WATER, WATER NO WHERE

By Paul M. Lewis

To say that California is dying of thirst may be something of an overstatement, but there is no argument that the state is becoming more and more parched. The statistics don’t lie. Average rainfall has been off significantly for the last several years, and most disastrously the Sierra snowpack is so low as to be almost nonexistent. The annual measurement at Phillips Station, for example, just off of Highway 50, would normally put snow levels at above 66 feet for this time of year. Instead, it is now completely devoid of any snow whatsoever. What this means, for anyone unfamiliar with how things work here, is that the snow that normally accumulates in the higher levels of the Sierra Nevada mountains and slowly melts as the weather warms up, giving us lowlanders the benefit of regular runoff, is simply not there. That’s bad news for residents, for agriculture, and for all living things.

Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and mandated a 25% reduction in water usage. Given record low rain and snowfall amounts, this is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. We all have to do our part. Homeowners must reevaluate those thirsty, lush green lawns so favored by most of us, and we’d all do well to be thinking of replacing them with native, drought-tolerant plants. Even restaurants are being told that customers should only get a glass of water with dinner if they specifically ask for it.

But is everybody doing their part equally? It seems as though that hasn’t been true at the residential level, for one. Wealthier enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Newport Beach use far more water per capita than lower socioeconomic areas. And it’s not just because of those big swimming pools in their big backyards either. Take a drive around and compare the sumptuous lawns of Beverly Hills to what you see in Compton or Santa Ana. First of all, there are far more apartment buildings in poorer areas, but even single family dwellings in less affluent parts of town tend to have browner front lawns. Who knew that it wasn’t just politics, but water too, that followed the money?

As striking as some of this is, residential/urban use accounts for only about 20% of water allocation in the state. Included in this number is approximately 6% for industrial usage (it’s also interesting, by the way, to note that half of residential usage goes for outside watering). But agriculture uses up the remaining 80%, even if not all agriculture is equal. Here are a few interesting statistics:

COMPARISON OF WATER USAGE (in gallons per pound)

  • beef—1847 vs. chicken—518
  • almonds (shelled)—2126 vs. walnuts (shelled)—1226
  • rice—287 vs. corn—161
  • brussel sprouts—258 vs. broccoli—34
  • grapes—80 vs. potatoes—38
  • green beans—74 vs. carrots—26
  • eggplant—48 vs. tomatoes—26

In other words, it’s not just whether we do away with our lawns, or take shorter showers, or wash our cars a lot less often that makes a difference. Our choices as to what we consume also have an impact. The Los Angeles Times did a very interesting spread in their April 4, 2015 edition, in which they showed a photo of a plate of food. On the plate were pictured the following: an 8 oz. steak, 6 oz. of rice, 8 oz. of lettuce (i.e. a salad), and a 4 oz. glass of wine. The total water footprint for this meal comes in at just over 116 gallons of water—102 gallons of which are accounted for simply by the steak alone. So suggestions about cutting back on how much meat we consume, beef in particular, are reasonable from many different perspectives.

California, a state where every area is in severe, extreme, or even exceptional drought, currently provides 25% of food consumed in the United States. And yet, agriculture represents less than 2% of GSP (Gross State Product). But 85% of the Sacramento Irrigation District’s acreage is devoted to the production of rice, one of the thirstiest of cultivated plants. Does that make a lot of sense, at a time when mandatory water rationing is taking place for residential users? Almonds, too, another staple of state agribusiness, bringing in almost 6 billion dollars a year, require a gallon of water per single almond produced.

When Gov. Brown was asked recently if the state ought to be telling farmers what crops to raise and which ones not to, his reply was that it was not up to government to tell people (i.e. agribusiness) what to grow. But why not? Government regulates business all the time. Just ask the Better Business Bureau what it thinks about the supposed burden of laws pertaining to everything from the health and safety of workers, to fair payment of wages (e.g. minimum wage laws), working conditions, privacy regulations, truth in advertising, and of course a whole host of environmental laws.

