Toledo’s Ban on Drinking Water Finally Lifted

At a press conference on Monday morning, the mayor of Toledo, Michael Collins, lifted the ban on drinking water after the federal Environmental Protection Agency performed an analysis to determine that the water is safe for public use. The residents of Toledo, the fourth largest city in Ohio, were without water for three days after tests revealed high levels of toxins in the city’s water supply. The 400,000 people in the area were ordered not to use tap water to drink, brush their teeth, prepare food, or give to their pets. Health officials also advised that children and people with weak immune systems should refrain from using the water to shower or bathe.

Treatment plants found unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin that turns water green and can cause diarrhea, vomiting, or abnormal liver function. This toxin is likely to be caused by harmful blue-green algae blooms growing in Lake Erie. The blooms are often caused by runoff from overfertilized fields, manure, malfunctioning septic systems, and storm water drains that all wash huge amounts of phosphorus into the lake. Residents were instructed not to boil the water, which would increase the concentration of microcystin. The level of the microcystin has now stabilized below what the World Health Organization deems acceptable.

Environmental groups have been concerned about the steadily increasing amount of algae blooms in recent years because Lake Erie supplies water for 11 million people. Ohio lawmakers took a step towards solving the algae problem when they enacted a law this past spring that requires most farmers to undergo training before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields.  Additionally, a state task force in Ohio has called for a 40 percent reduction in all forms of phosphorus going into the lake.

California Shuts Down Injection Wells to Conserve Water

Fracking water waste

California officials have issued an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites in fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers. Because California continues to suffer from serious drought, more than 100 sites in the Central Valley will be later examined by the state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources for possible shut-down

The status of the aquifers is being examined because the waste disposal of the injection sites poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources. Also the aquifers could provide much needed source of drinking water, as a recent report showed that water consumption in California has risen during the worst drought in nearly four decades. The state has failed to achieve the 20% reduction in water use sought by Governor Jerry Brown. The effects of the drought combined with the increasing population and rising temperatures in the region have resulted in shriveling reservoirs.

Previously, more than 100 of the state’s aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality or too deep underground to easily access. The state then exempted these aquifers from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to use them for fracking waste. However, the  cease and desist orders issued by the state show that at least seven injection wells are likely to be pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law instead of other aquifers previously approved by the state.

A nationwide ProPublica investigation found that injection wells are often poorly regulated and many are likely to be polluting underground water supplies, even those  protected by federal law. The investigation also disclosed an EPA program that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from pollution protection, many of them in California. Officials claim that these water wells in question may have been injected with fracking fluid, which is a toxic and sometimes radioactive liquid that comes up during oil production.  Officials hope the aquifers that have been shut down are suitable for drinking and irrigation, a desperate need for California in the midst of the drought.

California Plans to Implement Water Restrictions

Lake Oroville in 2011 (top) and 2014 (bottom)

As the impact of the three-year drought continues to spread across California, mandatory statewide water restrictions are expected to be instituted for the first time by the State Water Resources Control Board. State and federal agencies have already sharply reduced water shipments in California, as reservoirs in the western region of the United States are shriveling, like Lake Oroville falling to 39% of capacity.

A recent report showed that water consumption in California has risen during the worst drought in nearly four decades and the state had failed to achieve the 20% reduction in water use sought by Governor Jerry Brown. Upcoming water restrictions are likely to ban practices such as allowing sprinkler water to run off lawns onto streets and washing cars without hoses equipped with a shut-off nozzle. Maximum penalties for violations by individuals would be $500, enforceable by local water agencies. The board estimates the restrictions, which are to take effect in early August, could save enough water to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.

However, the emergency drought measures in California will not extend to the controversial corporation, Nestle. Nestle is not required to comply with state regulations because its bottling plant is located on a Native American reservation. Native American reservations are considered sovereign nations by the United States government, and, therefore, are not required to comply with federal or state laws. According to reports, Nestle Water is extracting about 200 million gallons of water from an already scarce water source in the desert ecosystem. Drawing water from this location prevents water from seeping downhill to fill aquifers of nearby towns struggling for water during the drought. Additionally, studies have estimated that for every liter of water bottled, 3 liters of water are discarded.

