Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.


World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?


7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.


5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.


All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

Geoengineering makes climate change less polarizing! It’s still a bad idea.

sardar sarovar dam
sardar sarovar dam

India’s controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, located on the Narmada River (courtesy of Mittal Patel).

About 20 minutes after I posted my piece yesterday arguing that we are nowhere near ready to begin researching geoengineering, the Washington Post‘s new Energy and Environment section ran its own piece on the topic. But this post, by Puneet Kollipara, took a vastly different tone.

Rather than delving into the NRC report, it looked at a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which explored various tactics to make debate around climate change less polarizing. The researchers broke participants into three groups and laid out the reality about climate change. One was told that the best approach was to curb carbon pollution, the second heard a pro-geoengineering message, and the third group acted as a control. From the post:

Conventional wisdom might hold that telling people about geoengineering would make them less concerned about climate change’s risks by making them complacent about it; if geoengineering works, then maybe climate change isn’t such a big deal. But that’s not what the researchers found. The geoengineering group viewed climate change as posing a slightly higher risk than did the control group and a similar level of risk as did the anti-pollution group…

[W]hen it came to the scientific information on climate change that the researchers made all participants read, the geoengineering group was actually less polarized on whether the science is solid than the control group was…Not only was it a matter of conservative skepticism of climate science shrinking in the geoengineering group, but liberals in the geoengineering group became more likely to question the science.

This result really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, when you think about it. Conservatives have long been receptive to geoengineering as a way to address climate change. Newt Gingrich has pushed it as a solution for years, while the American Enterprise Institute endorsed solar radiation management as an “evolving climate policy option.” Geoengineering fits into the broader conservative mindset that pushes engineering solutions to environmental problems. As Clive Hamilton wrote in his book Earthmasters,

As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism.

Geoengineering represents just the latest iteration of this ethos. It’s the same worldview that says massive tree plantations can solve deforestation. Or that calls for building giant indoor, vertical farms as a way to address population and nutrition issues. Or that suggests we can address biodiversity loss by resurrecting species in a laboratory. Why address the causes of environmental degradation, when we can just use our ingenuity to treat the symptoms?

But while these kind of engineering solutions for environmental problems may sound great in the short-term, we really need to consider their long-term implications. As I noted in my previous post, geoengineering is different from these other examples for one key reason: once we go down that road, we are locked into it, forever.

Probably the closest analogue that I can come up with is dam building. Building large dams provides us an engineering solution to a variety of challenges – a lack of energy, unpredictable rainfall, disasters. We can create clean electricity to power cities and industry, easily irrigate our fields, mitigate the risk of drought, and hold back floodwaters. It seems like a great idea on the surface. Of course, megadams create a whole host of unintended consequences, from impeding the movement of fish to drowning villages. But, more than that, they lock us into the need to actively manage nature for the long run.

Jacques Leslie explores all of these issues, and more, in his book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. (I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a user-friendly primer on the major controversies over bid dam projects like Sardar Sarovar, Belo Monte, or Three Gorges.)

In the book, Leslie explores the consequences of Australia’s scheme to regulate the Murray River with thousands of dams, canals, and weirs. He spoke with Mike Harper, a former Australian natural resources manager turned activist, about the effort to save the endangered Chowilla floodplain. Before Australians began altering the landscape, the Chowilla experienced an irregular, but essential, cycle of floods and droughts that regulated the ecosystem. With the advent of the water management scheme, the water table rose several feet, bring salt deposits to the surface, effectively poisoning the land. The only way to address this crisis without jettisoning the entire system is for the Australian government to actively replicate this flood/drought cycle in perpetuity:

The ecosystem will have to become dependent on an artificial regime that must be applied forever, [Harper] said. “You might get a good manager for ten years, but the one after him might be a bad one. If we have to manipulate the environment all the time, we’re going to fuck it up sometime.”

Precisely. When you endeavor to play God and actively manage the environment, you are placing the well being of the system in the hands of a few bureaucrats. If Australia’s civil servants screw up, they may irreparably damage a critical ecosystem. If you think that’s bad, spread the risk to the entire planet and multiply it by a thousand.

This is where geoengineering stops being the libertarian panacea some conservatives apparently believe it to be. If we want to control our atmosphere to address climate change, we will need to amass an enormous array of scientists and civil servants who devoted to this task. Because of the global nature of the endeavor and the risks of sparking a geoengineering “arms race” I noted in my last post, no one state or small group of states can be entrusted with this responsibility. We will need to create a supranational organization, perhaps akin to a vastly more powerful UN Environment Programme or World Meteorological Organization. Given how shaky our track record has been on global governance to this point, I’m not particularly convinced that we can successfully regulate our climate for several hundred years. You thought cap and trade was a recipe for big government.

