drought. But Old Faithful could erupt less frequently, and eager tourists might have to wait longer to see the show.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
- The California Drought: Who Gets Water and Who's Hung Out to Dry ... ›
- The Link Between Climate Change and Drought - EcoWatch ›
- Southwest Drought Could Be Worst in 1,200 Years, Due to the ... ›
- Water: How to Stop Undervaluing a Precious Resource and Be Ready for the Future ›
By Thomas Hertel
Growing food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way – while also producing enough of it – is among the most important challenges facing the U.S. and the world today.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that food security can't be taken for granted. Putting affordable food on the table requires both innovative producers and well-functioning markets and global supply chains. With disruptions to the system, prices rise, food is scarce – and people go hungry.
But feeding the world's 7.8 billion people sustainably – including 332 million Americans – presents significant environmental challenges. Farming uses 70% of the world's fresh water. Fertilizers pollute water with nitrates and phosphates, sparking algal blooms and creating dead zones like the one that forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.
Clear-cutting land for farms and ranches is the main driver of deforestation. Overall, the planet loses about 48,000 square miles (125,000 square kilometers) of forest each year. Without habitat, wildlife disappears. Farming also produces roughly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
All of these challenges make balancing food production with environmental security a crucial issue for the Biden administration, which is working to address both a hunger crisis and an environmental crisis in the U.S.
Two Different Pathways
As an economist studying food systems, I'm keenly aware that trying to provide affordable food and a thriving agricultural sector while also preserving the environment can result in many trade-offs. Consider the different strategies that the U.S. and Northern Europe have pursued: The U.S. prioritizes increased agricultural output, while the EU emphasizes environmental services from farming.
Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has increased crop production with ever more sophisticated seed technologies and highly mechanized farming methods that employ far fewer workers. These new technologies have contributed to farm productivity growth which has, in turn, allowed U.S. farm output to rise without significant growth in the aggregate economic index of agricultural input use.
This approach contrasts sharply with Northern Europe's strategy, which emphasizes using less land and other inputs in order to protect the environment. Nonetheless, by achieving a comparable rate of agricultural productivity growth (output growth minus the growth rate inputs), Northern Europe has been able to maintain its level of total farm output over the past three decades.
Boosting Prices Versus Benefiting Nature
The U.S. also has a long history of setting aside agricultural land that dates back nearly a century. In response to low prices in the 1920s, farmers had flooded the market with grain, pork and other products, desperately seeking to boost revenues but only pushing prices down further.
Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the U.S. government paid farmers to reduce their output and limited the supply of land under cultivation to boost farm prices. This strategy is still in use today.
In 1985 the U.S. launched a new program that created real incentives to protect environmentally sensitive land. Farmers who enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program "rent" environmentally valuable tracts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 10-15 years. Withdrawing these acres from production provides food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife, reduces erosion and improves water quality.
But this is a voluntary program, so enrollment ebbs and flows in tandem with crop prices. For example, when corn, soy and wheat prices fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enrollment grew. Then with the commodity price boom of 2007, farmers could make more money from cultivating the land. Protected acreage dropped more than 40% through 2019, erasing many of the environmental benefits that had been achieved.
Enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program dropped by almost 13 million acres from 2007 to 2016. U.S. Department of Agriculture
Rental rates for agricultural land in the U.S. vary widely, with the most productive lands bringing the highest rent. Current rental rates under the Conservation Reserve Program 2021 range from $243 per acre in Cuming, Nebraska to just $6 in Sutton, Texas.
The EU also began setting aside farmland to curb overproduction in 1988. Now, however, their program focuses heavily on environmental quality. Policy reforms in 2013 required farmers to allocate 5% of their land to protected ecological focus areas. The goal is to generate long-term environmental benefits by prioritizing nature.
This program supports both production and conservation. Within this mix of natural and cultivated lands, wild pollinators benefit both native plants and crops. Birds, insects and small predators offer natural bio-control of pests. In this way, "rewilded" tracts foster biodiversity while also improving crop yields.
Who Will Feed the World?
What would happen if the U.S., a major exporter of agricultural products, followed the EU model and permanently withdrew land from production to improve environmental quality? Would such action make food unaffordable for the world's poorest consumers?
In a study that I conducted in 2020 with colleagues at Purdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we set up a computer model to find out. We wanted to chart what might happen to food prices across the globe through 2050 if the U.S. and other rich economies followed Northern European conservation strategies. Our analysis focused on the world's most food-insecure region, sub-Saharan Africa.
We discovered that altering food production in this way would raise food prices in that region by about 6%. However, this upward price trend could be reversed by investing in local agriculture and new technologies to increase productivity in Africa. In short, our research suggested that conserving the environment in the U.S. doesn't have to cause food insecurity in other countries.
Implications for U.S. Farm Policy
Many experts on hunger and agriculture agree that to feed a growing global population, world food output must increase substantially in the next several decades. At the same time, it's clear that agriculture's environmental impacts need to shrink in order to protect the natural environment.
