Background

On August 4, 2014, the tailings storage facility dyke collapsed at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in British Columbia, Canada. The collapse released approximately 10.6 million cubic meters of water and 13.8 million cubic meters of tailings slurry. The amount of tailings released into the environment from this breach was approximately the size of New York’s Central Park. Imperial Metals Corporation owns the Mount Polley Mine and the mine is both an open pit and underground mining operation for copper and gold. The engineering company, Knight Piesold, designed and built the tailings storage facility throughout the 1990s.

Imperial Metals had many warning signs that not all was right with the tailings storage facility for the Mount Polley Mine. In 2010, an employee working at the tailings facility discovered a tension crack, but failed to report the crack to the engineering company. Two months later, Knight Piesold’s inspectors discovered the crack at the mine and recommended that the company perform a stability assessment to determine if the crack caused weakness in the dam wall. The crack was approximately 900 meters from the breach which occurred in August. However, it is not clear whether the tailings breached the storage facility because of the crack. Knight Piesold expressed other concerns regarding the Mount Polley Storage Facility. During its inspection in October, 2010, approximately 40 percent of the 92 instruments used to measure water pressure did not work. Also, the engineering company expressed concerns that the mining facility was operating over capacity. In response to these concerns, Mount Polley Mining Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Imperial Metals, released a statement, on October 3, 2014, saying that it complied with the inspections and reports of the engineering company and no one raised any additional concerns.

In February, 2011, Knight Piesold refused to continue working with Imperial Metals at the Mount Polley Mine. Although there was no express reason why the engineering company stopped working at the storage facility, Knight Piesold, in a letter to Imperial Metals, indicated that the “overall tailings impoundment [were] getting large and [that it was] extremely important that [the tailings storage facility] be monitored, constructed and operated properly to prevent problems in the future.” In the letter, Knight Piesold refused to assume responsibility for further operations at the mine.

The breach of the tailings storage facility is one of the largest environmental disasters in mining history. Imperial Mines and the Canadian government will have to spend decades cleaning up the pollution from the tailings. Although the long-term effects of the breach are unclear, experts are speculating about the impact of the contamination of the tailings on the water, environment, society, and politics of Canada.

Environmental Impacts:

The damages from the breach at Mount Polley seem to be more physical in nature rather than chemical. The physical damages include the deposition of tailings, trees, and other debris in Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Quesnel Lake, which are all fresh water sources. These lakes and creek provide drinking water to local residents in the area surrounding the Mount Polley Mine.

When the tailings first breached the storage facility on August 4, 2014, the government of British Columbia imposed a drinking water ban. However, a week later on August 12, health officials and the British Columbian government mostly lifted the ban and stated that the fish in the area were safe to eat. The only areas where the government did not lift the ban was in areas that received drinking water from Polley Lake, which is adjacent to the tailings facility, Haseltine Creek, and a small portion of Quesnel Lake. On October 3, 2014, the Environmental Protection Division of the British Columbian government released a statement indicating that all the results for Quesnel Lake were below the drinking water guidelines with the exception of aluminum. Though the water had elevated levels of aluminum, according to Health Canada, there is no evidence that the elevated levels will cause adverse health effects.

Imperial Metals claims that there will not be much chemical damage to the surrounding landscape and water. Imperial Metals further asserts that water in the tailings pond was not toxic and was close to drinking water. According to Imperial Metals, much of the sediment released into the surrounding environment is composed of similar materials as the surrounding rocks formations. Further, the Imperial Metals owner and operator claims that the tailings are alkaline and not acid generating. Imperial Metals’ expert states that this means that the metals in the rock are less likely to be released due to acid erosion. The tailings that seep into the ground will cause contamination similar to that of glacial deposits of silt in the area. However there still may be long-term effects of leaving the tailings in the environment. Although the rocks will not erode as quickly because the tailings are not acid generating, eventually the tailings will start to weather and release metals into the environment.

Social and Political Impacts:

The breach of the mine has eroded the faith people have in the government of British Columbia because, in the last decade, the provincial government has heavily supported resource extraction. Politicians have developed close working relationships with the mining industry. For example, Imperial Metals has donated approximately $200,000 to the British Columbia majority party since 2005. Activists assert that the government’s relationship with extraction industries created a conflict of interest, which prevented inspectors from identifying and acting on the Mount Polley disaster potential.

Government inspections of mines have been cut in half since 2002. In 2010, the government’s geotechnical engineers only performed 3 inspections in British Columbia. The year before, in 2009, the engineers conducted 22 inspections. In 2011, engineers completed only 2 inspections. During 2010 and 2011, British Columbia’s engineers did not visit the Mount Polley Mine. However, inspectors did inspect the Mount Polley Mine tailings facility in September, 2013, and the engineers did not report any violations. It is too early for experts to discern whether there is a connection between the engineer’s missed inspections and the failure of the storage facility at Mount Polley Mine. However, the fact that the government did not diligently send geotechnical engineers to inspect mining sites calls into question the government’s ability to prevent a future disaster like Mount Polley.

Because of the tailings breach, the David Suzuki Foundation set-up a petition to institute a moratorium on new mines approvals. However, if British Columbia prevented new mines from opening, it could hurt a substantial part of its economy. Last year, mining accounted for more than 8 billion dollars in revenues and 10,000 jobs. Thus, because there is little information about what actually caused the Mount Polley Mine to collapse, it is premature to stop new mining operations altogether.

Next Steps:

The government, in order to regain the public’s trust, commissioned an independent engineering panel to assess and determine the reasons why the storage facility failed. The government appointed four geotechnical experts who have experience with tailings management facilities. Imperial Mines has set up community meetings with the surrounding residents immediately affected by the discharge of the tailings. The purpose of these meetings is to keep local residents apprised of what Imperial Metals plans to do during remediation and reclamation of the environment.

Imperial Metals has already developed plans to mitigate the effects of the tailing breach. However, these plans are theoretical and Imperial Metals has yet to implement such measures. The company plans to improve water quality in Quesnel Lake by providing water management structures. It plans to try to control the flows of the tailings and divert the tailings from Quesnel Lake into the Springer Pit, which is an open pit at the mine.

Further, despite the fact that the tailings are not acid generating, Imperial Metals will still have to continually test the water to ensure and reassure local residents that their drinking water has not been contaminated. If all of the damage is indeed physical, rather than chemical, Imperial Metals will have to reshape the landscape, reseed, and try to remove the tailings from the environment.

Conclusion

The long-term environmental and social effects of the tailings storage facility breach at the Mount Polley Mine are still unknown. It is also too early to estimate the total costs to Imperial Metals for environmental remediation and reclamation. However, Imperial Metals and the British Columbia government will have to work hard to regain the trust of the local residents and to develop an effective plan to address environmental damages caused by the release of the tailings into the surrounding terrain of the Mount Polley Mine. Although it is too early to estimate the costs of remediation and reclamation, Imperial Metals obtained $115 million in financing to cover environmental damage and mitigation alone.

 

The title picture features a map of the Mount Polley Mine site. This image is part of the public domain as it was created solely by NASA. NASA does not endorse this blog.


Sources:

Letter from Knight Piesold Consulting, to Brian Kynoch, Mount Polley Mining Corp., (Feb. 10, 2011) (regarding Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility Engineer of Record), available at http://www.knightpiesold.com/en/assets/File/VA11-00298_Complete.pdf.

Press Release, Mount Polley Mining Corp., Mount Polley Responds to Vancouver Sun Article Published on September 26, 2014 (Oct. 3, 2014), available at http://www.imperialmetals.com/i/pdf/10-03-14-mount-polley-responds-to-sept-26-vancouver-sun-article-oct-3.pdf.

Lyn Anglin, Getting a Better Understanding of the Mount Polley Tailings, Resource Works, http://www.resourceworks.com/getting-a-better-understanding-of-the-mount-polley-tailings.html (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).

