What’s Up With All These Leaking US Nuclear Plants?

First it was North Carolina. “Radioactive tritium found in leak at South Carolina nuclear plant,” Reuters reported last year. Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear Station plant was leaking a radioactive form of hydrogen. It could reach groundwater, the article stated — as had occurred at the same plant in 2007.

Then came news from New York state. In March, the Indian Point nuclear plant, which is about 50 miles north of New York City, also found elevated tritium levels in two groundwater monitoring wells near the facility, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported last week. “Federal regulatory and Indian Point officials are searching for the source,” the paper reported.

Now comes another such announcement from the Dresden nuclear power plant in Illinois. “Sample results from an on-site sampling well near the 2/3 contaminated water storage tank (CST) indicate elevated levels of tritium,” the NRC stated today (June 9). The plant evidently plans to issue a press release about the groundwater contamination. “At this time, the source of the tritium has not been identified,” the NRC says.

Three such tritium leaks into groundwater in about a year (and my quick tally could missing some). Normal? Pattern? Coincidence? Unsurprising consequence of aging plants? How worrying is it that we don’t know the causes? All of this is in addition, of course, to the recent problems at the nuclear waste dumps in New Mexico and South Carolina.

For British Columbia, Gas Boom Presents a Conundrum

“British Columbia is a case study of competing priorities — determination to battle climate change on the one hand, and eagerness to take advantage of a job-creating energy bonanza on the other.”

Read more from my International New York Times column on how B.C.’s hopes for liquefied natural gas run up against its climate goals and carbon tax.

Drought, Water & Fire

I’m seeing some worrying indications of how the drought in the western half of the United States could impede firefighting capabilities, in the run-up to a potentially catastrophic wildfire season.

In San Angelo, a West Texas city that’s been battling drought for years, firefighters this week used a mixture of foam and water against a big blaze in order “to save the city’s dwindling water supply,” the local paper reported. In California, an official told the New York Times recently that California is considering using more flame retardants in order to save water. The Times reported: “If low water levels persist in the rivers and reservoirs normally used to gather water used against fires, helicopters will be forced to travel longer distances to find water, making it ever more difficult to get wildfires under control quickly.”

And it’s not even summer yet.

See also: This WBUR interview with a spokesman for Cal Fire, who notes that firefighters generally use freshwater, because saltwater can corrode equipment.

Surface Water and Groundwater: A Key California Ruling

Update, 3:30pm: I spoke with Glen Spain, general counsel for the fisheries groups that have joined the Environmental Law Foundation in bringing the case. He emphasized that this week’s ruling is not the last word; the judge will issue a final — non-tentative — ruling, perhaps in 60 days or so. Ultimately, there will be appeals, and “It really has to be resolved by the California Supreme Court,” Spain said.

Spain also noted that even as water experts keep an eye on this case, they are also watching intently to see if state lawmakers will regulate groundwater at the state level. “What happens in the Legislature in this severe drought, that will have major implications on what California water law will look like,” he said.

Original story

When it comes to preparing for drought, one of the West’s greatest problems is that groundwater and surface water are regulated differently, even though they are interconnected.

A little-noticed court ruling this week could help spark change in California, where groundwater goes essentially unregulated by the state. A Sacramento Superior Court judge declared, in a tentative ruling yesterday, that rivers can be harmed by withdrawals from nearby groundwater wells, and that the local authority has a duty to consider this issue when it issues water well-drilling permits.  The case specifically concerns the Scott River in far northern California’s Siskiyou County which — just to keep things lively — is governed by officials who voted last year to secede from California

Major caveat: I haven’t had a good talk with the attorneys on either side yet, and I’m not fluent in the ruling’s legalese. Also, there’s a hearing going on right now in Sacramento on the case, though a lawyer for the environmentalists told me yesterday that it’s more about the details of the case rather than the meat of it. And finally, the Scott River has some unusual complications vis a vis groundwater and surface water, as California rivers go. Yet my reading of the ruling is that it’s a significant victory for environmentalists who brought the case. It’s a setback for Siskiyou County and California’s water resources control board, which are defendants.

