We all turn the faucet handle and know that water will undoubtedly come cascading out, but it important to note that water sustainability has risen to the top of the planet’s current environmental issues.
Several factors play into the vulnerabilities of water’s future. One is the sheer increase in demand for water as the planet’s population continues to grow. Not only is the population growing, but the demands for modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and modern irrigation have also increased. Secondly, climate change has increased the amount of water that is evaporated into the atmosphere. Changing climates have made the quantity and quality of planet’s water less predictable. Floods and droughts are anticipated to become more common. Lastly, many municipal water infrastructures are simply outdated. Out of date systems are not expected to handle the increased demands for water delivery and are extremely inefficient.
Despite all of the doom and gloom predictions, there are several things that can be done to keep water a sustainable resource. Many of the measures that can be taken start with residential end users, like you.
The Water Research Foundation conducted a comprehensive study in which it sampled households in 14 North American cities to come up with an accurate portrait of water used. The results of the study exposed that 61% of water is used indoors for things like laundry, the toilet, and showers. The remaining use was split 29% outdoors and 10% to leaks. Overall, the average American home uses approximately 255 gallons of water per day.
Indoor usage can be decreased through simple and inexpensive measures like decreasing shower length, ensuring loads of laundry are appropriately sized, and turning the faucet off when not in direct use. Residents can take conservation a step further by upgrading their appliances to energy star appliances and low flush toilets. Outdoor usage also has several solutions. Residents can simply choose climate appropriate landscaping that will require minimal watering. Several irrigation systems that conserve water can be installed including systems that collect and reuse rainwater as well.
The 10% of water usage resulting from leaks does not have as obvious solutions. Most leaks are not as simple as a dripping faucet and homeowners are unaware that they exist. Other larger leaks are in the water system infrastructure and are not easy to identify or fix.
The biggest issue in getting residents on board with water conservation efforts is, frankly it doesn’t pay. Residents spend quite a bit of money on upgraded appliance or irrigation systems for the yard and will see little financial incentive in doing so. It takes years to break even on the investment. Furthermore, many residents may want to make the switch, but cannot afford to do so. Still others don’t want to be inconvenienced by lifestyle changes.
Another step toward conserving water includes implementing environmental regulations. These regulations range from creating standards of plumbing and appliance efficiency to bans on water usage during periods of drought. Government reimbursement programs for water efficient construction, appliances, or agricultural techniques can also encourage change. While government regulation has had relatively successful results in many communities, residents are weary of the additional oversight into their lives.
Students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) recently made a bold statement to bring the current environmental issue of land pollution and the importance of sustainability to the general campus population. Student groups like the UCF Student Government Association did so by dumping approximately 200,000 plastic bottles into the campus reflecting pond. Students normally enjoy the Florida sun in between classes or to eat lunch were shocked at the sight. The thousands of plastic bottles immediately got students talking, and more importantly asking questions.
Members of the Student Government Association were on location to answers any questions and concerns about what was going on. They hoped to raise awareness about recycling efforts, but also wanted to introduce students to the concept of sustainability. The visual representation really demonstrated the effect that each and every bottle consumed can have on the environment. While plastic bottles offer convenience and mobility, the sad truth is the majority of them will not be recycled, but rather trashed to end up in a landfill, or worse littered only to end up wherever the wind blows them.
Environmental groups at UCF have been planning the event for quite some time and chose April to execute the plan since it is Earth Month. The groups worked with the University’s housekeeping service and gathered all of the plastic bottles. Overall, about 100 volunteers picked through the school’s trash until they had enough bottles to really make a splash.
The hope is that students will take the knowledge of sustainability that they gain and take it with them well after graduation. Students who wished to sign a pledge, promising to lead a greener lifestyle were able to. They received a reusable grocery bag, refillable water bottle, and t-shirt for the taking the pledge.
At the end of the day, all 200,000 plastic bottles were collected and recycled properly.
In a shining example of positive environmental management, innovative members of the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) developed a completely sustainable method for preventing ocean water contamination from polluted water runoff.
After the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered UCSD to devise a plan to reduce the amount of water-borne pollution that enters the La Jolla beach water, the university defied expectations. The system they developed has proven to significantly lower the pollution levels found in the water.
The pollution control system uses no energy. In fact, it is not even noticeable to the average passerby. David Goldberg, who is a civil engineer and Awards Committee chair for the American Public Works Association says, “ The main features the public notices are these visually appealing bioswales, walls, and other attractive andscaping enhancements, but civil engineers are most impressed with the sophisticated system of water-diversion structures, pollution-prevention controls, and erosion and sediment controls covering more than 30 acres.”
