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  • A Third of the World's Major Groundwater Basins are in Distress

    Two new research studies conducted by a research team comprised of scientists from the University of California, Irvine; UC Santa Barbara; National Taiwan University; and NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who assessed data supplied by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, have found that a third of the world's major groundwater reserves are rapidly becoming depleted due to human demands, despite there being little information regarding how much water they still contain.

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    According to the reports, which were recently published in Water Resources Research, this means that a significant portion of the global human population is consuming groundwater at a rapid pace without any knowledge of when these groundwater supplies may run dry.

    "Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient," said principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is a professor at UCI and also the senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left."

    In the initial report, the scientists show that 13 out of 37 of the world's major aquifers assessed over a 10 year period between 2003-2013, were having water extracted at unsustainable levels due to their receiving little or no replenishment.

    Of these, 8 were considered to be "overstressed," as they were not being replenished as the water was drawn off for use, while 5 were considered "extremely" or "highly" stressed, according to the degree of replenishment -- although these aquifers were being rapidly depleted, they were being replenished, but at a much slower rate than what water was being used.

    The researchers found that the most overstressed groundwater basins were situated in the driest areas of the world, where populations were forced to draw heavily from groundwater reserves. It is anticipated that population growth together with climate change will exacerbate the problem in the future.

    "What happens when a highly stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?" asked Alexandra Richey, lead author of both studies. "We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods."

    The researchers determined that the world's most overstressed groundwater basin is the Arabian Aquifer System -- a source of water for over 60 million people, followed by the Indus Basin siutated in Pakistan and India, with North Africa's Murzuk-DjadoBasin the third most stressed. While the Californian Central Valley basin is heavily used by the agricultural sector and thus rapidly becoming depleted, it fared slightly better but was still considered highly stressed by the authors of the first study.

    "As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought," explains Famiglietti. "When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence."

    In the second companion paper that was also published in Water Resouces Research, the researchers concede that estimates of the total volume of the world's groundwater vary greatly and are vague at best, leaving them to conclude that little is known about how much usable groundwater actually remains in the world, but this is likely to be much less than these outdated estimates.

    When the researchers compared the groundwater loss rates derived from the satellite data to the limited data on groundwater availability, they discovered major discrepancies when projecting "time to depletion". For example, in the Northwest Sahara Aquifer System -- an overstressed groundwater basin -- estimated time to depletion varied between 10 - 21,000 years.

    "We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia," said Richey. "In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly."

    The study also points out that groundwater depletion is already showing signs of ecological impacts, including changes in river flow rates, reduced water quality, and land subsidence.
    Underground aquifers tend to be found in sediments or rock located deep beneath the surface of the Earth, making it difficult and expensive to drill into the bedrock to determine where the water bottoms out. But according to the authors, this is necessary and is a task that has to be undertaken if we wish to gain a better understanding of the volume of groundwater remaining on our Planet.

    Journal References:

    Richey, A. S., Thomas, B. F., Lo, M.-H., Reager, J. T., Famiglietti, J. S., Voss, K., Swenson, S. and Rodell, M. (2015), Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE. Water Resour. Res.. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/2015WR017349

    Richey, A. S., Thomas, B. F., Lo, M.-H., Famiglietti, J. S., Swenson, S. and Rodell, M. (2015), Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in a total groundwater stress framework. Water Resour. Res.. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/2015WR017351

  • Heroin Analog Poses Risk as Carcinogenic Drinking Water Contaminant

    Drinking water is commonly disinfected with chlorine to kill any bacteria that could pose a health threat to those who drink it. This has substantially reduced, if not alleviated waterborne diseases in developed countries; however it has given rise to an emerging problem: These disinfectants produce by-products that are carcinogenic to humans. Health officials are wanting to learn more about the origins of these by-products, especially N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), an extremely potent carcinogenic, in order to reduce their concentrations in drinking water.