At the risk of being labeled a Tea Partier, I am much more inclined to support a free market approach to climate change like a carbon tax. Hell, you can even use the revenues to offset income taxes. Ultimately, let’s just say I am highly skeptical that geoengineering constitutes a silver bullet to depoliticizing the debate around climate change, let alone to the climate crisis writ large.

Watch: Find out why rivers change their courses in 3 minutes

cuyahoga river 1917 straighten
cuyahoga river 1917 straighten

A 1917 plan from the federal government to straighten the crooked Cuyahoga River (courtesy of Cleveland State University).

Rivers. They’re pretty amazing things. They provide humans with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They give us fish and other aquatic animals for food. They can be harnessed to power grind our grain, run our looms, and even power our cities. Their seasonal floods can bring rich silt to our fields or destruction and devastation to our lives. Sometimes, with just a little bit of help, they can even catch on fire. It’s no mistake that the first major human civilizations – Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro, Sumeria – developed along the banks of the world’s great rivers.

But rivers are much more than servants of (wo)man. They are dynamic ecosystems rich with biodiversity that shape and are shaped by the world around them. Any entity that can literally carve the Grand Canyon is pretty damn powerful.

And so rivers change. They top their banks, meander downstream, shift their paths. Sometimes, rivers even stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction. Rivers are not the static, shaped bodies that we encounter, but living, breathing systems.

It’s exactly this dynamism that humans don’t seem to like. We don’t like things that are beyond our control. We like to make things knowable, predictable, manageable. So we applied the logic of urban planning to one of the most complex systems in the world. We filled in urban rivers and sent them through channels and culverts. We built artificial banks out of concrete and steel to keep rivers contained. We constructed elaborate systems of dykes, dams, canals, and sluice gates so that we could regulate the seasonal pulses of the Mississippi and the Nile. We even dreamed up cockamamie schemes to make crooked rivers straight. These efforts to regulate rivers have created their own severe side effects – riverbank erosion, declining biodiversity, reduced silt delivery, sedimentation, and altered flood risks. We’re only beginning to face up to these unintended consequences.

So we know that, left to their own devices, rivers will constantly change. But have you ever wondered how and why? Well, wonder no more, thanks to this new video from Minute Earth. If you have three minutes to spare, you can learn a lot about fluid dynamics, fractals, and how muskrats decorate their dens.

(h/t Mental Floss UK)

Burn on, big river

1952 Cuyahoga River fire
1952 cuyahoga river fire

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire, a much more serious event, has historically been confused for the 1969 fire after Time Magazine used this image to bring attention to the nation’s environmental issues. In reality, the 1969 fire was a relative nonevent, and no one even had a chance to take a picture of it (courtesy of Teaching Cleveland).

Forty five years ago today, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the 13th time). While this was nowhere near the largest or most substantial of those dozen fires, it did prove to be the most significant historically. The attention the fire gained combined with other significant environmental disasters – including the 1969 San Bernandino oil spill – to help catalyze action. The 1969 fire contributed directly to the passing of landmark environmental legislation, including the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga River has largely recovered from the dark days before 1969. While it may not be pristine, it’s also not an open dump for every sort of toxic and organic effluent you can imagine. They used to say that you could tell what color paint Sherwin-Williams was producing by looking at the river. Now, the fish are back, the Scranton Flats Towpath is about to open, and members of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation can be seen passing up and down the bends of the crooked river on a daily basis. In some ways, we should all be thankful for that 1969 fire. It came at the right time to produce real, positive change. But, fortunately, these days, the Big River burns on only in our memories.

If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

Africa’s Great Lakes were central to human evolution

victoria falls

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

great lakes of africa map

The Great Lakes region of Africa (courtesy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably drawn to Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes, you’re not alone. In fact, that attraction is hardwired into your genes.

Last month, two UK researchers published an article titled “Early Human Speciation, Brain Expansion and Dispersal Influenced by African Climate Pulses” in the online, open-source journal PLOS One. The piece explores a variety of close linkages between climatological variability and human evolution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses, in particular, on the East Africa Rift System (EARS, for short), which is home to the bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes of Africa.

Africa’s Great Lakes region is home to several of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake system includes Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi, along with several other smaller bodies of water. These lakes are the lifeblood of the region and are home not only to the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, but also to the headwaters of the Nile River.

