California Sets Enforceable Standard for Chromium-6

Map of Waterways in California with Chromium-6Several months ago, California health officials submitted a drinking water standard, the first in the United States, for the chemical hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6. Chromium-6, made famous by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is an industrial pollution and is used in the production of stainless steel, leather tanning, and as an anti-corrosive and is considered a carcinogenic when ingested.

This past Tuesday, California’s Department of Public Health submitted its final regulation setting for chromium-6,  limiting the chemical to 10 parts per billion (ppb) in public drinking water supplies, or the equivalent of 10 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If approved, as expected, the standard would take effect on July 1 of this year and will require more than 100 water systems to treat for the contaminant. Public Health Director Ron Chapman said the limit “will protect public health while taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility as required by law.”

California’s standard of 10 ppb is about 500 times greater than the non-enforceable public health goal set earlier this year by California’s EPA. Many environmentalists contend the new limit is not stringent enough.  Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the CA Department of Public Health to issue a standard, said of the new regulation “the long-delayed action today simply does not provide enough protection for people’s health. The department both inflated water treatment costs and underestimated the benefits of a stronger standard.”

This legally enforceable standard will replace the current California standard of 50 parts per billion for total chromium. Total chromium includes trivalent chromium, or chromium-3, which is not a carcinogen and is actually necessary in small amounts for human life. The federal standard, set by the EPA, is 100 parts per billion for total chromium.

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Water Professionals urge the Federal Government for Infrastructure Legislation

Image of AWWA Logo

Recently more than 130 water utility leaders from 46 states traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for the creation of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA).  According to American Water Works Association (AWWA), WIFIA – when modeled after Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (commonly called TIFIA) – would be an effective way to help increase United States’ level of investment in water and waste water infrastructure at the lowest possible cost to the federal government.

According to AWWA, WIFIA would lower the cost of infrastructure investments while having little or no long term effect on the federal budget by accessing funds from the U.S. Treasury at long-term Treasury rates and use those funds to provide loans and other credit support for water projects. Funds would then flow from the treasury through WIFIA to larger water projects or to State Revolving Funds wishing to borrow to enlarge their pool of capital. Loan repayments – with interest – would flow back to WIFIA and then into the Treasury. For more information about WIFIA, please read AWWA’s white paper, A Cost Effective Approach to Increasing Investment in Water Infrastructure.

The AWWA and others have documented that our water and wastewater infrastructure is aging and that many communities must significantly increase their levels of investment to the repair and rehabilitation of water infrastructure to protect public health and safety as well as to maintain environmental standards. This year’s State of the Water Industry Report shows that water and wastewater infrastructure is the top concern for water professionals throughout North America.

“Our nation’s water systems protect public health and the environment, make fire protection possible and are vital to any community’s long-term economic growth and stability, said AWWA President Jim Chafee, “By holding down the cost of financing large water projects, WIFIA will result in lower water bills for consumers.”

To receive a free copy the 2014 State of the Water Industry Report, please visit AWWA’s website.

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Time to Define “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act

EPA Logo

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are seeking public comment to define the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act in an effort to enhance protection for the nation’s public health and aquatic resources and increase predictability and consistency by increasing clarity in the definition of “waters of the United States” as protected under the act. In other words, the EPA is seeking to determine which bodies of water they have the authority to regulate under the Clean Water Act.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA, states that the agency is seeking to establish greater clarity about its jurisdiction, “we are identifying the rivers, streams, and tributaries and other water bodies that science tells are necessary to really [protect] the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our navigable waters.”

The agencies propose to define “waters of the United States” in section (a) of the Clean Water Act to mean: traditional navigable waters; interstate waters, including wetlands; the territorial seas; and adjacent waters, like tributaries, neighboring floodplains, and adjacent wetlands. Under the proposal waters in these categories would be jurisdictional “waters of the United States” by rule and no additional analysis would be required.

The proposal seeks “to ensure the regulatory definition is consistent with the Clean Water Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and as supported by science, and to provide maximum clarity to the public, as the agencies work to fulfill the Clean Water Act’s objectives and policy to protect water quality, public health, and the environment.”

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Celebrate World Water Day with UNICEF

World Water Day 2014 logoAt the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) an international day to celebrate freshwater was recommended. The UN and its member nations wanted to devote a day to implementing UN recommendations and promoting activities regarding the world’s water resources. Held on March 22 of each year, “World Day for Water” or “World Water Day” is celebrated by highlighting a specific aspect of freshwater.