    In a report that was recently published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists now show that methadone -- a common painkiller and analog of heroin that is found in rivers and lakes as a result of wastewater discharge -- may be a precursor of NDMA present in drinking water.

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    Around 40 years ago in the 1970s, researchers discovered that when used as a water disinfectant, chlorine is able to convert organic compounds in dead plant matter found in surface freshwater systems into trihalomethanes, which are known to be carcinogenic. Consequently, many municipal water treatment facilities switched to chloramines for disinfecting their drinking water supplies, as they reduce the production of trihalomethanes by as much as 90%, says Susan Richardson, an environmental analytical chemist from the University of South Carolina. But chloramines are not totally harmless; they react with organic nitrogen precursors that occur naturally in the environment to form N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). Animal studies have shown that NDMA can cause cancer of the kidney, liver and respiratory system.

    The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the standard for NDMA in drinking water to 0.7 ng/L, but according to Richardson, “a significant portion of the U.S. population is exposed to NDMA at concentrations above this level.”

    According to the study's lead author, David Hanigan, a graduate student of environmental engineering at Arizona State University, scientists are aware that treated sewage discharged into freshwater systems provides a potent source of these NDMA precursors, but it is difficult to identify them amongst the hundreds of thousands of other compounds found in wastewater. Previous studies that focused on a handful of pharmaceutical drugs to test whether they formed NDMA when exposed to chloramines, identified some precursors, including ranitidine, commonly used to reduce stomach acid. “But even though ranitidine has a high NDMA yield in the lab, it doesn’t occur in surface water,” notes Hanigan.

    So Hanigan, together with his research team, set about collecting real surface water samples from 10 US and Canadian rivers and sewage effluent from a wastewater treatment facility in Arizona so that they could look for potential NDMA precursors. Using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry techniques to search for compounds that had the potential to form NDMA in the presence of chloramines, the scientists ran the data through computer software to isolate an ion that enabled them to confirm that methadone was present in the water samples. Methadone -- a prescription drug used to treat pain and heroin addiction -- is excreted from the body and eventually makes its way through sewage treatment plants to freshwater systems, where it can linger for months.

    When the scientists exposed the methadone to monochloramine, 60% of the methadone produced NDMA after reacting with the chloramines. According to Hanigan, this is significant, as in previous studies only five chemicals exhibited an NDMA yield over 50%, and none of those chemicals have been detected in sewage effluent.

    After modelling a typical American community consisting of 100,000 people that consume methadone in line with the national average rate and discharges treated sewage effluent diluted by 40% when mixed with water from the receiving river, the researchers estimated that drinking water downstream would contain approximately 5-ng/L NDMA, which is typically measured at US water treatment plants that use chloramine as a drinking water disinfectant.

    “This paper shows that methadone can be a major source of NDMA in drinking water,” says Richardson. "With EPA poised to potentially regulate NDMA in drinking water, the findings will help researchers determine how to prevent its formation."

    Some utilities treat water with activated carbon or ozone before it enters the treatment plant to remove organic precursors of NMDA.

  • Contaminants Can Seep into Drinking Water Via Leaky Pipes

    A new study conducted by engineers from the University of Sheffield, England, has proven conclusively that pollutants can enter water pipes via leaks to be transported throughout the distribution network.

    The high pressure usually associated with water mains can force water out of leaks in the pipes, but typically prevents foreign matter from entering. However, when the pressure drops significantly as a result of a damaged pipe section, any water that has accumulated around the outside of the faulty pipe may be drawn back in through any holes that are present.
    It was previously thought that when this occurred, only clean, uncontaminated water that had leaked out of the pipe would be drawn back in, and should any pollutants be present, they would be expelled as soon as the pressure built up again. This new study shows that groundwater surrounding the pipe, which may contain pollutants that can be harmful to human health, can be drawn into the water pipe, where it remains and is distributed throughout the network.

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    A dynamic drop in water pressure occurs when there is an abrupt change in water flow speed. This can be the result of pump or valve failures, or due to a surge in demand for water, for example when a large volume of water is extracted by firefighters fighting a blaze.

