Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Groundwater in the West is being Used Up

From Castle et.al.
A new study released last week by scientists at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and University of California at Irvine has found that groundwater storage within the Colorado River Basin has been depleted by 41 million acre feet since late 2004. Most of the depletion has come since 2010 as the region endures an extended drought. This study is the first to quantify the amount groundwater used in the seven western states of the Colorado River Compact. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years.

Observing the groundwater buried beneath layers of soil and rock was almost impossible until, the twin satellites known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, were launched in March 2002. At the time few believed the satellites could measure changes in groundwater, but thanks to work of Dr. Jay (James S.) Famiglietti and his graduate student (at the time) Matt Rodell, who were then working at the University of Texas at Austin the techniques for measuring groundwater using the GRACE satellites were developed and proven. Expanding on that work is this new paper by Stephanie L. Castle, Brian F. Thomas, John T. Reager, Matthew Rodell, Sean C. Swenson, and James S. Famiglietti.

While the need to use groundwater resources to meet Basin water demands has long been recognized, the quantity of available groundwater and the sustainable rate of groundwater use are not known. As the drought in the western states has persisted for most of this century, water management under drought conditions has focused only on surface water resources- the flow of the Colorado, the levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. There is neither enough data nor a regulatory framework to fully manage groundwater. However, as this study shows us, by only managing the water withdrawals from the reservoirs (Lake Mead and Lake Powell) water use may not have been reduced at all, but instead groundwater may have made up more of the shortfall in water.
From Castle e.t al.

The study found that the Colorado River Basin lost almost 53 million acre feet of water over the study period with 12 million acre feet coming from the falling level in the two reservoirs and the remaining 41 million acre feet being pumped out from groundwater. The scientists estimated changes in groundwater storage during the 9-year drought period, when reservoir volumes were intensively managed to maintain hydropower production, maintain water levels above the public supply water intake pumps, and to meet surface water allocations to the Basin states using the methods developed by Drs. Jay Famiglietti and Matt Rodell.

The total water storage in a region as seen by the satellites is comprised of soil moisture, snow water equivalent, surface water (including river flow and reservoirs), and groundwater. Accessible water is assumed to be surface water reservoir storage and groundwater storage. They assumed Lakes Mead and Powell accounted for the majority of the observed surface water change as they comprise approximately four times the annual flow of the river and make up 85% of surface water in the Basin at any time. So the flow of the river was ignored introducing an error of 5%-15%. USGS and ADWR monitoring wells in the Colorado Basin showed good agreement with the GRACE-based estimates further confirming the methodology.

A brief recovery in groundwater storage was observed in the data from June 2009-March 2010, when moderately wetter conditions provided a combination of potential groundwater recharge and temporarily alleviated the need to augment surface water supplies, but the overall observed trend is not good. As the Bureau of Reclamation more tightly controlled and limited surface withdrawals, groundwater reserves were tapped to make up the loss, demonstrating the close connection between surface water availability and groundwater use. As available water in the west has been diminished by an extended drought and demand for water has actually increased over these years, solely managing surface water in the Colorado Basin, without regard to groundwater loss, has resulted in the 41 million acre foot reduction in ground water reserves which predominately occurred from April 2010 to November 2013.

Groundwater is typically used to augment the limited surface water supplies in the arid, Lower Colorado Basin and across the entire Basin during drought. Groundwater represents the largest supply of water for irrigation within the Basin and against all reason irrigated acreage in the Colorado Basin increased during the study period. Furthermore, according to Drs. Famiglietti and Rodell, the prolonged drought across the southwestern region of the United States has resulted in overreliance on groundwater by public water to minimize impacts of the drought on public water supply. The decrease of an average of 4.5 million acre feet of groundwater each year may merely reflect the problems with the Colorado River Compact, the regulatory framework already in place to manage surface waters. The Compact which allocates the flow of the Colorado River to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California and through a 1944 treaty to Mexico promised what turned out to be more than 100% of the water available at the time and the current researchers believe that the over allocation of the Colorado River’s water was 30% during the study period based on the groundwater loss of 4.5 million acre feet a year from the groundwater reserves.

