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Water's Fragile Status

Industry and EPA Collaborated to Hide the Truth about How Natural Gas Drilling Is Threatening Drinking Water

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
Posted on November 20, 2008, Printed on November 25, 2008

In July, a hydrologist dropped a plastic sampling pipe 300 feet down a water well in rural Sublette County, Wyo., and pulled up a load of brown oily water with a foul smell. Tests showed it contained benzene, a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia, in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people.

The results sent shockwaves through the energy industry and state and federal regulatory agencies.

Sublette County is the home of one of the nation's largest natural gas fields, and many of its 6,000 wells have undergone a process pioneered by Halliburton called hydraulic fracturing, which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals several miles underground to break apart rock and release the gas. The process has been considered safe since a 2004 study (PDF) by the Environmental Protection Agency found that it posed no risk to drinking water. After that study, Congress even exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Today fracturing is used in nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States.

Over the last few years, however, a series of contamination incidents have raised questions about that EPA study and ignited a debate over whether the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing may threaten the nation's increasingly precious drinking water supply.

An investigation by ProPublica, which visited Sublette County and six other contamination sites, found that water contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts. Our investigation also found that the 2004 EPA study was not as conclusive as it claimed to be. A close review shows that the body of the study contains damaging information that wasn't mentioned in the conclusion. In fact, the study foreshadowed many of the problems now being reported across the country.

The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply. In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of each contamination, or measure its spread across the environment accurately, because the precise nature and concentrations of the chemicals used by industry are considered trade secrets. Not even the EPA knows exactly what's in the drilling fluids. And that, EPA scientists say, makes it impossible to vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track its effects.

"I am looking more and more at water quality issues…because of a growing concern," said Joyel Dhieux, a drilling field inspector who handles environmental review at the EPA’s regional offices in Denver. “But if you don't know what's in it I don't think it’s possible."

Of the 300-odd compounds that private researchers and the Bureau of Land Management suspect are being used, 65 are listed as hazardous by the federal government. Many of the rest are unstudied and unregulated, leaving a gaping hole in the nation's scientific understanding of how widespread drilling might affect water resources.


Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

Industry representatives maintain that the drilling fluids are mostly made up of non-toxic, even edible substances, and that when chemicals are used, they are just a tiny fraction of the overall mix. They say that some information is already available, and that releasing specific details would only frighten and confuse the public, and would come at great expense to the industry's competitive business.

"Halliburton's proprietary fluids are the result of years of extensive research, development testing," said Diana Gabriel, a company spokeswoman, in an e-mail response. "We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we are able to protect the fruits of the company's research…. We could lose our competitive advantage."

"It is like Coke protecting its syrup formula for many of these service companies," said Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s largest gas driller, which has been asked by New York State regulators to disclose the chemicals it uses.

Thanks in large part to hydraulic fracturing, natural gas drilling has vastly expanded across the United States. In 2007, there were 449,000 gas wells in 32 states, thirty percent more than in 2000. By 2012 the nation could be drilling 32,000 new wells a year, including some in the watershed that provides
drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia, some five percent of the nation's population.

The rush to drill comes in part because newly identified gas reserves offer the nation an opportunity to wean itself from oil.

Natural gas, as T. Boone Pickens said recently, is "cleaner, cheaper… abundant, and ours." Burning gas, used primarily to heat homes and make electricity, emits 23 percent less carbon dioxide than burning oil. Gas is the country's second-largest domestic energy resource, after coal.

The debate over water arises at a critical time. In his last days in office President George W. Bush has pushed through lease sales and permits for new drilling on thousands of acres of federal land. President-elect Barak Obama has identified the leasing rush as one of his first pressing matters and is already
examining whether to try to reverse Bush's expansion of drilling in Utah.

State regulators and environmentalists have also begun pressing the gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use and urging Congress to revisit the environmental exemptions hydraulic fracturing currently enjoys.

But in the meantime, the drilling continues.

In September, the Bureau of Land Management approved plans for 4,400 new wells in Sublette County, despite the unresolved water issues. Tests there showed contamination in 88 of the 220 wells examined, and the plume stretched over 28 miles. When researchers returned to take more samples, they couldn’t even open the water wells; monitors showed they contained so much flammable gas that they were likely to explode.

'Big Wyoming'

News that water in Sublette County was contaminated was especially shocking because the area is so rural that until a few years ago cattle were still run down Main Street in Pinedale, the nearest town to the gas field. The county is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut but has fewer people than many New York City blocks. With so little industry, there was little besides drilling that people could blame for the contamination.

"When you just look at the data…the aerial extent of the benzene contamination, you just say...This is huge,” says Oberley, who is charged with water study in the area. “You’ve got benzene in a usable aquifer and nobody is able to verbalize well, using factual information, how the benzene got there.”


Sublette County, Wyo. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Other signs of contamination were also worrying residents. Independent tests in several private drinking wells adjacent to the anticline drilling showed fluoride -- which is listed in Halliburton’s hydraulic fracturing patent applications and can cause bone damage at high levels -- at almost three times the EPA’s maximum limit.