    "Previous studies have shown that material around water pipes contains harmful contaminants, including viruses and bacteria from feces, so anything sucked into the network through a leak is going to include things we don't want to be drinking," said lead researcher, Professor Joby Boxall. "Many of us will have had a 'dodgy tummy' in the past that we couldn't quite explain, often putting it down to something we'd eaten. It now seems possible that some of these illnesses could have been caused not by food, but by water."

    The study made use of a purpose-built water network consisting of 141 meters (463 feet) of water mains piping maintained at a pressure similar to that used in UK water networks. A damaged section of pipe was surrounded by a box filled with grit into which the engineers injected a pigmented dye to serve as the contaminant.

    When the leaky section of pipe was subjected to a sudden drop in pressure, as much as 60ml of the colored water was sucked into it. The researchers were able to detect the dye when it reached the end of pipe network 70 meters (230 feet) further down the line, proving that pollutants remain in the water to be transported throughout the network.

    "Our research shows that contaminants that enter through a leaking pipe could be reaching consumers' taps, and although this will be at very low concentrations, it would fail the safety tests if detected," said co-researcher Dr Richard Collins. "We also believe that microorganisms, including pathogens, which enter the network in this way could attach to the inner surface of the pipe and multiply. If they are later dislodged by another change in flow, they could then reach our taps in higher concentrations."

    While we can cannot be certain how often dynamic water pressures drop low enough to result in drinking water contamination as water distribution systems around the world are not monitored frequently enough, limited studies that have been conducted in the Unite States indicate that such pressure drops occur regularly.

    The United Kingdom water regulator considers leaks with the UK water distribution network to be economically sustainable, meaning that the value of the lost water is less than what it would cost more to find and repair the leaks. The focus is now on reducing the drastic changes in water pressure that develop as a result of these leaks.

  • What Is The Secret of Black Berkey Filters?

    We often get asked, "How do the black berkey filters work?"  Below, you'll be find the 3 reasons the Black Berkeys are able to acheive the high filtration results that they do.

    Microfiltration

    The first line of defense is that Berkey purification elements are composed of a proprietary formulation of more than six different media types, all constructed into a very compact matrix containing millions of microscopic pores. These pores are so small that they produce what we refer to as a “Tortuous Path” that pathogenic bacteria, cysts, parasites, herbicides, pesticides, organic solvents, VOC’s, detergents, cloudiness, silt, sediment and sedimentary minerals, foul tastes and odors must travel through. These paths are so small that these pollutants physically cannot pass through them and become trapped, eliminating them from your drinking water. This process is known as microfiltration.

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    Adsorption

    Secondly, our media formulation uses unique adsorption and absorption properties. Adsorption works to create an ionic barrier similar to surface tension. This barrier is perfectly suited to the micro-porous water filter because it effectively allows the tiny pores to block water contaminants that are smaller than the pore size itself. This blocking process is how the Berkey water filter is able to remove submicron viruses that other brands of water filters cannot, without the use of obnoxious chemicals like iodine or chlorine. Next, the heavy metals ions (mineral molecules) such as cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, aluminum, and other dangerous heavy metals are extracted from the water through an Ion exchange process where they are attracted to and transformed by electrically bonding to the media.

    Flow Rate

    Finally, Berkey systems are so effective at removing contaminants from water because of the extremely long “contact period”. Other filtration systems rely on water pressure that forces water molecules through the elements at 60-90 PSI. These water molecules come into contact with the filter media for a mere fraction of a second. By comparison, water molecules passing through the structure of the Black Berkey elements are drawn gently by gravity and stay in contact with the media for a long period of time. This allows the filter media to be more efficient in capturing contaminants. This advanced technology was developed, refined, and proven through years of diligent, investigative research and testing performed by water purification specialists, researchers, and engineers. The flow rate or time of exposure through the Black Berkey purification elements has been calculated to yield the greatest volume of removal of viruses, toxic chemicals, and bacteria.

