When Jim Houston was growing up, he said, “Eating was considered healthy.”
Thousands of cases of childhood obesity and millions of skipped school lunches later, school districts and nutrition experts are working together in earnest to make sure eating really does equal good health for young students.
Houston — now California’s undersecretary for food and agriculture — was at Heights Elementary School on Thursday to help celebrate “California Thursdays,” a joint project coordinated by 42 state public school districts and the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit that promotes ecological education, with the full blessing of (and in partnership with) the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
In Contra Costa and elsewhere, the school districts use their joint purchasing power to buy healthy, regionally grown food at the lowest price possible. For now an initiative to provide lunches on Thursdays, officials hope to one day expand the new healthier food to every day of the week.
On Thursday, the gym/cafeteria at Heights was serving roasted chicken drumsticks from a Fresno County producer, as well as asparagus grown on a Stockton-area farm.
Pittsburg, along with the Oakland, Mt. Diablo, Antioch, West Contra Costa, Brentwood and Oakley districts, all held celebrations Thursday of their participation in the program. Most of the 42 districts are concentrated in the Bay Area and in Southern California; Contra Costa has the most districts participating so far.
Many of those districts have used grants to help pay for kitchens and other related equipment; Pittsburg received a $100,000 grant in 2013 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Matt Belasco said Pittsburg has had that healthier emphasis for a few years and that a kitchen at each of the district’s 13 schools enables preparation of the healthy ingredients. “We’ve been a catalyst for the other districts in the county,” said Belasco, the Pittsburg district’s director of child nutrition services.
“California Thursdays” ramps up what Pittsburg already has been doing, he said, in large measure to work more area-grown produce into the menu. The “local” food aspect is touted for several reasons; it supports local and regional jobs, and shipping food shorter distances is hailed as an environmentally friendly move.
Belasco said that when Pittsburg got into full production with its kitchens, food-related jobs in the district rose from 43 to 108. Some nutrition expenses, including for the food itself, have gone down, but he said higher overall costs from hiring more workers to prepare better food are worth it.
Besides taste, a key to getting kids to eat what’s good for them, and not simply throw it in the organic recycling bin, Belasco said, is putting a human face to it. And on the walls of the Heights gym, one of those faces belongs to Stockton-area grower Dino Del Carlo, whose asparagus was being served Thursday on Heights’ salad bar. That large photo of “Farmer Dino” is there for a reason, Belasco said.
“It’s not a machine, it’s not magic. … It’s a real person producing that food.”
The bigger idea, several people said Thursday, is that kids who like their school meals are more likely to eat them and more likely to attend school in general. Better attendance begets better grades, which Sandip Kaur said in turn leads students to better colleges and better jobs.
“Kids who are well-nourished, well-fed, can give back so much more to the community,” said Kaur, director of the state Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division, also on hand at Heights on Thursday.
A handful of Heights students questioned Thursday give the school lunches thumbs up. None had ever eaten the more processed, often more fatty and sodium-laden fare on which some school districts depend.
“I like the burgers — they’re made of real meat,” said fifth-grader Terrell Pike, 11. “I like the asparagus and fruit, too; it’s real food.”
Wendy Lawrence said she’s glad Heights’ food isn’t the heat-and-eat variety.
“I wouldn’t really eat it that much if it was like that,” the 11-year-old fifth-grader said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking nominations to fill five vacancies on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Vacancies for the 15-member organic standards board include: two farmers, two consumer/public interest representatives, and one USDA accredited certifying agent. The positions are specifically designated to represent various sectors of the organic community. Appointees will serve a 5-year term of office beginning January 24, 2016.
The NOSB is an advisory committee of organic community representatives established by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The board recommends whether substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic production or handling, assists in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production, and advises the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of the organic regulations.