Announcement on Mt. Polley Inquiry This Week, Bennett Says, The Townsman (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.dailytownsman.com/breaking_news/270905121.html.

Chronology of Major Tailings Dam Failures, Wise Uranium Project, http://www.wise-uranium.org/mdaf.html (last updated Sep. 4, 2014).

Kenneth P. Green, Beware Hasty, Unwise Policy Decisions After Mount Polley, Huffington Post (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/kenneth-p-green/first-investigate-then-ac_b_5670031.html.

Gordon Hoekstra, Imperial Metals Says It Addressed 2010 Concerns at Mount Polley Mine, The Vancouver Sun (Oct. 5, 2014), http://www.vancouversun.com/Imperial+Metals+says+addressed+2010+concerns+Mount+Polley+mine/10264841/story.htm.

Gordon Hoekstra, Mount Polley Mine Tailings Spill Nearly 70 Percent Bigger Than First Estimated, The Vancouver Sun (Sep. 3, 2014), http://www.vancouversun.com/Mount+Polley+mine+tailings+spill+nearly+cent+bigger+than+first+estimated/10172302/story.html.

Justine Hunter, B.C. Didn’t Inspect Mount Polley Mine in 2010, 2011, The Globe and Mail (Oct. 14, 2014), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/bc-didnt-inspect-mount-polley-mine-in-2010-2011/article21084272/.

Independent Expert Engineering Review Launched Following Mount Polley Dam Breach, British Columbia Newsroom (Aug. 18, 2014), http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/2014/08/independent-expert-engineering-review-launched-following-mount-polley-dam-breach.html.

Peter Moskowitz, Mount Polley Mine Spill: A Hazard of Canada’s Industry-Friendly Attitude?, The Guardian (Aug. 13, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/13/mount-polley-mine-spill-british-columbia-canada.

Anna Mehler Paperny, What’s in Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Tailings? Should you be Worried?, Global News (Aug. 5, 2014), http://globalnews.ca/news/1493012/whats-in-imperial-metals-mount-polley-tailings-should-you-be-worried/.

Tailings Breach Information, Imperial Metals, http://www.imperialmetals.com/s/Mt_Polley_Update.asp?ReportID=671041 (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).


Water and energy are vital to the U.S. economy. Hardly a portion of the national GDP is not tied to one or both of these critical resources because they depend heavily on one another. Energy is a key element in producing, processing, and distributing potable and wastewater. Likewise, water is a necessary feedstock to nearly all traditional electrical generation technologies, and is a primary component of hydraulic fracturing fluids, which are giving rise to the rebirth of the U.S. as an energy-producing nation.

The production and consumption of these resources are under increased pressure from population growth and climate change. As agricultural areas experience higher temperatures, evapotranspiration losses increase, resulting in the need for additional water supplies. Higher ground surface temperatures call for additional electrical production to meet air conditioning demands. Despite the critical, intertwined nature of these resources, policy makers have largely treated them separately.

Water for Energy

Nearly all traditional electricity generation technologies use water as both a working fluid and coolant. Thermoelectric power plants, such as those driven by coal or nuclear rely on the repeated boiling and condensing of steam to generate power. Thermodynamic considerations require that some of the input energy dissipate as waste heat, which is often accomplished with water-cooling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) estimates that twenty-five gallons of water are withdrawn for each kilowatt-hour (“kWh”) of electricity produced. Much of this is returned to the water supply via once-through cooling systems, although two to eight kWh per gallon are lost due to evaporation. Since the late 1950s, environmental regulations have led to a decrease in the number of thermoelectric power generation systems employing once-through cooling, because of the negative environmental impacts of the associated thermal plumes. Closed-loop water-cooling systems, which use evaporative cooling, are largely taking the place of once-through systems. Although evaporative systems withdraw much less water from the environment, they actually consume more; once-through systems return nearly all their withdrawn water to the primary water source. Evaporative systems, in contrast, recirculate water, but require constant withdrawals to make up for evaporation losses. As of the end of 2012, evaporative systems made up approximately fifty-two percent of the thermoelectric cooling systems in operation in the U.S. generation fleet. However, since 2000, there has been a rise, albeit small, in the number of dry cooling systems deployed that use no water.

Recently, companies that provide water to hydraulic fracturing operations have begun to compete at auctions with Colorado farmers for water withdrawn from the Colorado River Basin via the Moffat Tunnel. This competition has given rise to concerns about the balance between energy and food production as beneficial uses of scarce water resources. Energy producers generally occupy a favorable economic position relative to farmers when bidding for water in the open market. The water needs of the hydraulic fracturing industry remain small, at about 0.1 percent of statewide water use. However, the industry expects its annual demand in Colorado to grow to 18,700 acre-feet by 2015. This reality has prompted some agriculture leaders to question how their business will fare in the face of more demand on a finite resource. On September 8th, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper created the Task Force on State and Local Regulation of Oil and Gas Operations (“Task Force”). It remains to be seen whether the Task Force will address this issue with specific recommendations.

Energy for Water

Energy costs can account for as much as seventy-five percent of the total cost of providing municipal potable water, and accounts for approximately four percent of total U.S. energy consumption. In heavily agricultural states like California, that percentage may be much higher, for example, accounting for nineteen percent of electricity and thirty-two percent of natural gas consumed statewide. When water utilities must move water between basins, the cost of inter-basin pumping can be as high as 14,000 kWh per million gallons (4,700 kWh per acre-foot). By way of comparison, the average U.S. household uses approximately 11,000 kWh of electricity per year. Driven by population growth and higher water quality standards, national energy demand for water and wastewater treatment grew by over thirty percent from 1996 to 2013.

Mix of Regulations

Despite the critical nature of these deeply intertwined resources, most policy actions treat water and energy separately. On the federal level, three recent laws are highly influential on energy policy: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, and the 2005 Energy Policy Act. These acts authorized additional energy development in the U.S., along with a variety of measures to promote energy efficiency and renewable fuels. Individual states have adopted a wide variety to renewable portfolio standards and goals, which promote changes in the energy mix, yet produce a patchwork of regulations.

Policy governing water resources is no less fractured. Important federal statutes regarding water include: the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Reclamation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The variety of state prior appropriation, riparian, and regulated riparian doctrines, along with international treaties complicates the situation further.

The additive effects of climate change and population growth will likely continue to stress the nation’s energy and water systems. In response to these challenges, the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”), in 2012, created the Water and Energy Tech Team (“WETT”) whose mission is to identify technology, data, analysis, and policy priorities in the Energy-Water space. WETT has identified six pillars as a foundation for its work including: (1) optimization of the freshwater efficiency of energy production and electricity generation technologies; (2) optimization of the energy efficiency of water treatment and distribution systems; (3) increased resilience of energy and water systems; (4) increased use of non-traditional water sources (e.g. brackish) for energy systems; (5) promotion of responsible energy operations with respect to water quality; and (6) exploration of synergies between water and energy technologies.

Regarding policy, WETT has highlighted successful regional efforts to integrate water and energy management, such as those of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (“Commission”), for possible wider application across the nation. The Commission adapted early to increased water use for hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus shale. It set all relevant regulatory thresholds to one gallon and promotes water sharing between companies, the reuse of flowback, and interbasin transfers of flowback. These efforts have resulted in an average flowback reuse per well of fourteen percent.

Recognition of the importance of the water-energy nexus to the economic and environmental security of the nation is beginning to take hold. Ample opportunities exist, both in the technology and policy spaces, to make these interconnected systems more robust, reliable, efficient, and secure.

The title image is of a geothermal power plant and has been released into the public domain. The original owner of this image does not endorse this blog. 


Sources:

American Geophysical Union, Water-Energy Nexus: Solutions to Meet a Growing Demand 10 (2012).

Bruce Finley, Fracking Bidders Top Farmers at Water Auction, Denver Post, Apr. 2, 2012.

Colo. Exec. Order No. B 2014 005 (Sep. 8, 2014).

Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=97&t=3.

Gary Klein, California Energy Commission, California’s Water-Energy Relationship 8 (2005).

Jim Richenderfer, National Capital Area Chapter U.S. Assoc. for Energy Economics Energy-Water Nexus 2, 9, 13 (Apr. 9, 2013), http://www.ncac-usaee.org/pdfs/2013_04Richenderfer.pdf.

Preeyaphorn Kosa, The Effect of Temperature on Actual Evapotranspiration based on Landsat 5 TM Satellite Imagery 225 (2011), http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs-wm/14187.pdf.

U.S. Department of Energy, The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities v-x, 4, 18-19, 52-55, 87 (2014).

U.S. Energy Information Administration, Many Newer Power Plants Have Cooling Systems That Reuse Water, Today In Energy, Feb. 11, 2014, http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=14971

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Water-Energy Connection, http://www.epa.gov/region9/waterinfrastructure/waterenergy.html (last visited October 11, 2014).


On September 30, 2014, Judge David Campbell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona upheld the twenty year moratorium against new uranium mines in and around Grand Canyon National Park much to the dismay of the mining industry. Uranium mining has a long, storied history in the American Southwest, a region of iconic natural beauty and sparse water.

Environmental groups, tribal nations, and river rats are embracing Judge Campbell’s decision, much like they did former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s declaration of the moratorium in 2009.

The Process and Risks of Uranium Mining

Like any hard rock mining process, uranium extraction requires immense amounts of water and poses significant risks to the environment and human health. Depending on the quality and depth of the ore, several different extractive methods may be employed, but all use massive amounts of water and result in chemical contamination from extracting and processing the ore. (The proposed mines and exploratory sites around the Canyon involved in this litigation, for example, were predicted to use over 300 million gallons of water.) Uranium is a radioactive mineral known to cause cancer. Other metals and minerals, such as selenium, molybdenum, arsenic, and nickel, commonly coincide with uranium deposits. These metals all pose significant health risks, especially when disturbed and concentrated at the surface. Mining activities disturb these elements and concentrate them in waste rock, tailing ponds, and wastewater. Water’s exposure to radioactive ore and wastewater pose significant risks to human health and the surrounding natural environment, including vegetation and animals.

Uranium and Water in the Canyon

The Grand Canyon region is home to some of the richest uranium deposits in the United States, in formations called breccia pipes. These pipes, 300 to 500 feet in diameter, extend thousands of feet into the ground. The uranium deposits around the Canyon were already being explored when President Teddy Roosevelt listed the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908. The industry’s heyday corresponded with the Cold War when uranium prices skyrocketed. Hundreds of ill-regulated mines disturbed land around the Canyon, but operators later abandoned or suspended many smaller mines as market demand for uranium waned. Only four mines remain active to this day (the moratorium does not prevent these active mines, but rather prevents further development), but industry pushed to overturn the moratorium and increase new production, despite a fall in uranium prices following the Fukushima fallout. Just north of the Grand Canyon, Pinenut Mine continues to produce uranium, but at a steep environmental price. An abandoned shaft contains millions of gallons of water contaminated with uranium at eighty times the safe limit for human consumption. It is unknown if this water has contaminated surrounding aquifers. Open-air evaporation ponds of wastewater and tailings are a death trap for birds and other wildlife at the mine site.

Because there is so much dependence on the Colorado River, interest in its safety extends far beyond Arizona’s state border. Nearly thirty million people from seven states rely on water from the Colorado River basin for industrial, municipal, agricultural, and recreational uses. Water utilities of Arizona, California, and Nevada expressed concerns that mining waste could enter the Colorado River via runoff and endanger their claims to the Colorado River. Multiple American Indian tribes, including defendant-intervenors in the district court action, the Havasupai and Haulapai tribes, have significant cultural and religious connection to the Canyon and its surrounding water. One aquifer underlying an abandoned uranium mine where tests shows dangerously elevated levels of radiation and hard mineral contamination is the Havasupai peoples’ sole source of drinking water.

Canyon Water Endangered by Proposed Mines

While water contamination is certainly a concern in any community, it is of particular concern around the Canyon because of the existing geology. The dissolved rates of uranium and related metals are naturally higher the Canyon watershed because of the minerals’ presence in the area. Judge Campbell used a USGS report that found Canyon waters contaminated with unsafe levels of uranium, selenium, and arsenic, particularly at sample points near old or suspended mines and exploratory uranium sites to inform his decision. The report was unclear as to the cause of the contamination. Whether the increased levels of chemicals in the water are the result of natural runoff and flooding, or the result of past mining activity in the area is still uncertain. The plaintiffs, a consortium of companies who all seek to operate new uranium mines around the Canyon, argued Secretary Salazar and the Department of Interior took an “overly cautious” stance in reaction to the uncertainty of the source of contamination, and the removal of nearly one million acres of land from mining activity was inappropriate. Judge Campbell, however, rejected this argument and reasoned that while the source of contamination may be uncertain, the potential impacts of such contamination are too great to risk.

Water contamination is not the only concern with industrial uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. The Department of Interior’s study of mining impacts prior to Secretary Salazar’s moratorium predicted that seven hundred exploratory claims and twenty six new uranium mines could be developed, consuming 316 million gallons of water. Springs, aquifers, and potentially even the Colorado River itself would provide the water for such activities. This substantial use of already low supplies of water in the desert could deplete drinking water sources for canyon communities and endanger the environment in the midst of existing and predicted drought conditions. Judge Campbell held the stakes were simply too high for the Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is a world heritage site, a source of cultural pride for the American Southwest, and the sacred birthplace of the Havasupai and the Haulapi peoples. Judge Campbell’s decision protects the unique watershed of the Grand Canyon from drastic water extraction and potentially severe fallout of radiation contamination from large-scale uranium extraction.

 

The title picture features the Orphan Mine in Grand Canyon National Park. This is just one abandoned copper-uranium mines in the park. The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License to Alan Levine, who does not endorse this blog. 


Sources:

Chrissy Pepino, Protecting the Grand Canyon against Uranium Mining, Earthjustice (2012), http://earthjustice.org/features/protecting-the-grand-canyon-against-uranium-mining.

Dana S. Ulmer-Scholle, Uranium – How is it Mined?, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Res. (Aug. 4, 2014), https://geoinfo.nmt.edu/resources/uranium/mining.html.

Press Release, Center for Biological Diversity, Feds urged to Suspend Grand Canyon Uranium Mine to Protect Water, Wildlife and People: BLM Fails to Respond to Groundwater Contamination at Pinenute Mine, (Aug. 4, 2014) available at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2014/grand_canyon_uranium-08-04-2014.html.

Press Release, Earthjustice, Court Upholds Grand Canyon Uranium Mining Ban, (Sept. 30, 2014) available at http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2014/court-upholds-grand-canyon-uranium-mining-ban.

Donald J. Bills, et. al., Breccia-Pipe Uranium Mining in Northern Arizona – Estimate of Resources and Assessment of Historical Effects, United states geological survey (Jan. 2011), available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2010/3050/fs2010-3050.pdf.

Yount v. Salazar, No. CV11-8171 DGC (Ariz. Dist. September 30, 2014), available at http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/FINAL%20ORder%20-%20Grand%20Canyon%20withdrawal.pdf.


California’s lakes and rivers were the first to display the current drought with their growing banks and plunging surface area, but the state’s hidden groundwater is also losing volume and feeling the effects of the drought. California relies on groundwater for forty percent of all fresh-water consumed in California. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation, the first of this kind in California history, regarding groundwater. The Governor stated that the severity of the drought is what allowed this legislation to pass in the legislature and onto him to be signed; policy about water is of utmost concern in the state.

The passage of this trio of bills about groundwater use and management solidifies California’s status as the last Western state to regulate groundwater. This new legislation turns the state away from its previous system of landowners being able to pump as much groundwater as they please, which has been in place since the gold rush. Rather, this new legislation moves to emulate other Western states in considering groundwater a shared resource that must be managed by state agencies.

