Former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, who often contributes to the Surf City Voice, made the following remarks to the California State Lands Commission Oct. 19 about the proposed Poseidon Resources ocean desalination plant. She was preceded by Joe Geever of Residents for Responsible Desalination.
By Debbie Cook
My name is Debbie Cook. In 2003, when I was serving on the Huntington Beach City Council, I was asked to represent the League of California Cities on the California Desalination Task Force. By the time I left the council in 2008, I was well versed in desalination and Poseidon Resources in particular. Since 2008 I have tirelessly pursued Poseidon’s activities as they lobbied their way around the state trying to find a buyer for their water Continue reading Poseidon and OCWD: Manufacturing Consent at State Lands Commission Hearing→
As supporters and opponents of the proposed $1 billion (publically subsidized) Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant rev-up for a key hearing before the State Lands Commission, an environmental protection alliance led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has weighed in.
Kennedy, who Time magazine called “Hero of the Year” for taking the lead in helping to clean up the Hudson River, brings heavy-duty credentials to the long list of environmental organizations opposed to the Poseidon project.
By contrast, only one celebrity environmentalist, former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, has endorsed the project, but she is a Poseidon-paid “consultant.”
The letter, dated July 26 and signed by the 22 environmental protection organizations representing “hundreds of thousands of members,” says that the project would:
Impose significant and unnecessary costs on Orange County water districts and ratepayers;
Set back California’s efforts to advance climate-smart water policy;
Fail to alleviate reliance upon, or impacts to, freshwater ecosystems, including the Bay-Delta; and
Fail to comply with California law and regulations that govern seawater desalination facilities.
The project developer, Poseidon Resources, seeks approval for its Environmental Impact Report and the ability to continue to lease state land for its project, which would convert 100 million gallons of ocean water into 50 million gallons of drinking water each day.
Poseidon says that the project will protect against drought, is environmentally sensitive, and will cost the taxpayers nothing.
In reality, the project will cost the ratepayers of the Orange County Water District, which would receive the desalinated (purified) water (only to put most of it into the underground river basin to be purified yet again) hundreds of millions of dollars up front for startup costs.
Then, for the next 30 to 50 years, OCWD ratepayers would be required by contract (as now proposed) to buy the Poseidon water at rates 3 to 4 times higher than the imported water that OCWD imports now to help keep up its underground water supply.
The State Lands Commission hearing starts at 8 a.m. this Thursday (Oct 19) in the Huntington Beach City Council chambers.
Below is a complete list of environmental organizations that signed the letter:
California Coastkeeper Alliance
Orange County Coastkeeper
Residents for Responsible Desalination
California Coastal Protection Network
NRDC Natural Resources Defense Council
Heal the Bay
Sierra Club of California
Desal Response Group
Southern California Watershed Alliance
Environmental Water Caucus
Food & Water Watch
OC Earth Stewards
Orange County Environmental Justice
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper
Amigos de los Rios
EJCW Water Justice for All
UPDATE (Oct. 17): OC Register reporter Greg Mellen has produced a copy of the letter from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to the California State Lands Commission (SLC) about the proposed Poseidon Resources ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
Originally, when asked by Debbie Cook (see story below) for a copy of the letter (the basis for his story saying that Feinstein supported the project), Mellen produced a Poseidon press release containing quoted excerpts of the letter but not the letter itself.
After I published my story (below), Mellon sent Poseidon opponent Joe Geever a copy by email of Feinstein’s letter (Mellon never responded to my request for a copy).
That letter to SLC chairman (Lt. Gov) Gavin Newsom is dated Sept 28 (not reported by Mellen), two weeks before Mellen’s story appeared in the Register. Based on how the events unfolded and the fact that Mellen’s story-quotes match excerpts used in the Poseidon press release, it’s reasonably clear that Mellen either did not read the letter he was reporting on or simply played off the Poseidon press release.