Written nominations, with cover letters, resumes and a required form, must be postmarked on or before May 15, 2015. Nominations can also include endorsements or letters of recommendations. All applicable information should be sent to Rita Meade, USDA–AMS–NOP, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW., Room 2648–S, Ag Stop 0268, Washington, D.C. 20250. For more information, contact Rita Meade at (202) 720-3252; e-mail: Rita.Meade@ams.usda.gov.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is announcing a comprehensive and detailed approach to support farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners in their response to climate change. The framework consists of 10 building blocks that span a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage, and generate clean renewable energy. USDA’s strategy focuses on climate-smart practices designed for working production systems that provide multiple economic and environmental benefits in addition to supporting resilience to extreme weather, reduced emissions and increased carbon storage.
Through this comprehensive set of voluntary programs and initiatives spanning its programs, USDA expects to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year – about 2% of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions – by 2025. That’s the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, or offsetting the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes last year.
USDA will use authorities in the 2014 Farm Bill to provide incentives and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners.
Specifically, USDA will encourage actions that promote soil health, improve nutrient management, and conserve and enhance forest resources on private and public lands. In addition, USDA will redouble efforts to improve energy efficiency, develop renewable energy, and use biomass both as a liquid fuel and to contribute to heating, cooling, and electric needs.
USDA’s strategy will be based on the following principles:
Voluntary and incentive-based: Farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners are stewards of the land. USDA has a track record of successful conservation though voluntary programs designed to provide technical assistance for resource management. These efforts fit within USDA’s approach of “cooperative conservation.”
Focused on multiple economic and environmental benefits: To be successful, the proposed actions should provide economic and environmental benefits through efficiency improvements, improved yields, or reduced risks.
Meet the needs of producers: This strategy is designed for working farms, ranches, forests, and production systems. USDA will encourage actions that enhance productivity and improve efficiency.
Assess progress and measure success: USDA is committed to establishing quantitative goals and objectives for each building block and will track and report on progress.
Cooperative and focused on building partnerships: USDA will seek out opportunities to leverage efforts by industry, farm groups, conservation organizations, municipalities, public and private investment products, tribes, and states.
USDA’s strategy is made of these 10 building blocks:
Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. USDA aims to increase no-till implementation from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025.
Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.
Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting, and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy, and swine operations. USDA plans to support 500 new digesters over the next 10 years, as well as expand the use of covers on 10 percent of anaerobic lagoons used in dairy cattle and hog operations.
Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. By 2025, USDA aims to enroll 400,000 acres of CRP lands with high greenhouse gas benefits, protect 40,000 acres through easements, and gain additional benefits by transferring expiring CRP acres to permanent easements.
Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock. By 2025, USDA plans to support improved grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, for a total of 20 million acres.
Private Forest Growth and Retention: Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans.
Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. USDA plans to reforest 5,000 additional post-disturbance acres by 2025.
Promotion of Wood Products: Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel. USDA plans to expand the number of wood building projects supported through cooperative agreements with partners and technical assistance, in addition to research and market promotion for new, innovative wood building products.
Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values. Working with partners, USDA plans to plant an average of 9,000 additional trees in urban areas per year through 2025.
Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program and other programs, develop additional renewable energy, bioenergy and biofuel opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost-sharing and energy audits.
Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today issued a proclamation declaring April 22, 2015 as “Earth Day” in the State of California.
Since taking office, Governor Brown has signed accords to fight climate change with leaders from Mexico, China, Canada, Japan, Israel and Peru. The Governor also issued a groundbreaking call to action with hundreds of world-renowned researchers and scientists – called the consensus statement – which translates key scientific climate findings from disparate fields into one unified message and reiterates the hazards listed below in a world under even greater threat than it was in 1992, when the “Warning to Humanity” was first issued.
In his inaugural address earlier this year, Governor Brown announced that within the next 15 years, California will increase from one-third to 50 percent our electricity derived from renewable sources; reduce today’s petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50 percent; double the efficiency of existing buildings and make heating fuels cleaner; reduce the release of methane, black carbon and other potent pollutants across industries; and manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.