In my view, meeting these twin goals will require renewed government investments in research and dissemination of new technologies. Reversing a two-decade decline in science funding will be key. Agriculture is now a knowledge-driven industry, fueled by new technologies and improved management practices. Publicly funded research laid the foundations for these advances.
To reap environmental gains, I believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture will need to revamp and stabilize the Conservation Reserve Program, so that it is economically viable and enrollment does not fluctuate with market conditions. The Trump administration reduced incentives and rental payment rates, which drove down enrollments. The Biden administration has already taken a modest step forward by extending the yearly sign-up for the program indefinitely.
As I see it, following Northern Europe's model by permanently protecting ecologically rich areas, while simultaneously investing in knowledge-driven agricultural productivity, will enable the U.S. to better preserve wildlife and its natural environment for future generations, while maintaining an affordable food supply.
Thomas Hertel is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
Disclosure statement: Thomas Hertel receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- How We Grow Food Could Determine Whether 28,000 Species Can ... ›
- Nearly 90% of Land Animals Could Lose Habitat by 2050, Study ... ›
- How Proper Crop Protection Ensures Global Food Safety - EcoWatch ›
California faces another "critically dry year" according to state officials, and a destructive wildfire season looms on its horizon. But in a state that welcomes innovation, water efficacy approaches and drought management could replenish California, increasingly threatened by the climate's new extremes.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack supplies the state with 30 percent of its water supply. But on Tuesday, California's Department of Water Resources recorded a snow depth of 56 inches and water content of 21 inches at Phillips Station – 61 percent of the average for March 2 and 54 percent of the average for April 1, when it's at its maximum, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The state's largest reservoirs – responsible for maintaining the state's water supply throughout the year – also experienced low levels this year, storing only about 38 percent and 68 percent of their capacity, according to The Guardian.
"With below-average precipitation across the state, California's reservoirs are starting to see the impacts of a second consecutive dry year," said Sean de Guzman, the department's chief of snow surveys and water supply forecasting, according to The Guardian.
These effects are being felt across the state. During the city's wettest months of December, January and February, L.A. received just 2.44 inches of the expected 3.12 inches of rain, the Los Angeles Times reported. At the same time Northern California remains in one of the worst two-year rain deficient since the Gold Rush of 1849 – its precipitation at only 30 percent to 70 percent of a normal year, The Guardian reported.
Three to five winter storms supply California's snowpack and reservoirs with water. But the state's dependency on these few winter storms makes it especially vulnerable when they occur less frequently, The Guardian reported.
"In years where you miss out on one or two of those, you're probably going to struggle to get close to normal," John Abatzoglou, a climatology researcher at the University of California, Merced, told The Guardian, who added that the state is increasingly living in extremes – either experiencing abnormally heavy rain or no rain at all. "We're banking on a miracle March or awesome April to dig out of this hole... In all likelihood, we're going to end the water year with another dry year."
The dry winter not only invites a destructive wildfire season but comes with a heavy price tag for the state's agricultural industry. Between 2012-2016, for example, the state experienced a drought that cost $2.7 billion in losses for the industry, and more than 18,000 lost jobs, The Guardian reported. This drought also killed about 102 million forest trees.
"Our state's water future remains uncertain due to the variability in precipitation and changing climate," Guzman said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Now more than ever, new approaches to water efficacy are necessary. Fortunately, new ideas are plentiful in a state that is often celebrated for its sustainable policy.
One solution, for example, could include paying Californians to conserve water as a cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption, Sammy Roth, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote in the newsletter Boiling Point.
Water and electricity go hand-in-hand in California. "Nearly one-fifth of electricity use in California goes to transporting and treating water. And nearly one-third of non-power plant natural gas use is water-related, primarily water heating," Roth wrote, mentioning the state's complex water projects that include systems "of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants extending more than 700 miles."
Based on research that looked at what happened if the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power paid people to use less electricity rather than less water, the researchers concluded "that paying for water conservation can actually be a more cost-effective way to slash energy consumption than paying for energy conservation," Roth added.
In a drier, hotter and rapidly changing climate, that brings new weather extremes to the state each year, water conservation is imperative for California and the nearly 40 million that call it home. "It's more critical than ever that Californians adopt sustainability, embrace new approaches and emerging technologies and work together to save water for a secure future," Guzman added, according to The Guardian.
- Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use Sign of Climate ... ›
- California Faces a Future of Extreme Weather - EcoWatch ›
- Water: How to Stop Undervaluing a Precious Resource and Be Ready for the Future ›
By Jeff Masters
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's infrastructure a C- grade in its quadrennial assessment issued March 3. ASCE gave the nation's flood control infrastructure – dams and levees – a D grade. This is a highly concerning assessment, given that climate change is increasingly stressing dams and levees as increased evaporation from the oceans drives heavier precipitation events.
U.S. Dams Need $93.6 Billion in Upgrades
The group's 2021 report card gave the nation's 91,000-plus dams a D grade, jus as they had received in each of its assessments since the first one was issued in 1998. Drawing upon the latest data from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, ASCE estimated the cost of rehabilitating all U.S. dams at $93.6 billion, of which $27.6 billion is needed for federal dams. Over half (56.4%) of U.S. dams are privately owned. The cost to rehabilitate deficient high-hazard-potential dams, whose failure would result in loss of life, is estimated at nearly $20 billion. Over 2,300 dams in the U.S. are in this category. The average age of America's dams is 57 years.