The three bills: Senate Bill (SB) 1168, Assembly Bill (AB) 1739, and Senate Bill 1319 are the foundation for the new regulatory plan. SB 1168 instructs local agencies to develop management plans. AB 1739 creates the possibility for state intervention when local agencies do not do a satisfactory job at managing. SB 1319 postpones state action for areas where surface water has been depleted previously by the pumping of groundwater. Many urban and coastal legislators supported the bills, but the agricultural communities opposed the bills because they fear property value loss and heavy water restrictions. SB 1319 was introduced to alleviate the concerns posed by legislators from agriculture-heavy districts. While SB 1319 was an attempt at finding a common ground, voting for the bills still displayed a regional divide.

This legislation arises out of concern that an ever-drying California is over-pumping groundwater; the results of which could be quite detrimental. Over-pumping can compress rocks and soil to the point that it permanently reduces the storage capacity for groundwater. The compression of soil and rocks can also lead to sinking and shifting land, which can damage infrastructure like roads, canals, and building foundations.

While environmentalists and water managers are excited for the new legislation, many involved in agriculture have large concerns with the new bills. Agricultural groups, like the California Farm Bureau, fear the bills will infringe upon private property rights and farmers ability to get adequate amounts of water. The President of the California Farm Bureau, Paul Wegner, said the bill could potentially become “historic” for all the wrong reasons, such as by destroying California’s ability to be a world-leader in food production.

These new bills will not create any type of immediate relief, nor will they be implemented quickly. It will take years for the state to create, introduce, and oversee local management plans. Local planners have until 2017 to create or choose a groundwater agency. Those agencies then have until 2020 or 2022, based on how dire their groundwater situation is, to create sustainability plans. California will not feel the effects of these sustainability plans and recovery of the over-pumped basins until at least 2040, creating a long wait for a state amid a historical drought.

 

The title picture is a depiction of a dried out California riverbed. This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not endorse this blog.

 


Sources:

Melanie Mason, Brown signs bill to regulate pumping of underground water, The Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-pol-water-brown-20140917-story.html (last visited September 20, 2014).

The Associated Press, Things to know about California groundwater law, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/sep/16/things-to-know-about-california-groundwater-law/ (last visited September 20, 2014).

David Siders, Jerry Brown signs groundwater legislation, The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/09/16/6711717/video-jerry-brown-signs-groundwater.html (last visited September 20, 2014).

Dairy Today Editors, California Farm Bureau Will ‘Actively Monitor’ Implementation of State’s New Groundwater Law, http://www.agweb.com/article/california_farm_bureau_will_%E2%80%98actively_monitor_implementation_of_states_new_groundwater_law_NAA_Dairy_Today_Editors/ (last visited September 20, 2014).


Lake Mead, the primary upstream reservoir for the state of Arizona, is currently estimated to contain approximately 39 percent of its total water capacity. In the month of July, the water level of the lake was at its lowest documented level since 1937. However, unlike today, in 1937 the low levels resulted from the completion of the Hoover dam on the Colorado River that was intended to collect water and form the nation’s largest man-made reservoir. As a result of the receding water level, multiple boat landings and marinas found on Lake Mead have either had to relocate or shut down operations entirely. The businesses that decide to continue operating encounter severe costs associated with transporting or reconstructing the mandatory electrical, fuel, water, and sewer lines.

If Colorado River Basin States do not develop methods to reduce water consumption while simultaneously surviving the extreme drought, Arizona could be forced to cut water deliveries to cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. Presently, Lake Mead supplies approximately half of Phoenix’s total water needs, while Tucson obtains nearly all of its water from the lake.

Specifically, if Arizona cannot reduce its water consumption, water delivery cutbacks could become necessary by the year 2019. Also, depending on future drought conditions, the potential for water cutbacks could be as high as 29 percent by the year 2026.  Officials from the Central Arizona Project (“CAP”), which manages the 336-mile water system, believe that cities could possibly make accommodations for the water reductions by obtaining water from other surface water sources, such as lakes and rivers.

Although the limited water supply is not by any means a new concern to states in the Southwest, the prospective water shortage in Arizona’s cities is being raised publicly for the first time. If states located in the upstream portion of the Colorado River Basin cannot provide for the water shortage, with water obtained from snow melt or rain fall, Lake Mead’s surface level is projected to reach 1,000 feet above sea level by the year 2020, which is nearly 220 feet below its water level capacity.

Despite the potential of a near, worst-case scenario, CAP officials continue to maintain a relatively positive attitude for the organization’s plan of action. First, officials believe that such water shortages should not affect Arizona cities for at least 10 to 15 years. In 2007, the Secretary of the Interior adopted guidelines that quantify the reductions at various water surface elevations of Lake Mead. CAP officials ensure that the maximum reduction under the guidelines is still enough water to supply all of the municipal demands. Second, the predicted water shortages by 2017 will mainly affect central Arizona’s agricultural system, which is already preparing for reductions in water supply. Finally, the Arizona Water Banking Authority stores excess water in underground aquifers and has done so since the organization’s creation in 1995.

Lake Mead’s receding water level presents a grave concern for lower Colorado River Basin States such as Arizona. However, a “key shortage declaration,” which is only initiated if Lake Mead’s water level reaches 1,075 feet, is unlikely to be made either this year or in 2015.

 

The title picture is of Lake Mead, straddling the Nevada-Arizona border.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner of this picture does not endorse the DU WLR.


Sources:

Michael Wines, Arizona Cities Could Face Cutbacks in Water From Colorado River, Officials Say, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/18/us/arizona-cities-could-face-cutbacks-in-water-from-colorado-river-officials-say.html?_r=0 (last visited July 25, 2014).

Pamela Pickard, The Facts About Arizona’s Water Supplies, Central Arizona Project http://www.cap-az.com/index.php/public/blog/468-the-facts-about-arizonas-water-supplies (last visited July 26, 2014).

William M. Welch, West’s water worries rise as Lake Mead falls, USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/26/lake-mead-falling-in-sign-of-drought/13079009/  (last visited July 28, 2014).

The Associated Press, Water Levels at Nevada’s Lake Mead drop to new low, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/2014/07/08/water-levels-at-nevadas-lake-mead-drop-to-new-low/12392335/ (last visited July 28, 2014).


How does “pebble” transform into a giant boulder? When it is followed by the word “mine.” Pebble Limited Partnership (“PLP”), a U.S. subsidiary of Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., is seeking to develop its mineral claims and operate “Pebble Mine” in southwest Alaska. Conceivably, Pebble Mine could be the largest open pit copper mine in North America and one of the largest such mines in the world. Pebble Mine could have a significant economic impact on Alaska and the lower 48 states. Yet, Alaska Natives, fishermen, hunters, recreationalists, environmental advocates, trade associations, and various other groups contend the mine could have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed (“Watershed”), specifically the fish and wildlife that nurture therein and the Native Alaskan cultures that live and work therein.

Paramount amongst these interests is the world’s largest salmon hatchery.  Salmon, however, are not tolerant of copper. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) agrees with the salmon and, pursuant to authority apparently granted it by the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), is taking bold steps to possibly preclude the issuance of discharge permits before PLP even applies.  PLP responded by filing suit against the EPA, asking a federal judge to enjoin the EPA from exceeding its authority.  In short, it’s copper versus salmon, with salmon in the early lead in what could be a very, very long race.

THE STAGE

First discovered in 1988, the Pebble Deposit is located exclusively on remote, state-owned land about 200 air miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bristol Bay watershed (the “Watershed”). The Watershed is comprised of six major watersheds and a series of smaller watersheds draining from the North Alaska Peninsula.  Pebble Mine would sit just 17 miles north of Lake Iliamna, the largest incubator of salmon in North America, and within a few miles of major fault lines causing historic seismic activity.

