Friday, May 21, 2004

Landmark Water Pact Is Expected

As we enter the age of limits, tradeoff will be the order of the day. Initially these will be painful as we have been living beyond the land's carrying capacity. Only over time, as human society returns to a harmony with nature, will the tradeoffs be routine and normal.

The water situation in the American southwest, where we have built both cities and farms in the middle of a desert, will be one of the early test cases of how these tradeoffs will work.

An agreement in Southern California proposes to pay farmers to take land out of production so that irrigation water could be diverted to urban users. The tradeoff is lower agricultural production--although letting the land lay fallow may in the long run prevent soil degredation.

The farmers, customers of an irrigation district in Riverside and Imperial counties, could collect an estimated $100 million over 35 years so that Colorado River water once reserved for growing crops could be routed to agencies serving 18 million Southern Californians.

The MWD's agreement with the Palo Verde Irrigation District would set up the biggest long-term transfer to date of agricultural water to urban use in the Western United States, Dennis Underwood, the MWD's vice president of Colorado River resources, said Monday.

The MWD's board of directors is expected to approve the final terms of the deal today and start signing up farmers as soon as next month, district officials said. Water transfers could begin as early as August.

The agreement with the 100,000-acre irrigation district could involve up to 111,000 acre-feet of water annually. An acre-foot is enough to supply two single-family homes in California for a year.

If they sign up, farmers would get payments high enough to ensure that they would make more money than they would harvesting the alfalfa, hay, cotton and grains that grow in the hot, arid region along the Arizona border covered by the irrigation district.

"This works out for all," said Underwood. "You don't lose prime agriculture land, you don't change land ownership and you don't change water rights."

Farmers are typically fearful of the economic effect of letting land lie fallow, and they have been reluctant to give up water rights. Water is their livelihood, and the farmers in the region have a historical claim to it. The eastern edge of Riverside County is where the first water rights for the Colorado River in California were filed by Thomas Blythe — after whom the area's main town is named — in 1877.

But the farmers in the Palo Verde district have become accustomed to the idea in the three years it has taken to craft an agreement between their water agency and the MWD.

"We think this is going to be good for our valley and our farmers," said Jill Johnson, a fifth-generation Blythe farmer whose family tends 1,500 acres of alfalfa and wheat.

Johnson said rotating acreage under cultivation would be good for the soil, and that this program gave farmers the ability to leave ground fallow without losing revenue.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

270 cows generating electricity for farm

270 cows generating electricity for farm
Methane digester also breaks down waste

Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004

After 25 years of persistent work, Marin County rancher Albert Straus has figured out a way to run his dairy farm, organic creamery and electric car from the manure generated by his herd of 270 cows.

Cheered on by a small gathering of engineers, environmentalists and fellow farmers, Straus stepped into a utility shed Thursday, switched on a 75- kilowatt generator, then stepped outside to snip the ribbon spanning a spanking-new electrical panel.

On the panel, an electricity meter began running backward, indicating that power originating from a nearby poop-filled lagoon near the town of Marshall was feeding into PG&E's electric power grid.

"Well," said Straus, with an understated shrug, "that was exciting."

But for Straus, as well as for many of the spectators, switching on the farm's new $280,000 methane digester system was not just a personal milestone -- it signaled an environmental breakthrough for the state's dairy industry.

While the technology for farm-based methane production has been around for two decades, economics and resistance from the utility industry have prevented all but a handful of California farmers from transforming their animal waste into energy.

While there are 1,950 commercial dairies in operation in California -- which leads the nation in the production of milk and cheese -- and nearly 2 million dairy cows, Straus' methane digester is only the fifth now operating in the state.

But thanks to two pieces of recent legislation, 13 additional methane systems are now under construction, and renewable-energy advocates predict that scores more are sure to follow. The Straus project is the first of 14 methane projects to receive matching funds from the California Energy Commission, one result of the rolling blackouts that plagued the state during the summer of 2001.

"There was an emergency session (of the state Legislature) to create fixes to the energy problem," said Mike Marsh, president of Western United Dairymen. "One thing they funded was renewable energy in the form of methane digesters."

A $10 million pool of matching funds for farmers wishing to install methane digesters was created that year, followed in 2003 by a law allowing utilities to set up "net metering" agreements with small biogas generators.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

China could become world power in wind energy, Greenpeace says

China could reap enormous benefits from wind power and has the chance of becoming a world leader in the coming "energy revolution," the environmental group Greenpeace said Sunday.