“While the water supply and other benefits of this project are clear, my support is conditioned upon its development in an environmentally safe manner that is consistent with the California Water Code Section 13142.5 (b) and State Water Resources Control Board’s Desalination Amendment to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Ocean Waters of California. As outlined in the amendment, the proposed plant must ‘use the best available, site, design, technology, and mitigation measures feasible to minimize intake and mortality of all forms of the marine life.’ ”
Feinstein’s letter states her opinion that the Poseidon project meets those standards, but project opponents hotly dispute that claim, an all-important fact (left unsaid by Mellon) that will play out at the SLC hearing on the Poseidon project this Thursday (Oct. 19).
Feinstein’s letter has its own factual problems, also unmentioned in Mellen’s story.
For example, Feinstein’s letter states that the Poseidon project, which would make 50 million gallons (mgd) of drinking water per day, would be “expanding upon” the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenish System, “and reducing demand on climate-dependent imported water.”
But the GWRS, which already produces 100 mgd of drinking water — at less than half the cost of what Poseidon’s water — is already set to expand by another 30 mgd in the near future. Also, it is a long-established fact (ignored by project proponents) that the Poseidon project will not result in decreased water imports from northern California.
Feinstein also states that the Poseidon project water would “meet a documented demand within Orange County,” but in a letter (MWDOC letter 9-14-17) to the SLC, Robert Hunter, general manager for the Municipal Water District of Orange County, referring to the district’s Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) and its recent water Reliability Study, concluded that:
“Some projects make greater and more cost-effective contributions to reliability – paramount among these in our estimation is the California WaterFix. Thus, the Poseidon project is only one of several different projects that can provide that [water] supply, but neither the UWMP nor the Reliability Study state that the Poseidon project is specifically necessary to meet Orange County’s future water supply needs.”
Mellen quotes a purported letter of support for the project written by Feinstein, but there’s just one problem: unknown to Mellen’s readers, nobody, including Mellen, can give a copy of the entire letter–only selective quotes from it are given, and apparently (based on a web search) only by the OC Register and the OC Breeze, a public-relations website.
At press time, the letter doesn’t appear on Poseidon’s website, nor is it on Sen. Feinstein’s website, which lists her recent press releases. Poseidon Resources did not respond when I asked for a full copy of the letter.
Mellen did not respond to my email asking if he had read the entire alleged letter and if he could send me a copy. However, he did respond to Debbie Cook, former Huntington Beach mayor and a leading opponent of the Poseidon project, not with the letter but with a Poseidon press release sent by Poseidon to the Register. It also selectively quotes the alleged Feinstein letter but doesn’t show an actual copy of it, yet it is the source of the Register’s story.
Unless Mellen read the real Feinstein letter (there is no mention that he contacted the senator), he failed to verify the main source of his breaking story.
Because Mellen failed to do his job, readers really don’t know if the Feinstein letter exists (as of press time there is no solid evidence that it does) or, if it does exist, if it has been quoted in context by Poseidon and the Register.
“It is important to change the mindset from scarcity to surplus, and this project [the Poseidon desalination plant] is part of that vision,” he wrote.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Dewane claimed, “conservation does not come for free and in fact, prices have risen enough because of demand reduction [during the drought] that we could have paid for this entire project.” (emphasis added)
In a later (April 19) Facebook post, Dewane elaborated on that theme, speaking of water-use restrictions imposed by the state during the recent drought, which officially ended April 6.
“The truth is that the demand reduction accounted for a roughly 30% increase in the cost of ground water to the retail producers in the Orange County Water District are[a], which is passed along to the consumers. That same price increase would have paid for all of the water produced by the Poseidon project. Instead of a new water source, we simply got higher rates and no additional supply. Conservation is the most expensive source of water.” (emphasis added)
Are Dewane’s anti-conservation assertions correct? Mostly, they are not. Let’s examine them:
Dewane’s claim: that “we could have paid for the entire [Poseidon ocean desalination] project” with the amount of money collected from water price increases due to “demand reduction” created by state-imposed conservation measures during the drought.