In the article, researchers Susanne Shultz and Mark Maslin sought to determine what factors contributed to the punctuated nature of human speciation and dispersal from East Africa. They focus, in particular, upon a particularly important period for human evolution, which occurred roughly 1.9 million years ago. This period gave rise to the Homo genus and witnessed a series of major migration events from East Africa into Eurasia.

Schultz and Maslin noticed that several of these major “pulses” in human evolution corresponded closely to the appearance and disappearance of the East African Great Lakes. As a result, their research probed this connection more deeply. Their results suggest a close relationship between the growth and decline of the EARS lakes and significant steps forward in human evolution:

Larger brained African hominins colonised Eurasia during periods when extensive lakes in the EARS push them out of Africa. Taken together, this suggests that small steps in brain expansion in Africa may have been driven by regional aridity. In contrast, the great leap forward in early Homo brain size at 1.8 Ma [million years ago] was associated with the novel ecological conditions associated with the appearance and disappearance of deep-freshwater lakes long the whole length of the EARS.

As this article suggests, Africa’s Great Lakes are more than simply natural resources that serve economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological purposes. They are, quite literally, engrained in our DNA.

victoria falls

Victoria Falls lie along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yet, tragically, these lakes and the people who depend upon them face a host of threats. The region has experienced extremely high rates of deforestation in recent decades due to unsustainable economic development, ongoing conflict, illicit logging, and dam construction. Annual rates of deforestation in the Congo River Basin doubled during the period from 2000-2005.

The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has displaced millions, forcing many of them to encroach upon protected areas. In Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, rates of illegal logging have reached 89 hectares (220 acres) per day (PDF). And the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia is drying up Lake Turkana, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

Despite being home to 27% of the world’s freshwater, less than two-thirds of people in the Great Lakes region have access to improved water sources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this issue even further. The IPCC projects that the total number of Africans facing water stress will climb to 75-250 million by the 2020s and 350-600 million by the 2050s.

But you don’t need to sit by and watch these Great Lakes dry up. Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ has been working to provide access to clean water for children in Uganda for the last three years. This winter, the organization will undertake three new projects to ensure that the children at St. Bonaventure Primary School and the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage can take advantage of their human right to clean water.

Just as East Africa’s Great Lakes are a part of our DNA, so too is access to clean water and sanitation an integral part of human development. We can all take small steps to ensure that we are protecting this human right for people at home and around the world

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Tap water & the key issues the Drink Up campaign misses

young girl we love lake erie sign

I wrote another guest post for Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ on the Drink Up campaign and the issues it misses. Check it out at their site. Here’s a snippet:

As other contributors have noted on this blog, bottled water carries a host of negative consequences – one of the most important of these involves issues of inequity. Bottled water tends to cost roughly 240 to 10,000 times per gallon than tap water. This occurs despite the fact that roughly one-third of bottled water is simply packaged municipal tap water.

African-American and Hispanic parents are three times more likely to give their children exclusively bottled water, despite this high cost. They report doing this because they perceive it as being cleaner and safer than tap water (the evidence suggests otherwise). The industry has also sought to position its product as a status symbol. Nestle recently introduced “Resource,” a bottled water for women who are “trendy” and “higher-income.”

young girl we love lake erie sign

A participant in DLDT’s WaveMaker program holds a sign celebrating Lake Erie as part of the World Water Day 2012 celebration (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.)

Additionally, the piece got picked up by EcoWatch, a leading grassroots environmental news organization that is based in Cleveland. Thanks to Stefanie Spear from EcoWatch for helping to spread the piece around.

Celebrating World Water Week & supporting Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Ugandan child collecting water
Ugandan child collecting water

A child at the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage collects water from a gravity-fed system installed by Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

I’ve been doing some work with Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc., a Cleveland-based NGO that focuses on promoting clean water both locally and in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The organization focuses on inspiring “individuals to recognize and solve our water issues through creative education, events, and providing safe water access for people in need” through education & awareness raising, advocacy, and service.

In order to commemorate World Water Week and 2013, which is the International Year for Water Cooperation, I wrote a guest blog post for DLDT on how water can be a tool for peacebuilding, cooperation, and cross-cultural understanding.

I would encourage you to check it out and support their work. If you are based in Cleveland, they are hosting a beach clean-up at Edgewater Park tomorrow from 10am-12pm, with a party hosted by Barefoot Wine & Bubbly afterwards. Otherwise, you can make a financial contribution to support their work in Northeast Ohio or in Uganda.

Beginning in December, DLDT’s founder and Executive Director Erin Huber will travel to Uganda to help provide clean water to children living in an home for orphans of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To figure out how you can support DLDT’s work, visit their site.