"We need the gas now more than ever," says Fred Sanchez, whose water well is among those with high levels of fluoride. But gazing off his deck at the prized trout waters of the New Fork River, he wonders whether drilling has gone too far. "You just can't helter skelter go drilling just because you have the right to do it. It's not morally right to do it. There should be some checks and balances."

Further east, in the town of Clark, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality found benzene in a residential well after an underground well casing cracked. In Pavilion, another small town, a series of drinking water wells began running with dark, smelly water, a problem a state official speculated might be linked to drilling nearby.

"There is no direct evidence that the gas drilling has impacted it," says Mark Thiesse, a groundwater supervisor for the Wyoming DEQ. "But it sure makes you wonder. It just seems pretty circumstantial that it’s happening."

On federal land, which is where most of the Sublette County wells are located, the BLM governs leasing and permitting for gas development, with secondary oversight from the state and only advisory input from the EPA. When the contaminated water results were first reported, both the BLM and the state downplayed their significance.

The EPA’s regional office in Denver sharply disagreed. But because it has only an advisory role in the federal review process, and hydraulic fracturing is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, there was little the EPA could do. It rebuked the BLM in a strongly worded letter and gave the development plans in Sublette County a rare "unsatisfactory" rating. It also recommended that the project be stopped until further scientific study could be done.

The BLM, backed by a powerful business lobby, ignored that recommendation. Why do a study if you can’t prove something is wrong, industry argued.

Drilling operators said the benzene came from leaky equipment on the trucks that haul water and waste to and from the drill sites -- and in one or two cases, EPA scientists say that was likely. One theory put forth by the BLM blamed the benzene contamination on malicious environmentalists "hostile to gas production," an accusation the agency later said it had no evidence of.

Thiesse, the DEQ supervisor, recounted a meeting where the debate dwindled down to semantics: "I called it contamination, and somebody said is it really contamination? What if it's naturally occurring?"


Leaky equipment on trucks was one reason put forth by drilling operators for benzene contamination. Above, trucks are seen hauling water and waste to and from drilling sites. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

The industry insisted, as it has for years, that hydraulic fracturing itself had never contaminated a well, pointing to an anecdotal survey done a decade ago by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a coalition of state regulatory bodies and, again, to the 2004 study by the EPA 

"You have intervening rock in between the area that you are fracturing and the areas that provide water supplies. The notion that fractures are going to migrate up to those shallow formations -- there is just no evidence of that happening," says Ken Wonstolen, an attorney representing the Colorado Oil and Gas Association who has worked with the petroleum industry for two decades. "I think fracturing has been given a clean bill of health."

A flurry of mail from industry representatives to the BLM said the sort of study the EPA wanted would needlessly slow production. "BLM's restrictions on drilling in the Intermountain west have seriously reduced the supply of natural gas reaching consumers," wrote the American Gas Association.

Washington leaned down on Pinedale too. The message, according to Chuck Otto, field manager for the BLM: Make this happen by November. The 4,400 new wells were approved in September without any deadline for cleaning up the contamination or further research. State regulators told ProPublica that hydraulic fracturing was not even considered as a possible cause.

"The BLM looks at it more as a business-driven process," Otto said. "It's not like I have Vice President Cheney calling me up and saying you need to get this done. But there definitely is that unspoken pressure…mostly from the companies, to develop their resources as they'd like to see fit…to get things done and get them done pretty fast."

A Compromised Study

2004 EPA study (PDF) is routinely used to dismiss complaints that hydraulic fracturing fluids might be responsible for the water problems in places like Pinedale. The study concluded that hydraulic fracturing posed "no threat" to underground drinking water because fracturing fluids aren't necessarily hazardous, can’t travel far underground, and that there is "no unequivocal evidence" of a health risk.

But documents obtained by ProPublica show that the EPA negotiated directly with the gas industry before finalizing those conclusions, and then ignored evidence that fracking might cause exactly the kinds of water problems now being recorded in drilling states.

Buried deep within the 424-page report are statements explaining that fluids migrated unpredictably -- through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought -- in as many as half the cases studied in the United States. The EPA identified some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that “can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure." It found that as much as a third of injected fluids, benzene in particular, remains in the ground after drilling and is “likely to be transported by groundwater."

The EPA began preparing its report on hydraulic fracturing in 2000, after an Alabama court forced the agency to investigate fracturing-related water contamination there under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Political pressures were also mounting for the agency to clarify its position on fracturing. The 2001 Energy Policy, drafted in part by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton CEO, noted that “the gas flow rate may be increased as much as 20-fold by hydraulic fracturing.” While the EPA was still working on its report, legislation was being crafted to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Before that happened, however, the EPA sought an agreement with the three largest hydraulic fracturing companies, including Halliburton, to stop using diesel fuel in fracturing fluids. Diesel fuel contains benzene, and such a move would help justify the report’s conclusion that no further studies were needed.


