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.


Background

On January 17, 2014, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared a state of emergency addressing the severe drought conditions in the state. The past year was the driest in recorded state history, and as of February 27, 2014, surveys estimated only 24% of average snowpack. The Governor’s state of emergency declaration calls on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20% and directs state agencies to impose various efforts aimed at conserving water. In addition, the Governor stated, “I’ve declared this emergency and I’m calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.” Yet, despite this declaration and the severity of the situation, most major water providers and the Governor opted for voluntary cuts, choosing not to impose mandatory water restrictions with fines for excessive use.

Current Conservation Options

No Californian Governor has ever ordered mandatory statewide water restrictions, and while that option is within the Governor’s power, major uncertainty exists over how enforcement of that rationing would work. While the state holds the power to allocate water within it, the responsibility of managing and distributing that water lies at the local level, spread out amongst over 3,000 water providers, ranging from cities to municipal water districts, to private farm districts operating wells. The bottom line is these entities rely on selling water, not conserving it. A 20% percent reduction in water consumption and the subsequent loss of revenue would undoubtedly result in future rate increases. As a result, reducing water consumption through mandatory conservation measures are unpopular for cities and utilities.

Prior to the current drought, many water providers elected to implement tiered water rates to encourage conservation. Tiered water rates set a lower price for the initial basic use allocation. After that base, each additional water-use block or tier increases in price, causing a user of more water to pay at a higher rate than a user who stays within the basic use allotment. Tiered water rates stay within the voluntary classification of rationing that California has opted to use, while also using a market-based approach to achieve water conservation results.

Proposition 218

Passed in 1996, Proposition 218 limits the ability of local governments in California to raise taxes or fees without the approval of property owners while also including a proportionality condition by requiring that those taxes and fees cannot exceed the cost of providing the public service. In 2006, the California Supreme Court clarified that Proposition 218 applied to local water, refuse, and sewer charges. The result of this ruling meant that water providers could not charge one group of water users more in order to subsidize the fees of another group of water users. For instance, agricultural water users like farms and ranches who traditionally use much larger water volumes for their crops and livestock could not be charged at a higher rate than urban water users who use smaller volumes for domestic purposes.

In the 2011 case City of Palmdale v. Palmdale Water Dist., the California Court of Appeals held that an existing tiered pricing structure had instilled a “dramatically higher and disproportionate” pricing structure on irrigation users and violated the proportionality requirement in Proposition 218. While it remains unclear if the application of Proposition 218 will dissuade the use of tiered pricing systems in California, prior cases have shown that water providers must prove that they satisfy the proportional cost of service associated with a tiered pricing structure. Water providers must prove proportionality of the costs increases they pass on to consumers in relation to the increased service cost to provide that water.

Smart Metering

The creation of the proportionality requirement potentially created a unique opportunity for water providers to refine their conservation pricing policies through the use of smart metering. Smart metering has two main components: meters that measure chronological intervals, and a communication channel that allows the water provider to obtain readings on demand. Many Western states already use real time or near real time data collection software to monitor their distribution and collection systems. Detailed accounting is essential in order to ensure that both temporal and quantitative requirements are met. Smart metering offers essentially the same information, breaking down individual customer usage by time intervals and quantity. In the case of complying with Proposition 218’s proportionality requirement, a water provider could establish peak use hours where the energy costs associated with providing that water are higher. Then by using smart metering to compare usage to those peak times, water providers could provide the necessary proof to overcome the proportionality requirements.

The benefits of smart metering could also enable individual customers to monitor their own usage habitats by reading their own meters from inside their home. This technology would provide consumers current usage-data to evaluate and base water use decisions on.

Potential Issues

While smart metering does offer a potential solution to the use of tiered pricing systems under Proposition 218, it is important to acknowledge how difficult it would be for some water providers to comply with the proportionality requirement. While comparing energy costs to demand may be relatively simply, the calculation becomes far more complicated when integrating multiple supply sources into the cost of service equation. Cost of service must consider where a municipality received its raw water supply: whether supply comes from a gravity fed ditch, groundwater pumping, or, as here in Denver, pumped under the continental divide. These different sources would have a dramatic effect on how to equate the cost of service. Water providers may have to untangle the costs of each of their water sources, in combination with the costs of storage, treatment, and distribution, in order to be ready to comply with the scenario posed by Proposition 218.