This year’s theme is “water and energy” and centers on how water and energy are closely interlinked and interdependent. For example, the generation and transmission of energy requires the utilization of water resources, specifically for hydroelectric, nuclear, and thermal energy source. Conversely, according to UN-Water, about 8% of the global energy generated is used for the pumping, treating, and transporting of water to various consumers. This year’s key messages are:

  1. Water requires energy and energy requires water – Water is needed to produce nearly all forms of energy while energy is needed in every stage of water extraction, treatment, and distribution.
  2. Supplies are limited and demand is increasing – As the world population increases, the demand for freshwater and energy will also increase presenting a strain on resources in all regions of the world, especially in developing and emerging nations.
  3. Saving energy is saving water and saving water is saving energy – Since water and energy are so closely intertwined, decisions concerning the supply, distribution, price, and use of water and energy will impact each other.
  4. The “bottom billion” urgently needs access to both water, sanitation services, and electricity – Worldwide, about 768 million people do not have access to improved water sources, 2.5 billion people lack improved sanitation, and 1.3 billion people cannot access electricity.
  5. Improving water and energy efficiency is imperative as are coordinated, coherent, and concerted policies – By understanding better the connections and effects water and energy have on each other, policy-makers, planners, and practitioners will be able to improve coordination in energy and water planning.

Join in the celebration of World Water Day by participating in the UNICEF Tap Project. UNICEF Tap Project challenges participants to put down their smartphones to fund clean water for a child in need. Donors and sponsors, including Giorgio Armani Fragrances, will donate one day of clean water for every 10 minutes a participant doesn’t move his/her phone. To participate, visit on your smartphone and begin the challenge!

International Joint Commission Releases New Recommendations for Lake Erie

Image of the Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

Image courtesy of Tom Archer/ Michigan Sea Grant

In a new report, released by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.-Canada agency that oversees the Great Lakes and other transboundary waters, the current phosphorus targets for Lake Erie and its tributaries are not enough to keep the lake from suffering toxic algal blooms or hypoxic dead zones. The report proposes a 46% cut in the average annual phosphorus load in Lake Erie’s central and western basins to reduce the hypoxic dead zone.

The IJC also gives specific recommendations to state and federal governments in both the United States and Canada. The recommendations focus on reducing phosphorus from the agricultural industry and on reducing dissolved reactive phosphorus. These recommendations include:

  • Listing Lake Erie as an impaired waterway under the Clean Water Act, allowing the EPA and state regulatory agencies to set Total Daily Maximum Load for the lake and its tributaries with legal requirements;
  • Expanding incentive-based programs encouraging farmers to adopt practices that reduce phosphorus and create restrictions on when and how fertilizer is applied to farms;
  • Banning phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care;
  • Increasing the amount of green infrastructure in cities; and
  • Expanding monitoring programs for water quality in the Lake Erie basin.

The IJC suggests achieving these reductions by applying Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine, based on ancient governing and legal principles, would establish the Great Lakes as a “commons,” an understanding held by societies that a select group of resources – air, hunting grounds, water ways, including rivers, oceans, and lakes – are so vital that they are community assets that are to be collectively shared and protected.  The IJC views the Public Trust Doctrine as a necessary legal tool that would provide local governments the authority to protect the waters from any source that may cause harm.

According to FLOW, an environmental organization in Michigan who also advocates the use of the Public Trust Doctrine for the Great Lakes, “the public trust guarantees each person as a member of the public the right to fish, boat, swim, and recreate in Lake Erie, and to enjoy the protection of the water quality and quantity of these waters, free of impairment. The effects of harmful algal blooms – from “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic species, to toxic secretions that close beaches and pose health hazards to boaters, fishers, and swimmers – are clear violations of the public trust. Thus, as sworn guardians of the Great Lakes waters under the public trust, the states have a duty to take reasonable measures to restore the water quality and ensure that the public can fully enjoy their protected water uses.”

While the report has been transmitted to governments in both the United States and Canada, the IJC does not have the authority to take further action.

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Space: The Final Frontier… for Water?