Signs put in all directions to drilling sites in Wyoming. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten)

"Our draft is pending release," a senior EPA official wrote to Halliburton’s counsel in an August 2003 e-mail. "It would certainly strengthen our preliminary position not to continue studying the issue…if the service companies were able to remove diesel all together, or even move in that direction."

In a subsequent meeting, an EPA official’s handwritten notes show that a Halliburton attorney asked federal officials, "Are we willing to entertain regulatory relief in other areas; eg: fewer inspections?"

"Willing…," was the reply from Tracy Mehan, then the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

A Halliburton spokesperson declined to comment on this exchange.

diesel agreement (PDF) was signed. But according to the EPA, it isn't legally enforceable and the agency hasn't checked to see if diesel is still being used. Furthermore, the agreement applies only to fluids used in a specific kind of gas drilling, not all drilling across the United States.

Mehan did not return calls for comment about his negotiations. Roy Simon, associate chief of the Drinking Water Protection Division's Prevention Branch at EPA headquarters in Washington says the "EPA still stands by the findings outlined in the (2004) report."

But one of the report’s three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA hydrogeologist, now cautions that the research has been misconstrued by industry. The study focused solely on the effect hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water in coal bed methane deposits, typically shallow formations where gas is embedded in coal. It didn’t consider the impact of above-ground drilling or of drilling in geologic formations deep underground, where many of the large new gas reserves are being developed today.

"It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study," Jollie says. "I don’t think we ever characterized it that way."

Nevertheless, a few months after the report’s release, the sweeping 2005 Energy Policy Act was passed. Almost no attention was paid to the three paragraphs that stripped the federal government of most of its authority to monitor and regulate hydraulic fracturing’s impact on the environment. By default, that responsibility would now fall to the states.

“That pretty much closed the door,” said Greg Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist working in the western drilling states. “So we absolutely do not look at fracking...under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s not done.”

Waste Hazards

On April 30, 2001 a small drilling company now owned by the Canadian gas company Encana fractured a well at the top of Dry Hollow, a burgeoning field in western Colorado that has seen one of the fastest rates of energy development in the nation.

The well sat at the end of a dirt drive among pinion pines and juniper at the crest of a small mesa overlooking the Colorado River. It was also less than 1,000 feet from the log farmhouse where Larry and Laura Amos lived.

As usual that day, water trucks lined up like toy soldiers on the three acre dirt pad cleared for drilling just across the Amos’ property line. They pumped 82,000 gallons of fluids at 3,600 pounds of pressure thousands of feet into the drill hole.

Suddenly the Amos' drinking water well exploded like a Yellowstone geyser, firing its lid into the air and spewing mud and gray fizzing water high into the sky. State inspectors tested the Amos well for methane and found lots of it. They did not find benzene or gasoline derivatives and they did not test fracking fluids, state records show, because they didn't know what to test for.

The Amoses were told that methane occurs naturally and is harmless. Inspectors warned them to keep the windows open and vent the basement, but they were never advised to protect themselves or their infant daughter from the water. It wasn't until three years later, when Laura Amos was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor, that she started challenging the state about the mysterious chemicals that might have been in her well.


Misted waste fluid rises from waste pits at a Wyoming well site. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Much of what is known about the makeup of drilling fluids comes from the personal investigations of Theo Colborn, an independent Colorado-based scientist who specializes in low-dose effects of chemicals on human health and has testified before Congress (PDF) on drilling issues. Although she opposes drilling, her research is referenced by scientists at the EPA, at the United States Geological Survey and at state-level regulatory agencies and is widely believed to be the most comprehensive information available.

Spurred by reports of water contamination in Colorado, Colborn painstakingly gathered the names of chemicals from shipping manifests that trucks must carry when they haul hazardous materials for oil and gas servicing companies. Whenever an accident occurred -- a well spill in Colorado, or an explosion at a drilling site in Wyoming – she gathered the data that became available after water and soil samples were tested for contaminants, adding the results to her list.

Industry officials say they use such tiny amounts of chemicals in the drilling – of the million or so gallons of liquid pumped into a well, only a fraction of one percent are chemicals – that they are diluted beyond harmful levels. But on some fracturing sites that tiny percentage translates to more than 10,000 gallons of chemicals, and Colborn believes even very low doses of some of the compounds can damage kidney and immune systems and affect reproductive development.

In Garfield County, there were signs this was already happening. Animals that had produced offspring like clockwork each spring stopped delivering healthy calves, according to Liz Chandler, a veterinarian in Rifle, Co. A bull went sterile, and a herd of beef cows stopped going into heat, as did pigs. In the most striking case, sheep bred on an organic dairy farm had a rash of inexplicable still births -- all in close proximity to drilling waste pits, where wastewater that includes fracturing fluids is misted into the air for evaporation.

Among Colborn’s list of nearly 300 chemicals -- some known to be cancer-causing -- is a clear, odorless surfactant called 2-BE, used in foaming agents to lubricate the flow of fracking fluids down in the well. Colborn
told Congress in 2007 that it can cause adrenal tumors.