Specifically, the amount of water allocated under the Colorado Compact was based on an expectation that the river's average flow was 16.5 million acre feet per year. According to the University of Arizona, a better estimate would have been 13.2 million acre feet at the time of the Colorado Compact and the records going back to Paleolithic times (more than 10,000 years ago) indicates periods of mega-droughts in the distant past and climate forecasts for the future are dire. The political hurdles the Colorado River Compact may need to be renegotiated and include groundwater resources. During the drought of 2001-2006 the Colorado River flow was estimated at 11 million acre feet and hit a low of 6 million acre feet in 2002. The situation was critical bordering on regional rationing when the drought ended.

More than 23 million people of the lower basin are at least partially dependent upon the water resources of the Colorado River. Almost 74% of them reside in the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas. The current drought in California has only emphasized the need for more active and enforceable groundwater management throughout the Basin, in particular, during drought. During the study period the scientists observed that groundwater is already being used to fill the gap between Basin demands and the annual, renewable surface water supply.

Managing groundwater is a daunting task. Even today groundwater sustainability is still not fully understood. In addition, there are droughts, climate changes; water draws from surface water changes the recharge rate of the groundwater. The U.S. Geological Survey did not begin quantitative analysis of the major groundwater systems of the United States until 1978 and since that time there has been tremendous evolution in the understanding of and ability to model groundwater systems. Before the groundwater basin is irreparably overdrawn, we need to understand what sustainable water use in the region is and embrace it. Otherwise the groundwater will be pumped until it is gone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sustainable Agriculture Equals a Sustainable Prince William

early summer at Yankey Farms
Since World War II, the world’s agricultural production has almost tripled while cultivated land area has grown only by 12%. This feat is often called the agricultural miracle or “Green Revolution” and was accomplished by doubling the amount of land under irrigation combined with the development of the chemical processes to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid crops that more readily absorb nitrogen and mechanized agriculture. In the United States where agricultural production has even exceeded the world growth level, government policies were created that favored maximizing production. These changes allowed fewer farmers to feed more people and significantly reduced the relative cost of food, but favored mono-culture agriculture and have taken a toll on the environment.

For centuries the common practice in agriculture was a diversified farm integrating both crops and livestock in the same farming operation. Then with the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the government policies and economics resulting from those policies farmers were pushed to become more specialized, creating industrial agriculture and confined feeding operations and farms growing a one or two crops and a significant reduction in the diversity of those crops. Food security was vastly improved, but hunger was not eliminated. Today federal, state and local government policies often impede sustainable agriculture and local government seemingly encourages the conversion of agricultural land to suburban/urban uses and the continued consolidation of agriculture. Instead we should look to implementing sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture within a community contributes to the quality of life and the overall sustainability of that community.

While post World War II government policies and farming practices increased agricultural yields and reduced the financial risks associated with farming, they also have resulted in the depletion of topsoil and contamination of groundwater and streams, the decline in family farms and rural communities. “In real life” I am the Treasurer of the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District and I care deeply about the survival of our Rural Crescent as a sustainable agricultural community, the conservation of our soils and protection of the streams, rivers and groundwater. Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that does not deplete the soil, but builds it, does not contaminate groundwater or surface water, but uses water sustainable and responsibly, uses pesticides and fertilizers sparingly if at all, uses non-renewable resources responsibly and rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable agriculture is stewardship of the land and natural resources to maintain and enhance these vital resources for the long term, for the future generations. Organic, conservation and conventional agriculture can be practiced sustainably.