Conclusion

As California continues to struggle with drought, water conservation policies will come under further scrutiny. If the courts decide that tiered pricing in combination with smart metering passes Proposition 218’s proportionality requirement, the result may be a valuable water conservation tool for California.

 

The title picture is of the San Gabriel Dam and Reservoir, located in Los Angeles County, California, in December 2013. The picture is attributed to Shannon1 and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Shannon1 endorses this blog.


Sources:

Bryan Barnhart, Rebecca Anderson Smith, Upgrading Conservation Pricing Proposition 218, Smart Meters, And The Step Beyond Tiered Rates, California Water Law Journal (Jan. 3, 2014), http://blogs.mcgeorge.edu/waterlawjournal/upgrading-conservation-pricing-proposition-218-smart-meters-and-the-step-beyond-tiered-rates/.

Governor Brown Declares Drought State of Emergency, Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. (Jan. 17, 2014), http://www.gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18368.

Paul Rodgers, California drought: Why is there no mandatory water rationing?, San Jose Mercury News (Feb. 15, 2014), http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25153774/california-drought-why-is-there-no-mandatory-water.

Driest Year on Record?, California Dept. of Water Resource (Feb. 28, 2014), http://www.water.ca.gov/waterconditions/.

San Juan Capistrano- Prop 218, Water in the West (Oct, 10, 2013), http://waterinthewest.stanford.edu/resources/forum/san-juan-capistrano-prop-218.

Smart Metering for Water Utilities, Oracle (Sept. 2009), available at www.oracle.com/us/industries/utilities/046596.pdf.


In 1898, the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska triggered a new gold rush. Miners commonly used mercury to recover gold from ore and, over time, mercury and unrecovered gold accumulated in the aquatic environment and settled into the sediment below. Now, over 100 years later in Nome, summer gold prospectors seek their fortune in the mercury-laden sediments dredged up from the sea floor. Using shovels, sluice boxes, and boat-mounted excavators to dig up sediments, miners look for gold and remobilize toxic heavy metals in the process.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals commonly enter aquatic environments as the result of natural processes, such as rock weathering and soil erosion. At low concentrations, these metals support metabolic activity in aquatic organisms and have little to no detrimental effect. However, at higher concentrations, these heavy metals can become toxic. Releases associated with anthropogenic activities such as mining, municipal wastewater treatment, manufacturing, and the use of fertilizers and organochlorine insecticides have significantly increased heavy metal concentrations in aquatic environments.

Sediments serve an important environmental role in absorbing heavy metals. Metals such as cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, and mercury precipitate out of the water over time and become concentrated in the sediments below. When remobilized, these sediments may act as a non-point sources of pollution, releasing high concentrations of heavy metals and directly impacting overlying waters, aquatic species, and other organisms dependent upon the contaminated water source for nourishment.

Heavy Metals in the Aquatic Environment

Water and sediment contamination has a significant correlation with the heavy metal content of aquatic organisms, such as fish. However, studies show that heavy metal levels are higher in aquatic organisms than in the surrounding environment. This is due to bioaccumulation, a process by which the amount of heavy metals present in an organism progressively increases over time because the rate of intake exceeds the rate at which the body can eliminate the substance.

Heavy metal contaminants in water sources have triggered significant fish and bird kills. In Montana, a once large, upstream copper mining and processing industry contaminated the upper Clark Fork River environment with toxic heavy metals. By the mid-1950s, high levels of copper and other metals caused significant fish kills, and most of the fish that once inhabited the area disappeared. Presently, efforts are in place to remove and clean up contaminated sediment, and fish have returned to the river. However, the negative impacts still linger. Osprey chicks in the area, identified as an indicator species because they eat fish from a specific area located very close to the nest, show blood mercury levels one hundred times the level considered problematic for humans. Further, blood mercury levels will increase over time as these birds mature and consume more heavy metals.

The Threat to Human Health

Remobilized heavy metals may also present a significant threat to human health. Consuming fish contaminated with heavy metals carries significant health risks, which may include, among other things, still-births and miscarriages; hypertension; severe damage to the body organs and the nervous, digestive, and immune systems; and even death.