"China is on the verge of a major breakthrough," Steve Sawyer, director of Greenpeace's policy and business unit, said in a statement. "If it acts now, it could be the major player in the global energy revolution."

The Greenpeace comment came as China prepares to draft its first law on the promotion of renewable energy.

Chinese officials speaking at a meeting in Beijing Saturday seemed to agree on the potential of wind energy, which, according to Greenpeace, could also help create 382,000 Chinese jobs over the next two decades.

"I have a golden dream," Xu Dingming, the top official in charge of energy at China's National Development and Reform Commission, said according to the Greenpeace statement. "Wind energy is clean, unselfish and powerful. I hope my dream comes true."

China's roaring economy demands ever-larger amounts of energy, meaning policy planners have to look either abroad or investigate alternative energy sources to meet demand.

As an indication of China's huge appetite for power, the country last year overtook Japan as the world's second-largest importer of oil after the United States.

Friday, May 14, 2004

More signs of peak oil:

Crude oil prices reached an all time high yesterday, as the benchmark US light crude rose to $41.17 a barrel, topping the record last set in October 1990 by 2 cents. Prices have been rising steadiy for months.

OPEC is considering a proposal by Saudi Arabia to lift output by 1.5 million barrels a day to help reduce the problem, but the practical effect of this is uncertain since most OPEC countries have been ignoring the OPEC quotas anyway. Opec president Purnomo Yusgiantoro said that major oil producing countries have already added an extra 2 million barrels per day - 2.5% of worldwide demand - without having an effect on prices.

The main reason for this is that rapid global economic expansion is fueling he biggest increase in world oil demand growth for 16 years. Stronger-than-expected energy consumption among industrialized nations is bolstering explosive demand growth in China resulting in the largest absolute increase in global oil demand since 1988.

On top of that, production in non-OPEC countries, which had been growing steadily, now appears to have leveled off. Statistics for total world production of oil have always been distored by the fact that the OPEC nations, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have acted as swing producers by lowering their production during times of excess supply, while non-OPEC countries have increased their production as fast as they could. In the last 10 years prodcution growth among non-OPEC countries has been steady, totalling a 16% increase. But non-OPEC production hit a peak last December and has been lowere ever since. This is a trend, which if it continues, will be of enormous importance.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Oil supply 'cannot match demand'

Signs of peak oil:

OPEc cartel president Purnomo Yusgianto said member states were already beong allowed to produce well over their quotas, yet oil prices continue to climb.

Major oil producing countries are adding an extra 2 million barrels a day without any noticeable effect on prices.

The IEA has raised its forecast for 2004 global oil demand growth to 1.95 million barrels per day, despite generally slow growth in developed economies.

But not all of this extra demand is because of consumption. Major countries are displaying another typical symptom of shortages--they are hording supplies of oil.

The US strategic petroleum reserve has been a particularly active buyer, and governments such as China and India have followed suit.

So far higher gas prices have not dampened demand in the U.S. as the economic recovery speeds up, so for now prices are likely to continue to rise.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

“Dead zones” on the rise

The number of oxygen-starved “dead zones” in coastal waters has doubled over the past decade to nearly 150 worldwide and is projected to become the greatest threat to marine ecosystems, according to a new report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP). The culprit is the 160 million tons of nitrogen dumped into the environment every year from fertilizers, sewage, and fossil-fuel burning, which are driving the growth of massive algal blooms that die and then consume oxygen. The nitrogen inputs must be scaled back through efficient fertilizer use, appropriate sanitation technologies, and scrubbing nitrogen from exhaust gases, UNEP says.

The report, released on March 31 as the first annual Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2003, highlights the fertilization of the planet as a spreading threat due to a rapidly growing and industrializing human population, says Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for UNEP. “Oxygen-starved coastal waters will worsen as developing countries expand the use of industrial fertilizers and increasing human numbers put cities on a massive growth curve, generating more sewage and exhaust gases,” he warns.

The nutrient overload, which has nearly tripled the amount of nitrogen delivered to vulnerable coastal seabeds through natural processes, generates low oxygen zones that range in sizes up to 70,000 km2, the report says. Fisheries are destroyed when oxygen concentrations drop below 2 milliliters of oxygen per liter because adult fish suffocate and their spawning habitat is ruined, says Bob Diaz, a marine biologist at the College of William and Mary and a coauthor of the report. “In the 20th century, loss of fish stocks from over-fishing was the biggest marine issue, but in the 21st century the key factor affecting fish stocks will be oxygen depletion,” he says.