For the most part irrigated agriculture is not sustainable over the long run. Unless there is sufficient rain during the year, salinity will ultimately destroy the soil. In arid environments fresh water with very low levels of salt evaporates concentrating the salt over time and ultimately will make the land useless for agriculture. Low volume irrigation can slow this effect as can tile drainage, but over time the land builds up salt. Salinization of the land is a huge problem in California and parts of the southwest. However, large sections of the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest have adequate rainfall (most years) to support agriculture. Even with supplemental irrigation to assure the success of valuable crops (think berries) these lands can be cultivated indefinitely. Water availability is the major limiting factor in much of agriculture, but mismanagement of pesticide and fertilizer use can contaminate groundwater and surface water with pesticides, nitrates and selenium.

Sustainable agriculture must utilize specific strategies that take into account topography, soil characteristic, climate, pests and water. Chemicals if used at all should be used strategically. Soil is a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability. A "healthy" soil is a key component of sustainability; that is, a healthy soil will produce healthy plants that are less susceptible to pests. Properly managed diversity can improve soil. For example crop rotation can be used to suppress weeds and pests; cover crops can stabilize the top soil by holding soil and nutrients in place, conserving soil moisture by using the mowed mulches of the cover crops and by increasing the water infiltration during precipitation because of the root actions. Cover crops can also attract and sustain beneficial arthropods.

In addition, diversified farms are usually more ecologically (and economically) resilient. While it is more difficult to manage multiple crops, by growing a variety of crops, farmers spread their risks. A strategy that works particularly well with crop diversity is the locally popular community supported agriculture, CSA, model. Properly managed crop diversity can also buffer a farm in a biological and ecological sense. For sustainable agriculture to work consumers must play an important role in creating a sustainable food system. Through their purchases, consumers can send a powerful message to producers and others in the system about what they think is important. Food cost has always been at the top of the list, but buying a farm share or CSA is an important statement and support of farming. Sustainable agriculture providing local food to our community is what the Rural Crescent in Prince William County should be used for- connecting us to the land and the environment. In addition, the costs of conversion of local farmland to suburban/urban uses have to be considered as well as the loss of locally grown food.

Maintaining the rural nature of the Rural Crescent can ensure that Prince William County is sustainable. The Rural Crescent also provides a significant portion of the green infrastructure that connects the still intact habitat areas providing corridors for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. Maintaining intact, connected natural landscapes is essential for basic ecosystem and watershed preservation to ensure that there will always be clean air and water in Northern Virginia. The Rural Crescent is also about water, groundwater and watershed preservation. Maintaining adequate open ground surface for groundwater and surface recharge are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, water recreation and the ecological integrity of the region. Sustainable agriculture is an important part of a sustainable Prince William County.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Suprise 75 Year Old Tank Had Been Leaking For Some Time

from a West Virginia Gazette U-tube video
For over days in the middle of last January 2014 Charleston, West Virginia and the surrounding communities were without drinking water due to contamination from a chemical leak. A former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM had released about 10, 000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River just a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston. The chemicals were 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) mixed with 5.6% propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH). MCHM is an alcohol with a licorice or mint smell at extremely low concentrations, and though there are limited studies, it is believed to have relatively low toxicity. Both MCHM and PPH have known human health effects including skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, drinking water contaminated with concentrations less than 10 parts per billion MCHM is safe. However, the limited studies done on MCHM were small short term studies on acute exposure as might happen with a chemical worker in an industrial setting, not a large population drinking and bathing in water contaminated with low levels of MCHM.

The chemical storage facility was owned by a private company, Freedom Industries, Inc., now bankrupt due to this incident. The site of the leak was once a Pennzoil-Quaker State gasoline and diesel storage terminal that was sold in 2001 and had recently been acquired by Freedom Industries. These 75 year old tanks were put to new use storing chemicals. Though it was common in the past to have fuel storage tanks on rivers, it was not the safest of ideas. However, when the facility was built in 1938 the fuel arrived by barge and the drinking water intake was not there. When Pennzoil-Quaker State closed the facility and sold it, the new owners (and apparently the state regulators) though it was okay to store solvent in a series of old 48,000 gallon above ground riveted storage tanks that clearly had inadequate secondary containment to prevent a spill into the river. It is to be noted that there were also other larger storage tanks at this site. This was all legal. There are very limited requirements for secondary containment on ASTs and no lifetime limits on equipment age. There are no state requirements for routine inspections for condition of equipment or adequacy of containment. Even at the time of the most recent sale there was an inappropriate level of due diligence performed to evaluate the risk.