The impacts of climate change are already being felt in California, and will disproportionately impact the state’s most vulnerable populations.
The text of the proclamation is below:
In 1992, some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, signed the following Warning to Humanity about the critical challenges facing the world’s environment. This document was written by the late Henry Kendall, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. On Earth Day this year, it is appropriate–indeed mandatory–that we reflect on the progress we have made in dealing with these challenges and the far greater challenges that stand in front of us.
The current drought in California is an example of the kind of human and environmental catastrophe that will increase in frequency if we do not reverse the trend of climate change caused by human activity. While we cannot say conclusively that the drought itself was caused by rising temperatures, the warmer climate exacerbates dry conditions. Wildfire, for the first time, has become almost a year-round problem in California, and the harm to watersheds could prolong the drought or increase its severity. The world would be wise to look to California, and to the words below, as a warning of what will come if we do not act immediately and concertedly to cut climate pollution and adapt to this already warmer world.
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
The environment is suffering critical stress:
Stratospheric ozone depletion threatens us with enhanced ultraviolet radiation at the earth’s surface, which can be damaging or lethal to many life forms. Air pollution near ground level, and acid precipitation, are already causing widespread injury to humans, forests, and crops.
Heedless exploitation of depletable ground water supplies endangers food production and other essential human systems. Heavy demands on the world’s surface waters have resulted in serious shortages in some 80 countries, containing 40 percent of the world’s population. Pollution of rivers, lakes, and ground water further limits the supply.
Destructive pressure on the oceans is severe, particularly in the coastal regions which produce most of the world’s food fish. The total marine catch is now at or above the estimated maximum sustainable yield. Some fisheries have already shown signs of collapse. Rivers carrying heavy burdens of eroded soil into the seas also carry industrial, municipal, agricultural and livestock waste–some of it toxic.
Loss of soil productivity, which is causing extensive land abandonment, is a widespread by-product of current practices in agriculture and animal husbandry. Since 1945, 11 percent of the earth’s vegetated surface has been degraded–an area larger than India and China combined–and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing.
Tropical rain forests, as well as tropical and temperate dry forests, are being destroyed rapidly. At present rates, some critical forest types will be gone in a few years, and most of the tropical rain forest will be gone before the end of the next century. With them will go large numbers of plant and animal species.
The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious. We are losing the potential they hold for providing medicinal and other benefits, and the contribution that genetic diversity of life forms gives to the robustness of the world’s biological systems and to the astonishing beauty of the earth itself. Much of this damage is irreversible on a scale of centuries, or permanent. Other processes appear to pose additional threats. Increasing levels of gases in the atmosphere from human activities, including carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel burning and from deforestation, may alter climate on a global scale. Predictions of global warming are still uncertain–with projected effects ranging from tolerable to very severe–but the potential risks are very great.
Our massive tampering with the world’s interdependent web of life–coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change–could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.
Uncertainty over the extent of these effects cannot excuse complacency or delay in facing the threats.
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.
Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth. A World Bank estimate indicates that world population will not stabilize at less than 12.4 billion, while the United Nations concludes that the eventual total could reach 14 billion, a near tripling of today’s 5.4 billion. But, even at this moment, one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition.
No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.
The Warning to Humanity
Five inextricably linked areas must be addressed simultaneously:
1. We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. Priority must be given to the development of energy sources matched to third world needs–small scale and relatively easy to implement. We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.
2. We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively. We must give high priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling.
3. We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
4. We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
5. We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.
The developed nations are the largest polluters in the world today. They must greatly reduce their over-consumption, if we are to reduce pressures on resources and the global environment. The developed nations have the obligation to provide aid and support to developing nations, because only the developed nations have the financial resources and the technical skills for these tasks.
Acting on this recognition is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest: whether industrialized or not, we all have but one lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are damaged. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. In addition, environmental and economic instabilities will cause mass migrations with incalculable consequences for developed and undeveloped nations alike.