With a total population near 4,337, twenty-five Native Alaskan communities have lived and sustained their culture for 4,000 years in the Watershed. Subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering is nearly mandatory in the region. Due to its isolation, the region boasts few businesses and a high cost of living.

Government supplies the only substantial year-round employment. Fishing (commercial, sport and subsistence), hunting (sport and subsistence), and non-consumptive recreation (wildlife viewing and tourism) comprise the three largest non-government sectors, providing employment for 14,000 full and part-time workers and generating nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures (i.e., money spent by these workers) annually.

While copper would like to be king in the Watershed, the wild sockeye salmon (“sockeye”) sits atop the throne. The Watershed produces an average of 37.5 million sockeye each year, nearly 50% of the world’s sockeye population. Harvesting over 27 million sockeye annually, Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery is responsible for nearly 63% of jobs and 82% of annual expenditures in the non-government sector. The Watershed also supports four other species of Pacific salmon and is home to thirty-five other fish species (including some of the most renowned rainbow trout in the world), 190 bird species, and more than forty terrestrial mammal species, including caribou, moose, bears, and wolves.

Attempting to coexist with these desirable resources, the area also contains significant wealth in a variety of minerals.  In addition to Pebble Mine, other mining companies have claimed over 1,000 acres.

PEBBLE MINE – ITS POTENTIAL FOOTPRINT AND ECONOMICS

Pebble Mine is estimated to contain 81 billion pounds of copper, 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum, 107 million ounces of gold, and significant amounts of other minerals. PLP estimates the deposit contains enough copper to meet approximately 33% of the U.S. annual copper needs for many years.

If built and operated to its maximum potential, Pebble Mine project could cover twenty-eight square miles. Within this area, the mine’s open pit would cover about seven square miles and extend three-quarters of a mile into the earth. The “tailings facility,” the containment area for the materials left over after processing the ore, could have nine miles of 740-foot high dams. Pebble Mine could produce over ten billion tons of “waste rock,” the material that is displaced during the process of mining but is not processed for ore.  This amount of waste rock would fill 108 million rail cars sixty-five feet in length — enough rail cars to circle the Earth at its equator over fifty times.  Approximately 70% of Pebble Mine’s waste rock would be “acid-generating,” that is, capable of oxidizing and leaching acids into the water supply for as many as 100 years.  Although PLP refers to Pebble Mine as merely “an idea,” over $720 million has been spent developing the idea thus far.

In May 2013, IHS Global Insight (“IHS”), headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, produced a detailed, sixty-nine page report addressing the potential contributions a conceptual Pebble Mine could have on the economies of Alaska and the United States. IHS based the report on a conceptual mine because, according to the report, “PLP does not have a definitive, approved, and permitted development plan in place.” During each year of an estimated five years of mine construction (the “construction phase”), IHS estimates that Pebble Mine could support over 16,000 jobs in Alaska and the lower forty-eight states, contribute $400 million to Alaska’s gross state product (“GSP”) and $1.6 billion to U.S. gross domestic product (“GDP”), and generate state and federal revenues of $323 million. For each of the initial twenty years during which minerals are produced (the “production phase”), IHS estimates the project could support 15,000 jobs in Alaska and the lower 48 states, contribute $1.1 billion to Alaska GSP and $2.4 billion to U.S. GDP, and generate over $670 million in state and federal revenues.

EPA’s SCIENTIFIC ASSESSMENT

In May 2012, the EPA undertook to perform a scientific assessment of the impacts of mining on salmon and those relying upon salmon in Bristol Bay, purportedly in response to concerns raised by nine federally recognized tribes and other stakeholders and consistent with the EPA’s authority under Sections 104(a) and 104(b) of the CWA. The EPA compiled the assessment using a scientific team with expertise in varying disciplines such as fisheries biology, mining, geochemistry, anthropology. After considering comments from the public and scientists, the EPA submitted another draft for comment and review in April 2013. In January 2014, the EPA submitted a 630 page report titled, An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska (Final Report) (“Final Report”).

Just as IHS did not have a definitive, approved, and permitted development plan on which to base its economic opinion for Pebble Mine, the EPA had no final plans on which to base its scientific opinion. In lieu thereof, the EPA developed three “foreseeable” scenarios with a range of mine sizes and operating conditions. The Final Report focused on the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds in Bristol Bay, the major river watersheds closest to the Pebble Mine. Within these watersheds, the EPA further focused on the potential impacts to salmon and how these impacts might affect indigenous subsistence cultures and wildlife. Taking into account traditional operations and foreseeable failures of its hypothetical mines, the EPA concluded that mining in the Bristol Bay will have substantial, and perhaps irreversible, impacts on salmon, other fishes, fish habitats, wildlife, and Native Alaskan cultures.

THE EPA WIELDS ITS MIGHTY SWORD

On February 28, 2014, the EPA Region 10 gave notice to PLP, the State of Alaska, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) that it is “proceed[ing] under its Clean Water Act section 404(c) regulations to review potential adverse environmental effects of discharges of dredged and fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit in southwest Alaska.” In its February 28th letter, the EPA outlined a four-step process under Section 404(c): (i) to consult with the owners, the State of Alaska, and the Corps (collectively, the “stakeholders”), (ii) publish a Proposed Determination, (iii) receive public comments and develop a Recommended Determination, and (iv) consult with the stakeholders again. The EPA set an April 29, 2014, deadline to satisfy step one.

REACTIONS TO THE EPA’s ACTIONS

The reactions to the EPA’s assessment and actions have been wide and diverse. Naturally, the mining industry takes issue with the EPA’s Final Report, specifically arguing that the EPA’s hypothetical mining scenarios do not reflect reality, are biased, and violate the Due Process rights of the Pebble Deposit’s claimants.  Proponents of mining, and others with an interest in Section 404(b) permitting, are referring to EPA’s action as a “preemptive veto” of discharge permits for which PLP has yet to apply.

In May 2014, PLP filed suit against EPA in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska seeking to enjoin it from preemptively denying its prospective permits.  PLP’s CEO referred to the EPA’s action as a “massive federal overreach” and said, “Litigation is necessary in order to get the Agency’s attention and bring some rational perspective back to the US permitting process.”  The State of Alaska filed a motion to intervene in the suit as a co-plaintiff to “prevent the EPA from taking land by prematurely limiting development before the state’s permitting processes have a chance to work.”

Numerous politicians have also chimed in. The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (“House Oversight”) has initiated an investigation into allegations of “political motivation and unfair bias.” According to documents already obtained by House Oversight, the EPA may have been considering a preemptive veto as early as 2010, perhaps even before federal tribes and others began asking EPA to assess the risks of Pebble Mine.

On March 26, 2014, Senators David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) introduced the “Regulatory Fairness Act of 2014” (“RFA”).  If passed, the RFA would prohibit the EPA from preemptively or retroactively vetoing a permit issued under Section 404 of the CWA.

On the other side of the coin, many individuals, businesses, environmentalists, and public interest groups are overjoyed by the EPA’s actions. According to one such group, the Wild Salmon Center, “There is too much at stake to conduct an experiment of this scale with a resource of Bristol Bay’s economic, ecological, and cultural value.” Trout Unlimited proclaims that pollution from Pebble Mine is a “virtual certainty” and represents “an epic threat to the region’s fish, jobs and a way of life for thousands of Alaska Natives.”  In another entity’s opinion, if mining development begins in the Watershed, “the scope of the disaster is the only question.”

Investors have also bailed on Pebble Mine.  Northern Dynasty’s original partner, Anglo American, pulled out of the project in September 2013, taking a $300 million hit in the process.  In April 2014, Rio Tinto donated its 19.8% interest in Northern Dynasty Minerals to the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (“BBNC”) Education Foundation and the Alaska Community Foundation.  Upon receipt, the BBNC publicly thanked Rio Tinto for its donation but admonished that “BBNC’s opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine has not changed.”  In June 2014, BBNC sold its stock for $6.48 million and plans to use the funds for scholarships and a cultural heritage program.