Last week workers began dismantling the facility, but not before the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had performed an investigation of the site. Jonnie Banks the team leader for the CSB reported their findings at a public meeting in Charleston, West Virginia. The CSB’s forensic inspection of the tanks on site found three tanks had been used to store MCHM, not just the tank that was the source of the observed leak last January. In draining the tanks the CSB found MCHM in three tanks despite incorrect paperwork. Extensive corrosion and pitting was found in all three tanks, two of the tanks already had holes. The largest hole found in the preliminary report was in the tank with the observed leak, but at least one of the other tanks had been leaking.

In their preliminary report, the chemical safety board found that the tanks had been leaking for an extended period of time that has not yet been estimated. Until the soil under all three tanks is tested it will not be definitively known the extent of the chemical release. Once the extent of the contamination is determined, and then computer modeling of the release needs to be performed so that better health impact studies can be performed. However, as the CSB pointed out there may not be adequate toxicology data on MCHM for an adequate determination of the long term safety of the drinking water supply though, American Water has not detected any MCHM in any of their most recent tests. Depending on the results of the computer modeling and the level of remediation required by the regulators, the residents of Charleston may turn out to be a study on long term low level exposure to MCHM.

The obvious cause of this chemical contamination of the Charleston drinking water was time and the failure to maintain and improve our infrastructure over time. Over 75 years the chemical tanks pitted and corroded and simply wore out and began to leak. There were inadequate regulations to ensure regular (or any) engineering inspections documenting the condition of the tanks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate most aboveground fuel storage tanks (AST) and there are no national standards for secondary containment and spill prevention. In addition, there are no regulations that limit the maximum life that a tank can continue to be used. This endangers our rivers, watershed and groundwater. Unless you have a permit to discharge to surface waters you are not required to have a spill prevention plan, but clearly these tanks had inadequate secondary containment. All fuel and chemical storage tanks whether aboveground or underground should be required to have adequate secondary containment and spill prevention plans.

Over time the tanks grew old and failed. Over time the industry standards for secondary containment changed, and the containment for these tanks was no longer up to industry standards nor adequate. Over time the city of Charleston grew and the water intake for the drinking water supply for the city was built within 1.5 miles of an old and operating chemical plant. Mr. Banks of the CSB was right when he asked how this happened. At least the public water supply should have performed a risk assessment of their raw water source, but that would have cost money for the rate payers and we like our water and sewer systems to be as cheap as possible. We assume safe, but we fail to maintain and improved our infrastructure.

Separately, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Charleston last Tuesday the creditors and insurers for Freedom Industries failed to reach an anticipated $2.9 million settlement in the 24 lawsuits against Freedom Industries. The company declared bankruptcy in January after the chemical release and contamination of the drinking water supply was discovered. For excellent coverage of this incident see the West Virginia Gazette  17 minute video and the work of Ken Ward, Jr.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Clean Water and Sanitation Should Not Be Taken for Granted

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “2.5 billion people—practice open defecation or lack adequate sanitation facilities, and the consequences can be devastating for human health as well as the environment. “ In India alone 600 million people practice open defecation which is a major source of the so called “water-borne” diseases, and human suffering and premature death. According to UNICEF, 2.2 million people die each year from diarrhea. Human waste is carried by precipitation to ditches onto streams and into rivers where it enters the water supply. Flies and vermin carry bacteria and disease from feces to food stores and humans.