  • How to Reduce Your Water Footprint

    Our ecological footprint extends much further than just our carbon footprint. It includes the impacts of all our actions on the environment, and on ecological systems that support life. One of the areas that humans have the biggest environmental impact, is water. We not only pollute our valuable water resources, we very often waste these as well. If everyone made a concerted effort to save water, much of the water that is unnecessarily wasted could be conserved. These 12 tips on how to save water in the your home will get you started.

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    Saving Water In the Home

    1. Turn the tap off when you brush your teeth. This will save plenty of water that would otherwise flow down the sink while you are diligently brushing away.
    2. Fit low-flow shower heads to showers, and use appliances that have water saving features. Fit your toilet with a water saving flush device, or place a large object, such as a brick, into the cistern to decrease the amount of water that is used with every flush.
    3. Instead of taking a bath, rather shower. The average size bath uses 30-50 gallons of water, while a four minute shower under a normal flow shower head consumes 20 gallons of water. By fitting a low-glow shower head to your shower, this can be reduced to only 10 gallons of water per four minute shower! If you shower 8 minutes which would be closer to the average length of shower, it would be 20 gallons. Considering that all family members bathe every day, you could save big time if everyone took a shower instead of bathing every day.
    4. Make sure that there are no dripping faucets, or toilets that run persistently. Replace worn washers and fix all leaking plumbing.
    5. Only run the washing machine when you a full load. This will not only save electricity and water, but will save on detergent, and at the end of the day will save you money. If you must only do half a load of washing, ensure that you change the setting of your washing machine to the half-full setting.
    6. Never pour toxic substances down the drain, sink, or sewer, and don't be tempted to pour them onto the ground. They can pollute groundwater, rivers and lakes, and can kill wildlife and pose a health risk to humans. Take toxic waste substances to a hazardous waste disposal site who will handle it in the appropriate manner.

    Saving Water In the Garden

    1. Create a water-wise garden using hardy plants that do not need to be watered too frequently.
    2. Use garden mulch to retain moisture in garden beds and prevent soils from becoming desiccated as water is evaporated from the soil. This will reduce the need to water as often.
    3. Recycle household grey water by diverting it onto flower beds, a vegetable patch, or simply to irrigate the lawn.
    4. Erect a rainwater tank to collect rainwater that can be used to water the garden. Rainwater that is harvested in the wet season can be used to irrigate the garden come the dry season.
    5. Try to use the methods mentioned above to avoid having to water the lawn, but if you really have to, water your garden early in the morning or later in the day when temperatures are cooler, and evaporation will be less.
    6. Try to use eco-friendly gardening methods – replace toxic chemical herbicides and pesticides, which can pollute groundwater and harm wildlife, domestic animals and humans, with natural alternatives that are gentler on the environment.

  • Environmental Exposure to Growth Hormones used in Beef Production Higher than expected

    A recent study conducted by an environmental scientist at Indiana University together with colleagues from universities in Washington and Iowa has found that growth hormones used in agriculture, that are potentially harmful to the environment and to human health, can persist in natural systems at higher levels and for longer periods than initially thought.

    "What we release into the environment is just the starting point for a complex series of chemical reactions that can occur, sometimes with unintended consequences," said Adam Ward, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the IU Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "When compounds react in a way we don't anticipate -- when they convert between species, when they persist after we thought they were gone -- this challenges our regulatory system."

    The numerical modeling performed during the study can assist scientists with predicting potential effects of environmental processes on the fate of contaminants to enable them to better understand, and thus anticipate any unexpected effects.

    5209281614_2d7438dac5_z The study, which was recently published in Nature Communications, looks at the environmental fate of the contaminant trenbolone acetate (TBA), a potent synthetic hormone that mimics testosterone, which is used to promote growth in cattle raised for beef. TBA is inserted into the ears of cattle, which when metabolized producers the endocrine disruptor, 17-alpha-trenbolone.

