Category Archives: Environment

Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Pro-Desal Director Pushes False Conservation Stats

By John Earl

Part 4 of a series: part 1; part 2; part 3

In a January 26 Facebook post,  Mesa Water  and Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) dual board member, Shawn Dewane, proudly announced President Donald Trump’s decision to list Poseidon Resources’ proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant as a “Top 50 Nation Priority Project.”

I am proud to be an advocate for pure, plentiful and affordable water supply for our community,” he declared.

Dewane’s words were telling of the ideological anti-conservation foundation upon which the Poseidon proposal rests.

Director claims conservation is more expensive.
Mesa Water/OCWD director, Shawn Dewane, uses Facebook to argue, incorrectly, that conservation is the most expensive water source and that its costs could have already paid for the proposed Poseidon ocean desalination plant.

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.
This OCWD options chart shows that lowering the basin pumping percentage (BPP) refills the basin at far less cost than ocean desalination (not shown), estimated to be from $1,900 af to $2,500 af (currently at Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad desalination plant).

 

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Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Poseidon’s Point Man Spins Alternative Water Facts

By John Earl
Part 3 in a series: Part 1; Part 2

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.

Facebook post by Shawn Dewane
OCWD/Mesa Water Board director Shawn Dewane posting on Facebook.

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.”

But Dewane’s assertion is false.

Last October, the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank that uses “science-based” research to influence “efforts in developing sustainable water policies” worldwide, issued a comprehensive report that analyzes all of California’s water management options (“Cost of Alternative Water Supply and Efficiency Options in California”).

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.”

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Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Dual Water Board Director is Poseidon’s Point Man

By John Earl

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.

Shawn Dewane
Shawn Dewane at a OCWD Board of Directors meeting. Photo: John Earl

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.

Voters elected Dewane to the OCWD Board of Directors in 2010. Continue reading Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Dual Water Board Director is Poseidon’s Point Man

Tide Turning Against Plastic Microbeads in Toiletries

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.

10035153466_b7fa7ec7f7_z (1)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.

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Garden Grove Desal Forum Tackles Issues Suppressed by OCWD

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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.

Dina Nguyen on the right at May 14 OCWD meeting. She voted to negotiate a contract with Poseidon. Several Garden Grove residents attending the forum complained that she was non responsive. She did not attend the forum.
Dina Nguyen on the right at May 14 OCWD meeting. She voted to negotiate a contract with Poseidon. Several Garden Grove residents attending the forum complained that she was non responsive. She did not attend the forum.
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.

 

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Drought Politics: Pat Bates Baits Union-Tribune Readers with Doomsday Scenario

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

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.

Ms. Bate's vision of Orange County without Poseidon? Photo: SCV
Ms. Bate’s vision of Orange County without Poseidon? Photo: SCV

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.

Lush parkways in Bates' assembly district (this one in San Clemente), located in a an area that must import 100 percent of its drinking water, seems to contradict the idea of sound water resources management. Photo: Google
Lush parkways in Bates’ assembly district (this one in San Clemente), located in an area that must import 100 percent of its drinking water, seem to contradict the idea of sound water resources management. Photo: Google

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.

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Five Reasons to Pee in Your Garden

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.

#1 Urine is a 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.

Urine jugs
Photo: Mike Earley

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.

indoorwateruse_4webOn 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.

Photo: Laura Silverstein
Photo: Laura Silverstein

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.

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Disappearing Ocean Plastics: Nothing to Celebrate

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

You’d think that finding far less plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface than scientists expected would be something to cheer about. The reality, however, is that this is likely bad news, for both the ocean food web and humans eating at the top. Ingestion of tiny plastic debris by sea creatures likely explains the plastics’ disappearance and exposes a worrisome entry point for risky chemicals into the food web.

Except for a transient slowdown during the recent economic recession, global plastics consumption has risen steadily since plastic materials were introduced in the 1950s and subsequently incorporated into nearly every facet of modern life. Annual global consumption is already about 300 million tons with no foreseeable leveling off as markets expand in the Asia-Pacific region and new applications are conceived every day.

Land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded.

Furthermore, recent studies reveal an alarming worldwide marine buildup of microplastics (defined a millimeter or less) from two other previously unrecognized sources. Spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them. Plastic microfibers from laundering polyester fabrics find their way to the ocean via the same route. Continue reading Disappearing Ocean Plastics: Nothing to Celebrate

Vanity Skin Scrubbers Harm Ocean Food Web

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

It’s time to eliminate plastic micro-bead exfoliants.