Analysis: The estimated cost of the Poseidon project is $1 billion. In the fiscal year, 2014 – 2015, OCWD’s 19 member-agencies pumped 305,259 acre-feet (af) from the groundwater basin, according to staff reports. The following year, they pumped 281,750 af, or 23,509 af less water. OCWD’s 19 member-agencies would have to collectively pay $1,059 per af or $24,896,031 for imported water to make up for the revenue loss from the state-imposed restrictions. If those agencies were to apply that difference as a down payment for the desalination plant, they would still be $975,103,969 short. At that rate, it would take them about 40 years to pay for the plant, assuming that costs wouldn’t rise, which they would.
Dewane’s claim: that the replenishment assessment (RA) increase that OCWD charged its member-agencies to make up for revenue loss for conservation (the “roughly 30 percent increase”) “would have paid for all the water produced by the Poseidon project.”
Analysis: From 2015 to 2017, the RA rose from $322 af to $445 af, by 38 percent or $123 af. The OCWD predicts that its 2.4 million service-area residents will use 303,000 af of water for the fiscal year 2017 to 2018. For that amount of water, the $123 price increase comes to a total of about $37.3 million. The cost of a year’s worth of Poseidon desalination water (about 50,000 usable af of 56,000 af) would be (based on Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad plant) about $2,500 af or $125 million.
Dewane’s claim: “Instead of a new water source [Poseidon’s desalination plant] we simply got higher rates and no additional supply.”
Analysis: The quickest way to increase water supplies in the Orange County water basin is by reducing pumping, as the OCWD chart (below) indicates. The Poseidon project would give a “new” source of water, but no more water, except a small amount (on paper only) during an extreme drought. That’s because for Poseidon to receive the $400 million subsidy it needs from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to build the desalination plant (without it, Poseidon says, the plant can’t be built), the water Poseidon produces must replace an equal amount of imported water. That replaced imported water would be sold to water agencies outside of the OCWD service area, at a lower rate than Poseidon water, courtesy of OCWD ratepayers.
Dewane’s claim: that conservation is the most expensive source of water. See part 2 and part 3 of this series.
The Mesa Water District and the Orange County Water District’s dual board member, Shawn Dewane, loves to spin alleged factoids comparing conservation as a water source to the billion-dollar ocean desalination plant that Poseidon Resources wants to build in Huntington Beach.
Dewane plays to his political base, hence his occasional appearance on Costa Mesa Public Square (CMPS), the Facebook page where he reigns as the (mostly) unquestioned authority on all water matters, especially Poseidon.
You can scroll down the CMPS page and see a series of misleading or false assertions made by Dewane related to Poseidon’s proposed project.
For example, on CMPS last April, Dewane posted that “The facts are that Conservation (sic) is the most expensive “source” of water and hurts the poor the most.”
The report concluded that using “urban water conservation and efficiency measures” is the most cost-effective way to meet future water needs and that ocean desalination is the most expensive form of water management.
The study found that, over time, many conservation-efficiency measures save money by creating a negative cost. A more efficient food-steamer, for example, saves 53,000 gallons of water and costs minus $14,000 per acre-foot per year.
By comparison, the cost of water now produced by Poseidon’s Carlsbad ocean desalination plant (nearly identical to its proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant) is plus $2,500 per acre-foot.
If OCWD’s 19 member agencies cut their basin pumping percentage (the amount of water they take from the groundwater basin vs. from more expensive imported water) from 75 percent to 65 percent to conserve water, the replenishment assessment (RA) charged by OCWD to refill the basin (with imported water) and cover fixed costs, would increase by $106 for a total of $508 per acre-foot, according to a OCWD staff report.
That’s about a fifth of what Poseidon charges now in Carlsbad.
Without the Huntington Beach Poseidon project, the RA will go up to $571 an acre foot by 2022; with Poseidon, it will go up to $830 per acre foot.