    This research highlights potential flaws in the system for regulating hazardous materials in the US, which currently tends to focus on individual compounds, while typically failing to take complex and often unexpected chemical reactions that may occur when these compounds interact with other elements and compound in the environment into account.

    The study, which was recently published in Nature Communications, looks at the environmental fate of the contaminant trenbolone acetate (TBA), a potent synthetic hormone that mimics testosterone, which is used to promote growth in cattle raised for beef. TBA is inserted into the ears of cattle, which when metabolized producers the endocrine disruptor, 17-alpha-trenbolone, which has a similar chemical composition to TBA. This metabolite is excreted and can contaminate waterways when manure is washed into freshwater systems or when it is used to fertilize crops. Most of the beef cattle farmed in the US are given growth hormones such as TBA to encourage weight gain.

    TBA and its associated byproducts represent examples of 'emerging contaminants' that are of growing concern. These contaminants are endocrine disruptors that have been shown to be capable of disrupting the reproductive systems and reproductive behavior of aquatic organisms.

    Because the compound breaks down quickly in the presence of sunlight, it was initially believed that the environmental risk was low. However a recent study has shown that the byproducts revert back to 17-alpha-trenbolone when darkness falls, meaning that the compound is only temporarily removed when exposed to sunlight, and can persist in streams, returning to its original form at night, or in the shadows of murky waters, and in areas of the streambed where groundwater and stream water mix.

    Using mathematical models, the researchers show that TBA metabolite levels may be around 35% higher in water bodies than initially thought, and because they persist for longer, the levels of biological exposure are likely to be 50% higher than originally anticipated.
    According to Ward, that is a problem, because these compounds are potent endocrine disruptors that are known to have significant impacts on aquatic life even at low concentrations.

    "These compounds have the potential to disrupt entire ecosystems by altering reproductive cycles in many species, including fish," Ward said. "We expect impacts that extend through the aquatic food web."

    Studies conducted by the USGS and others have shown that endocrine disruptors are not only present in freshwater systems, but can also contaminate drinking water sources. While the focus of this study was TBA and its byproducts, according to Ward, these compounds represent many others, suggesting that a new approach to the regulation of hazardous substances may be needed to maintain environmental integrity and safe drinking water.

    "Our focus on individual compounds has been highly successful in getting us where we are today, which is some of the cleanest water in the world," said Ward. "The next step is thinking about unexpected reactions that occur in the environment and how we can manage the diverse group of potential products and their joint effect on the environment and human health."

    Journal Reference:

    Adam S. Ward, David M. Cwiertny, Edward P. Kolodziej, Colleen C. Brehm. Coupled reversion and stream-hyporheic exchange processes increase environmental persistence of trenbolone metabolites. Nature Communications, 2015; 6: 7067 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8067

  • Trade-offs Between Water for Food and for Curbing Climate Change

    The world faces a constant dilemma – we require fresh water both as a source of drinking water and to produce food to support an ever increasing human population, yet water is also required to support the growth of natural vegetation, such as forests, which are essential for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help reduce the rate of global warming. But is there sufficiently abundant water available on Earth to adequately supply both these demands?

    Food Production and Biomass for Carbon Sequestration Compete for Water

    A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from Stockholm University, Sweden, has estimated the water consumption required to support a projected total world population of 9 billion people by 2050 and how much water will be required to support the biomass that is necessary to meet the carbon sequestration demands of our ever warming planet. During their analysis, the researchers looked at a number of thresholds that if water consumption remained within, the Earth's ecological systems would cope sufficiently. However, overstepping these threshold limits could result in sudden changes, which could be irreversible and have dire consequences for ecosystems and people dependent upon them. for example, if excessive amounts of freshwater are withdrawn from rivers, water levels can be reduced to levels that will result in ecological collapse of these aquatic ecosystems.