About 58 of the 440 local water districts represented by the Association of California Water Agencies have already implemented some forms of mandatory restriction. Other agencies have implemented tiered pricing, which penalizes heavy water users by charging more for excessive use. In the long term, California and other drought-prone states will have to refocus on expanding their water infrastructure create more storage in order to deal with prolonged dry spells. Help conserve water by switching to a Quench Bottleless Water Cooler, which filters water as you drink it so no water is wasted!

Blue-Green Algae Threatens Lake Erie Drinking Water

After record outbreaks in 2011 and 2013, the presence of harmful blue-green algae in Lake Erie continues to lessen but still remains significant enough to be a possible threat to drinking water.  Lake Erie provides drinking water for more than 11 million people on both sides of the border between US and Canada. Filtration plants are forced to pay an additional cost of up to $3,000 a day, which adds up to over a million dollars annually, for extra chemical treatment when algae blooms are intense.

The algae blooms in Lake Erie tend to be a particular type of blue-green algae called microcystis, which is a thick greenish, grainy material that accumulates along the lake shore. Dried microcystis scum can contain high concentrations of bacteria for several months. Therefore, toxins dissolve in the water even when the cells are no longer alive and use up the oxygen in the cold bottom layer of water.

Experts use a combination of satellite imagery, computer modeling, and water samples gathered by multiple agencies to create forecasts for the year. This year’s forecast calls for 24,250 tons of blue-green algae to overtake Lake Erie. The accuracy of these forecasts can be affected by unexpected weather, as rains can wash in heavy loads of phosphorus fertilizer that foster the growth of the algae and winds can push blooms. Additionally, blue-green algae are exacerbated by phosphorus runoff from agriculture, lawn care, sewage, industrial wastewater, and other human activity.

High levels of algae toxins can potentially be deadly for people and can therefore cause filtration plants to close down and issue orders to residents not to drink the water. Although there are currently no United States public health standards in regard to algae toxins in drinking water, the toxin levels in 2013 were three times higher than the recommended safety level of the World Health Organization. As low levels of algae toxins can even kill farm animals and pets, both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control hope to release the first national guidelines by the end of this year.

Lake Mead Falls to Record Low

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United Sates, continues to dwindle during drought of the southwest and is expecting to fall to its lowest level since 1937 this week. The effects of the drought are combined with increasing population and rising temperatures in the region, which has resulted in historically low water levels. The previous record low occurred decades ago in 1937 when the Hoover Dam was completed and the reservoir on the Colorado River was filled. Although flash floods and rain have recently swept through the area, the runoff water is not nearly enough to replenish the lake, which has not been completely full since 1998, over sixteen years ago.

Experts with the Colorado Water Commission express great concern, as the present drought has been a serious issue for the last fourteen years. White mineral rings around Lake Mead are clearly visible on the hard rock surfaces surrounding the lake, acting as a reminder of where the water level was in the past. The lake is estimated to drop to 1,081 feet, which is 23.5 feet lower than last year.

If Lake Mead drops to below 1,075 feet, reductions on the amount of water pumped from the lake may be enforced. Although these reductions will decrease the water available for consumption, authorities from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation believe that the community has conserved enough water to ensure that water obligations will be met at least through next year without a key shortage declaration. As of now, there will continue to be full deliveries to 40 million people in various areas, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The declining levels of Lake Mead will be closely monitored and storage and conservation efforts are in effect to keep as much water in Lake Mead as possible.


Recycling Wastewater As A Reusable Water Source

Recycling WastewaterDuring the recent spike of droughts across the United States, especially in southwest, many states and municipalities are turning to reusing wastewater as an alternative to groundwater aquifers. After recycling sewage water through a series of filtration and purification techniques, wastewater treatment plants often offer the recycled water for free to local farmers for non-food crops, to local schools and golf courses for watering their grass.