UCSD’s system includes four large “media filters” which absorb a number of minerals and pollutants, and break down petroleum products and “native plants used in landscaping features called bioswales” which remove silt and pollution from surface runoff.
One of La Jolla’s major water pollution contributors was dry weather runoff, which is basically water that does not come from rain, but from manmade sources like “car washes, landscape irrigation, street washing, dewatering during construction activities and natural groundwater seepage that discharges to the storm drains system.” (city of LA website)
The landscaping and water diversion structures built by UCSD effectively prevent the runoff from ever reaching the ocean which has not only helped create a safer, more attractive beach, but has also helped save many species
of the native aquatic life that call the area home.
This low maintenance, energy free system would make a great model for any other area that deals with the problem of wet and dry weather runoff contaminating its bodies of water. The idea of striving for an all encompassing and efficient solution to pollution is one that should be replicated by other environmental groups with the authority to make change.
This past Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court made the playing field a little more level for property owners who take issue with EPA orders related to the Clean Water Act. In what is sure to be a much-discussed current environmental issue, property owners were found to “have a right to prompt review by a judge of an important tool used by the Environmental Protection Agency to address water pollution,” said Mark Sherman, of the Associated Press.
The unanimous ruling makes it more affordable and more reasonable for the small guy to perform legal due diligence. Prior to the decision, most people or small organizations were unable to defend themselves in court against the regulatory agency because doing so put them at risk of fines reaching $30,000 per day.
The suit was brought on by Mike and Chantell Sackett, a couple from Idaho that purchased property in 2005 near lovely Priest Lake. The Sacketts began to build a new home on that land until 2007, when the EPA stepped in and halted all work after claiming the property sat on wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act.
Mr. and Mrs. Sackett argued that as the law stood, there was no way they could have taken the time to perform necessary property research without incurring devastating fines.
The Secketts, and many others who supported their case, were thrilled with the ruling. The court affirmed, “that we have rights, and that the EPA is not a law unto itself,” they said in a statement.
It is important to note that the Supreme Court decision does not mean that the Sacketts win against the EPA in the wetlands case. The ruling simply makes it easier for them, and others in their situation, to “contest EPA compliance orders issued under several environmental laws,” explained Sherman.
A current environmental issue has been talked about more lately because of the sheer unfairness of it all. The EPA has been dogged in its attempts to hold the parties guilty of water contamination and land pollution responsible for their actions. One segment of the pollution population, former lead smelter companies slips through the EPA’s clutches through bankruptcy or reorganization, and the taxpaying public gets stuck footing the bill.
One such example is common around many parts of the United States. Alison Young, of USA Today explains:
Several [Philadelphia] companies manufactured lead for more than 140 years at a massive factory surrounded by homes in the city’s Port Richmond area: John T. Lewis & Bros., National Lead, Anzon and others. The factory is long gone, and tests show dangerous levels of lead in nearby yards— putting children at risk of being poisoned by playing in the dirt. Yet if homeowners want their yards to be made safe, it’s up to them— not the companies or government— to pay the costs replacing contaminated soil or capping it with cement. That’s the message residents say the Environmental Protection Agency delivered at neighborhood meetings this year.
Lisa Conway, a resident who attended the meetings, said, “That was 100% clear— that it was on us.”
Many of the people who own homes in areas surrounding the smelter sites have had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a complete remediation, where the contaminated soil is removed, or with other methods such as capping or even simply installing turf on top of the lead-laced soil.
The problem, a USA Today investigation revealed, is that these companies that operated for many decades, sometimes longer than a century, have become “Ghost Factories,” that stopped performing the lead production. But still others are in business today in other locations under different corporate names.
Another problem, the investigation turned up was “even when companies were intact and could have been held responsible, government regulators failed to act in time.”
Many times, the sites that these factories sit on never get cleaned up at all. They sit there with no funds earmarked to remediate them and no entity claiming responsibility to do so. This is the most unsettling outcome, since left-over lead residue has been known for decades to cause numerous health problems in humans.
According to Young’s article, “Left undisturbed, lead dust can remain on the surface of soil for hundreds of years, posing a risk of reduced IQ and other health problems when children ingest even tiny amounts by putting dusty hands or toys in their mouths.”
When asked about the situation, the EPA explained that they can only go after companies if “it can demonstrate they have liability under the federal Superfund law, which provides the agency the authority to address environmental hazards.”
The companies who worked with lead over the past century have become or hired legal experts that have successfully shielded most of them from bearing any of the enormous costs of cleaning up lead pollution.