Since the 1960s, the number of oxygen-depleted ecosystems worldwide has doubled every 10 years to a total of 146, the report says. Climate change could compound the problem in areas where increased rainfall flushes more nutrients into coastal waters and strengthens the stratification of the water column, which cuts off fresh oxygen inputs to bottom waters. For example, the report predicts that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels would boost Mississippi River discharge into the Gulf of Mexico by 20%, leading to a 50% increase in algal production, a 30–60% decrease in oxygen, and expansion of the Gulf’s dead zone.

Precision agriculture, matching fertilizer applications to plant needs, and removing nitrogen from exhaust gases of power plants and cars are part of the solution, Nuttall says. Sustainable sanitation, composting toilets, and biological sewage treatment systems are a must, especially in light of the UN’s goal to halve the number of people without hygienic sanitation by 2015, he adds.

Nutrient loads have dropped in some watersheds, revealing long lag times prior to recovery, says Don Boesch, oceanographer at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. For instance, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, farmers couldn’t afford fertilizers, and nitrogen concentrations at the mouth of the Danube River dropped by half. In 1996, five years after inputs were cut, the dead zone in the Black Sea did not recur for the first time since the 1970s, he says. Boesch predicts that global international treaties will be the next tool to rein in human acceleration of the nitrogen cycle.

Once again, corporate farming is destroying the world; it is not a sustainable form of agriculture.

Friday, May 07, 2004

A number of recent reports have documented the rising temperature of the atmosphere and the effects that it is having on local climates.
New data 'confirms' global warming reports that scientists have found compelling new evidence for global warming, finally demolishing the argument of sceptics who have denied the phenomenon is real. New analysis of satellite data has revealed that temperatures in a critical part of the atmosphere are rising much faster than previously thought, strengthening the worldwide consensus that the earth is warming up. The findings, details of which are published today in the journal Nature, provide one of the final pieces of proof that global warming is taking place and that it is a human phenomenon.

At the same time A NASA satellite has captured record-breaking temperatures in Southern California, showing land that had baked to 70° Celsius just a day before the season's first wildfires ignited.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), which measures 36 bands of radiation from infrared to ultraviolet, snapped the image on Sunday when the Aqua satellite it flies on passed overhead. Aqua and its complementary satellite, Terra, image the entire planet every one to two days.

Temperatures in the air reached 40° C in Long Beach, nearly twice the city's average. The heat wave was exacerbated by a high pressure system falling north rather than south of the state, which brought in winds from deserts east of California.

In Arizona, the climate changes are changing the forests forever. Forget talk of global warming and speculation of what it might do in 50 years, or 100. Here and across the West, climate change already is happening. Temperatures are warmer, ocean levels are rising, the snowpack is dwindling and melting earlier, flowers bloom earlier, mountain glaciers are disappearing and a six-year drought is killing trees by the millions.

Outside Cody, Wyo., an entire forest has been killed by the drought and beetles. "It used to be a nice spruce forest," said Kurt Allen, a Forest Service entomologist. "It's gone now. You're not going to get those conditions back for 200 or 300 years. We're really not going to have what a lot of people would consider a forest."

In the southwest, global warming may be combining with a return to more natural climate conditions, with disastrous results. Scientists who study tree rings and ocean temperatures say, the development of the modern urbanized West — one of the biggest growth spurts in the nation's history — may have been based on a colossal miscalculation. That shift is shaking many assumptions about how the West is run. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the states that depend on the Colorado River, are preparing for the possibility of water shortages for the first time since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930's to control the river's flow. The top water official of the Bush administration, Bennett W. Raley, said recently that the federal government might step in if the states could not decide among themselves how to cope with dwindling supplies, a threat that riled local officials but underscored the growing urgency.

Some of the biggest water worries are focused here on Lake Powell, the vast blue diamond of deep water that government engineers created in one of the driest and most remote areas of the country beginning in the 1950's. From its inception, Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest artificial lake, after Lake Mead in Nevada, was a powerful symbol across the West. Some saw it as a statement of human will and know-how, others of arrogance.

Powell, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, has lost nearly 60 percent of its water and is now about the size it was during the Watergate hearings in 1973, when it was still filling up. White cliffs 10 stories high, bleached by salts from the lake and stranded above the water, line its side canyons. Elsewhere, retreating waters have exposed mountains of sediment.