Many treatment plants are working to disinfect and treat the water at a higher level so the recycled wastewater could be used on food crops, allowing farmers to grow crops as they please, even during severe drought.

One treatment plant in Orange County, CA has taken it a step further. By adding several filtration and purification steps, including zapping the water with UV light, Orange County Water District is able to transform sewage water into drinking water for the over 2.4 million residents of Orange County.

Since 2008, Orange County Water District has been returning recycled used water or wastewater back into the massive groundwater aquifer.  Mixing the recycled wastewater with groundwater is largely unnecessary, but helps to allay any public fears about drinking recycled wastewater. As public acceptance grows and the cost of recycling wastewater falls, recycled wastewater can be a major defense to the increasing water scarcity in the United States as well as other parts of the world. The World Water Council estimates that recycled wastewater will be a normal source of drinking water around the world within the next 30 years.

Air Force base fuel leak threatens public drinking water

A large fuel leak at the Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico has been contaminating soil for decades and now threatening the nearby municipal drinking water supply. The leak began in the 1950s when the Air Force replaced leaking tanks and aging pipelines with a new fuels facility, but was undiscovered until 1992.

In 1992, Air Base workers observed a huge surface plume in the soil surrounding the fuel facility, but it wasn’t until 1999 when under pressure from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that the Air Force conducted pressure tests to determine the origin of the leak. Massive holes in the pipeline were both found and created. Original estimation of 100,000 gallons of missing fuel proved to be a low estimation when an Air Force contractor drilled an exploratory well outside the base’s northern boundary and found about four feet of jet fuel floating on top of the water aquifer. While the Air Force believes the leak to be 6 million gallons of jet fuel, about half of the Exxon Valdez spill, NMED estimates that the spill is actually 24 million gallons or twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

No matter the size of the spill, public interest advocates are concerned because the leak which contains a variety highly dangerous chemicals, including benzene, toluene, and ethylene dibromide (EDB).

The EPA banned EDB from commercial and industrial use more than 40 years ago. When EDB is released into the soil, it usually makes its way into the groundwater. It is highly soluble and stable making it harder to find and remove from underground water. EDB has been found by multiple studies to be a carcinogen and can bind itself to DNA and rewrite genetic information causing mutations. A 1990 study from the California Department of Health Services found that those who worked with EDB “had essentially a 100 percent chance of contracting cancer.” The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 required the EPA to determine safe levels of various chemical compounds in drinking water. Based on various studies on EDB, the EPA determined that the maximum safe level of EDB in drinking water, or the level at which no adverse effects would likely occur, is zero. The most recent data shows EDB concentrations in shallow wells on the base at concentrations of 240,000 parts per trillion (ppt).

Current estimates suggest the spill, which is about 1,000 feet wide and more than a mile long, to be moving directly towards the Ridgecrest area at the rate of 385 feet per year. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority operates a series of wells in the area that pump so much water for the city that they actually produce a cone of depression that acts like a straw, pulling the spill closer.

Chief operating office at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority John Stomp has said “We want to prevent this from further contaminating the aquifer. For contamination for us is, it’s no EDB or EDB. It’s not EDB at drinking water standards. It’s no EDB, because that’s what our customers are accustomed to.” While officials at Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority are well aware of the potential issue and are preparing to prevent further contamination, the Air Force does not have a plan in place to remove EDB from the aquifer. Actually, in the 60 years since it first spilled jet fuel into Albuquerque’s aquifer, KAFB has yet to remove and treat a single gallon of contaminated groundwater.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 to Fund Water-Related Infrastructure

Bill from Schoolhouse RockThe Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013, which will fund the development and improvement of water-related infrastructure, has passed Congress and President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law soon. The Act will authorize the United States Army Corps of Engineers to construct water projects for mitigating storm and hurricane damage, restoring ecosystems, and improving flood management as well as assisting states and local governments with levee safety programs and Native American tribes with planning and technical assistance for water resources projects. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the act would cost about $3.5 billion over 2014 – 2018 with adjustments for anticipated inflation.