We have all heard the expression that for every action made, there are consequences to follow. One unexpected example of this chain reaction was the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision to reduce and ultimately end the addition of trans fat to most American foods. The addition of trans fat into the American diet became a popular trend in order to decrease the amount of saturated fats consumed and ultimately improve consumer health. The hydrogenated oils in trans fat also made food last longer on shelves. In recent decades a startling link between heart disease, high cholesterol, and other health disorders has been linked to the consumption of trans fats. The FDA’s latest efforts have been focused on going back to the use of more natural saturated fats, which turn out to be much healthier in moderation. The decision has left food manufacturers scrambling to find a comparable alternative. One substitution proving popular is palm oil.
The use of palm oil as a substitution for trans fat in the American food industry may result in devastating consequences and is becoming a dangerous current environmental issue. The increased demand for the oil could lead to mass deforestation of the lush jungles of both Malaysia and Indonesia, the two nations currently exporting the majority of the world’s palm oil. The demand has already increased as food companies began to decrease the use of trans fat due to its unhealthy reputation. From 2006 to 2008 the export of palm oil went from 500,000 metric tons to 1 million metric tons. Many palm oil farmers responded to this demand by using “slash & burn” techniques to clear entire forests to make room for more crops. Carbon dioxide rich peat lands are also being drained to make room for more palms. This deforestation has further endangered already endangered animal species. Rain forests like the ones facing destruction are an important source of air quality maintenance, they serve as the planets lungs, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Indonesian palm plantations have increased an estimated eight times over the past twenty years, meaning there is eight times less natural forest.
There is little to no regulation of palm oil farmers either. When a forest is burned or a peat land is drained there are no laws to prevent farmers from doing so. Furthermore, there is no agency to enforce environmental regulations, which means there are no legal repercussions for devastating the local environment. The World Wildlife Fund is beginning to monitor the situation closely. Many environmental groups, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), suggest that the best way to combat deforestation is for consumers to boycott the purchase of products containing palm oil that are not marked as environmentally friendly. They also suggest that the companies purchasing palm oil for their food have the power to demand higher quality standards.
Critics argue that there will be no mass increase on palm oils as a substitute for trans fats, since most food companies have already ceased using trans fat over the past decade after public disapproval and health concerns. They also state that palm oil is not the best substitution since it is still a saturated fat, two words that consumers are weary of. Whether there will be an increased demand of palm oil or not, the President of Indonesia feels that there is a unique opportunity to better the nation’s economy and has proposed that the nation doubles its palm oil production by 2020.
Water contamination due to pharmaceuticals has become a major current environmental issue in recent years. The contamination is a result of the increased number of drugs that human beings consume and flushed down the toilet as waste. The drugs enter the water table since they are often not removed in the standard water treatment process. One group of researchers in Sweden decided to study the effects that anti anxiety medication exposure would have on the Eurasian Perch.
The Swedish group tried to look at the experiment with a fresh perspective, not assuming that the exposure to contaminated water would be detrimental to the perch. They accomplished this by changing the variables in the study. First, instead of using lab bred fish in perfect health that would have near perfect survival rates they decided to use both two year old wild fish that had no exposure to pharmaceuticals as well as unexposed eggs.
Researchers then exposed half of the young fish and half of the eggs to oxazepam, a popular anti anxiety medication. Many of the young fish and eggs did not survive from both the control and non control groups. This was expected as mortality rates are high in the wild. The perch exposed to the anti anxiety pharmaceutical surprisingly ended up having a higher rate of survival than the control group.
The explanation for such unexpected findings is due to behavioral changes in the exposed fish. The fish exposed to oxazepam were much more aggressive, more active, and spent much more time alone. It is believed that the anti anxiety medication cause the perch to be much less stressed and therefore much more brave. They then felt unafraid to venture out alone and spend more time finding food. The well fed fish were stronger and more likely to survive. If the fish were in the wild as opposed to the laboratory setting, this bravery could prove dangerous. Lone fish would become a much easier meal for predators.
Despite the seemingly positive results of exposing fish to water contaminated with pharmaceuticals, scientist remind us that an increased perch population could be devastating to the ecosystem of a waterway. The entire food chain could be thrown off. Increased fish populations would require more food, so their prey would dwindle.
Overall, studies like these have revealed jut how little is known about how the introduction of pharmaceuticals into our waterways and how they will affect the environment. The study also shows that there are no simple results; fish are not simply dying in mass quantities making the water contamination obvious, instead evolutionary behaviors are being changed. These changes as small as they may appear can have devastating effects on a delicate ecosystem.
The United State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has responded to the Swedish study and the changes that were made to the control group in the research process. While the EPA believes the findings are interesting they do not feel making significant changes to the way in which research is conducted would be appropriate based on one study.
The sunshine state is taking a new stance on sustainable energy by investing in solar energy. The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) has put forth a major effort to build a large solar plant on the site of a defunct coal burning plant. The site would include thousands of solar panels over about 30 acres of land. Half of the panels would be placed where the coal plant once stood. The other half would be built on a hill nearby that was formed from decades of coal ash waste.