Comparing the cost of Poseidon water (at the most likely near-future rate) to the cost of the same amount of imported water that OCWD would buy within a year gives a clear-cut picture of the relative costs of conservation and ocean desalination.
The Poseidon plant would produce about 50,000 acre-feet of usable desalinated water per year. At a cost of $2,500 per acre-foot, that comes to $125 million.
The cost of untreated imported water, which the OCWD uses to refill the basin (aside from rainfall percolation), is about $746 per acre foot—or about $37 million per year for 50,000 acre-feet.
The cost of treated imported water, the water OCWD agencies would buy on their own to make up for pumping less groundwater, is $1,059 per acre-foot—or about $53 million per year for 50,000 acre-feet.
By comparing the real costs of desalinated ocean water to the costs of water conservation, it is clear that Dewane’s assertion that conservation is the most expensive source of water is false.
Next: I will look at Shawn Dewane’s claim that state-imposed water restrictions during the drought caused a water price increase that “would have paid for all of the water produced by the Poseidon project” and that “Instead of a new water source, we simply got higher rates and no additional supply.”
Shawn Dewane of Costa Mesa is the free-marketeer point man for Poseidon Resources, the water dealer that wants to combine public and private funds to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
The project would be built under the auspices of the Orange County Water District(OCWD), which manages the county’s groundwater basin and provides 2.4 million north-county residents with 75 percent of their water.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko Special to the Surf City Voice
There are signs that the era where plastic microbeads from personal care products pollute bodies of water worldwide and aquatic food chains might be drawing to a close.
Microbeads are miniscule spheres of plastic commonly added as abrasives to personal care products like face scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste. They’re designed to wash down the drain, but because of their small size, they escape sewage treatment plants. Once discharged into oceans, rivers or lakes or onto land, they’re virtually impossible to clean up.
They’re typically made of polyethylene or polypropylene and do not biodegrade within any meaningful human time scale, especially in aquatic environments. And, like other plastics, they attract and accumulate oily toxins commonly found in bodies of water (e.g. DDT, PCBs and flame retardants).
Microbeads resemble fish eggs, likely contributing to the documented ingestion of microplastics in the millimeter and under size range by sea life in bottom tiers of the ocean food web, including zooplankton, sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans. The potential for ingested microplastics to transfer up aquatic food chains is very real, as demonstrated by studies revealing transfer from the tiniest to larger zooplankton and from mussels to shore crabs. There is parallel risk for harmful chemicals associated with microplastics to increasingly concentrate in animal tissues, adding threat to humans and other life forms dining at the top of the chain.
Scientist are also discovering direct ingestion of microplastics by fish which humans eat and that toxic chemicals from the plastics transfer to fish flesh.
Beginning with the pioneering measurements of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre by the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the buildup of plastic pollution in all five of the world’s oceanic gyres is now well-established. Together with the recent discovery of microplastic accumulation in the U.S. Great Lakes and some rivers, this has spurred tangible momentum among some U.S. politicians toward elimination of microbeads in personal care products.
For example, the Great Lake states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and New York all considered legislative bans last year, though Illinois emerged as the only state to enact one, effective late 2017. The 2013 study spearheaded by Santa Monica’s 5 Gyres Institute reported that much of the microplastic debris in the Great Lakes strongly resembles microbeads in cosmetics. Lake Ontario was most polluted, approximately 1.1 million microplastic fragments per square kilometer.
Then just this April, New Jersey became the second state to enact a ban, citing that manufacturers were already largely on board, given pledges to phase out microbeads by several corporations including Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever. Besides, alternative abrasives can be made from many natural materials, like beeswax, walnut shells, apricot pits, sand or salt crystals.