Developing nations must realize that environmental damage is one of the gravest threats they face, and that attempts to blunt it will be overwhelmed if their populations go unchecked. The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty, and unrest, leading to social, economic and environmental collapse.
Success in this global endeavor will require a great reduction in violence and war. Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war–amounting to over $1 trillion annually–will be badly needed in the new tasks and should be diverted to the new challenges.
A new ethic is required–a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement; convince reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.
The scientists issuing this warning hope that the message will reach and affect people everywhere. We need the help of many.
We require the help of the world community of scientists–natural, social, economic, political;
We require the help of the world’s business and industrial leaders;
We require the help of the world’s religious leaders; and
We require the help of the world’s peoples.
We call on all to join us in this task.
NOW THEREFORE I, EDMUND G. BROWN JR., Governor of the State of California, do hereby proclaim April 22, 2015, as “Earth Day.”
IN WITNESS WHEREOF I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of California to be affixed this 21st day of April 2015.
EDMUND G. BROWN JR.
Governor of California
Secretary of State
This piece started out as a confident prescription for California’s drought ills. But when I began writing, I kept coming across things that seemed confusing or contradictory. And each time I went to the experts to clarify, they’d explode all my basic assumptions.
So instead of writing that piece, here’s a list of all the (misguided) conventional wisdom I had absorbed set right — or, at least, clarified.
California hasn’t forced agriculture to cut water use: A myth
Californians just don’t want to be suckers. When Gov. Jerry Brown told the state to cut back water use by 25 percent, he didn’t mention agriculture, and that made people suspicious. It looked to a lot of people like farms were getting a free pass. They (reasonably) thought, I don’t want to be a dupe and scrimp and save if agriculture isn’t doing the same.
So why didn’t California also demand that ag cut back?
When farmers get these cuts, they cope by pumping groundwater (which is causing problems in some places — more on this later), or buying water from people with senior water rights. But ultimately, cuts in water deliveries lead to cuts in water use. California farmers took about 5 percent of their land out of production last year, and that number will surely go up this year.
Agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water: Not the whole picture
This isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s useful to understand the nuance. Here’s how water is divvied up in California:
Dumb laws prevent the buying and selling of water: Not true any more
This was one of the conclusions of my last piece on the drought. And that was true … back in the 1970s. Back then, if you had rights to water, you had to use it or lose it, said Parker. So if you had senior water rights for a patch of rocky desert land, unsuited to growing anything, you still had an incentive to use as much of your water as you could. But that rule changed around 1980. Now, you can take that water and sell it to a city, or a farmer with great soil but little water.
This is confusing — I’d assumed that farmers were slow to adopt water conservation practices because they had cheap water from senior rights. After all, between 40 and 50 percent of farm irrigation in California is flood irrigation: You generally use little sections of curved pipe to siphon water out of a ditch, and flood the furrows between the rows of plants.
This seems wasteful, and indeed it requires a lot more water than drip irrigation. I thought that a market for water would drive otherwise wasteful farmers to adopt better techniques — but that reasoning relied on another incorrect assumption.
Farmers are wasting a lot of water: A myth
Um, not really, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
“But let’s say I’m a farmer down in the Imperial Valley,” I said. “I’ve got senior water rights from the Colorado River, and I’ve always used flood irrigation. Now that I can sell my water on the market, shouldn’t I be installing drip irrigation? I’d use a lot less water to grow my lettuce, and I could sell the rest. I make money, there’s more water to go around, everyone wins.”
“You can’t do that,” Hanak said. “Not allowed.”
Well, basically because flood irrigation is not nearly as wasteful as it looks. Yes, it takes a lot more water than other forms of irrigation, but all that extra water goes somewhere: It seeps into the ground and restores aquifers, or it flows out of the field and back into the river. So, if I sell all my water, it suddenly deprives my neighbors of my backwash, which they’ve come to rely on. Therefore, the law doesn’t allow me to sell that portion that historically passed through my field and then continued on downstream, or underground.
