Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Water: Jen's Thoughts Reality Check on the Issue of Water

Jen B., the guest blogger who gave us her first-hand thoughts on her experience in the Gulf working on cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, (Ragnarok and Armageddon Combined, a much admired post, so much so that we even had it plagiarized!) wanted to share her perspectives on water.

First, let's set the tone...

SEPTEMBER 10, 2009

Manta Rays, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives

Photograph by Thomas Peshak
This Month in Photo of the Day: National Geographic Magazine
Graceful and efficient, 2,000-pound mantas feed on Indian Ocean krill as silversides swirl around them in Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives.

Here's Jen's take:

Diminishing  Water

Water. What is it, really? Well, it’s a liquid. And a solid. And a gas. It’s  H2O. Two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule joined together by covalent bonding. It’s a solvent. It’s a transport agent.  Most of the human body is water. Approximately seventy percent of the earth’s surface is water. There was no life on earth until it began in the primordial seas.

Water is life. Where there is no water there is no life.

All of my life I have lived near water. Born along tidal water, educated in the ocean, a career in surface water, groundwater, freshwater, saltwater-my life has been defined by water and geology. I remember seeing manta rays leaping in the Sound. I remember short nose sturgeon 7 feet long in rivers. I remember going to the Keys and seeing jeweled fish and corals clear as clear can be. Not any more. The manta rays are gone; the sturgeon are endangered; the Keys are becoming translucent.

We have nobody but ourselves to blame for this. How can this be, you ask? I xeriscape. I have a rain barrel. I carefully monitor my water consumption. How can I be blamed, you ask.

We condone. We don’t ask questions.  The next time you go to a gas station, look around the paved area and see if you see small 2 inch wells-the caps have a triangle on them. These are groundwater monitoring wells. If these wells are present, that gas station has petroleum hydrocarbons in the groundwater and in the soil –resulting from leaking underground storage tanks. I have seen sites with up to 9 feet of free phase gasoline on top of groundwater extending up to a quarter of a mile and with a width of up to 200 yards. That’s a lot of gasoline. I have been to sites where buildings are uninhabitable because of gasoline fumes emanating up through the floor. I have seen pure gasoline come out of taps.

But there are funds to pay for cleaning this up you say. Yes there are-every state has one because EPA mandates it. Your gasoline taxes fund it. That should clean the contamination up, yes?  Well, not really. The regulatory agencies “risk” away the levels to which a site can be cleaned up. EPA has set certain levels (Maximum Contaminant Levels) above which contamination has to be addressed. What many state agencies do is adopt a “risk based assessment” and, using a computer model, calculate a number that is acceptable to them and to others. Remember, any computer model can be manipulated. As an example, rather than using the EPA MCL of 5ppb (parts per billion) for benzene* as the cleanup level, they can “risk” it and come up with, say 12,500 ppb. They do this because we allow it. We don’t demand our legislatures mandate absolute standards rather than calculated ones.

 Hilton Head Island Golf Course
(attribution unknown)

What about water usage? Individual consumption is but a drop in the bucket compared to industrial and commercial uses.  Golf courses pull massive quantities of water from aquifers –each golf course using millions of gallons a day. That pretty green grass doesn’t get that way by itself. It takes enormous amounts of water and massive amounts of herbicides, rodenticides and fertilizers. All of which migrate down into the groundwater or into ponds and streams as stormwater runoff . Paper plants and sugar plants also use millions of gallons a day-and sugar plants have the added attraction of creating carbonic acid as a waste product, which erodes limestone and causes sinkholes in Florida. I worked on a salt water intrusion project which analyzed saltwater/freshwater in the aquifer in lower South Carolina. The exponentially huge amounts of water removed from the aquifer by the golf courses of Hilton Head and the industrial facilities in Savannah, have create a dire situation in the aquifer-salt intrusion increasing at an alarming rate in the aquifer which supplies drinking water in the area. South Carolina is establishing “capacity use” limits for all entities drawing 3 million gallons or more per month to have a permit. This is being extended to cover surface water withdrawals as well. But even that amount is excessive.

How much electricity do you use? According to researchers at the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, in Blacksburg, Va., fossil-fuel-fired thermoelectric power plants consume more than 125 billion gallons of fresh water per day in the United States alone. That translates to an average of 24 gallons  of water to produce 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity.  That’s a lot of water.
Petroleum constituents dissolve easily in water. Much of the oil in the Gulf will dissolve and migrate into aquifers. Particularly Florida with its permeable, porous limestone. The Floridan Aquifer is already considered vulnerable and ‘at risk”. How long before water in that aquifer is unusable?

Image credit: NOAA

What about our oceans and estuaries? Increasingly damaged. Not just disasters like the Gulf situation, but development and poor building/land management practices. Wastewater discharges into creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans.  Creatures die. Salinities are altered. Ecosystems are changed. And never for the better.  Estuaries are the nurseries of the ocean. Dwindling nursery habitat is not the only threat to sea creatures. They are all susceptible to summer’s low oxygen conditions. Fueled by nutrient pollution from farms, wastewater treatment plants, homes and automobiles, enormous “blooms” of algae eventually deprive the water of its oxygen. The waterbody dies.

Read Wiliam W. Warner’s  Pulitzer Prize winning “Beautiful Swimmers”. “Beautiful swimmers” is the translation of Callinectes sapidus-the Latin name of blue crabs. This book spurred clean up of the Chesapeake Bay.

What can we do? Don’t give up. Contact every legislator and urge them to vote environmentally. On an individual level, live sustainably. Monitor and limit water consumption.

The manta rays are gone. Unless we do something every thing will be gone. Without water there is no life. Nothing.

* Marzie notes that benzene, an organic solvent, is a known carcinogen commonly used in industry.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


  1. Why Dennis what illuminating commentary. Your thoughts on the looming water crisis will impress everyone with how well-considered your insights are.

  2. You must be using "thoughts" in some sense with which I am not familiar.

  3. Michael, it was actually a reference to her comment on my Water post of the other day. She's posting her thoughts about the water issue. But in light of your confusion, I have crossed out thoughts and retitled it Jen's REALITY CHECK. LOL ;)