Reservoir Almost EmptyThis past year is the third year – in a row – that California has struggled with severe water shortages. The year has seen hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland are fallow, the Sierra snowpack that feeds streams and reservoirs have reached historic lows, seventeen communities in California are in danger of running out of water in the next few months, and the federal government announced Friday that it could not provide any water from its reservoirs to farmers. California is not the only area suffering from moderate to severe drought, large parts of India, China, and Africa have battled droughts and the resulting food shortages in recent years.

According to a report from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry soil conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely if ever been observed in modern times.”

Could there be a solution in rocket science?

Michael Flynn and his team at the Water Technology Development Lab might have the solution to severe droughts. The Water Technology Development Lab works to make sure astronauts don’t die of dehydration in space, particularly in the possible 3 year journey to and from Mars.

Given the constraints of any spacecraft, the only way to ensure a ready supply of water is to recycle the astronauts’ sweat and urine. Flynn and his team have found the best way to recycle sweat and urine is to mimic the human body’s own processes by using synthetic membranes that, like our intestines, are lined with lipids and proteins that evolution has engineered into ideal water filters.

A Danish biotech company, Aquaporin, has already developed this technology. Aquaporin’s biomimetic membranes are lined with aquaporin proteins, naturally occurring compounds in cell walls that blocks salt particles and toxins but allows water through. This technology requires about one-tenth of the amount of power than reverse osmosis, which requires pressure to move the water through the semi-permeable membrane. However these membranes have a shelf life as the proteins eventually unfold and lose the structure that makes them ideal. Michael Flynn and his colleagues are working with this technology to create living membranes that would be able to essentially self-repair.

Flynn and his colleagues plan to integrate the membrane into NASA’s Next Generation Life Support Water Recycling Processor as well as build the technology into spacesuits to provide an emergency system should astronauts need to spend extended periods of time outside the spacecraft. As NASA improves the technology, it will be tested on the International Space Station and in the closed-loop water systems of the NASA Ames Building known as Sustainability Base.

David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and the author of Water 4.0, and others believe that while the three options for adding to the water supply – recycling waste water, desalinizing sea water, and capturing storm runoff – could benefit from the advances being explored at NASA, there is no reason to wait around for radical breakthroughs to begin addressing the dwindling water supply. He continues that we simply need the political will and capital to begin deploying them, like building more desalination plants, adding storage capacity, installing infrastructure for capturing urban storm water, and designing office buildings and homes with systems that can recycle and reuse water.

However, NASA’s work in making more reliable and less energy-intensive water membranes could make desalination and waste-water recycling more affordable and efficient. Currently there is a vast difference in the cost between traditional approaches and the emerging ones. Groundwater starts at $375 per acre foot, while recycled water begins at $1,200 per acre foot and seawater desalination costs at least $1,800 per acre foot, according to a 2010 Equinox Center analysis for San Diego County, CA.

If the National Center for Atmospheric Research is correct, the entire United States could be experiencing severe drought in the next 80 -85 years. It might be time to look to NASA for a way to create water here on Earth.

Documentary Series, “Running Dry,” Explores Water Scarcity

Running Dry Documentary Title ScreenDrought, failing infrastructure, and severe weather events all threaten the availability of water, both domestically and abroad. Jim Thebaut, President and Executive Producer of The Chronicles Group, explores these themes in his documentary series, “Running Dry.”

Inspired by U.S. Senator Paul Simon’s book, Tapped Out, “Running Dry” documentary series is a comprehensive public information/education project, established to raise awareness regarding the worsening global humanitarian water crisis. The first in the series, “Running Dry: The Documentary” explores the water crisis in China, India, the Middle East as well as United States. This initial documentary led to the enactment of the Water for Poor Act, which authorizes funding for water and sanitation projects in developing nations.

The second in the series is “The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?” specifically investigates the water crisis in the American Southwest. Thebaut, in a recent interview for Water Quality Products magazine, described the crisis in the American Southwest as a “challenge to establish a long-term sustainable water supply throughout the region for its growing population without compromising its fragile ecosystem.” Giving the example of California, Thebaut continues that the current water systems “are strained to the maximum because they were designed to serve a population of 25 million and now must support 38 million, with future population projects of 50 million or more by mid-century.”

The most recent installment in the series, “Running Dry: Beyond the Brink” looks at the impact drought and water scarcity has on energy, health, agriculture, food supply and international security.