The report identified one program that can help address existing funding needs – the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program authorized in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The goal of this program is to help fund the repair, removal, or rehabilitation of the nation's non-federal, high-hazard-potential dams. In federal fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $10 million for the program, less than 0.1% of the state dam safety group's needs estimate, and a quarter of the $40 million Congress had authorized for the program.
Figure 1. Debris fills the Feather River from the damaged spillway of California's Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest dam, after its near-collapse in February 2017. The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost $1.1 billion in repairs. California Department of Water Resources
A 2019 story by the Associated Press reported that the most recent U.S. fatalities from a dam failure were in March 2019, when the 92-year-old Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in Nebraska failed, killing one person. The most recent previous dam failure fatalities involved seven people killed on Hawaii's Kauai Island in 2006 after the earthen wall of the Kaloko Reservoir collapsed.
At least five fatal dam failures occurred in the 1970s – Teton Dam, Idaho (14 deaths), Kelly Barnes, Georgia (39 deaths), Buffalo Creek coal slurry impoundment dam, West Virginia (125 deaths), Rapid City, South Dakota (238 deaths), and Johnstown, Pennsylvania (84 deaths). These failures ushered in the modern dam safety era. AP reported that many states have problematic private dams whose owners can't be identified. In 2018, for instance, Rhode Island listed 32 high- or significant-hazard dams with safety concerns and unknown owners.
A 2019 YaleEnvironment360 story by Jacques Leslie reported that "many people living on property that would be flooded if a dam fails are unaware of that possibility, in part because federal officials blocked public access to inundation maps after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In recent years, some states have again made the maps available. California requires that prospective buyers be informed if a property is in an inundation zone, a practice that should be far more widespread." The 2021 ASCE report card recommended initiating a public awareness campaign that would alert residents of the location and condition of dams in their area.
Figure 2. The L-550 levee on the Missouri River overtopping during the spring 2011 floods. USACE
U.S. Levees Need More Than $21 Billion in Upgrades
In spring 2019, the midwest U.S. experienced severe flooding, causing over $20 billion in damage. More than 80 Corps of Engineers levee systems were overtopped or breached, sometimes multiple times, and more than 700 miles of levees were damaged. Levee repairs were estimated at $1 billion. However, the Army Corps estimated that the levees prevented almost $350 billion in flood damages from October 2018 to September 2019. At least 17 million people live or work behind a levee, and U.S. levees protect $2.3 trillion in property, so the condition of these levees is critical. In addition, approximately 1,400 sites listed in the federal Toxic Release Inventory – including many EPA Superfund sites – lie in areas at high risk of flooding, according to a 2018 New York Times analysis.
In that context, the Civil Engineers' 2021 report card grade of D for the nation's 40,000 miles of levees is concerning. Drawing upon the latest data from the Corps of Engineers, the ASCE says in its report card that $21 billion is needed to improve and maintain just the moderate to high-risk levees in the Corps of Engineers portfolio. That is about 15% of the known levees in the U.S.
U.S. levees are, on average, 50 years old, many built using engineering standards less rigorous than current best practices. Encouragingly, fewer than 4% of U.S. levees are rated high or very high risk, down from 5% in 2017. However, 80% of high- or very high-risk levees have issues that likely would result in a breach prior to overtopping in an extreme flood, the report said.
The report card identified one program that can help address existing funding needs – the National Levee Safety Program. In federal fiscal year (FY) 2021 this program was funded at $5 million, just 0.02% of the $21 billion needed, and just 6% of its FY21 $79 million authorization.
Climate Change Is Driving More Precipitation and River Flood Damages
Increased precipitation in the U.S. in recent decades, partially the result of climate change, has caused an additional $2.5 billion a year in U.S. flood damages, according to a January 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researches, climate scientists at Stanford University, found that between 1988 and 2017, heavier precipitation accounted for more than one-third of the $200 billion in damage. Causing heavier downpours, "Climate change may be exacerbating the cost of flooding," the authors concluded.
In an interview with E&E News, Study co-author Noel Diffenbaugh said in an interview with E&E News that "there is real economic value in avoiding higher levels of global warming. That's not a political statement. That's a factual statement about costs. And it also shows that there's real economic value to adaptation and resilience because we're clearly not adapted to the climate change that's already happened."
U.S. River Floods Are Increasing in Frequency
The number of "extreme streamflow" events observed in U.S. river systems since 1910 has increased significantly, according to a December 2020 study from Dartmouth College.
Along rivers that observed significant changes in streamflow in recent decades, the incidence of extreme streamflow events has doubled in frequency since the 1950-1969 period. Evan Dethier, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper, said in an interview with phys.org that "the shifts toward more extreme events are especially important given the age of our dams, bridges, and roads. The changes to river flows that we found are important for those who manage or depend on this type of infrastructure."
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.