Meanwhile, California is reconsidering a statewide ban which failed passage last year by a single vote (AB 888, Bloom). The proposed ban, which would take effect in Jan. 2020, passed in the state assembly on May 22 and has moved on to the senate. New York’s Attorney General has also signaled intention to shoot for a ban again this year, citing that microbeads were found in three-quarters of samples of treated effluent from New York waste treatment plants. Additional states currently considering bans include Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.
There’s even a possible national ban in the works. Two U.S. Representatives, Fred Upton of Michigan and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, have re-introduced a bill which stalled last year that would ban the sale of products with microbeads starting Jan. 2018. Because Upton is the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Pallone is the ranking committee Democrat, there is greater hope for successful passage this time around.
Things are heating up outside the United States too. The international Beat the Micro Bead campaign touts 66 participating NGOs in 32 countries and offers a free download app allowing shoppers across the globe to scan barcodes to identify which products contain plastic microbeads. The campaign’s website also posts lists of products by country that contain microbeads.
Moreover, Germany plans to promote an international effort to reduce waste from plastics, including microbeads, at the June economic summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations.
Appearing in the February issue of Science magazine, the findings of the first large-scale study to estimate how much plastic is actually going into the oceans are nothing short of shocking. Using data from 192 coastal countries, the researchers calculated that, just in the year 2010, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (roughly 10.5 to 28 billion pounds) entered the oceans. If nothing is done to stem the inflow of plastics, those numbers could increase ten-fold by 2025.
Given these sobering figures, world-wide elimination of microbeads in personal care products, an entirely avoidable source of plastic pollution, can’t happen soon enough.
A public forum held by Garden Grove mayor Bao Nguyen last night at the city’s community center examined the cost of and alternatives to a proposed $1 billion ocean desalination plant promoted by the Orange County Water District.
Those issues–and the panel of local experts who discussed them last night–have been all but ignored by most of the OCWD Board of Directors, some of whom have strong financial and political ties to Poseidon Resources Inc., the company that would build the plant, and its big-business allies.
The OCWD maintains the county’s groundwater basin, which holds 66 million acre-feet of water and provides about 70 percent of the water used in central and northern Orange County, serving 2.3 million people.
For the past 18 months a clique of four board members, Cathy Green, Shawn Dewane, Stephen Sheldon, and Denis Bilodeau, joined last January by Garden Grove Councilmember Dina Nguyen, have steered the District straight toward a long-term contract with Poseidon.
OCWD staff presented a proposed term sheet (pre-contract) to the board on May 14.
The board approved the term-sheet 7 -3. Nugyen voted for it.
Nguyen, who was the beneficiary of $11,000 in “independent expenditures” by a Poseidon related PAC in her recent election to the OCWD board, was invited to participate in the forum but was a no-show.
Staff is now negotiating a contract with Poseidon that would lock the district into buying 56,000 acre-feet of desalinated ocean water per year, regardless of need, for the next half-century.
Poseidon’s water would cost about $2,000 an acre-foot out the door, more than 3 times what OCWD currently pays for the untreated water it imports from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) to help maintain the county’s groundwater basin supply.
Poseidon and its allies on the OCWD board claim that its more expensive water would be a “reliability premium” akin to car insurance that would add to the county’s water supply portfolio and guarantee water during a drought.
But, in order to be financially viable, Poseidon is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer-backed subsidies for the first 15 years of the contract. In return, MET rules require that Poseidon’s 56,000 acre-feet of desalinated water replace an equal amount of (cheaper) imported water, which would then be made available to water agencies outside of OCWD’s service area.
There would be no net gain in water supply for the district, which would be paying three times as much for Poseidon’s replacement water while subsidizing the cheaper imported water for other agencies. And the county wouldn’t receive more water during a drought.
This reporter has repeatedly asked Poseidon officials and OCWD directors to explain the benefit to ratepayers of paying three times as much for water than necessary and subsidizing cheaper water for ratepayers outside of Orange County, but to so far mum’s the word.