At the heart of the matter lies the disjunction between how the state protects surface water and how it protects — or, rather, fails to protect — groundwater. The two are interlinked; think about how springs bubble up from aquifers. Yet in California and many other parts of the West, the state closely oversees the water usage in rivers and reservoirs, but it leaves the regulation of underground water to local authorities, which may or may not place restrictions on farmers and others who pump from the aquifers. Along the Scott River, which is a Klamath tributary, the Environmental Law Foundation and fisheries groups that brought the suit have complained that nearby water wells were lowering the levels of the river, harming salmon. The plaintiffs want the county to stop issuing permits for some wells near the river. (The judge has not granted this request; further litigation is needed.)

In California, the state is entrusted by the public to oversee rivers, so that boaters, fishermen and the like will have access to sufficient water. In legal circles, this is known as the “public trust.” The public trust does not cover groundwater, only navigable surface water. But — and here’s the thing — the judge ruled that when groundwater is harming the surface water — and hence the “public trust” — authorities have a duty to oversee the groundwater as well.

“The court concludes the public trust doctrine protects navigable waterways from harm caused by groundwater extraction,” the ruling (which is tentative) stated. … “The court also concludes the County, as a subdivision of the State, is required to consider the public trust when it issues well drilling permits.”

Here’s another choice quote:

“The court thus finds the public trust doctrine protects navigable waters from harm caused by extraction of groundwater, where the groundwater is so connected to the navigable water that its extraction adversely affects public trust uses.”

That all seems quite significant for a state that’s rapidly losing groundwater as the drought causes everyone to pump more from aquifers. But this is by no means the end of the line for this litigation. The judge made clear that the ruling “does not dispose of this case; it simply allows the case to proceed beyond the pleading stage.” The environmentalists must still prove their facts — for example, presumably, how ground and surface water interconnect in the Scott River area. They also have yet to persuade the court to force the county to stop issuing well permits in the affected areas. So the show will go on.

Thoughts and comments welcome.

Groundwater: To Limit or Not to Limit?

Groundwater is invaluable — especially to farmers, the nation’s largest water users. Yet in many parts of the West, including most of Texas and California, the pumping of groundwater is subject to minimal or no regulation. Farmers view groundwater as a property right; they argue that they are good stewards of the resource and do not need the government telling them what to do.

Yet a few farming areas are starting to enact changes. Last year, media outlets extensively covered a group of Kansas farmers that self-imposed pumping limits, due to concerns about the Ogallala Aquifer dropping. I have written about a farming area in the northern tip of the Texas Panhandle where local groundwater authorities have imposed pumping limits and required farmers to install meters. Those are controversial moves, as brouhaha over pumping limits and metering in a different Texas Panhandle water district attests.)

One of the next battles I’m eyeing is in northwest Nebraska. On April 30, a water authority called the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resource District will decide whether to limit the amount that farmers across the district can pump. Some farmers are pushing back. They say that the groundwater levels are holding up.

Look for battles like this to be repeated around the West (especially California) and Great Plains, as aquifer levels drop. It’s tough for local authorities to enforce pumping reductions, because many of these authorities are run by farmers who are elected by their peers. If they enact groundwater limits, they can be voted out of office.

Water Plans, Suddenly in Fashion

On the weekly drought map of the United States, ominous yellows and reds — colors symbolizing drought — stretch from California clear through to Missouri. The lack of rainfall is both a short- and a long-term worry in the western half of the country, for farmers and cities and businesses, as the pressures of population growth combine with dwindling aquifers and the threat of climate change.

Reflecting the urgency, a revolution of sorts in state water planning is underway. Across the West and Midwest, at least a dozen states (see article) are working to craft statewide water plans, some for the first time in decades. The goal is deceptively simple: to figure out how to match long-term demands with future supplies. Planners evaluate future water needs by geographic area and by sector, and map out how to meet those needs through conservation or new projects like desalination and water recycling.

Water “always deserves attention, and it’s good to see it getting a little more policy traction at the right levels,” said Mary Kelly, a Texas-based water policy expert with the Austin firm Parula who has been advising Colorado NGOs on the coming water plan there. Nonetheless she warns, as do others, that some plans risk overestimating future demand while neglecting ecological realities.