In addition to those without any sanitation, there are reported to be 2.1 billion people who use toilets connected to septic tanks that are not maintained, back up or use other systems that discharge raw sewage into open drains or surface waters without adequate treatment which degrades the rivers and streams. Drinking water tainted with sewage is the source of “water-related” diseases that are carried from one host to another through water. These diseases included salmonella, schistosomiasis, cholera, crytosporidiosis, campylobacter, giardia, meningitis, shigellois, dysentery, hookworm, roundworm, tapeworms, dengue fever, leptospirosis, hepatitis A, typhoid, scabies and botulism. Overall, 40% of the population of earth lack adequate sanitation facilities and reliable access to clean water. 

from CDC
In the United States access to adequate sanitation facilities and clean water is taken for granted. However, almost 25% of households depend on an individual septic system (also referred to as an onsite system) or small community cluster systems to treat their wastewater. Just having flush toilets to carry the waste from the house does not mean it is adequately treated. Maintenance of these systems is often left to the individual household. Many of these systems are aging beyond their natural lifetimes and many system owners simply do not know how to properly manage their septic systems and have not bothered to learn. Improperly managed septic systems can result in system back-ups and overflows, surfacing sewage in your yard, polluted groundwater and surface water -a risk to public health and the environment. Sixty percent of the households in the United States that have septic systems also have private drinking water wells.

Though responsibility and management of septic systems and private drinking water wells belong to the individual owner, oversight and regulation of these systems falls to the states and local health departments. Virginia like many states has struggled to try to get homeowners to properly maintain their septic systems, both conventional and alternative and to consider routine testing of their drinking water from private wells. Homeowners fail to see or simply ignore indications that their septic systems have failed, do not pump their tanks at appropriate intervals and do not comply with inspection and maintenance regulations or manufacturer recommendations for alternative systems. Homeowners think because they are not required to test their wells, it does not have to be done.

The United States has one of the safest and most advanced water supply and sewage treatment systems in the world. However, we struggle to find the political will to properly maintain our public water infrastructure in our cities and fail to convey to owners of septic systems and private water wells how to properly operate and maintain their systems and the importance of doing so. While the water still flows and toilets flush we would rather spend money on “life style” rather than maintaining essential services like water and sewage.

Under the Clean Water Act the United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. I am old enough to remember taking river water samples before the regulations, so I know how far we've come; however we seem to have stalled out. We've failed to solve the problem of eradicating sanitation failures by reaching the individual household and private system owners how their systems work and the importance of ensuring that they do. Also, our public water and sanitation infrastructure is aging. The distribution systems leak, the treatment plants have often not kept up with growth in volume of sewage that needs to be treated. Finally, the 25% of households that operate their own systems are increasing in absolute number, the systems built in the 1970’s and 1980’s are reaching the end of their natural lives and this has created growing source of contamination to our waters. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our rivers and streams we must learn how to control pollution from these diffuse, or non-point, sources as well as maintain our water infrastructure.

Since the advent of the Clean Water Act mandating improved treatment of sewage, outbreaks of disease caused by drinking water are no longer common in the United States, but despite advances in water management and sanitation, waterborne disease outbreaks continue to occur in the U.S. and can lead to serious acute, chronic, or sometimes fatal health consequences. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data from all the states on waterborne diseases. From 1971 to 2002, there were 764 documented waterborne outbreaks associated with drinking water, resulting in 575,457 cases of illness and 79 deaths. The symptoms of water borne disease often include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever. It is no uncommon to mistake a case of water related disease for “food poisoning” or a “24-hour stomach virus.” Contaminated water can often look, smell and taste fine. Not all water borne diseases are recognized as such or reported to the CDC.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) believes the true impact of disease is much higher. Research done at the NIH indicate that 10,700 infections and 5, 400 illnesses occur each year in populations served by community groundwater systems; 2,200 infections and 1,100 illnesses occur each year from private wells; and 26,000 infections and 13,000 illnesses occur each year in municipal surface water systems. In recent years, the proportion of outbreaks in the federally regulated public water systems has declined, although these still contribute the majority of outbreak-associated illnesses. Inadequately maintained or constructed private wells and plumbing systems continue to cause illness in growing numbers. In addition, the aging water infrastructure and drinking water distribution system are suspected to be a growing source of water borne disease outbreaks, and are the cause of the familiar "boil water notices" which seem to become more common in our cities. We cannot continue to ignore water and sanitation system repair, replacement, maintenance and improvement and expect to have on demand clean water.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mandatory Water Conservation in California

For the first time in its history California has instituted mandatory water use restrictions. After three years of below-normal rainfall, California is currently facing its third most severe drought in recorded history; however, water usage in California is significantly higher than in previous droughts, the rainy season has finished, and the drought continues with no end in sight. Currently, all the water reservoirs in California are at less than half their capacity.