The Orlando Utility Commission states that this solar project is just one of many they have planned in the near future. The OUC wishes to keep its utility crews busy building solar power plants. Florida Power & Light Co. has made a similar bid in the city of Tallahassee that would triple the amount of solar energy in the area.
The project would ultimately produce about 12 megawatts of power, which is the equivalent of power for hundreds of Floridian homes. While this is only a fraction of the energy produced by even the smallest natural gas plant, it is still a step in the right direction. The solar energy produced is also expected to cost the same rate for residents, making it an attractive option. Currently the OUC already has more than 100 customers interested in signing up for a solar energy option.
All of the momentum towards developing solar energy plants stems from The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan was instituted to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from electric companies. Rules for the Clean Power Plan are expected to be issued in the summer, so the solar plant would be a proactive step for Florida. The other driving force behind the solar energy movement is the local community’s desire to have sustainable energy, long term construction jobs, and the government’s financial incentives associated with green energy.
One of the most hotly contested current environmental issues in the U.S. is that of coal ash, also known as fly ash, and whether or not to allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate it as a toxic material. The issue especially hits home with some residents of Louisville, Kentucky, who have been dealing with health and quality of life problems for years due to their proximity to the smoke stacks and coal ash waste ponds owned by Louisville Gas & Electric.
It was always known that the coal ash had been polluting certain neighborhoods to the point that some days, families could not even go outside and play in their own yards. There was no hard proof however, until a recent study performed by Louisville Gas & Electric proved that various ground samples did in fact contain aluminum and silicon among other potentially harmful substances. The samples taken did not include the heavy metals often found in coal ash, which can include “arsenic, beryllium, boron, camium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins, and PAH compounds,” as stated in Wikipedia.com. Some coal ash is recycled and used in concrete, but much is stored in landfills. Since coal ash has been stored since the mid 1900’s when environmental rules were much less developed, it is questionable how many of those landfills were even lined.
The Air Pollution Control District is investigating whether the coal ash pollution is coming from the smoke stacks or from the nearby coal ash dump. LG & C has a permit to emit the ash from smokestacks, but if the contamination is found to be from the dump, the company may be ordered to take remedial actions.
Coal ash can be tremendously dangerous for human health. Cancer rates in some neighborhoods in proximity to LG & E’s Cane Run Power Station have skyrocketed. According to Elizabeth Irvin, a Sierra Club apprentice, the “EPA has found that people living near coal ash ponds have a risk of cancer greater than that of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Community organizers say that behind every door they knock on is someone with either cancer or kidney failure.”
LG & C has been applying for permits to add even more coal ash waste dumps. The major problem with fighting for the homeowners to take back their health and property values is that there are few rules in place and no organization with the authority to enforce what few regulations do exist. The electric industry has been lobbying tirelessly to prevent the EPA from regulating coal ash as hazardous waste, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. There is strong support from the industry to classify coal as a non-hazardous waste, but many others make the argument that doing so would let polluters off the hook to take the disposal of coal ash seriously.
The electric utility industry claims that coal ash is far from a toxic waste but for those Louisville residents whose lives have been directly affected by the substance could not disagree more.
Of all the superlatives for a state to be known for, Worst in Water Pollution is probably among the least desirable. You can probably imagine then that the folks in Indiana are less than thrilled about the title the state recently earned of “worst in nation for water pollution” by WTHR News.
The Ohio River, which flows through Indiana, is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Large corporations are blatant in their dumping of hazardous waste materials into state rivers and environmental regulations lack the bite to do anything about it.
A report by the group, Environment America, stated that “Indiana factories discharged more than 27 million pounds of pollutants into the state’s rivers and streams, the highest amount from any state.” One company alone, the AK Steel plant, “discharged 24 million pounds- more than two-thirds of the pollutants discharged into the Ohio River from the states that line the river.”
What comes as a major surprise is that although the waters of Indiana are largely polluted and unable to be used for swimming and fishing, a disturbing environmental trend is occurring. Handfuls of state lawmakers are pushing to relax the water protection laws even further, claiming they are negatively affecting the economy. “Complaints about how environmental regulations are handcuffing businesses are a common refrain from many Hoosier candidates,” read an OpEd piece in the Journal Gazette.
Some people in the state are disgusted by the blatant disregard for the health of the water. EPA official Eric Schaeffer said, “The water’s not clean and you’re adding more pollution to a body of water that’s already too dirty. I mean, what’s too difficult to understand about that?” It is clear that regulations should not become more lenient, and those that are already on the books need to be enforced to reverse this dirty environmental trend of contaminating the most valuable natural resource of all—water.