In November 2014, barring court order otherwise, the issue will be put to Alaska voters.  If passed, the “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative would “require legislative approval of any large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation within the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, or which has the potential to adversely affect any anadromous waters within the reserve.”

THE FUTURE OF PEBBLE MINE

No mine has ever failed to get permitting in Alaska.  But no previous mine has ever cast a shadow the size of Pebble Mine.  Although Pebble Mine’s executives (and lawyers) remain hopeful, the anti-Pebble Mine groups will certainly continue to vigorously oppose mining in the Watershed.  For now, the dispositive issue is whether and under what circumstances the EPA can pre-empt the ordinary process and summarily conclude that, based upon known science, there are no circumstances under which discharge permits could ever be issued to PLP under the CWA. Only time, politics, and, most certainly, years of litigation will determine the fates of Pebble Mine, the salmon, and everything the salmon represents.

 

The title picture is of Lake Iliamna in Alaska. The lake is the largest incubator for salmon in Bristol Bay Watershed. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Subject to disclaimers and Alaska Trekker does no endorse this blog.


Sources:

Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1254(a)-(b) (2012).

Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1444(b)-(c) (2012).

About Bristol Bay, EPA, http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay/about-bristol-bay (last visited Apr., 13 2014).

About The Bay, Save Bristol Bay, http://www.savebristolbay.org/about-the-bay (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

Ana Komnenic, Northern Dynasty tanks as EPA blocks issuance of key permit, Mining.com (Feb. 28, 2014), http://www.mining.com/northern-dynasty-tanks-as-epa-blocks-pebble-mine-permitting-28247/.

An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska: Executive Summary, EPA (Jan. 2014), available at http://www.epa.gov/ncea/pdfs/bristolbay/bristol_bay_assessment_final_2014_ES.pdf (last visited Apr. 6, 2014).

Backgrounder, Alaskans for Bristol Bay, http://alaskansforbristolbay.com/backgrounder.php (last visited July 17, 2014).

Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Pebble Watch, “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative to appear on ballots Nov. 4 (June 24, 2014), www.pebblewatch.com.

Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Pebble Watch, State of Alaska petitions to join Pebble in civil suit against EPA (June 3, 2014), www.pebblewatch.com.

IHS Global Insight, The Economic and Employment Contributions of a Conceptual Pebble Mine to the Alaska and United States Economies (May 2013), available at http://corporate.pebblepartnership.com/files/documents/study.pdf (prepared for the Pebble Limited Partnership).

IHS Global Insight, The Pebble Project: Economics and Employment, Visual Capitalist http://www.visualcapitalist.com/the-pebble-project-economics-and-employment (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

Letter from Dennis J. McLerran, Regional Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 10, to Thomas Collier, Chief Executive Officer, Pebble Limited Partnership, Joe Balash, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, &  Col. Christopher D. Lestochi, Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Feb. 28, 2014), available at http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-02/documents/bristol-bay-15day-letter-2-28-2014.pdf.

Press Release, BBNC Education Foundation realizes $6.48 million from RioTinto donation (June 13, 2014), http://www.bbnc.net/Index.php/our-corporation/news-events.

Press Release, EPA moves to protect Bristol Bay fishery from Pebble Min, EPA (Feb. 28, 2014), available at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/names/r10_2014-2-28_bristol_bay.

Press Release, U.S. Senate Comm. on Environment & Public Works, Vitter, Manchin Introduce Bill to Stop EPA’s Preemptive, Retroactive Vetoes of Water Permits (Mar. 25, 2014), available at http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=cc41ea2b-c8bc-ebb8-9ef7-46805692c73e.

Shane Lasley, Mining News: EPA effort to stop Pebble draws fire, Mining News (Mar. 30, 2014), http://www.petroleumnews.com/pntruncate/866460674.shtml.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, Why Mine?, http://www.pebblepartnership.com/why.html (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

The Pebble Limited Partnership, Location, http://www.pebblepartnership.com/location.html (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

The Pebble Limited Partnership: People, http://www.pebblepartnership.com/people.html (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

The Pebble Mine Report: Bristol Bay’s Wild Salmon Ecosystems and the Pebble Mine: Key Considerations for a Large-Scale Mine Proposal, Wild Salmon Center, http://www.wildsalmoncenter.org/programs/north_america/pebblemine.php (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).

Why We Studied the Bristol Bay Watershed, EPA, http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay/why-we-studied-bristol-bay-watershed (last visited Apr. 13, 2014).


INTRODUCTION

Water is emerging as the “new oil.” Water has always been a precious commodity, particularly in arid climates and underdeveloped nations. Access to potable water is a fundamental right. As such, disputes over access to water have become increasingly common. In regions with growing populations these disputes have become volatile. The Middle East is no exception, and the water disputes in that region are further complicated by longstanding geopolitical tensions.

The history of water-related conflicts in the Middle East stretches over the past 5,000 years. Currently, the Israeli-Palestinian water dispute is center-stage in the international arena. Israelis and Palestinians coexist in a small region with a large population density.  The physical proximity of the two populations necessitates close collaboration with respect to use and allocation of scarce natural resources. Specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be attributed, in part, to a dispute over the two major shared water sources: the surface water that originates in the Jordan River Basin and the mountain aquifers that extend from the West Bank into Israel.  The Palestinians believe that the Israelis wield their power to impede the flow of water to Palestinian communities.  In contrast, Israelis allege that Palestinians grossly mismanage their limited water supply to the detriment of all users.

The shortage of surface water and groundwater resources in the region inevitably exacerbates the already explosive conflict between the two communities. This makes finding a resolution to the on-going water shortage, which is now elevated to a crisis level, even more pressing.  Rather than permitting this shortage of water to add to the mounting tension in the region, this dispute over a scarce resource should be viewed as an opportunity to cooperate and find a solution that benefits both parties and helps establish the foundation of trust necessary to facilitate legitimate peace negotiations.  Though the security of Israel, maintenance of human rights and the Israeli settlement policies are each legitimate political concerns, the serious health dangers associated with open sewage, lack of water, and empty or polluted wells should be considered of equal importance by the actors in the region and the international community.

DISPARATE PERSPECTIVES

High-tech irrigation systems and public awareness aid Israelis in achieving more efficient water use than their Palestinian neighbors. Israel has a high per capita water use and has taken a firm stance on its unwillingness to reduce the water supply for urban or agricultural use. Most importantly, the Israelis view water as a security issue. Water is a political vehicle wielded to gain a stronger footing in the disputed territories. Furthermore, the Israelis believe the Palestinians misuse and mismanage their shared water supplies, thereby posing a direct threat to Israel.

The Palestinians believe water use is a right, which they are continually denied.  Palestinians view the denial of water rights as a major impediment to the Palestinian economy. A 2009 report by the World Bank asserted that the Palestinian economy endured substantial costs due to lost opportunities in irrigated agriculture as a result of water limitations. The study estimated the loss as 10% of GDP and 110,000 jobs. Moreover, health concerns also exist. According to UNICEF, over 90% of the water taken from Gaza Coastal Aquifer (“GCA”), Gaza’s sole aquifer, is insufficient for human consumption. Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that they are unjustly burdened by having to purchase their water from overpriced and unregulated sources. More than 80% of the people in Gaza purchase drinking water from unregulated, private vendors, despite the water’s likely contamination. This imposes an additional financial and health burden on the people of Gaza.

UNICEF officials assert that some families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water. The World Bank determined that Israel consumes 80% of the water available in the mountain aquifer which runs the length of the occupied West Bank  and is shared with other occupants of the West Bank.  According to the World Bank, Israelis use 240 cubic meters of water per person each year; West Bank Palestinians use 75 cubic meters, and residents of Gaza use 125 cubic meters. However, it is noteworthy that in some areas of the West Bank, Palestinians report living on as little as 6 cubic meters of water per person per year.