In the Pacific Northwest an unusually dry spring has melted snowpack in Washington's mountains and throughout the West at a troubling rate, causing heightened concern for drought conditions and forest fire danger, according to government officials and climate experts.

This week's snowpack measurements in the Cascades show little or no snow in areas that usually have several inches, hydrologists say. While it may give hikers a jump on the season, it does not bode well for water supplies, stream flows, fish, agriculture or forests, many say.

"It is extremely dry out there. The level of concern is very high," said Todd Myers, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, charged with fighting fires on state and private lands.

Throughout the country the impact of global warming is already being felt. "We see an increase in overall precipitation of 5 to 10 percent over the past century, but the increase is especially prominent since the 1970s," said Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, N.C.

"But then if you look more closely at how precipitation is coming about, what we're seeing is that the increase is coming primarily through an increase in frequency and intensity of heavy and very heavy precipitation events," Karl said.

The increase in severe storms has been particularly dramatic in farm states _ Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin _ raising the potential for increased soil erosion and storm-water runoff from cropland.

"You hear a lot of stories from farmers and others that there has been a lot more damage _ 'This storm washed out my gullies' or 'This storm broke my terraces,' " said Craig Cox, executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

There has also been a marked increase in Atlantic hurricanes since the mid-1990s. From 1944 and 1996, there were an average of 9.8 hurricanes or tropical storms a year. But between 1995 and 2002, the average was 13.3. Last year, there were 16 named storms.

Some of the most dramatic effects have been on northern lakes. Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, for example, started dropping in 1997 and have experienced their greatest decline in the shortest time since record-keeping began in 1860. Greater evaporation is believed to be the primary cause.

Lake Michigan levels are now 4 feet below normal and shipping has been severely hindered. Marinas have had to dredge to keep boats afloat and nuclear-power plants have had to extend their pipes to reach water for cooling.

In New England, Lake Champlain freezes over an average of eight days later in the winter than it did a century ago. Between 1815 and 1950, the lake failed to freeze over completely only six times; since 1950 it has failed to freeze more than 25 times.

Global warming is making itself felt in many great and small ways. Time is growing short to do anything about it.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Water crisis as Mexico City sinks faster than Venice

Perhaps nowhere is the physical evidence of overpopulation's effects as obvious as in Mexico City. When it was the capital of the Aztec empire, it was set on a broad inland lagoon. Today, not only is the lake dried up, but the city is pumping water from its underground aquifers so fast that the whole city is sinking by a foot a year.

Mexico City's underlying aquifer is now collapsing at a staggering rate beneath the streets. While Venice slips into the Adriatic at a fraction of an inch each year, Mexico City is lurching downwards by as much as a foot a year in some areas. Over the past century, it has dropped 30ft.

Chugging the equivalent of one Olympic-sized swimming pool full of water every minute, the city's strained aquifers are dragging much of the capital's rich heritage down with them, while the 20 million residents face problems that include water-borne diseases, power outages and the threat of riots.

The result of a head-on collision between booming demand and finite resources, Mexico City provides a sneak preview of a situation that the United Nations warns could become widespread in coming decades as the world's mega-cities continue to grow unchecked and unplanned. Unesco claims that up to seven billion people from 60 countries could suffer water shortages by 2050. ...

The first strains began to show with massive migration in the 1940s; the capital began swallowing up one satellite town after another as it grew by 7 per cent a year. Faced with shortfalls as the underlying sand and clay aquifers failed to keep pace with demand, city authorities tapped into two neighbouring river systems at a massive cost.

The city now has five pumping stations working around the clock to draw water vertically three-quarters of a mile from the neighbouring Cutzamala River basin and from the lower catchment area of the River Lerma. Paying about $50,000 (£28,000) a day in water rights alone, the system consumes the same amount of electricity as Puebla, a city of 1.3 million people to the south-east.

Now comprising 350 neighbourhoods packed into a smog-wreathed metropolitan area more than twice the size of greater London, the city swills a massive 10.5 million gallons of water each day.

Used by residentsand by water-intensive industries such as beer brewing and soft-drink bottling, the ever-expanding metropolis's supplies are again running short. ...

Below street level, the ongoing subsidence is wreaking havoc with the water distribution and drainage systems. The city's 8,300-mile network of water pipes routinely fracture, losing up to 40 per cent of potable water supplies, according to some estimates. The city's sewage used to drain away by gravity towards a far-off outflow in the Gulf of Mexico but now needs to be first pumped uphill before it can be drained.