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    Food and Carbon Sequestration Water Demands Exceed Earth’s Water Constraints

    The researchers projected that in order to provide sufficient water to achieve global food security, while at the same time maintaining the goad of carbon sequestration through forestry programs, an annual increase in water consumption of 780 miles³ (3,250 kms³) would be required. When this figure was added to the current annual global water consumption figures of 624 miles³ (2,600 kms³) it resulted in an unsustainable figure of 1,404 miles³ (5850 kms³) of water required annually, which according to their study, would be beyond the safe annual threshold limits of 1,200 miles³ (5000 kms³). Transgressing these threshold limits would threaten aquatic ecosystems and result in water shortages, which could result in social-ecological problems as people struggle to meet both their basic food and water requirements.

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    Projected Biomass Water Consumption Aggravates Current Regional Water Shortages

    This study stresses the need for communities to understand that there is a trade-off between allocating water to produce food to feet the people of the world and allocating water to sustain biomass to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide in an effort to mitigate climate change. As food production cannot be reduced without reducing food availability and food security, this highlights the fact that in the long-term, greening projects alone will not be a realistic method to sufficiently counter the effects of carbon emissions, as they compete for food for valuable water resources. While greening projects certainly have their benefits, which aside from carbon sequestration, include restoring habitat in an effort to maintain biodiversity, we need to realize that the most feasible way to reduce carbon emissions is to stop emitting carbon; or at least to make a concerted effort to reduce these emissions at the source, rather than relying on carbon sequestration by photosynthesizing plants to reduce atmospheric carbon.

    Journal Reference

    The planetary water drama: Dual task of feeding humanity and curbing climate change, Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1029/2012GL051688

  • Greening Hydroelectric Power

    Although hydroelectric dams may have several environmental disadvantages, we cannot rule out the fact that these dams will continue to be significant sources of renewable energy for our planet. The best way forward – considering that dam removal is costly, and not always an option – is to propose methods for improvement. But how?

    Reassessing Dams

    One proposed solution by conservation groups, such as American Rivers, is that existing dams should be revisited in order to examine them to come up with possible ways to maximize their efficiency, while at the same time ensuring responsible operation, and environmental friendly performance. They suggest that dams that were built some years ago should be re-examined to determine whether they are still efficient at generating power. Dams that are no longer serving their purpose should be removed rather than left to impair the environment. Alternatively, they should be upgraded with modern technology to improve their efficiency. Money should be channelled into making existing dams more efficient at providing power, rather than being spent on the construction of new dams.

    Dam Removal

    Environmental Engineering

    With proper planning, some of the negative environmental effects caused by hydroelectric plants can be mitigated. By designing and constructing the plant in such a way that water, and the nutrients that it carries, is allowed to continue its journey downstream – allowing fish and other aquatic organisms to move freely past the barrier created – would go a long way to retain the ecological functioning of the river system. Responsible dam management is also key. By mimicking natural patterns of the river in terms of seasonal flow rates, dam managers can effectively retain an ecologically sound ecosystem. If water does not need to be retained in reservoirs for drinking purposes, this can be achieved by constructing diversion hydroelectric plants, rather than reservoirs. A diversion hydroelectric plant obtains water from the river via a channel, to generate power without restricting the downstream flow of water.

    Dam Busters

    To date over 1000 dams have been removed across the United States due to sediment build-up, safety and/or environmental concerns, or due to them being inefficient or having outlived their usefulness to society. A paper that was recently published in Science shows that river systems are resilient and once a dam is removed, they recover relatively quickly.

    "The apparent success of dam removal as a means of river restoration is reflected in the increasing number of dams coming down, more than 1,000 in the last 40 years," said Jim O'Connor, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and lead author of the paper. "Rivers quickly erode sediment accumulated in former reservoirs and redistribute it downstream, commonly returning the river to conditions similar to those prior to impoundment."

    Studies have shown that river channels typically stabilize within a few months or years rather than decades, especially if dam removal occurs quickly.