Laura Amos, who suffered from such a tumor, pressed Encana on whether the compound had been used to fracture the well near her house. For months the company denied 2-BE had been used. But Amos persisted, arguing her case on TV and radio. In January 2005, her lawyers obtained documents from Encana showing that 2-BE had, in fact, been used in at least one adjacent well.

"Our daughter was only six months old when fracturing blew up our water well," Amos wrote in
a letter to the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, an anti-drilling group. "I bathed her in that water every day. I also continued breast-feeding her for 18 more months...If there was a chemical in my body causing my tumor, she was exposed to it as well."

In 2006, Amos stopped talking to the media after she accepted a reported multi-million settlement from Encana. The company was fined $266,000 for "failure to protect water-bearing formations and…to contain a release of (gas production) waste." Yet investigators also concluded, without further explanation, that hydraulic fracturing was not to blame.

Asked about the Amos case and the rash of complaints in the area, an Encana spokesman said the company disagreed with the state's judgment on the Amos case and emphasized that there was no proof that fracturing had caused the explosion. Environmentalists had created a climate of fear in the community, he added.

"The concerns residents have expressed -- and some of them are legitimate and heartfelt concerns -- a lot of them are out of misinformation," said Doug Hock. "Just because chemicals are used at a site does not create risk. We have a proven process that helps us ensure that there are no pathways."

'The Tipping Point'

In the past 12 months a flurry of documented incidents has made such reports harder to dismiss.

"We've kind of reached the tipping point," says Dhieux, the EPA inspector in Denver. "The impacts are there."

In December 2007, a house in Bainbridge, Ohio exploded in a fiery ball. Investigators discovered that the neighborhood’s tap water contained so much methane that the house ignited.
A study released this month concluded that pressure caused by hydraulic fracturing pushed the gas, which is found naturally thousands of feet below, through a system of cracks into the groundwater aquifer.


The raised platform used by Encana at some of its drill sites helps to protect the underlying landscape. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

In February a frozen 200-foot waterfall was discovered on the side of a massive cliff near Parachute, Colo. According to the state, 1.6 million gallons of fracturing fluids had leaked from a waste pit and been transported by groundwater, where it seeped out of the cliff. In a separate incident nearby in June, benzene was discovered in a place called Rock Spring. Three weeks later a rancher was hospitalized after he drank well water out of his own tap. Tests showed benzene in his water, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission cited four gas operators, not knowing which one was responsible for the spill. Colorado state records show more than 1,500 spills since 2003, in which time the rate of drilling increased 50 percent. In 2008 alone, records show more than 206 spills, 48 relating to water contamination.

As more contamination cases are documented, state governments and Washington are being pressured to toughen oversight. One aim is to institutionalize the precautionary measures some companies are already experimenting with.

When ProPublica visited an Encana drilling operation in Pinedale, for example, the company was placing its drill rigs on raised platforms to protect the underlying landscape and using rubber pools to catch spilled fluids before they could seep into the soil. Drilling companies in New Mexico have begun storing waste in enclosed steel tanks rather than open pits.

Such efforts can add 10 percent to drilling costs, but they also dramatically lessen the environmental risks, an Encana employee said.

State regulators and Washington lawmakers though are increasingly impatient with voluntary measures and are seeking to toughen their oversight. In September, U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette and Congressman John Salazar, from Colorado, and Congressman Maurice Hinchey, from New York, introduced a bill that would undo the exemptions in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Wyoming, widely known for supporting energy development, has begun updating its regulations at a local level, as have parts of Texas.

New Mexico
has placed a one-year moratorium on drilling around Santa Fe, after a survey found hundreds of cases of water contamination from unlined pits where fracking fluids and other drilling wastes are stored. "Every rule that we have improved...industry has taken us to court on," said Joanna Prukop, New Mexico’s cabinet secretary for Energy Minerals and Natural Resources. "It’s industry that is fighting us on every front as we try to improve our government enforcement, protection, and compliance…We wear Kevlar these days.”

The most stringent reforms are being pursued in Colorado. Last year it began a top-to-bottom re-write of its regulations, including a proposal to require companies to disclose the exact makeup of their fracking fluids -- the toughest such rule in the nation.


Cathy Behr (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

In mid-August, the Colorado debate intensified when news broke that Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse in Durango, Colo., had almost died after treating a wildcatter who had been splashed in a fracking fluid spill at a BP natural gas rig. Behr stripped the man and stuffed his clothes into plastic bags while the hospital sounded alarms and locked down the ER. The worker was released. But a few days later Behr lay in critical condition facing multiple organ failure.

Her doctors searched for details that could save their patient. The substance was a drill stimulation fluid called ZetaFlow, but the only information the rig workers provided was a vague Material Safety Data Sheet, a form required by OSHA. Doctors wanted to know precisely what chemicals make up ZetaFlow and in what concentration. But the MSDS listed that information as proprietary. Behr’s doctor learned, weeks later, after Behr had begun to recuperate, what ZetaFlow was made of, but he was sworn to secrecy by the chemical’s manufacturer and couldn’t even share the information with his patient.