Historically, Gaza has been dependent upon its coastal aquifer because there are no streams or rivers.  However, due to water mining—where water is pumped out of the aquifer at a higher rate than replenished—seawater from the Mediterranean has permeated into the groundwater. As a result, the water salinity has reached undrinkable levels.  Moreover, this water is also contaminated by raw and partially treated sewage coming from Gaza every day and flowing into the shallow coastal waters. One recent United Nations report predicted that the aquifer will be inoperative by 2016 because of overuse and contamination.

While some politicians attempt to divert attention to other issues, 1.7 million Palestinians are running out of fresh drinking water in the Gaza Strip. Although the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 ostensibly alleviated much of the tension between the nations over water allotment and sewage infrastructure, the fundamental dilemma remains that both sides have differing viewpoints of what should be achieved through a policy of water sharing. The Israeli government believes it has satisfied its obligations under international law. The Palestinians’ focus is on their desperate situation with respect to water rights. The disparate perspectives make collaboration very difficult The Joint Water Committee, established in accordance with the Oslo Peace Accords, has failed thus far to produce effective results and reform.

POLITICS STYMIE IMPROVEMENT

Environmental improvements in the region are stymied by political disputes. These disputes occur not only between the Israelis and Palestinians, but also among internal Palestinian political factions.  One example of the political impediment on the issue of water rights is illustrated by the completion of a wastewater treatment plant in November, 2013 to alleviate pollution of the GCA, which serves 400,000 people in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza is reliant on Israel for its electricity supply. However, Israel is refusing to provide the additional three megawatts required to power the treatment plant until Gaza’s current electricity bills are paid. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority disagree over who should pay the debt. Until this debt is paid, or an alternative electricity source emerges, untreated sewage will continue to pollute the coastal aquifer. As a result, the contamination threatens not only the individuals in the Gaza Strip, but an Israeli desalination plant in Ashkelon.

STEPS TO MITIGATE THE WATER CRISIS

Although there have been valiant efforts by a number of non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) to ameliorate this water crisis, the efforts are piecemeal and have largely had a minimal effect. Now, the involvement of the Friends of the Earth organization (“FoE”), has the potential to make a significant impact. This group has extensive financial resources and has identified the water conflict between Israel and Palestine as its first priority. As a result, it has begun to attract the international political attention necessary to alleviate this crisis.

The FoE campaign “Water Can’t Wait” is aimed at drawing global attention to the water crisis facing Gaza. FoE placed an hourglass full of polluted water in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square. This effort was a visual representation on display of the tainted water both Israelis and Palestinians encounter.   Other organizations, such as UNICEF, have facilitated the construction and implementation of eighteen small neighborhood desalination plants, providing free drinking water to 95,000 people. These grassroots efforts have had some tangible positive impact.  However, these small NGO organizations will only be able to make small improvements absent a monumental shift in government policy. Nevertheless, there is some hope emerging from even these incremental measures.

Cooperative work on water issues has also led to greater collaboration on other aspects of the Israeli occupation. For example, the Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin and the Israeli community of Tzur Hassadeh united to tackle water issues in 2010 and also came together to block construction of a separation wall, designed to separate the two communities by a physical barrier. The previous collective effort between these two communities to solve their mutual water issues built a foundation of trust. Working together to block the wall can serve as a model where everyone benefits.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Israel has a larger water supply due to large-scale desalination. Moreover, both sides need to deal with untreated sewage. Reigniting negotiations over water as a chief priority is logical from an economic, environmental, and partisan perspective. Both peoples could improve their living conditions. Palestinians would not have to purchase water from private companies. Furthermore, pollutants from rivers and streams would no longer affect the Israelis. A final agreement regarding water will provide the necessary foundation of trust required to put the political process between Israel and the Palestinians back on track.

Incremental problem solving between the two peoples, beginning with water and sanitation, can advance the overall peace effort by reaching a resolution on one of the issues that detrimentally affects both sides. The first step to finding a solution to shared water is to acknowledge that there is a water crisis and water disparities exist between Israelis and Palestinians. Next, Palestine will need independent water rights, which will require a proper infrastructure and enough water to manage. One potential avenue to accomplish this would require Israel to recognize Palestinian water rights to the Jordan River. Moreover, the Israeli government can provide the Palestinian Water Authority with water, free from charge. This can all be done without discussing more political and philosophical disputes, such as settlements or the sharing the sovereignty in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority would then distribute the water to Bethlehem, Hebron, and Yatta, in the West Bank, where the need for water is greatest. This action would bolster the Palestinian public support for the more moderate Palestinian Authority, demonstrating that tangible concessions can stem from negotiation, rather than violence.  The Palestinian Authority, in turn, could make a goodwill gesture and declare that the sewage treatment plant, piloted by the World Bank in Hebron, will expand to include the treatment of all Palestinian domestic and industrial sewage that currently permeates into Israel vis-à-vis the Hebron Stream. The United States could lend financial support to this effort, which is estimated to require an additional $30 million contribution. Israel would likely garner wide support, particularly in Beersheba, where the people are inundated with untreated sewage. There is potential for change. Water can be the key to facilitating this change.

CONCLUSION

Environmental problems transcend ethnic, tribal, or sectarian boundaries. Given the geopolitical significance of the Middle East, it is imperative to resolve a dispute that has significant ecosystem repercussions within the greater region. It is evident that fair, sustainable, and equitable relations between Israel and Palestine cannot occur without agreed upon arrangements for water sharing. While the insatiable need for fresh water in an arid climate is currently wielded as a political tool, cooperation in the reallocation and innovation of water and water-related technology has the capacity to unite the nations.  The thirst for adequate supplies of potable water is a common denominator. With courage and foresight the leadership of both the Palestinians and Israelis can use the region’s water crisis as a bridge to further collaboration and an easing of tensions.

 

The title picture is of the Jordan River in Israel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and the owner does not endorse this blog.


Sources:

Arwa Aburawa, Can water end the Arab-Israeli conflict? Aljazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/07/20117278519784574.html. (last visited Feb. 15, 2014).

Schein, Jonah, The Role of NGOs in Addressing Water Access in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 5 Sustainable Development Law & Policy 19 (2005). http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1405&context=sdlp (last visited Feb. 15, 2014).

Matthew Kalman, Gaza warned of looming water crisis: Friends of the Earth Campaign highlights problem which it says is being exacerbated by hold-ups in Middle East peace process, The Guardian, Jan. 30, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/30/gaza-looming-water-crisis-friends-earth  (last visited Feb. 15, 2014).

Rory McCarthy, Israelis get four-fifths of scarce West Bank water, says World Bank: Palestinians losing out in access to vital shared aquifer in the occupied territories, The Guardian, May 27, 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/may/27/israel-palestinian-water-dispute (last visited Feb.15, 2014).

Catherine Weibel and Sajy Elmughanni, A fresh solution to Gaza’s water crisis, UNICEF, Jan. 14, 2014, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/oPt_71763.html (last visited Feb. 8, 2014).

Thomas L. Friedman, Whose Garbage is this anyway? The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/friedman-whose-garbage-is-this-anyway.html (last visited Feb. 13, 2014).

Hilal Elver, Celebrating water cooperation: Red Sea to Dead Sea: Israel-Palestine Joint Water Committees work has been referred to as ‘water apartheid,’ and ‘pretence of cooperation.’ Aljazeera  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/celebrating-water-cooperation-r-201412072619203800.html (last visited Feb. 15, 2014).

The Palestinians’ West Bank: Squeeze them out, The Economist May 4, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21577111-jewish-settlements-expand-palestinians-are-being-driven-away-squeeze-them (last visited Feb. 15, 2014).Oded Eran & Gidon Bromberg, A New Road Map to Middle East Peace: Start with Water, Friends of the Earth Middle East. http://foeme.org/www/?module=projects&record_id=54 (last visited Feb. 20, 2014).