    "In many cases, fish and other biological aspects of river ecosystems also respond quickly to dam removal," said co-author of the study Jeff Duda, an ecologist with USGS. "When given the chance, salmon and other migratory fish will move upstream and utilize newly opened habitat."
    The rising number of national and international dam removals has spurred efforts to better understand the consequences in order to help guide future dam removals.

    "As existing dams age and outlive usefulness, dam removal is becoming more common, particularly where it can benefit riverine ecosystems," said Gordon Grant, Forest Service hydrologist. "But it can be a complicated decision with significant economic and ecologic consequences. Better understanding of outcomes enables better decisions about which dams might be good candidates for removal and what the river might look like as a result."

    Considering that hydroelectric dams provide a greener alternative to meeting our planet’s energy requirements, upholding environmental safeguards should not be overlooked. In order to provide a truly green alternative energy resource, hydroelectric plants should not sacrifice the integrity of the environment while doing so. To achieve this, proper planning, careful attention to design, and responsible dam management, is crucial. Greening green power will benefit our earth without harming it at the same time.

    Journal Reference:

    J. E. O'Connor, J. J. Duda, and G. E. Grant. 1000 dams down and counting. Science, April 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa9204

  • How Green is Hydroelectric Power?

    Dams are man-made structures built across rivers usually to control the flow, regulate flooding and improve navigation. But due to the effects of climate change, dams are now being built at a greater pace to produce hydroelectric power – toted as an affordable, and greener natural source of renewable energy that produces minimal emissions of greenhouse gases. Researchers have been searching for environmentally friendly alternative sources of energy to meet the world’s growing energy demands, and hydroelectric dams seem to be a viable option. Let’s take a look at how environmentally friendly these dams really are.

    Environmental Effects of Dams

    Dams disrupt the natural ecology of rivers. Plants and animal communities that inhabit the river adapt to the river’s patterns of flood and drought, and once that pattern is disturbed, it interrupts the natural cycles of aquatic species. As dams restrict the flow of water downstream, aquatic animals that coordinate their reproduction with the annual flood seasons may be largely affected. Furthermore, a dry river bed can be turned into a raging torrent in a matter of seconds; this not only causes erosion of the riverbank, but rapid fluctuations in temperature and water levels can kill fish, and other aquatic organisms, and even animals and birds that nest in the riparian zone.

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    Downstream river inhabitants depend on the river feeding a constant supply of debris, including leaves, branches, twigs and the organic remains of dead animals. Not only is this organic debris an important source of food and nutrients to downstream plant and animal communities, it also provides microhabitats for a range of species – offering shelter and refuge from predators, and providing a substrate for microorganisms and algae to grow. Dams hold back debris, and consequently reduce the flow of both nutrients and habitat for downstream organisms.

    Dams also prevent fish migration. Salmon, for example, require a specific habitat to breed, and migrate upstream to reproduce. The barrier imposed by the dam prevents them from being able to do so, causing these populations to decline. While fish ladders may assist fish to move upstream, not many make their way back downstream through the hydroelectric turbines alive. This may negatively affect the food supply of local residents – both human and animals – that depend on these fish for their survival. It can also affect the livelihood of local people and businesses due to the loss of income opportunities from farming, fishing, tourism, and recreation.

    A Solution to Climate Change – or NOT?

    Researchers have concluded that large dams actually contribute a substantial amount of carbon dioxide and methane – gases responsible for climate change – to the atmosphere. As more dams and reservoirs are constructed, trees that are actually available to absorb carbon dioxide are swamped by water, where they eventually rot at the bottom of the dam. Furthermore, organic debris that is carried downstream accumulates behind the dam wall, and eventually sinks to the floor where it decomposes. This results in Methane gas (also known as swamp gas) that is formed when organic matter decomposes in the absence of oxygen.  The deep, dark, muddy sediments at the bottom of a dam provide an anaerobic environment that is conducive to the production of methane, which is released through the air/water surface interface, and when water flows over dam walls, or gushes through turbines. Methane gas is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its greenhouse effect. Methane emitted from dams accounts for 23% of total anthropogenic methane gas emissions – rather a substantial contribution.