News of Behr’s case spread to New York and Pennsylvania, amplifying the cry for disclosure of drilling fluids. The energy industry braced for a fight.

"A disclosure to members of the public of detailed information…would result in an unconstitutional taking of [Halliburton’s] property," the company told Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "A number of studies have concluded there are no confirmed incidents of contamination of drinking water aquifers due to stimulation operations…EPA reached precisely this conclusion after undertaking an extensive study."

Then Halliburton fired a major salvo: If lawmakers forced the company to disclose its recipes, the letter stated, it "will have little choice but to pull its proprietary products out of Colorado." The company’s attorneys warned that if the three big fracking companies left, they would take some $29 billion in future gas-related tax and royalty revenue with them over the next decade.

In August, the industry struck a compromise by agreeing to reveal the chemicals in fracturing fluids to health officials and regulators -- but the agreement applies only to chemicals stored in 50 gallon drums or larger. As a practical matter, drilling workers in Colorado and Wyoming said in interviews that the fluids are often kept in smaller quantities. That means at least some of the ingredients won’t be disclosed.

"They’ll never get it," says Bruce Baizel, a Colorado attorney with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, about the states’ quest for information. "Not unless they are willing to go through a lawsuit. When push comes to shove, Halliburton is there with its attorneys."

Asked for comment, Halliburton would only say that its business depended on protecting such information. Schlumberger and BJ Services, the two other largest fracturing companies, did not return calls for comment.

Lee Fuller, vice-president for government relations at The Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the oil and gas industry’s reluctance to release information about drilling chemicals is to be expected. "These operations are ones where companies have spent millions of dollars," he says. "They are not going to want to give up that competitive advantage. So I would fully expect that they will try to protect that right as long as they possibly can."

Allison Battey, Kristin Jones and Jonathan Sidhu contributed to this report.


Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and the New York Times since receiving his master's in journalism from Columbia University in 2003.
© 2008 ProPublica All rights reserved.
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Review: Poisoned Waters

— By Steve Aquino | Mon April 20, 2009 11:10 AM PST


More than 35 years ago, Congress enacted the legislation now known as the Clean Water Act. The law had been around since its first incarnation—the Federal Water Pollution Control Act—in the Truman era, but the bill Congress passed in 1972 was a sweeping overhaul of the original act. The Clean Water Act set limits on the amount of pollutants industries and cities could discharge and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to sue and penalize polluters that exceeded those limits.


But after Ronald Reagan came to Washington, his administration established a program of voluntary compliance with Clean Water Act standards. That program is the launching point for Frontline’s documentary Poisoned Waters (airing Tuesday at 9 pm on PBS), which examines widespread pollution in two US waterways—Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound—caused by 25 years of unregulated toxic industrial, agricultural and municipal runoff.


Narrator Hendrick Smith shows us the first striking snapshot of aquatic pollution when he joins one environmental activist on a flyover of a Purdue chicken farm in Maryland: Behind each shed of 40,000 chickens, we see huge brown splotches of phosphorus- and nitrogen-heavy chicken manure. Rainwater eventually causes the chicken waste to leach in to one of the streams that make up the Chesapeake’s massive aquatic footprint. As Smith shows, chicken waste dumped into a tributary in Richmond could eventually end up in your drinking water in Baltimore.


Poisoned Waters is filled with those types of images: Frogs with six legs, once-male bass in West Virginia rivers that have morphed into females, and an underwater waste pipe spewing a constant noxious cloud of brown goop into Puget Sound. Smith and his crew use those images as segues to the documentary’s crucial point: Any pollution that kills aquatic life can harm humans. Finding dead fish floating belly-up on the surface of a river is a bad omen for humans drinking its water.


While deregulation emerges as the main culprit for the nation's polluted waterways, Smith implicates another group of culpable offenders—us. We’ve spent years creating new chemicals for everything from pesticides to household cleaners, all without pushing for up-to-date technology to purify our water of these toxins. Smith talks to one team of scientists who test for toxins in the Potomac River, both before and after its water is run through a treatment plant just north of Washington, DC. The plant’s outdated filters only remove a third of the pollutants in the Potomac.


So what can we do about it? Poisoned Waters concludes the impetus to clean up aquatic pollution—and halt it in the future—carries the most force when it comes from the electorate. But a pure environmental argument doesn’t always resonate with the voters. As Chris Miller, an activist with the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, says, “Getting up in front of a crowd and saying, ‘The bay’s in tough shape, and the pollution’s getting worse, and we’ve gotta change our lifestyles to save it,’ really doesn’t get you anywhere.” And with three-quarters of the US population living near waterways, hundreds of millions of Americans are affected by unregulated pollution. The trick is getting us all to care.


Note: I wasn't aware PBS would be advertising this program on our site until after I watched and reviewed Poisoned Waters. —S.A.