Aha! I thought. So this is the dumb law causing the market to fail! Get rid of this obstacle, and farmers will adopt more efficient practices, leaving us with plenty of water, right?
Wrong, Hanak said. That’s another misconception.
Farm conservation measures can free up plenty of water: One last myth
Switching from flood irrigation to a more efficient system like drip does improve water quality. And you lose less water to evaporation — but just a little bit. You can see how this works in this infographic from the Pacific Institute (don’t pay too much attention to the specific numbers, they are just rough placeholders).
The thing to pay attention to here is that the “more efficient water use” scenario, while it keeps mud and salts out of the river, doesn’t save much more water in the end.
“It’s a very small percentage lost to evaporation,” Hanak said. And in the real world, farmers actually end up using more water when they switch to efficient irrigation, she said. That’s because upgrading irrigation boosts yields: Tomatoes have been setting yield per acre records every year, because farmers have come up with better techniques based on drip irrigation. You can see the same thing going on with onions, bell peppers, and cotton. With flood irrigation, water flowsthrough farms. With drip irrigation farmers can capture more of that water and grow more food.
The end result: Irrigation upgrades increase farm productivity and profits, but also tend to increase the farm’s net water use. “Irrigation efficiency doesn’t save water for the system as a whole,” Hanak said — blowing my mind.
OK, now I know nothing. What is water even for?
Assumptions are useful things — they provide a foundation for understanding the world. The more I read and talked to experts, the less of that foundation I had left, and I found myself asking the most basic question: What is water for?
Well, it’s for drinking. That’s pretty important.
It’s for growing food — at least a bare minimum to feed ourselves.
After that, keeping fish alive and ecosystems healthy is a priority — at least for me.
But even in this historic drought, California has plenty of water left over after those uses. So then we move up the hierarchy of needs to things like lawns and golf courses, and farming as a business (beyond the subsistence level). Hey, we have some of the best growing conditions in the world; maybe we should use the rest of this water to stimulate our economy and export food like almonds.
That’s basically the way that water is divided up at this point. As climate change reduces the water stored in the snowpack, and as populations grow, there will be less water to go around. The system is already under enormous pressure — there’s not going to be a solution that will make everyone happy.
The least societally important, and least profitable use of water, I suspect, will be farming. Cities will expand, and farms will shrink. We already see that shift happening. Since 2000, farm water use has declined. A lot of that decline comes from farmers taking marginal land out of production, Hanak told me. At the same time, farm income is up: Farmers can afford to give up land because they are planting higher-value crops (like almonds) on the rest of their acreage.
What then do we do?
Most places in California have plenty of water to keep humans alive. But, there are neighborhoods in agricultural areas that have lost their drinking water because farmers with deep straws have sucked the wells dry. Some people are beginning to suffer from this classic example of the tragedy of the commons. And it’s always the poor who suffer most.
My first reaction is to look for forceful solutions: Perhaps local governments could stop giving permits to drill wells in sensitive areas. Some are trying to do that, though it can backfire, and may not hold up in court.
People like to seek villains by pointing at almonds or alfalfa (to feed cattle), but it would be nearly impossible to change water use by telling farmers what they can and can’t plant.
It seems self-evident to me that society has an urgent duty to take care of people who lose their water. But when it comes to fixing the systemic problem, it’s probably better to be patient. California communities have to set groundwater management rules by 2020. This is ridiculously late — think of all the expense and strife we could have saved if we had started managing groundwater 20 years ago. But we seem capable of making hard decisions only when we have no other choice — the challenge is to make thoughtful decisions, rather than panicked ones that we’ll regret.
The legislature could have imposed rules from above that would be in place now, but lawmakers wanted to allow the people to craft rules that were contextually appropriate. That seems wise to me. It doesn’t make sense to implement the law overnight, Hanak told me, but it would be in the best interest of many farm communities to make rules sooner rather than later — so they don’t have to wait until 2020.