To be fair, it is also worth noting that farmers have had their own difficulties, and many of them are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops healthy, due to decreases in deliveries of water. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has mandated that no water be delivered to farmers with “junior water rights.” This speaks to the way water is divvied up in this state, which is arcane at best, and it’s an understatement to say that huge political pressure has come to bear on how water is allocated. As just one example of that complexity, certain types of water rights (so-called “senior water rights”), including groundwater, riparian, and pre-1914 appropriations, are excluded from the State Water Board’s authority. In other words, agreements that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the state had a mere fraction of its present population (1.2 million compared with 38 million—projected to be 50 million by 2050), and when we were not in drought, are still in effect.

No one is saying that the swimming pools and lawns of Beverly Hills ought to remain exempt, but neither is it fair to balance overuse of water by cutting Compton more than Newport Beach. Nor should farmers and ranchers whose families happen to have settled here in the 1890’s get a pass. Times have changed, and we have to change with them. California definitely needs to do something about its water problems. No argument. But that’s true for all Californians, not just residential users and some farmers. Everyone would do well to remember that no natural resource, water included, is unlimited. These last few years it’s been California’s turn, but Australia went through the same thing not so long ago, and larger and larger portions of the Sahel—the geographic region located between the Sahara and the plains and forests of north central Africa—are experiencing ever-increasing desertification. Weather patterns are shifting along with the warming of the globe and alarming increases in world population. One way or another, this will come to have an impact on everyone.

The water shortages in California are undoubtedly due to some combination of natural variability, changes in climate caused by human activity, our own choices as to what to grow and eat, and the enormous increases in demand that have come about over the decades. This is emblematic of a larger global problem, and the same complexities seen in California will eventually come to influence worldwide water supplies. It’s only a matter of time. What we do to address the consequences of such changes, and how people here in California and elsewhere decide to react, represent a set of choices that only we, humans, can make. Whether we make those choices wisely, or foolishly, is in the end up to us to decide.

FRICKING AND FRACKING AROUND WITH THE PLANET

By Paul

The word “fracking” has come to be used as a kind of shorthand abbreviation for the more technical term “hydraulic fracturing,” but I’m really not sure which of the two sounds more ominous and pejorative to me. The technical expression brings images to mind of cracking and breaking things apart, which, in fact, is exactly what happens. It is a process whereby millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the ground in order to break apart, or “fracture,” the rock below. The fissures so created are then held in place by the sand, and the released oil or gas is pumped to the surface. In one sense, even to the layman, this sounds simple enough, and that’s the message that large oil and gas companies most definitely want to project: simple and safe.

“Fracking,” on the other hand, has become the term more favored by environmentalists and others opposed to the process. Personally, I can’t help thinking of Frick and Frack every time I hear it. And while that may sound as if I’m minimizing or trivializing the concerns of those who question this highly invasive and toxic procedure, I don’t mean to. Most people don’t even know anymore who Frick and Frack were, it seems. They were actually two real people, believe it or not, two Swiss gentlemen to be precise, who came to this country in the mid-1930’s, and who then became a famous comedic act performing in the Ice Follies. They skated and horsed around and made a lot of folks laugh, which no doubt was a good thing in the throes of the Great Depression. They soon became so well known that the term “Frick and Frack” entered into the language in a couple of ways. One was as a general reference to two guys who were constantly hanging out together and who came to be seen as almost indistinguishable. The other meaning took off from the first, but added another layer, that is, two guys frequently seen together, acting like “bozos” or clowns.   In the new 21st century context, I like to think of “Frick and Frack” as the modern take on Big Oil/Gas Companies and – sorry to say – government.

I say this because Big Oil or Gas can’t really go fracking around without government permission. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anybody that Big Money, which Big Oil and Gas most definitely have lots of, often goes to grease the wheels of government. I’m not talking about outright bribes, although I can’t say I would be totally “shocked-shocked” to hear of that too, but more so about the lobbying efforts that bring favorable bills to the fore in Congress and in state assemblies, to say nothing of the big bucks that go to getting “the right” representatives elected to these bodies in the first place.