Too Many 'Straws' Sucking Water Out of the Colorado

By Peter N. Spotts, Christian Science Monitor

Posted on April 23, 2009, Printed on April 27, 2009


Tim Barnett is no stranger to water woes in the western US, particularly for states that draw on the Colorado River. He’s called its waters “the life’s blood of today’s modern Southwest society and economy” – an artery that serves roughly 27 million people in the US and Mexico and moistens 3 million acres of farmland.


Without significantly cuts to demand from the river, the US Bureau of Reclamation will be unable to deliver the amounts of water that states in the Lower Colorado River Basin have been allocated, according to a new study he and colleague David Pierce published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Both are scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. You can find a plain-English description of their study here.


The shortfall in water deliveries would hold true with or without the general drying effect global warming is expected to have in the region, the duo finds. But the effects would be more pronounced when taking global warming into account.


Unlike past studies on the river, the two have come up with estimates on the magnitude of shortfalls water managers can expect – and when – with or without global warming, and in conjunction with a burgeoning population in the region.


Without global warming in the picture, the scientists estimate that the Bureau of Reclamation would be unable to meet delivery schedules 40 percent of the time by 2050, although the shortfalls would be manageable.

Toss global warming into the mix, however, and the situation worsens.

Other rivers face long-term declines


Nor is the Colorado alone. The Columbia River, China’s Yellow River, India’s Ganges, and the Niger in Africa all have seen long-term declines in flow, according to a new analysis by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo., and the College of William and Mary in Virginia. You can download a PDF of the research paper here. A plain-English description is available here.


The analysis, set for publication in the Journal of Climate next month, looks at flow records from 925 of the world’s largest rivers, covering a period from 1948 to 2004. It represents the most comprehensive data base yet assembled to track river flows. Where gaps appear in a river’s records, the team used climate and hydrological models to estimate runoff.


Roughly one-third of the rivers experienced significant changes in flow rates – some up, some down. But the rivers with reduced flow rates outnumbered the ones with higher flow rates by 2.5 to 1.


The team notes that activities such as building dams and expanding irrigation make it hard to use these data for estimating the effects of global warming on river flow. Dam building is perhaps the least of these influences on long-term trends because water still gets released during the course of a year – a factor that tends to get smoothed out when looking at longer-term flow trends.


In the end, climatic events such as the shift from El Ninos to La Ninas and back exert far more influence on runoff than do direct human activities, because of the changes they bring to regional rain and snowfall patterns, the team explains.


Still, the team notes, rivers with reduced flows snake through regions of the globe that have experienced the most pronounced drying over the past several decades. These drying patterns are consistent with projections from global climate models. Meanwhile, regions seeing increased flow generally fall into areas where climate models have projected rising rain and snowfall with global warming.


Rising populations in these areas, combined with the projected effects of global warming on key river systems, are likely to increase the pressure on already scarce water resources in several low- and mid-latitude regions, the team concludes.


How it might play along the Colorado


Along the Colorado, if climate change trims runoff by 10 percent, the bureau will be unable to fulfill delivery commitments 58 percent of the time by 2050, the Scripps scientists estimate. If runoff  falls by 20 percent, the bureau will be unable to meet commitments 88 percent of the time.


Ordinarily, even those shortfalls might be offset with water-conservation measures if a drought isn’t already under way, the researchers suggest. But if those shortfalls coincide with drought, it will be harder to deal with them.


“All water-use planning is based on the idea that the next 100 years will be like the last 100,” notes Dr. Barnett. But studies of the ups and downs of flows along the Colorado River over hundreds of years indicate that the 20th century was an unusually wet one. So even without climate change, current allocations aren’t sustainable, the team writes.


The team fired a significant shot across the bows of water managers last year with a study showing that if no changes are made to water allocations along the Colorado, there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, would be functionally dry by 2021 (if the Bureau of Reclamation didn’t intervene).


Peter N. Spotts is a Staff Writer for the Christian Science Monitor.

© 2009 Christian Science Monitor All rights reserved.

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The Latest Absurdity in the Fight to Conserve Water: Making Rainwater Harvesting Illegal

By Yee Huang , Center for Progressive Reform

Posted on April 13, 2009, Printed on April 17, 2009


A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described the latest absurdity in the never-ending search to quench the thirst for water: ownership of rainwater and, more precisely, the illegality of rainwater harvesting. 


Residents and communities in parts of Colorado are turning to this ancient practice of collecting and storing rain to fulfill their domestic water needs, including flushing toilets and watering lawns.  Using this “grey” water, as it is called, relieves pressure on water resources and can be extremely efficient.


Many long-time water users, however, object to the practice.


These so-called water buffaloes argue that people who collect rainwater are taking away from their water by collecting the water before it has a chance to flow into a river from which they obtain water.  Effectively, they argue, the rainwater belongs to them – they own the rain that falls from the sky as part of their water allocation, even though 97 percent of the rainfall that falls on soil does not reach a river.   The bad news?  The law in Colorado stands behind those water buffaloes.


Like most states west of the one-hundredth meridian, Colorado follows the doctrine of prior appropriation to allocate water.   For all water uses that are non-domestic, a person must have a water right.  Water rights are assigned a priority date, which is the date that the water use was initiated.