Meanwhile, we should still be pushing water-conservation practices. Even if irrigation efficiency doesn’t add water to the system, it does clean up the environment, while making California’s farm economy more resilient to climate change.
Instead of taking a reductive approach and looking for a simple evil to vanquish, Brillinger said, we have to understand the system and, as Wendell Berry put it, solve for pattern. Instead of trying to solve problems with centralized, top-down control, we need rules informed by local knowledge and crafted by local water users. Instead of focusing only on big technological solutions, like desalinization plants and dams, we need to look for small-scale and biological solutions, she said. The “only” there is key: The big engineering projects could really help in the crunch times, but they’re not going to make this problem go away.
Humans faced with a crisis want to find a villain, pick a fight, and exercise quick, top-down action to bring the accused to justice. This kind of thinking may make sense in a small tribe, but it’s all wrong for a complex societal problem like California’s drought. It’s especially hard to avoid this reductive thinking when conventional wisdom is peppered with misconceptions. California may be getting drier, but we’re still awash in water myths.
Actor William Shatner plans to create a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a water pipeline from Washington-state to California.
By Michael Casey
California Gov. Jerry Brown has sounded the alarm over the state’s historic drought, warning that it will take “unprecedented actions” to solve the crisis.
That battle cry has produced a brainstorming session like no other – prompting celebrities, tech gurus, politicians and business leaders to offer a range of innovative and outlandish solutions for easing the dry stretch that is now in its fourth year and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Much of the talk has been about conserving water, plugging leaks and capturing runoff, highlighted to some degree in the state’s five-year Water Action Plan.
The first-ever statewide water restrictions, aimed at reducing water usage 25 percent, will see 50 million square feet of lawns replaced with drought-resistant plants, restaurants offering drinking water only on demand, and perhaps even golf courses letting their lush greens go brown.
But water savings alone won’t solve a problem of this size.
An analysis earlier this year from NASA satellite data concluded that the state would need 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its dry spell. That’s roughly equivalent to filling up Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, one and a half times.
And the drought is only getting worse. With the El Nino weather pattern arriving too late and too weak to help replenish water in the region after record-low snowpack this winter, much of the West is in for another year of wildfires and more dry conditions.
As a result, the talk has turned to diversifying the state’s water resources. To some degree, that has meant dusting off grandiose projects like piping in water from out of state or expanding on technologies that convert wastewater or saltwater into clean water that could be used for industrial, agriculture or even drinking purposes.
Some voices have revived talk that dates back the late 1980s of building a pipeline to deliver water from out of state. Then, it was water from Alaska. Now, it’s William Shatner of Star Trek fame proposing to raise $30 billion for plan to pipe water from Seattle.
Never mind that much of the state of Washington is also in the grips of drought.
“I want $30 billion…to build a pipeline like the Alaska pipeline,” he told Yahoo Tech. “Say, from Seattle — a place where there’s a lot of water. There’s too much water. How bad would it be to get a large, 4-foot pipeline, keep it above ground – because if it leaks, you’re irrigating!”
Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources, said neither Shatner’s plan nor anything like it is actually being considered.
“It would be cost prohibitive,” Vogel told CBS News. “Even if you could clear the environmental and legal hurdles, it runs counter to the state’s policy of reducing our reliance on imported water. We are not looking to take water from the Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest or Alaska.”
The state is, however, moving ahead with a $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan that includes the construction of two tunnels that would pump water from Northern California to the southern part of the state.
Reuse and desalination technologies seem to be gaining more traction, withdesalination garnering the most headlines of late. Technology that converts seawater into drinking water is standard fare in places like the Middle East where countries have little or no freshwater.
It has been slow to catch on the United States, mostly due to the high cost and huge amounts of energy needed to run the plants. But the drought is making the technology more politically palatable in places like California.
Poseidon Water is one of those companies already taking advantage of the changing attitudes toward unorthodox sources of water. It expects to open the biggest desalination plant in the western hemisphere later this year in Carlsbad, Calif. and is on the verge of winning approval for a smaller plant in Huntington Beach.