The beauty industry hits hard on the importance of frequent exfoliation to keep skin looking younger and healthy. Spherical plastic micro-bead scrubbers, no larger than a half millimeter, have been introduced into hundreds of skin care products in recent decades, but scientists are discovering that the ocean food web, and maybe human health, could be imperiled as a result.

alternatives to plastic
Biodegradable alternatives to plastic micro-beads (Wikimedia Commons)

Biodegradable alternatives to plastic micro-beads (Wikimedia Commons)

In babies, skin cells are replaced every two weeks, but by age 50 the turnover rate has slowed to six weeks or longer, fostering wrinkles and other unwelcome signs of aging. Products containing plastic micro-beads profess to speed up cell rejuvenation, and their popularity signals that consumers have bought into the promise of exfoliating your way to a more youthful look. Whether or not such products deliver on this promise, scientists have discovered that these innocent-looking plastic micro-beads are insidious little transporters of chemical pollutants into lakes, streams and oceans and maybe onto our dinner plates.

Micro-beads are usually made of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), and like other plastics, they’re thought to persist in the environment for a hundred years or more. They’re added to facial scrubs, body washes, soap bars, toothpastes and even sunscreens and designed to be washed down the drain.

However, micro-beads commonly escape waste treatment plants and pollute bodies of water, because the plants aren’t designed to eliminate them or because wastewater is diverted directly to local waterways in heavier rains.

“Microplastics” are defined as plastic debris smaller than five millimeters and include both manufactured micro-beads and the breakdown products of larger plastic waste which fragments into progressively smaller bits during exposure to sunlight and other environmental forces.

The Santa Monica-based non-profit 5 Gyres Institute is studying the impact of micro-beads and other microplastics on aquatic environments and found that a single tube of facial cleanser can contain over 300,000 micro-beads.

And, in a study published last year in Marine Pollution Bulletin, 5 Gyres reported that the surface waters of the Great Lakes averaged 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer: Many were tiny spheres matching those in personal care products.Micro-bead density was as high as 600,000 per square kilometer in one sample.

Lead author Marcus Erickson has also informally sampled the Los Angeles River and found an abundance of plastic micro-beads there too. These startling findings add to a growing body of evidence that microplastics are building up in all bays, gulfs and seas worldwide.

Micro-beads listed as "polyethylene" in body wash ingredients
Micro-beads can be listed as micro-beads, polyethylene or polypropylene on product labels

Plastic debris of any size represents a dual chemical threat to aquatic environments, both from noxious chemicals manufactured into them (like bisphenol-A and phthalates) and because plastics are lipophilic, meaning oily pollutants found in water environments are attracted and adhere to their surface. As early as 2001, for example, scientists discovered that virgin pellets of PP exposed to coastal Japanese seawaters adsorbed toxic chemicals, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs) and a breakdown product of the banned pesticide DDT, up to a million times their concentration in the surrounding water. Other risky chemicals, including flame retardants, have since been added to the list of pollutants associated with marine plastics.

Consequently, plastic debris ingested by sea creatures has become a potential threat to the ocean food chain, and scientists have already documented the ingestion of plastics by many fish species as well as marine creatures as small as barnacles and as large as whales. Over half of sea turtles found dead have ingested plastic.

Studies are also emerging documenting the bioaccumulation of chemical pollutants in fish and other animal tissues when plastics are ingested. For microplastics, this threat is magnified by their small volume which means greater relative surface area to which pollutants can adhere.

Recent research suggests that micro-beads are among the very worst offenders expressly because they are made of PE or PP. A research team led by Chelsea Rochman at U.C. Davis deployed various types of mass-produced plastics into San Diego Bay for up to a year and found that, compared to other polymers, PE and PP soaked up higher concentrations of measured pollutants: PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

In a particularly disturbing follow-up study published in Scientific Reports last November, Rochman and colleagues observed liver toxicity in fish attributable to pollutants picked up from San Diego Bay when, for two months, the fish diet contained ground up PE previously deployed in the bay. Such findings notch up the concern that human health could also be impacted by plastics accumulating in the ocean food web.

According to Plastics Europe, an industry association, global plastics production reached 288 million metric tons in 2012 and is projected to continue its rise. Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface (roughly 140 million square miles) with an average depth of over 2.6 miles. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that there are already 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean, distributed on the surface and seafloor and throughout the water column. The plastic burden of the Pacific Ocean alone is thought to total 18 million tons.

Given the ocean’s vastness, there’s no practical or impractical means to remove the existing plastic pollution. The idea of somehow filtering out all the microplastic debris is doubly absurd.