Under prior appropriation, these senior water users – many of whom have rights dating back to the 1800’s – have priority in times of water shortages based on the date of their initiation.  Their water allocation is fulfilled before any junior users, who are often left with a nominal amount of water.  People who harvest rainwater are “interfering” with the priority system by jumping ahead of all the senior users, who have the first right to use the water.


This dogmatic adherence to temporal priority blocks efforts to acquire water rights for newer or more efficient uses, such as in-stream conservation and recreation.  These uses, initiated relatively recently, will always be subordinate to older, more consumptive uses. 


Ownership of water has always been a tenuous proposition.  Water and water rights linger on the perimeter of traditional property rights, eluding the solid “property” categorization of items like land or salad bowls.  Individual water molecules cannot be marked or identified, and water is in constant motion, swirling below, above, and around the earth in the global hydrologic cycle.  More significantly, water is survival for the vast array of living creatures on this planet, so privatizing the world’s most precious liquid would necessarily create a divide between haves and have-nots.  


Whether or not water is definitively property has great legal implications for constitutional and civil claims, and courts have not given clear or consistent guidance.  If, for example, water is considered a property right and the government required reduced water delivery to irrigators under the Endangered Species Act, those irrigators might have a valid claim for compensation under a Fifth Amendment takings claim.  CPR Member Scholar Dan Tarlock blogged about this specific issue here.  Categorizing water as a private property right also facilitates the commodification of water, which often ignores the common public interest in water quantity, quality, and viability. 


Many water rights are colored by the public trust doctrine, which holds that certain natural resources cannot be privately owned and instead must be held in trust by the government for the use and benefit of the public.  This doctrine, an inherent component of a water right, tends to support the argument that water is not a matter of private property.  As inexpensive supplies of water dwindle, how water is viewed as a private property will become increasingly important to water allocation and priorities. 

In other parts of the West, states are exploring the idea of rainwater harvesting.  Santa Fe, New Mexico, became the first city to require by ordinance rainwater harvesting on all new residential or commercial structures of a certain size.  Tucson, Arizona, became the first city to require rainwater harvesting to provide 50 percent of landscape-irrigation needs.   Even Colorado has reconsidered its position, recently passing a bill that permits extremely limited instances of rainwater harvesting.  It remains illegal for most individual residents to harvest rainwater.  


Given an increase in population and per capita consumption, coupled with water needs to restore and maintain aquatic ecosystems, perhaps those water buffaloes need to lower their horns and let other creatures sip from the limited watering holes in the West. 


Yee Huang, J.D., L.L.M, joined the Center for Progressive Reform as a Policy Analyst in December 2008. Her public interest experience includes internships with the Department of State in Vienna, Austria, and Windhoek, Namibia.

© 2009 Center for Progressive Reform All rights reserved.

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Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It

By Robert Glennon, Island Press
Posted on March 21, 2009, Printed on March 31, 2009

The following is an excerpt from "Unquenchable: American's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It" by Robert Glennon. Copyright 2009 Robert Glennon. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

Editor's Note: This excerpt is from the introduction of Glennon's new book and follows a narrative about the water profligacy of Las Vegas. The timing of this excerpt is perfect for World Water Day, but the timing of the book in terms of the water issues facing American and the rest of the world is also incredibly important.

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water," observed Benjamin Franklin in 1774. But he was wrong. In the United States, we utterly fail to appreciate the value of water, even as we are running out. We Americans are spoiled. When we turn on the tap, out comes a limitless quantity of high-quality water for less money than we pay for our cell phone service or cable television. But as we'll see, what is happening in Vegas is not staying in Vegas. It's becoming a national epidemic.

Ignorance is bliss when it comes to water. In almost every state in the country, a landowner can drill a domestic well anywhere, anytime-no questions asked. Many states don't even require permits for commercial wells unless the pumping will exceed 100,000 gallons a day (that's 36 million gallons annually). For each well. We know so little about this pumping that the federal government cannot even estimate the total number of these wells across the country. In many agricultural regions where the government does know the number of wells, such as California's Central Valley, it is still clueless as to how much water farmers pump out of those wells, because they're unmetered.

Water is a valuable, exhaustible resource, but as Las Vegas did until just a few years ago, we treat it as valueless and inexhaustible. Just as the energy crisis brought to the nation's consciousness an acute awareness of energy consumption, global warming, and carbon footprints, so too the impending national water crisis will inspire us to rethink how and why we use water.

My aim in this book is to explore the crisis and to stimulate that rethinking. Part of the problem is that water shortages in many parts of the country, lacking the exhibitionist tendencies of Las Vegas, are often hidden. This book will illustrate the true dimensions of the crisis and offer solutions to it. Alas, the dimensions are immense.

Water lubricates the American economy just as oil does. It is intimately linked to energy because it takes water to make energy, and it takes energy to divert, pump, move, and cleanse water. Water plays a critical role in virtually every segment of the economy, from heavy industry to food production, from making semiconductors to providing Internet service. A prosperous future depends on a secure and reliable water supply. And we don't have it. To be sure, water still flows from taps, but we're draining our reserves like gamblers at the craps table.