Last January Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and called for voluntarily water conservation, hoping to cut use in the urban and suburban water districts by 20%; unfortunately by May it was clear that voluntary measures had produced only a 5% savings. So, on Tuesday, the California State Water Resource Control Board approved an emergency regulation to force water agencies and urban state residents to increase their water conservation.

The new water conservation regulation primarily reduces outdoor urban water use. The regulation, adopted by the State Water Board, mandates minimum actions for water agencies and consumers to conserve water supplies both for this year and into 2015. Most Californians (like most residents of arid states) use more water outdoors than indoors, up to 50% of daily water use is estimated to be for lawns and outdoor landscaping.

Under the emergency regulation, all Californians will be required to stop: washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle, and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated. The regulation makes an exception for health and safety circumstances.

The larger water supplier’s agencies will be required to activate their Water Shortage Contingency Plan to a level where outdoor irrigation restrictions are mandatory and track progress towards their conservation goals. In smaller communities where no water shortage contingency plan exists, the regulation requires that water suppliers either limit outdoor irrigation to twice a week or implement other comparable conservation actions.

“We are facing the worst drought impact that we or our grandparents have ever seen,” said State Water Board Chairperson Felicia Marcus. “And, more important, we have no idea when it will end. This drought’s impacts are being felt by communities all over California. Fields are fallowed; communities are running out of water, fish and wildlife will be devastated. The least that urban Californians can do is to not waste water on outdoor uses. It is in their self-interest to conserve more, now, to avoid far more harsh restrictions, if the drought lasts into the future. These regulations are meant to spark awareness of the seriousness of the situation, and could be expanded if the drought wears on and people do not act.”


from UC Davis-dry irrigation systems
This past spring water allocations to farmers and ranchers were reduced based on priority of water rights. The University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences study released Tuesday found that the current drought has resulted in the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water allocated for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third. Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% of the delivered water in California, which produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. As farmers have shifted to higher value horticultural and orchard crops, they have adopted more efficient irrigation technologies to stretch their water allocations, but have grown more dependent on groundwater to ensure the survival of orchards. Groundwater pumping is expected to replace a significant portion of the river water losses, with some areas more than doubling the amount of groundwater used from last year.

More than 80% of this groundwater pumping occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin. California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, much of it from the central valley of California where three crops a year can be grown and crop production is only limited by the amount of water delivered for irrigation, the groundwater is used to increase irrigation waters making up an estimated of 30% of water for irrigation in a “normal” year. The groundwater aquifer is predominately non-renewable.

So much water has been pumped that the land above the aquifer has subsided and can never recover. The water level in these aquifers has fallen hundreds of feet in the past few generations and according to the UC Davis report cannot be sustained. According to Jay Lund the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences to ensure that there is groundwater to carry the region thought future droughts we need to properly manage this resource. California is the only state without a framework for groundwater management.
from UC Davis- Orchards left to die

Monday, July 14, 2014

Is Organic Food Healthier?


A new meta-analysis of the benefits of organic food was released July 11, 2014 open source by the authors and will be published in the British Journal of Nutrition on Tuesday. The study from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom team included one American, Charles M. Benbrook an agricultural economist from Washington State University. The study looked at 343 peer-reviewed publications comparing the nutritional quality and safety of organic and conventional plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and grains. The study team applied the most current meta-analysis techniques to quantify differences between organic and non-organic foods.