“Carlsbad will be a game-changer,” Poseidon’s Vice President Scott Maloni said. The plant is expected to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water each day and supply up to 10 percent of San Diego County’s water needs.
“It will open the door for desalination plants to be considered up and down the coast,” he said.
Another technology that could expand its reach in California is the reuse of everything from storm water to wastewater. Most of the projects so far involve treating the water for use in agriculture fields, cooling industrial process or refilling groundwater aquifers.
“We are only scratching the surface of this incredible resource, which could address scarcity,” Jon Freedman, vice president of government affairs for GE Water & Process Technologies, said of the technology, which he estimates produces up to 10 percent of California’s water.
Among the 35 projects that GE Water has built in the state are one in American Canyon, where 3 million gallons of municipal wastewater each day is treated and used in area vineyards and golf courses. Another system in Redlands treats 6 million gallons of wastewater for use in cooling towers of a local power company, and still another in Oakley treats 4 million gallons, which is then piped into the San Joaquin River to help replenish the delta ecosystem.
The state has not yet gone as far as Singapore, which converts wastewater into drinking water called NEWater. Parched Wichita Falls, Texas, has also given“toilet to tap” recycling a try. And California could be next.
It is drawing up a framework for potable reuse of wastewater, and several municipalities are toying with the idea. San Diego is running a pilot project to test its feasibility, and millions of Orange County residents depend on drinking water that is treated and sent to an aquifer, before being pumped through the taps.
Still, with things so desperate, some are looking even further afield to technologies that might seem more at home in an episode of “The Jetsons.”
One such proposal is something called atmospheric water generation. The technology literally strips moisture from the atmosphere, using a salt solution, and converts it into water.
“We could help dramatically with the California drought,” Abe Sher, the founder and CEO of Florida-based Aqua Sciences, which says it is talks with California and several other drought-stricken states about deploying its technology.
Until now, the company’s technology has been mostly used on a smaller scale to produce water, including at an oil facility in Saudi Arabia and after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It also is in talks with Chinese officials to deploy its machines and is considering making units for home use.
“We could scale up the technology to produce millions of gallons a day,” Sher told CBS News. “Our source is everywhere on the planet. Even in dry places, there is water in the atmosphere … And it’s actually better than bottled water.”
Another futuristic approach comes courtesy of ionization.
The Florida-based company Rain on Request has developed a system featuring a 100-foot tower and 10 satellite towers 40 feet tall that it claims could induce rainfall within a 15-mile radius. The towers send a charge into the atmosphere, “creating a polarity that is conducive to rainfall,” explains business development manager Larry Gitman. The system requires humidity in the atmosphere or a nearby water source to function.
The company says it could boost precipitation levels between 50 percent and 400 percent. However, while it says the concept has proven effective in testing, it has not yet been put into place by any municipality. An online fundraising campaign on Indiegogo fizzled, raising just a few hundred dollars toward its $1,000,000 goal.
But the company has done the math and says all California needs is 50 of its stations “to solve the drought and restore rainfall levels to the entire state.”
“We think California is perfect for the technology because it’s right along the Pacific,” Gitman told CBS News. “We are in touch with a number of water authorities in California and we are confident that we will have a system in place in the near future.”
Peter H. Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute and a leading expert on water and climate issues, said he has his doubts about some of the more far-fetched proposals.
“There is some controversy on how effective any of these technologies are,” said Gleick, who advocates reuse technologies and cutting waste as the best options for ending the drought.
“There are no shortage of ideas that might work,” he said. “There is a real shortage of ideas that are likely to be economically and politically feasible.”
Sixth-graders from Cowan Fundamental Elementary School don “Vin Vasive” masks. Vin Vasive is the main character in the USDA’s Hungry Pests program.