    So, while dams provide healthy alternative to burning fossil fuels, there are some substantial environmental impacts to consider, most importantly the impact to the natural aquatic life and surrounding life that relies on these rivers.

  • Uncovering Chemicals in Fracking Fluids Allows Testing for Water Contamination

    Two new scientific studies have uncovered the organic chemicals found in fracking fluids. These will serve as a basis for testing water across the country for signs of contamination in aquifers, wells, lakes, rivers, and streams. It will also be a starting point for establishing future regulation of the industry if these direct impacts are now shown. The findings, which were published recently in the scientific journals Trends in Environmental Analytical Chemistry and Science of the Total Environment, reveal that fracking fluids contain organic compounds such as biocides, which can be potentially dangerous should they leach into groundwater.

    Drinking Fracking Fluid

    While public awareness about the hazards of water contamination from fracking fluids has grown, the science supporting regulation has been lacking. According to the researchers, it is now time for science to catch up. By focusing research on water contamination from fracking fluids, it is likely that more attention will be cast on this in future, and as a result, improved regulatory measures will follow.

    Fracking is the process used to extract natural gas and oil from shale deposits buried deep underground. Fracking fluid consisting of huge volumes of water laced with added chemicals is injected into wells under high pressure to forces fissures in rocks apart. Once the pressure is released, natural gas is recovered from the well.

    The fracking fluids return to the soil surface as wastewater, which can contaminate both surface water and groundwater resources if not disposed of appropriately. Oil and gas operators add chemical compounds, such as pesticides that prevent bacterial or algal growth, but are very secretive about the ingredients added to these fluids. Consequently, until now, the organic content of fracking fluids remained unknown. The new research studies shed light on the organic components of fracking fluids and provide a method of detecting evidence of water contamination, together with suggested safe water recycling methods to prevent water contamination.

    "A few years ago we started thinking that this could be a significant environmental water problem," explained lead author, Dr. Imma Ferrer, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA. "In some cases, the fluid has leaked from pipes and into groundwater. Before we can assess the environmental impact of the fluid, we have to know what to look for. If we find out what's in it, we can check if the groundwater is contaminated."

    Past studies have assessed the inorganic content, such as naturally occurring radioactive elements and salts stemming from rocks and soils. These new studies focus on the organic compounds that operators add to fracking fluid.

    Using a combination of mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography to identify organic compounds in the fluids, the scientists found about a quarter of the organic compounds they believe are present in fracking fluids, including biocides that are potentially hazardous compounds used to kill bacteria that may be present in the fracking fluid and/or well casing. Although they haven't found all the organic compounds they were looking for, the researchers feel that they have found the most important ones necessary to be able to test drinking water and groundwater resources for signs of contamination.

    "It's really exciting because I realized there had been a lot of research done on inorganic compounds, but the organic ones had been left a little bit aside," said Ferrer. "We now have sophisticated analytical techniques we can use to investigate this relatively new area, and this is really our chance to use these tools to identify as many compounds as we can."

    Hopefully this research will help prevent contamination of our water resources and help introduce new regulations to help protect our precious water resources from contamination in future.

    Journal Reference

    "Chemical constituents and analytical approaches for hydraulic fracturing waters" by Imma Ferrer and E. Michael Thurman (doi: 10.1016/j.teac.2015.01.003). The article appears in Trends in Environmental Analytical Chemistry, Volume 5 (February 2015), published by Elsevier.

    "Characterization of hydraulic fracturing flowback water in Colorado: Implications for water treatment" by Yaal Lester, Imma Ferrer, E. Michael Thurman, Kurban A. Sitterley, Julie A. Korak, George Aiken and Karl G. Linden (doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.01.043). The article appears in Science of the Total Environment, Volumes 512-513 (15 April 2015), published by Elsevier.

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