According to Dr. Benbrook the researchers found that (1) organic crops have, on average, higher levels of antioxidant than conventional crops (on average 17% higher), (2) organic crops have lower cadmium levels than conventional crops, and (3) pesticide residues are present much more frequently in conventional crops than organic ones. Whether these findings would translate into better health outcomes from the long term consumption of organic food is not known. There have never been long-term dietary intervention studies on organic food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.

While there have been studies that have found an association between some antioxidants and decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, there is no evidence of a causal link. According to Dr. Benbrook antioxidants protect our cells against the effects of oxidation. While oxidation is a normal chemical process that takes place in the body, it can be accelerated by many factors, such as exposure to UV light, exposure to pollution, stress, processed food, and smoking. The oxidation process can trigger the formation of free radicals, which can damage cells in the body and trigger diseases.

A Stanford University meta-analysis study published in 2012 found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

There are health and environmental risks associated with pesticide exposure. Even at low doses, pesticides can act as an endocrine disruptor and can pose development risks to infants and children. Developmental and other health risks are higher for infants and growing children, because children eat more relative to their body weight than adults, and a child’s organs are less efficient in detoxifying pesticides than adults. Exposure to pesticides for women and men of reproductive age can undermine reproductive health and may increase the risk of spontaneous abortions, certain birth defects, and undermine long-term neurological health of the child. In addition, pesticides can impact the environment and other animals.

Organic food sales in the United States have grown to more than $28 billion in 2012. Traditionally, before the government stepped in to regulate the market, organic foods were grown under “natural conditions” (without the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides; and either not processed, or processed without the use of additives) there is now an industrial organic food complex. You may think that you intuitively know what organic means; however, under standards adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. (USDA) in 2000 there is a legal definition. Organic food is food grown, raised and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods. In addition, the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. Food whose ingredients are at least 95% organic by weight may carry the "USDA ORGANIC" label; products containing only organic ingredients are labeled 100% organic. So now you have certified organic processed junk food.

However, organically produced food is not entirely free of pesticide residues. A large, high-quality U.S. Department of Agriculture database reports pesticide residues in several dozen organic and conventionally grown foods on an annual basis. A study was performed to evaluate the presence of synthetic pesticides in Organic food and found while organic food significantly reduces pesticide exposure, organic farming does not eliminate pesticide risk. Risk levels arising from pesticide residues in organic food differ by over 1,000-fold, with most posing very modest risks and a limited number associated with possibly worrisome exposure levels.

Most pesticides in organic food tested by the USDA were detected at very low levels and were assumed to be incidental and inadvertent from pesticide drift, pesticide carry over in soil, contaminated compost or organic soil amendments, and contamination of irrigation water. Drift is a widely recognized environmental problem. Aerial application, air blast sprayers, and micro-droplets are application technologies that increase the risk of drift from conventional crops. Legacy contaminants in soil were another cause of pesticides, and without testing the soil it is not possible to predict what levels of contaminants will occur in crops. Not much can be done in the immediate future about legacy contaminants, although organic farmers can avoid problems by planting crops not prone to the uptake of legacy chemicals bound to the soil. More than a third of the pesticide contamination was found to be caused by post-harvest pesticides picked up when the food was processed, packaged etc. Most pesticides in organic food tested by the USDA program were detected at very low levels.

Organic food offers consumers fruits, vegetables and grains that dramatically reduces dietary exposure to pesticide residue compared to industrial farming. There are low use pesticide farming practices that also reduce pesticide exposure. In addition, total antioxidant levels were a 17% higher in organic versus the conventional crops. The levels for much greater — 69% higher levels of flavanones, 28% higher levels of stilbenes, 50% higher levels of flavonols, and 51% higher levels of anthocyanins. Whether this will have any impact on long term health is not known. Also, organic foods were found to have higher levels of phosphorus, but similar levels of vitamins to conventional food. Cadmium exposure is reduced in organic food.