The only rational solution is to stem the inflow of further plastic pollution. For micro-beads, the means of accomplishing this is straightforward. Industry must eliminate plastic micro-beads from all products and replace them with biodegradable alternatives, like apricot pits, cocoa beans, walnut shells, dried coconut or salt.

5 Gyres is spearheading a global Beat the Micro-Bead campaign to both urge consumers to read product labels and pressure retailers and manufacturers to eliminate plastic micro-beads. So far, the list of corporations that have promised to reformulate their products without plastic micro-beads includes Johnson and Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L’Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive, Beiersdorf, and Proctor & Gamble. None has yet delivered.

A handful of states might not wait for industry to act. Bills banning micro-beads have been introduced in Illinois, Minnesota, New York and Ohio. In California, similar legislation prohibiting the sale of “microplastics” in personal care products by 2019 passed the State Assembly on May 23 (AB1699).

Plastic micro-beads are used for maybe a minute before they’re mindlessly washed down the drain, exemplifying a consumer society paying little attention to the makeup or fate of its waste. The fact that micro-beads might come back to haunt us via our dinner plates is food for thought.

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Poseidon’s Water Boy: Mayor/Assembly-Candidate Matt Harper Quietly Pushes Desal Scam Past Ratepayers

Commentary by Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

Ocean desalination in Huntington Beach makes sense…if you don’t really think about it. But thinking about it requires understanding all the consequences of Poseidon Resources’ proposed project.

Take for example the unnamed city staffer who probably thought he was brokering a good deal for residents when he negotiated 3000 acre feet/year of Poseidon’s water for 5 percent below the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California imported rate–a savings of $150,000. The problem is that if Orange County Water District (OCWD) approves partnering with Poseidon, the Replenishment Rate (RA) for all of the water we pump from the aquifer will rise by at least $103/acre foot according to their estimates. Huntington Beach pumps on average 20,000 acre feet per year. That means that rate payers will pay an additional $2 million per year for water to save $150,000.

Thinking about it seems to be the last thing that Poseidon and the water agencies want us to do. OCWD recently reneged on their promise to convene a citizen’s committee. Their Board of Directors along with the redundant Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) meets in almost anonymity, their agendas often obscuring the real nature of discussions, thus thwarting public participation. They certainly don’t want people really thinking about it.

HB City Councilmember Matt Harper. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino, SCV
HB mayor Matt Harper. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino, SCV

Huntington Beach’s Mayor Matt Harper similarly impedes anyone, including other elected officials, from thinking through ocean desalination. Within a two week period recently, Harper placed items on the agenda of the obscure West Orange County Water Board (WOCWB) and the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee aimed at hastening agreements that were not understood by members or staff.

At the WOCWB, he invited Poseidon’s pipeline consultant (former Huntington Beach City employee Howard Johnson) to present a pipeline lease arrangement sought by Poseidon. Information was not available prior to the meeting. The item was placed on the meeting agenda as an information item rather than an action item. California’s open meeting laws preclude action on information items, but this did not stop Harper. He attempted to garner the votes to move forward on the hiring of consultants and the writing of pipeline lease agreements. Even staff was caught off guard and not prepared to give their own presentation or answer questions. Fortunately the representatives of Westminster, Seal Beach, and Garden Grove were uncomfortable with acting so hastily and the motion failed.

Undaunted by this setback, Harper moved on to the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee. He invited a representative from MWDOC to present an item that their board has been pursuing for several years, to re-categorize desalinated water as a “core” service rather than a “choice” service. Few residents are familiar with this issue and even fewer are likely to have given it much thought. If MWDOC is able to move desalination from a choice service to a core service, then Huntington Beach and other North Orange County cities will be forced to subsidize south Orange County water agencies and their plans to build a desalination project to serve south Orange County. That makes about as much sense as Orange County subsidizing San Diego County’s desalination project.

The problem with those of us who have spent time thinking about the devil in Poseidon’s details, is that it turns you into a cynic seeking a semblance of rationality in the situation.

I can come up with only one rational reason for such blatant disregard for the public’s interest and the facts–money. Money turns many self proclaimed fiscal conservatives into corporate welfare campaigners.

A glance at Matt Harper’s recent campaign donors tells the story:

Poseidon Resources, $2,540; Simon Wong Engineering, $249; Geosyntec Consultants, $250; Arcadis, $250; AKM Consulting Engineers, $250; Psomas, $540; Parsons, $250; Nossaman, $189—a total of $4,518 from donors directly or indirectly involved in promoting the ocean desalination business.

Poseidon and their brethren have spent millions to keep you and your elected officials from making sense of their uneconomic and imprudent project. In effect, there will be no thinking allowed on their watch.

Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach and is an advocate for greater transparency in public water management.

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