For the first 15 years, the proposed pricing scheme would pay Poseidon a surcharge of up to 20 percent on imported MET water (at the higher MWD treated rate) on top of a 3 percent annual compounded surcharge that recurs for the life of the contract, underlying subsequently declining variable surcharge rates.
A Surf City Voice review of the proposed pricing scheme shows that after 15 years ratepayers would pay up to $2,700 per acre-foot for Poseidon’s water (assuming the required $56,000 af) versus about $1,048 per acre-foot for untreated MET water, which comes out to about $1.8 billion versus about $700 million in total for that period.
That’s about $1.1 billion dollars that could be used for the cheaper and more efficient water supply alternatives ignored by OCWD and Poseidon but examined by the forum panel of experts.
Panel members are former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, Irvine Ranch Water District’s Peer Swan, Coastkeeper’s Ray Hiemstra, and Garden Grove water officials. Members of the public, including Westminster City Councilmember Diana Carey, also spoke.
On March 11, the San Diego Union-Tribune posted an op-ed, “Desalination makes sense for Orange County”, written by Assemblywoman Pat Bates (Laguna Niguel). It is unclear why she was addressing the California Coastal Commission since the project was not on its March agenda.
The paper chose not to allow comments on her article. So here is my response to her piece which reads as if lifted from a Poseidon Resources press release.
She goaded me from her first sentence: “Anyone who has stepped outside in the past year has undoubtedly seen the effects of our state’s historic drought conditions.”
Perhaps Ms. Bates should take a look around her own district before she goes off with her dire news of “empty reservoirs, dry wells, and brown, arid landscapes across California.”
Orange County is the poster child of disregard for the drought: lush green expanses of grass in front of strip malls, road medians, HOAs, government facilities, and private properties. Any claim she makes that Orange County has “tried” to do its part is laughable.
It is interesting that Ms. Bates would chime in on a project outside her district that runs roughly from Dana Point to Cardiff by the Sea in San Diego County. Her district imports nearly 100 percent of its water. North Orange County imports only 30 percent and it could be zero if we managed the groundwater basin equitably.
“Trying” isn’t good enough, especially when it places the burden of costly boutique desalinated water on those who are actually “doing” something.
Residents of Santa Ana and Westminster are close to an ideal goal of consumption of 100 gallons per person per day. At the other extreme are communities like Villa Park and Northern San Diego County, where 500 gallons per person per day is the norm.
Why is 100 gallons per person per day ideal? Because at that level, North Orange County could get nearly 100 percent of its water from the groundwater basin.
The manner of water allocation used by the Orange County Water District and its member agencies places a disproportionately higher cost burden on those who consume the least amount of water. In effect, those who aren’t just “trying” but are implementing conservation will be subsidizing the explosive costs of ocean desalinated water.
And if North Orange County goes all in for an ocean desalination project, will Ms. Bates be sponsoring a bill to enable the OCWD rate payer to subsidize water sales to South Orange County water agencies?
Ms. Bates then goes on to cheer lead for desalination: “Southern California communities have rallied behind desalinated ocean water as a reliable, safe and environmentally friendly solution to long-term water shortages.”
It is interesting to note that a small consortium of communities in her own district have spent millions of dollars building and evaluating a pilot project in Dana Point only to discover they couldn’t “rally” enough support for such an expensive endeavor.
Ms. Bates reports on the “nearly completed” project in Carlsbad. But we are still waiting to see how the San Diego County Water Authority allocates the costs of this project, a painful task they have been discussing and postponing since 2012. The devil is in the details, details that were not sorted out prior to signing a “take or pay” contract.
Ms. Bates calls desalination “out of the box” thinking but in reality it is a knee jerk reaction by politicians who have ignored California’s failed water policies, archaic water laws, and fractured governance.
Addressing long term water needs requires long term thinking which will never be the domain of politicians in Sacramento.
It is much easier for elected officials to apply a “technical” fix knowing they will be out of office before the bill arrives.