Trailers and information on screening the documentaries can be found on the “Running Dry” website.

Another Contaminated Waterway – This Time in North Carolina

Image of the Coal Ash in the Dan River

Photo Courtesy of Gerry Broome/AP

Just a little over a month since the chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River, a 48-inch storm water pipe ruptured beneath an ash basin, dumping between 50,000 and 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina. Between 24 million and 27 million tons of polluted water from the ash basin also poured into the Dan River.

The Dan River plant, closed in 2012, is one of Duke Energy’s seven decommissioned coal-fired plants. Duke Energy spokeswoman, Paige Sheehan, has said company tests showed only traces of heavy metals within accepted safety standards for drinking water, fish, and wildlife.

However, Waterkeeper Alliance has said its tests of water collected just yards from the spill site showed dangerous levels of toxins, including arsenic, chromium, lead, iron, and other heavy metals. Specifically arsenic levels were 35 times higher than the maximum containment level set by the EPA. Samples also collected 48 hours after the spill was discovered also showed dangerous levels of boron, manganese, zinc and iron.

The president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said “Duke could have avoided contaminating the Dan River and poisoning Virginia’s water supplies if it had removed its toxic ash heaps years ago after being warned by the EPA.”

One year before the spill, coal ash contamination was a concern in North Carolina, prompting the state to file lawsuits against Duke Energy, asking the court to order the utility to deal with the groundwater and wastewater violations at 14 sites where the byproducts of coal power plants are stored.

It is unclear how long it will take to clean the spill, but Duke Energy is committed to clean up any damage. “We’re committed to the Dan River and the communities that it serves,” Charlie Gates, the company’s senior vice president of power generation operations. “We are accountable for what has happened and have plenty of work ahead of us.”

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Communities in California May Run Out of Water in 60 Days

Sierra Nevada Snowpack Comparison from 2013 and 2014While the East Coast cannot go a week without snow, the severe drought in California has left 17 rural communities, which provides water to 40,000 people, are in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days.

The State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. Many state officials believe this number will rise in the months ahead.

California state reservoir water levels are lower than they were in 1977, the last time the state endured a drought this severe. State officials are moving to put emergency plans in place, including possibly imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses. In worst-case scenarios, they said drinking water will have to brought by truck into the parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater.

Governor Jerry Brown, who was the governor during the drought in 1976-77, said “Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing.”

Farmers in Nevada are not planting this year, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico are being forced to sell off cattle as the fields to feed them are brown with dead stalks. Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect the endangered salmon and guard against forest fires. Many people have already cut back drastically by taking stop-start-stop-start showers, and limiting watering plants.

Without the rain to clean the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels as evident from the brown-tinged air. In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached for most of December and January. Area schools used flags to signal when it was safe for children to play outdoors and homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in their fireplaces.

Sacramento has gone 52 days without water and Albuquerque has gone 42 days without rain or snow as of Saturday. Each day the drought continues, Californians will have to become more creative in sourcing water, even filtering wastewater!

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New Legislative Bill to Prevent Future Chemical Spills in Drinking Water Supplies

United States Senate SealU.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara Boxer (D-CA) reached agreement on legislative language that will protect Americans from chemical spills that threaten drinking water, like the chemical spill in West Virginia. The bill, named the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, aims to bring together in one place the tools used to provide oversight of chemical facilities and to strengthen states’ ability to prevent chemical spills that contaminate water supplies.

“The fact that there was a lack of regulations which allowed this particular storage facility to go uninspected for so many years is absurd,” Senator Rockefeller said. “I’m encouraged we are taking these steps to bring some accountability to industry that will help protect West Virginia families and our state’s economy.”

The bill includes common sense measures designed to ensure industrial facilities are properly inspected by state officials and both the chemical industry and emergency response agencies are prepared for future chemical incidents or emergencies. Key principles in the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection act include:

  • Requiring regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities
  • Requiring industry to develop state-approved emergency response plans that meet at least minimum guidelines established in the bill
  • Allowing states to recoup costs incurred from responding to emergencies
  • Ensuring drinking water systems have the tools and information to respond to emergencies

“This legislation protects children and families across the nation by providing the tools necessary to help prevent dangerous chemical spills that threaten their drinking water,” said Senator Boxer.

The senators plan to introduce the bill when Congress returns later this month.

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