Sixth-graders from Cowan Fundamental Elementary School joined students at nearby Mira Loma High School in the Sacramento area this morning for an energizing and educational event built around the themes of Earth Day (April 22) and invasive species. CDFA Secretary Karen Ross applauded the students’ efforts to learn about the science behind efforts to detect and deter invasive pests and diseases.
CDFA Secretary Karen Ross thanked the students for becoming “citizen scientists” who can help protect California from invasive species.
The sixth-graders are launching a new curriculum entitled, “Hungry Pests Invade Middle School,” designed to teach students about the dangers of invasive species, how they harm our agricultural and environmental systems, and what can be done to keep them at bay.
The curriculum was developed by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and meets Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. The curriculum is multidisciplinary and includes English/language arts, history/social studies and math lessons. It is free for teachers to download at www.HungryPests.com.
The high school students have taken a hands-on approach to invasive species through their ongoing restoration project at neighboring Arcade Creek, where weeds and other invasive species are removed and replaced with native plants as students monitor and track their progress, weaving the project into their science curriculum.
Note – April has been designated as Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month by the USDA
Note – April has been designated as Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month by the USDA
I’m going to tick off a list of some popular reasons why people from all over the world dream of coming to California (besides the beaches): mild weather, amazing food, a variety of landscapes to adventure, abundant natural resources, and a richly diverse population and mix of cultures.
Now, I’m going to list a few reasons why California is a place where invasive plant pests and diseases from around the world frequently come and thrive: on second thought, skip that. It’s the same list.
Fruit flies, wood-boring beetles, weeds, disease-spreading microorganisms and a host of other troublemakers all love California for the same reasons we do.
Our mild, Mediterranean climate allows pests to alter and accelerate their breeding cycles, find nourishment year-round, and generally survive better and multiply faster than they did in their home environment halfway around the world. The abundance and year-round availability of California’s varied plant life, from its agriculture to its natural environment and manicured landscaping, is a veritable oasis for pests that might have clung to survival on a much more limited diet and a rougher climate elsewhere. Think of how you’d feel landing in San Diego after a quick December flight from the East Coast…
The extraordinary diversity of California’s population also means that our state hosts travelers from around the world on a daily basis – and some of them bring in fruits and vegetables that are infested with pests, plants from “back home” that harbor diseases previously undetected here, or even soil or leaves or other plant matter that can carry microscopic organisms, diseases, even a fungus or a tiny worm.
Once here, these pests can quickly establish a foothold in our hospitable environment. Then, without any of the usual predators or parasites that kept them in check back at home, their populations can explode and wreak havoc in our beloved California.
When it comes to water, California’s irrigated agriculture is always under the public magnifying glass because it is the largest managed water use in the state and the economic base for many rural areas. During a prolonged drought like the current one, however, crop water comes under a microscope.
We have compiled a table to help answer questions on which crops use the most water and which crops provide the most economic “pop per drop.”
The estimates are very broad because California is so diverse in crop varieties, agricultural practices and local water availability. But the numbers are still useful for comparison purposes.
Note that the amount of water applied to a crop – “gross use” – is not the same as its “net use,” as some of that water seeps underground and replenishes aquifers or is reused downstream.
Some observations about the data:
The “truck (vegetables) and horticulture (garden plants)” crop group has the highest revenue per net water use, followed by the “fruits and nuts” group. Together, these two large crop categories account for nearly 86 percent of all crop revenue, but occupy only 47 percent of the irrigated cropland and use just 38 percent of the water applied to that land.
Fruits and nuts are grown on about one-third of the irrigated cropland and use one-third of the water, but produce nearly 45 percent of the total crop revenue.
Alfalfa, corn irrigated pasture and other livestock fodder account for nearly 37 percent of all net water crop use, but produce less than 7 percent of total crop revenue. However, the ranches and dairies that depend on these foodstuffs generate more than 22 percent of California’s agricultural production value, which totaled $45 billion in 2012.
Rice fields use a lot of water but also provide important bird habitat.
Josué Medellín-Azuara is a senior researcher and Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.