Colorado’s plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper and due by December, reflects concerns about a shortfall in the state’s most populous region, the Lower Platte Basin. In Kansas, where the dwindling of the Ogallala Aquifer has stirred fears, Gov. Sam Brownback will have a 50-year plan on his desk by November, with a draft ready next month. Wyoming’s Gov. Matt Mead, who has said that “water is our most valuable resource,” convened listening sessions late last year on how to craft a new water strategy. Montana is updating its water plan for the first time in a few decades, and Indiana’s business lobby has commissioned a study that could be a precursor to its first statewide water plan in decades. Even Alabama is working on a water management plan.

And the list goes on.

Water is often sourced locally. That explains why the states, rather than the federal government, take the lead on planning — though interstate battles over water are also heating up. The plans can become powerful political forces in their own right. Last year, for example, voters in drought-plagued Texas approved $2 billion in seed funding for water-supply projects, such as new reservoirs and conservation, in response to recommendations from the state’s 2012 water plan, which dramatically predicted that Texas “does not and will not have enough water” in bad future droughts.

Yet the limitations of the planning process are also becoming clear. In Texas’ widely cited plan, for example, critics say that engineering interests, eager to reap revenue from new construction projects, retained too much influence in drafting the regional plans that fed into the larger statewide water plan. Parula’s Kelly, who formerly worked at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the Texas plan is essentially a compilation of regional project wish-lists that are not well prioritized and include an unrealistic emphasis on expensive and hard-to-build reservoirs, with ultimate funding supposed to come from ratepayers. (Texas officials are now working on prioritization.) The Texas plan also includes excessive demand projections from the Dallas Fort Worth area, she argues.

Such criticisms are echoed by Sharlene Leurig, director of the sustainable water infrastructure program at Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable investing. “Within the water planing sphere, there is a tendency to dramatically overshoot” the estimates of how much people will use, Leurig said. To illustrate her point, per-capita usage has fallen over the decades in many water-conscious areas, such as Los Angeles and San Antonio, in response to water-conscious local policies.

Kelly also argues that many water plans, including Texas’, often look too far out — 50 years ahead — rather than a more manageable 20 or 30 years. “The further we try to project out, the more likely it is that we are off the mark,” she said.

Leurig says that water planners should better coordinate planning for groundwater and surface water. Most states regulate aquifers and rivers separately, whereas in reality, through mechanisms like springs and aquifer recharge, they are part of the same systems.

Indeed, rivers’ ecological needs, sometimes called “environmental flows,” often get short shrift in water plans, which are more focused on making sure there is enough water to support economic and population growth. As a general rule, “I think environmental concerns related to water are poorly represented,” said Jack Wittman, a hydrologist who is working on Indiana’s water strategy. That may be less true in places with large urban interests, he said; but Leurig echoes the concern. “I think the realty is that still in a lot of states, especially in the West, you’re dealing with water resources that are already overallocated,” she says. Environmental flows, she added, are often seen as “discretionary,” to be “met after everything else is provided.”

Climate change is another often-delicate subject for planners. One Democratic state lawmaker in Montana has said she hopes that the water planning process will open a “backdoor” for climate science projections to be documented, in a state where politicians remain wary of acknowledging the human link to climate change. In New Mexico, an official told the Albuquerque Journal that the state will not incorporate climate projections into its revived water planning process because it lacks the funds. As for Texas, where the 2012 water plan repeatedly mentions “uncertainties” related to climate change, “I don’t think a place like Texas has done a very good job of looking at climate in terms of the impact on supply,” Kelly said.

Some surprises do emerge. The 2012 water plan of conservative Oklahoma, the home state of arch-climate skeptic Sen. Jim Inhofe, actually contains a multi-page section on the potential impacts of climate change on water supply, under different scenarios.

California and Colorado are especially aggressive at folding climate projections into their plans, according to Parula’s Kelly. Gov. Hickenlooper explicitly ordered that Colorado’s plan “address the looming imbalance between water supply and demand, which is being driven by population growth and climate change.”