Still, I suppose we really ought to try to be fair about things. Companies that do hydraulic fracturing claim that there are safeguards aplenty in place to protect the environment. I know that this may smack of the old “trust me” plea, akin almost to “the check is in the mail” scam, except that this time the checks are at least ostensibly in place beforehand. But shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say? Here is what one company, in fact, states: “Casing and cementing are critical parts of the well construction that not only protect any water zones, but are also important to successful oil or natural gas production from hydrocarbon bearing zones. Industry well design practices protect sources of drinking water from the other geologic zones of an oil and natural gas well with multiple layers of impervious rock.” Later on, referencing the chemical component of the injected slurry, they comment that “(t)he composition of the chemical mixes varies from well to well.”

The latter makes it sound as though this chemical mixture is a minor afterthought, and one that benignly varies in a simple sort of way merely to accommodate local requirements. In actual fact, companies almost never tell us exactly what these chemical additives are, although other sources report that they are often highly toxic and can cause cancer. Much of the language above reflects and reminds us of that used by other companies with a “trust-us-not-to-harm-you-or-the-environment” approach. Didn’t Exxon say similar soothing things to the people of Prince William Sound, for example, just before the huge oil spill (which was never supposed to happen) in 1989, and which still today, 25 years latter, continues to negatively impact the lives of humans and animals alike? And what of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of April, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico? We were similarly assured by British Petroleum, Haliburton, and others to “trust us” about this well, that all safeguards were in place and that technology had so advanced that anyone would have to be nothing more than a foolish fear-monger to worry. Technology is always touted by way of allaying the fears of those who fret, and we are always assured that modern science and engineering has taken care of “all those old problems.” So, stop worrying!

Well, I say, worry on. Just this week, geologists in Ohio have found “a probable connection” between fracking and several earthquakes in the region. The state shut down Hilcorp Energy Company’s fracking operation there because of five earthquakes near the Pennsylvania border, including one that registered 3.0 on the Richter scale. According to an article in the April 14, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, scientists have found “a significant relationship between the initial blast of fluid and the earthquakes shortly afterwards.”

And in one sense, earthquakes ought to be the least of our concerns. There have been multiple accounts of a connection between fracking and contaminated ground water (apparently in spite of the “casing and cementing”), as well as greatly increased air and noise pollution, to say nothing of the enormous amounts of fresh water that are needed for the process. Between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons are needed for the fracturing and completion of a well, and for larger wells, as many as 5 million gallons of water are required. As one expert has noted, “Shell gas wells completed in 2011 across the United States consumed on the order of 135 billion gallons of water.” And what to do with the contaminated water afterwards with, you remember, those toxic chemicals in it? Pump it back in the earth, we are told, but there have been many examples of this noxious mishmash leaking out into surrounding lakes, streams, and even reservoirs.

All this, and we haven’t even spoken about the specious underlying rationale of extracting yet more and more oil and gas out of the earth, with both the process itself and the results of it flushing more and more dangerous hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, thereby causing yet greater pollution, and ultimately warmer and warmer temperatures around the globe.

President Obama says we need “all of the above” in order to meet our energy needs for the 21st century, meaning that we’ve got to go on relying on “old technologies” that continue to pollute, while we are exploring and creating newer ones that do not. Even if there may be some truth to this, we have to think about drawing the line somewhere. And maybe fracking is where the buck ought to stop. Our two old Swiss friends made a lot of people laugh with their antics, and God knows we still need humor. But fricking and fracking around with the earth and the environment isn’t really a laughing matter. Let’s make a decision to stop this nonsense, and put our efforts where they can really do some good. We can no longer afford to clown around with whatever bozos care more about the bottom line than they do about the planet.