What we need are courageous politicians who dare to engage with citizens in understanding and exploring solutions that actually address water needs and not water wants.
North Orange County does not need an ocean desalination project and hasn’t even figured out what they would do with the water. If Ms. Bates thinks one is needed in South Orange County, then she should address her own district’s needs first.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice
I confess, my husband and I both pee in our backyard garden, waiting until nightfall so as not to surprise neighbors.
We’ve always been comfortable relieving ourselves alongside lonely highways, even in daylight when waiting for the next bathroom seems unreasonable. But peeing in our own garden started as something of a lark, a combo of enjoying feeling a little naughty while also stealing a moment to take in the stillness of the night.
However, after a little research into the contents of urine and the ecological footprint of toilet flushing, I’m approaching my nightly garden visitations with a renewed sense of purpose, armed with sound reasons to continue the habit.
#1Urine isa good fertilizer, organic and free Contrary to popular belief, urine is usually germ-free unless contaminated with feces. It’s also about 95 percent water. The chief dissolved nutrient is urea, a nitrogen (N)-rich waste metabolite of the liver. Consequently, urine is high in N. Synthesized urea, identical to urea in urine, is also the number one ingredient of manufactured urea fertilizers which now dominate farming industry. Furthermore, urine contains lower amounts of the other two main macronutrients needed for healthy plant growth, phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).
Poor soil conditions and the prohibitive cost of manufactured fertilizers in third world countries have inspired rigorous study of urine fertilizer as a sustainable strategy to reduce poverty and malnutrition and promote worldwide food security. As example, in an in-depth 2010 practical guide for using urine as crop fertilizer, an international research institute (Stockholm Research Institute) writes that, “Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur as well as micronutrients are all found in urine in plant available forms. Urine is a well balanced nitrogen rich fertilizer which can replace and normally gives the same yields as chemical fertilizer in crop production.”
Depending on water intake, humans produce roughly 1-2 liters of urine a day. With proper planning the urine from one person during one year could suffice to fertilize”300-400 m2 of crop,” according to the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Urine as crop fertilizer is not just a theoretical concept, but has been put into practice successfully all over the world, including Africa, northern Europe, India, Central America, and even the United States. In fact, if you live near Brattleboro, Vermont, you can contact the Rich Earth Institute to participate as a “urine donor” in the first field studies of urine as fertilizer in the United States.
Obviously, there are important guidelines and safety procedures for farms and entire communities that rely on urine fertilizer for crop production – like special two-compartment toilets designed to collect urine free of fecal contamination – which are unnecessary for someone like me who pees directly in the garden and with more casual purpose in mind. Guidelines that do apply to everyone, however, include applying the urine to soil rather than foliage and mixing the urine in right away.
#2 Combat drought Regions in all five continents are in the grip of sustained droughts. One-third of the contiguous United States was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought as of the end of August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. My home state of California is suffering record-breaking drought with no end in sight. Governor Brown recently called on Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, and peeing in the garden gives me a good head-start to meeting that goal.
On average, Americans each use 80-100 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Seventy percent of a household’s water consumption is typically for indoor uses, with toilet flushing the biggest water hog (see pie chart).
Although newer toilets generally use 1.6 gallons per flush, older ones use at least three gallons. So someone flushing urine 6 to 8 times per day could easily save 10 to 24 gallons of water daily by diverting all their urine to the yard. But, even if collecting urine in the daytime is out of the question – say, if you work outside the home or simply consider peeing into a receptacle and ferrying it to the yard a deal-breaker – the water savings by just peeing in the yard twice a night could easily amount to an annual water savings of between 1000 and 2000 gallons per person.
# 3 Slow groundwater depletion Based on satellite data, NASA recently released an alarming report describing dramatic groundwater depletion in the Colorado River Basin in under a decade. The Colorado River Basin is considered the water lifeline of the western United States. NASA calculated the water loss at 53 million acre feet, nearly twice the volume of freshwater in Nevada’s Lake Mead. The real shocker is that groundwater loss accounted for three-fourths of the depletion, and no one knows how much groundwater is left or when it could run out.