Putting the information together from all these studies I still believe that organic practices are good for the planet, but so are modern conservation farming practices. I am sticking with my mix of organic and conservation farming produced food from my neighbors whose farming practices I know. I avoid distribution networks and food processing exposures to pesticides and everything is fresh.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Turning One Environmental Disaster into Two

For over a week in the middle of last January Charleston, West Virginia and the surrounding communities were without drinking water due to contamination from a chemical leak. A former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM had released about 10, 000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River just a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston. MCHM is 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol an alcohol with a licorice or mint smell at extremely low concentrations, and though there are limited studies, it is believed to have relatively low toxicity.

When the MCHM leak was first discovered the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, found the MCHM above ground storage tank with a hole in it sitting within an unlined concrete block containment dike. The MCHM leaked from the tank into an unlined cinderblock containment area and then into the ground through which it began leaching into the Elk River and flowing about a mile down to the Charleston West Virginia water intake for the American Water drinking water treatment plant. The drinking water plant is not designed to remove the chemical from river water, so the “finished” water had the tell tail smell. It is not reassuring to be told that it has low toxicity when you can smell chemical contamination in your drinking water.

During the cleanup by Freedom Industries, the owner of the storage tank facility, about 700 tons of Crude MCHM-mixed with wastewater and sawdust to solidify it was removed from the site. Contaminated soil was left in place. Freedom Industries brought the MCHM contaminated waste to a sanitary landfill in Hurricane West Virginia. The landfill was owned and operated by Waste Management. In February 2014, without notifying the town of Hurricane, the West Virginia DEP Division of Water and Waste Management approved a request for a “Minor Permit Modification” to allow Waste Management to accept the wastewater at their Hurricane landfill. The permit modification granted at the time would allow the landfill to accept the MCHM, water and sawdust mixture until October of 2014.

On March 12, 2014 Inspectors from the West Virginia DEP responded to “licorice” odor complaint at the landfill in Hurricane. According to the DEP it was determined that the odor was from the approved disposal of wastewater that was being transferred to the landfill. Putnam County and the city of Hurricane, West Virginia petitioned a Kanawha County circuit judge who granted a preliminary injunction blocking the DEP from allowing Waste Management to continue to dispose of the MCHM-sawdust mixture at the landfill. By the March 15th hearing, the West Virginia DEP had modified the permit once again so that the permission to accept the MCHM contaminated waste had expired.

By all accounts about 228 tons of MCHM, wastewater and sawdust mixture was buried at the Hurricane Landfill. Now Hurricane is suing Waste Management to remove the material from the landfill because they are concerned that the MCHM will leach out of the landfill into the landfill collectors that go to a waste water treatment plant that ultimately releases to a creek that feed the Kanawha River, the source of Hurricane’s drinking water supply. The waste water treatment plant is not designed to remove MCHM from the leachate. The rest of the 700 tons of MCHM contaminated material from the original Freedom Industries site was ultimately disposed of at a hazardous waste disposal well in Vickery, Ohio.

Waste Management wants the case dismissed on a technicality and because the MCHM sawdust mixture does not meet the definition of hazardous waste under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the disposal was done under permit.

MCHM will continue to appear in the Charleston drinking water as it continues to leach into the Elk River from the contaminated soil that remains at that site. A month after the first incident in Charleston, MCHM was once more detected in the cities’ water supply and forced a closing of Charleston schools. Now Hurricane, West Virginia is waiting for MCHM to appear in their drinking water supply.

These rivers are the source of the drinking water supplies for over 300,000 people, old, young, healthy, sick, and pregnant- the entire spectrum. Now, there is the potential that both communities with have their drinking water impacted by chronic long term extremely low level exposure to MCHM for years. These were absolutely the wrong decisions. Public concern is very real, whether or not the MCHM mixture meets the definition of hazardous waste. That sawdust mixture should have been incinerated for a permanent solution and the tank or tanks should have been removed from the Freedom Industries site and along with all the contaminated soil to be remediated at a different site away from a drinking water supply. Moving contamination from one site to another is not remediation. Incineration, remediation or disposal at a hazardous waste disposal site would have been far more appropriate than using the town sanitary landfill. In the United States the purity of our public water supplies is sacred.