We tend to look at Las Vegas and think it's a unique case, perhaps a cautionary tale but barely relevant to where the rest of us live. But the truth is, when it comes to water, Vegas offers us a glimpse of our own future. The evidence is everywhere-though if it is noticed, it is forgotten with the next drenching rain. Consider the following events that have occurred since 2007:

  • Colorado farmers watched their crops wither because of a lack of irrigation water.
  • Atlanta, Georgia, came within three months of running out, so it banned watering lawns, washing cars, and filling swimming pools.
  • Orme, Tennessee, did run out and was forced to truck water in from Alabama.
  • Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predicted that Lake Mead, which supplies water to Los Angeles and Phoenix, could dry up by 2021.
  • Hundreds of workers lost their jobs at Bowater, a South Carolina paper company, because low river flows prevented the plant from discharging its wastewater.
  • Lack of adequate water prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to rebuff Southern Nuclear Operating Company's request to build two new reactors in Georgia.
  • Water shortages caused California farmers to cut the tops off hundreds of healthy, mature avocado trees in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.
  • Lake Superior, the earth's largest freshwater body, was too shallow to float fully loaded cargo ships.
  • Decimated salmon runs prompted cancellation of the commercial fishing season off the coasts of California and Oregon.
  • A lack of adequate water led regulators in Idaho, Arizona, and Montana to deny permits for new coal-fired power plants.
  • In Riverside County, California, water shortages forced a water district to put on hold seven proposed commercial and residential developments.

To understand the depth of the water crisis, consider that more than thirty-five of the lower forty-eight states are fighting with their neighbors over water.

Our existing supplies are stretched to the limit, yet demographers expect the U.S. population to grow by 120 million by midcentury. Before the crisis becomes a catastrophe, we must embark in a fundamentally new direction. Business as usual just won't cut it. We have traditionally engineered our way out of water shortages by building dams, diverting rivers, and drilling wells. But proposals for new dams engender immense political and environmental opposition, diversions have already dried up many rivers and reduced the flow in others to a trickle, and groundwater tables are plummeting around the United States. Meanwhile, the environment suffers as excessive water use causes springs, creeks, rivers, and wetlands to go dry, salt water to contaminate potable supplies, the ground to collapse, and sinkholes to appear. Even lakes are not immune. Dozens in Florida have already gone dry.

Are there alternatives to business as usual? Some dreamers offer grandiose plans that include seeding clouds and towing icebergs from Alaska, but these are not viable options. We can expand the supply by reusing municipal effluent and by desalinating ocean water, but neither of these choices is a panacea. On the demand side, we can encourage water conservation. In some water-wasteful regions, conservation has great potential; however, many water-stressed communities have already implemented ambitious conservation programs but need to reduce demand even more. The reality is that reusing, desalinating, and conserving water may help to alleviate our crisis but will not solve it. We must find other ways to free up water. Las Vegas has pioneered very expensive solutions, but they can succeed only by taking water from other places. Is this sustainable?

In his 2005 book Collapse, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond describes how flourishing societies have precipitously collapsed. Examining spatially and temporally diverse cultures, such as those of Easter Island in the South Pacific, Norse settlements in Scandinavia, and the Anasazi in North America, Diamond finds a disturbing pattern, one that resembles contemporary conditions in the United States. As these societies grew and flourished, they mismanaged natural resources, eventually stretching the resources' carrying capacity to the breaking point. Still, the societies continued on in their customary practices, assuming that what they were familiar with was the norm. Then something happened-environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, or the culture's own response to its environmental problems-to change the familiar, but it was too late for the society to correct course and avert a catastrophe. With the Anasazi, a growing population depended on ever-increasing use of water and firewood. When a sustained drought hit in the twelfth century and lasted more than fifty years, the society collapsed.

We, however, still control our destiny. The United States is entering an era of water reallocation, when water for new uses will come from existing users who have incentives to use less. Sounds good, but how will this happen? One possible approach is for the government to target wasteful practices by simply prohibiting current water users from using so much. However, heavy-handed government mandates would generate bitter political controversy and endless litigation. What we can do, yet haven't done, in the United States is encourage water conservation by using price signals and market forces. Pricing water appropriately would stimulate all users to reexamine their uses and decide for themselves, on the basis of their own pocketbooks, which uses to curtail and which to continue. The government should encourage a voluntary reallocation of water between current and new users. The alternative is to fight over the water. Which do we prefer?

Water nourishes our bodies and our souls. Our lives are impoverished without the sight, sound, smell, and touch of bubbling brooks, cascading waterfalls, and quiet ponds. The terrifying future depicted in science fiction doomsday novels conspicuously features barren landscapes. Our future needn't be so bleak. Our water crisis should occasion grave concern but not panic. We have solutions available; now we need a national commitment to pursue them.

© 2009 Island Press All rights reserved.
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