Martin Asser, Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Water, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11101797 (last visited Feb. 20, 2014).

 


Background

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. While using, possessing, and growing marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, twenty states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Maryland also allows medical use as a defense in court. Notwithstanding its illegality at the federal level, the medicinal and recreational marijuana industries have been operating under tricky circumstances, namely the lack of access to banking and insurance services. While the burgeoning industry works out its financial issues, the challenge of bringing an illegal crop into the semi-legal market requires addressing an issue that farmers across the arid west encounter: Where to get water to grow plants.

Growing Marijuana

Legalization does not change the fact that growing marijuana is a water intensive endeavor.  Outdoor growing operations may require anywhere from one to fifteen gallons per plant, per day.  For comparison, growing one square foot of potatoes in Colorado requires only about sixteen to twenty-nine gallons of water per growing season. The retail price for marijuana ranges from $150.00 to $300.00 per ounce, whereas the recent price of potatoes is about $0.04 per ounce. Given the wide ranges of potential revenue and estimates of water requirements for growing marijuana, growers can expect a return of about $0.22 to $6.67 per gallon of water “invested” in each plant of marijuana grown outdoors (assuming two ounces of marijuana are harvested from each plant). Compare those figures with the return of about $0.02 to $0.03 per gallon of water to grow one square foot, yielding about eleven to fourteen ounces, of potatoes. The cost of obtaining water sufficient to maintain the marijuana growing operation may constrain production, but clearly, there is an economic advantage to growing weed. However, water is but a single cost that a business must account for among many.

Growing indoors is another option for marijuana growers, especially since grow operations in Colorado must be in an enclosed and locked space. Indoor growers can expect a return close to, or even exceeding, the upper range noted above. Further, there are many methods of growing indoors, and water use varies greatly. Although water savings from reduced evapotranspiration – the amount of water lost by evaporation and released from plants – growing indoors are significant, growing indoors requires energy-intensive equipment that increases energy costs. The growing area is also restricted, constraining the number of plants that a grower can cultivate. Nonetheless,the quantity of water required to cultivate marijuana outdoor or indoor is sure to raise an eyebrow or two, especially given persisting drought conditions in western states.

Environmental Concerns

One of the problems legalization may remedy is that illegal grow operations cause environmental degradation. The United States Forest Service estimates a cost of up to $15,000 per acre to remediate polluted watersheds from illegal marijuana growing operations, partly due to the uncontrolled use of fertilizers and pesticides. In California, illegal grow operations are blamed for pollution harming salmon populations in the Eel and Klamath Rivers. By bringing marijuana out of the black market, states could allocate the use of water in producing marijuana and hold growers accountable for environmental violations, instead of chasing down criminals (or so the thinking goes). However, unless the cost to obtain water legally is less than that of the illegal method, the economic incentive is to stay on the run and use “free” water for grow operations. Illegal marijuana growers, as opposed to legitimate farmers, operate in the black market and have no incentive to follow water use rules. The risk to an illegal marijuana grower’s investment remains constant even when following the rules because the product is illegal. Proponents of the newly legalized industry point to the self-regulating nature of the business, where law-abiding companies single out rule breakers to maintain market competitiveness, advance the legitimacy of the industry, and create an incentive to follow the rules.

Political Concerns

In July 2013, the Board of Pueblo County Commissioners unanimously approved a plan to build greenhouses and grow marijuana on a property with groundwater rights. Rural residents who depend on water to sustain their agriculture-based community opposed the plan. Residents resisted the use of water rights for marijuana cultivation, with one neighbor noting the scarcity of water in a nearby ditch. In September 2013, La Plata County commissioners heard concerns from a resident forced to haul water by truck to his home because of a lowered water table, allegedly due to a marijuana grow operation. Notably, La Plata County prohibits commercial operations from using its water to grow marijuana, potentially affecting a grow operation’s ability to obtain reliable water.

Both opponents of the marijuana industry and those concerned with water conservation are likely to voice their disapproval to  city and county commissioners who approve land for growing marijuana. These stakeholders possess a political check and can back up their resistance to the industry by voting for marijuana foes. Such a scenario may force municipal governments to address new water issues typically left for state administrative bodies to address, as opposed to water issues limited to their local jurisdictions.

Conclusion

Newfound industries face unique challenges. Emerging from the black market, the marijuana industry is only beginning to address issues that will lend itself to the world of legitimate business. From the Federal Government to the local board of commissioners, legalizing marijuana affects every regulatory aspect of business. Of course, if Uncle Sam decides to enforce his laws and send the industry back to the black market, marijuana growers will have more concerns than water use alone.

 

The title picture is of an outdoor, organic cannabis garden and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Cannabis Training University. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Cannabis Training University endorses this blog.


Sources:

Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 841 (2010).

La Plata County, Colo., Code ch. 94, art. 4 (2012).

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Marijuana Resource Center: State Laws Related to Marijuana, http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/state-laws-related-to-marijuana (last visited March 3, 2014).

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mid-Atlantic Information Office: Average retail food and energy prices, U.S. city average and Midwest region, http://www.bls.gov/ro3/apmw.htm (last visited March 29, 2014).

United States Geological Survey, Water Science School: How Much Water Falls during a Storm, http://water.usgs.gov/edu/sc2.html (last visited March 29, 2014).

Kristen Wyatt, Marijuana Industry Relieved as Feds Allow Banking, Denver Post (February 14, 2014), http://www.denverpost.com/marijuana/ci_25145150/marijuana-industry-relieved-by-banking-memo.

John Ingold, Colorado Firefighters Found Large Pot Garden During Waldo Canyon Fire, Denver Post (August 22, 2012), http://www.denverpost.com/ci_21368074/colorado-firefighters-found-large-pot-garden-during-waldo.

John Ingold, A Colorado marijuana guide: 64 answers to commonly asked questions, Denver Post (December 31, 2013), http://www.denverpost.com/marijuana/ci_24823785/colorado-marijuana-guide-64-answers-commonly-asked-questions.

Alastair Bland, California’s Pot Farms Could Leave Salmon Runs Truly Smoked, National Public Radio (January 13, 2014), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/01/08/260788863/californias-pot-farms-could-leave-salmon-runs-truly-smoked.

Dana Kelly, Bringing the Green to Green: Would the Legalization of Marijuana in California Prevent the Environmental Destruction Caused by Illegal Farms?, 18 Hastings W.-N.W. J. Envtl. L. & Pol’y 95, 101 (2012).

Leading California Marijuana Attorney Says Growers Must Focus on Water Conservation, PRWeb (March 22,2012), http://www.prweb.com/releases/marijuana-attorney/california/prweb9316223.htm.

Colorado State University Extension, Seasonal Water Needs and Opportunities for Limited Irrigation for Colorado Crops http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/04718.html (last visited March 3, 2014).

Colorado State University Extension, Fertilizing Potatoes, http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/00541.html (last visited March 29, 2014).

Nick Bonham, County OKs pot greenhouse, Pueblo Chieftain (July 11, 2013), http://www.chieftain.com/special/marijuana/1456099-120/marijuana-property-county-pueblo.

Wax Jones, Marijuana: Pueblo County Approves Grow Facility Despite Water Rights complaints, Westword (July 15, 2013), http://blogs.westword.com/latestword/2013/07/marijuana_pueblo_county_approv.php.

Chuck Slothower, La Plata County Grapples Over Sale of Retail Marijuana, Durango Herald (October 1, 2013), http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20130930/NEWS01/130939945/0/taxonomy/La-Plata-County-grapples-over-sale-of-retail-marijuana.

Emery Cowan, County Sets Medical Pot Rules, Durango Herald (June 26, 2012), http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20120627/NEWS01/706279930/0/SEARCH/County-sets-medical-pot-rules.