The Act intends to speed up project delivery by eliminating duplicative studies and requiring concurrent reviews while deauthorizing $18 billion worth of projects that have not been active over the last 5 years. The Act also sets up a Congressional review process for approving projects and allows nonfederal organizations and groups to provide funding for the projects.

When introducing the Act in September 2013, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) said, “This legislation is about jobs and country’s economic prosperity. This measure will strengthen our nation’s transportation network, keep America competitive in the global marketplace, and reform and streamline the way we move forward with improvements to our ports, locks, dams, and other water resources infrastructure.”

If President Obama signs the Act into law, it will be the first water-related funding package with provisions aimed at bridging the multi-billion dollar funding gap for drinking water and wastewater systems across the country to become law since 2007. Last year, the EPA found that many of the country’s 73,400 water systems are between 50 to 100 years old and estimates that about $384 billion worth of improvements would be needed in the U.S. drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years.

Contaminated Shallow Groundwater May Migrate to Deeper Aquifers Used for Drinking Water

Cover of USGS Contaminated Groundwater ReportIn a new study, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California have found that contaminated groundwater found at shallow depths has the potential to migrate to deeper aquifers. This study confirmed previous studies conducted by the Water Replenishment District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, which focused on aquifers in the 280-square mile Central Groundwater Basin, one of the most heavily used groundwater basins in southern California, used new and existing data including simulation models to understand the interconnections and water flow between different aquifer layers.

“Our investigation concluded that contaminated groundwater found at shallow depths in the northeastern portion of the Central Groundwater Basin could migrate to greater depths where many drinking water supply wells are located,” said Eric Reichard, Director of the USGS California Water Science Center. “Now that we’ve established that the potential for migration is there, the next step is to assess the specific risk this may post to the main drinking water aquifers.”

The study did not analyze treated tap water delivered to consumers, as groundwater is typically treated by water distributors prior to delivering it to costumers to ensure compliance with water quality standards for human health. The results of this study will allow the Water Replenishment District to anticipate future contaminant migration and to create proper plans for protecting uncontaminated areas. The results will also inform future monitoring and cleanup actions for contaminated sites in the Central Groundwater Basin.  For more information about the study or to ready the results in full, please visit the U.S. Geological Survey website.

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New Report Shows Thousands of High Priority Wells Were Not Inspected

Government Accountability Office SealAccording to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the government has failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells considered “high risk” for water contamination and other environmental damage. The report highlights substantial gaps in oversight by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which manages oil and gas development on federal and Native American reservations. The report said the agency “cannot accurately and efficiently identify whether federal and Indian resources are properly protected or that federal and Indian resources are at risk of being extracted without agency approval.”

Investigators reviewed 14 states, including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The report found that the Bureau of Land Management has failed to conduct inspections on more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells that is had specified as “high priority” based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental safety issues. Further the agency has yet to indicate whether an additional 1,784 wells were high priority or not.

In addition to failing to inspect high priority wells, the Bureau of Land Management, according to the report, does not monitor inspection activities at its state and field offices and thus cannot provide “reasonable assurance’ that those offices were completing the required inspections. For example, the investigation found that in Pennsylvania, the state received 398 complaints in 2013, alone, alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells, but only 100 cases of pollution were confirmed in the past 5 years!

Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council said of the report, “this report reaffirms our concern that the government needs to pay attention to the environment and protect public health and drinking sources from the risks of oil and gas development.”

If the Bureau of Land Management is not accurately inspecting high priority wells, if they are inspecting them at all, your drinking water may be contaminated with oil, natural gas, or other chemicals found at fracking sites.

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