In California, a third of the state’s water supply comes from regional groundwater. Rapidly dwindling groundwater levels, due to unregulated well drilling and extraction, is threatening the availability of water for agriculture and even human consumption, finally prompting California to enact a package of critical groundwater protections in Sept.
Individuals can do their part too, by peeing in the yard or, at least, adhering to the adage I grew up with, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.” If each of California’s 12.5 million households flushed just four fewer times daily, the drain on the state’s groundwater would be lessened by 25-50 million gallons annually.
#4 Bypass sewage treatment plants Though the pathogens (germs) in household wastewater come primarily from feces, many pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal care products (PPCPs) are excreted in the urine, producing global pollution of natural bodies of water and even drinking water because sewage treatment systems are not designed to eliminate such substances.
Everything flushed down the toilet is piped to either onsite septic tanks or more often to municipal treatment plants where the liquid undergoes a two-step process, first separation from the bulk solids through settling and then incubation with bacteria to digest disease-causing pathogens and produce an effluent safer for return to the natural environment. The treated effluent from septic tanks is allowed to seep on-site into the ground, whereas treatment plants typically release directly into rivers, lakes and oceans.
Depending on regional policies, the effluent might also undergo so-called tertiary treatment involving chemical purification and/or microfiltration before release. Water shortages are increasingly driving reuse of tertiary-treated wastewater for landscaping, recharging groundwater aquifers and even for crop irrigation, prompting closer scrutiny of the water’s purity. However, even tertiary treatment is not generally designed to remove PPCPs.
Happily, soil generally does a good job of trapping and eliminating many pollutants, offering an alternative to conventional wastewater treatment of urine. When a liquid is doused onto soil, pollutants adhere to soil particles then undergo biodegradation by the abundant fungal and bacterial flora in soil. Sunlight and the rich oxygen content of soil also foster degradation. In fact, the filtration and incubation steps in conventional wastewater treatment mimic these naturally occurring processes in soil.
In the last decade, researchers have been measuring how fast common PPCPS biodegrade in soils and typically find half-lives on the order of days or weeks.
So letting soil decontaminate your urine seems a sound idea. A word of caution is in order, however, for those of us in more developed countries where our urine is more likely contaminated with PPCPs. A recent study reported solid evidence that irrigating the soil of common field vegetables with tertiary-treated water produced low levels of PPCPs in the edible portion of the vegetables. Until we know whether such residues represent any health risk, it seems wise to deposit urine outside the home vegetable garden.
#5 Reconnect with nature The simple act of returning my urine directly to the soil, whilst attending to the sights, sounds and smells of the night, has heightened my awareness of my place in nature. It’s also confronted me with a glaring reality, that every man-made environmental ill threatening all life forms, everything from global climate change to the buildup of PPCPs and plastic waste in bodies of water and industrial chemicals in human and animal tissues, stems from an ill-conceived notion that humans are somehow exempt from the laws of nature.
Obviously, spotty progress can be made here and there applying new technologies or policies to address focused environmental issues. For example, California just became the first to institute a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags. Though I’ve welcomed this legislation, I also see how limited the impact will be on the global environment: Since the dawn of the “age of plastics” in the 1950s, non-biodegradable plastics have come to pervade nearly every aspect of daily life in westernized societies, and the steep rise globally in the production of consumer plastics is projected to continue unabated into the future.
Peeing in my garden has instilled in me a sobering certitude that solving the planet’s looming environmental crises will require something far more fundamental and all-encompassing than regional policy changes. A global paradigm shift is needed, both away from believing we can unthinkingly manipulate and destroy natural resources and toward humbling seeking and embracing our natural and sustainable place within this unspeakably beautiful garden that is planet earth.
Though peeing in the garden is now a habit with me, it still feels a little risqué, and I like that.