The water planning bug has spread beyond the drought-stricken West, as areas that normally have plentiful rainfall cope with drought and population pressures. Connecticut, in the rainy East, is working on its first long-range statewide water plan. In Indiana, Wittman, the hydrologist, is undertaking a preliminary study on water supplies and demand at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce. The wakeup call came during the severe drought last year, when “more than ever before [utilities] were having to do prospecting a bit for water supplies in aquifers,” he said.

The last big Indiana water survey was done in 1980. By now it’s “an old-fashioned shelf-art thing,” he said, and the rapid growth of cities like Indianapolis is adding to the urgency. Wittman has consulted states like Minnesota and Illinois about their water strategy, and plans to have a document ready by June for state politicians to review; meanwhile he is giving monthly briefings to an advisory council, which includes environmentalists as well as the most important industries in the state. 

“In Connecticut, in Indiana, in Minnesota, all these wet states, we were never bumping up against anything,” Wittman said. “Now we’re bumping up against an actual limit.”

Concerns Over Air Pollution in Africa

Air pollution in Asia and Europe has grabbed headlines. But the problem is pervasive across Africa as well. Africa is urbanizing quickly, and pollution from sources like vehicle exhaust, wood burning and dusty dirt roads has reached worrisome levels in many cities. Equally or more troubling is air pollution inside homes, caused by cooking with wood or other sooty fuels. But few nations outside South Africa have imposed regulations to address the problem, and data on outdoor pollution is sparse.

Read more in my International New York Times Green Column

The Many Ways Chemical Companies Love Fracking

No doubt this is blindingly obvious. But when I was reading a news squib that said that the market for fracking chemicals would rise to $20.4 billion by 2018, it struck me that chemical companies must love the fracking boom in so many ways. Most coverage centers on the new cheapness of natural gas-derived inputs, like ethane, propane and butane, which go into making chemicals. But as the news squib reminded me, the chemical companies presumably  make…fracking chemicals! Undoubtedly it’s a tiny fraction of their vast business, because they churn out products for everything from shampoos to couches, but still — a growing market segment in the double-digit billions is nothing to scoff at. Finally, chemical companies must also benefit from cheap natural-gas power to run the plants.

So, in sum, here’s what’s going on: The companies use cheap fracking-linked power to make chemicals from fracking-related inputs—and some of those chemicals enable more fracking! Nice business model.

Groundwater and Surface Water: Linkages and Legal Cases

Many Western states, including California and Texas, regulate groundwater and surface water differently. Yet the two are interconnected because aquifers bleed into rivers and lakes—as several high-profile, ongoing legal cases suggest.

One of the most interesting right now is in Northern California on the Scott River. I’m no expert on this, but it appears that environmentalists are trying to force  authorities that oversee the river to also oversee nearby groundwater withdrawals as well. But, as reported by the Siskiyou Daily News, the county fears that a decision for the plaintiffs “will make every request to drill a well subject to an environmental review process.” There’s a hearing on April 11, but any resulting decision will likely be immediately appealed. If anyone has a sense of how wide-ranging the implications could be, by all means leave a comment.

Another case I’m familiar with is in the Texas-New Mexico spat, in which Texas accuses New Mexico farmers of depleting the Rio Grande as it flows into Texas, by (among other things) pumping water from wells near the river. It’s now with the Supreme Court (the lucky arbiter for many inter-state water disputes), and some fiery words have been flying: New Mexico’s attorney general Gary King accused Texas of “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water.” But the US Solicitor General submitted a brief to SCOTUS agreeing with Texas. New Mexico’s pecan farmers, profiled in the New York Times last week, have a lot at stake in this battle because some draw groundwater from near the Rio Grande.

There are other lively intra-Texas tussles over the groundwater-surface water interchange, as the Texas Tribune recently reported.

Moving now to Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes: a lawsuit was filed last year over the falling levels of White Bear Lake, northeast of Minneapolis St Paul. As reported by MNPR’s Ground Level blog, “Homeowners and businesses near the shrunken lake have sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, arguing it should not have been so free with allowing nearby cities to pull water from the ground, thereby sucking water away from the lake.”

So there’s a lot going on in the groundwater-surface water nexus. Other cases of interest, anyone?