For thousands of years, residents of Nome have relied upon fishing activities for “cultural and nutritional sustenance.” Today, these fishing activities continue in Nome’s public mining areas and other offshore locations where miners dredge up sediments and toxic metals. Although health officials in Alaska express concern with the risks miners face from exposure to mercury, the effects of dredging up heavy-metal rich sediments may be farther reaching. Where dredging and other releases of long-sequestered sediments occur in areas contaminated with heavy metals as a result of human activities, these operations have the potential to remobilize heavy metals, severely impacting the aquatic environment and local animal and human populations.

 

The title picture is of a gold mining dredge in Chatanika, Alaska. The picture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Darren Giles. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Darren Giles supports this blog.

 


Sources:

Maria Lucia Kolowski Rodrigues and Milton Luiz Laquitinie Formoso, Geochemical Distribution of Selected Heavy Metals in Stream Sediments Affected by Tannery Activities, 169 Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 167 (2006), available at http://www.environmental-expert.com/Files%5C0%5Carticles%5C9340%5CGeochemicalDistribution.pdf.

Zafer Ayas, et al., Heavy metal accumulation in water, sediments and fishes of Nallihan Bird Paradise, Turkey, Journal of Environmental Biology (July 2007), available at http://www.jeb.co.in/journal_issues/200707_jul07/paper_04.pdf.

Characterization of the Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto (ACE) Basin, South Carolina: Sediment Contaminants, National Estuarine Research Reserve System, available at http://www.nerrs.noaa.gov/doc/siteprofile/acebasin/html/modules/watqual/wmsedcon.htm (last visited April 1, 2014).

Index of Definitions: Bioaccumulation, United States Geological Survey, http://toxics.usgs.gov/definitions/bioaccumulation.html (last visited on April 1, 2014).

John R. Garbarino, et al., Heavy Metals in the Mississippi River, (Robert H. Meade ed., 1995), http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1133/heavy-metals.html.

Montana Osprey Project: Heavy Metal Studies, University of Montana Environmental Biogeochemistry Laboratory, http://cas.umt.edu/geosciences/osprey/heavyMetalStudies.php (last visited April 1, 2014).

Nome Dredgers Resource Guide: A Quick Guide for 2012 Dredging Activities in Nome, Alaska (May 2012), available at http://dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/mining/nome/Nome_Dredgers_Resource_Guide_ver1.pdf.

Northwest and Artic: 1897-1920 Gold, Alaska History and Cultural Studies, http://www.akhistorycourse.org/articles/article.php?artID=66 (last visited April 1, 2014).

Yereth Rosen, Alaska, concerned about gold miners’ health, to test them for mercury, Reuters (Aug. 25, 2012), http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/25/us-usa-alaska-miners-idUSBRE87O09220120825.


Background

The Great Lakes, which consist of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, comprise one of North America’s national landmarks and treasures.  The Great Lakes account for approximately one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater.  This makes the Great Lakes the third largest system of surface fresh water in the world behind the polar ice caps and Lake Baikal in Siberia. The Great Lakes alone account for approximately 84% of North America’s surface fresh water and support approximately 6,000 species of wildlife, including numerous species of fish. The Great Lakes are also important sources of drinking water and economic livelihoods. Recreational boating, fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing account for about $53 billion in revenue for the states surrounding the Great Lakes. However, the Great Lakes and the species the Great Lakes support are under threat due to the effects of climate change.

Lake Superior is currently warming up faster than any other lake in the world. It is the largest lake in the world by surface area, but it is relatively shallow despite its great size. Over the last thirty years, the lake has experienced a 50% decrease in ice cover. Ice cover is essential to keeping the lake cooler because ice reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere. As the ice cover decreases, the lake absorbs more solar radiation, causing the temperature of the lake to increase. Lake Superior’s water temperature has increased approximately 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) between 1979 and 2006.

Effects of Climate Change

Summer Stratification

As the temperatures of the Great Lakes continue to increase, there is a risk that summer stratification will begin earlier. This means that during the summer, the warm surface layer of water does not mix with the colder bottom water layer. As a result, oxygen from the top of the lake is not transferred to the bottom of the lake. This can be a problem because the decay of dead algae on the lake bottom may deplete oxygen in the cold bottom layer of the lake, leaving organisms in the lower layer oxygen deprived. Lake Superior is already experiencing summer stratification about two weeks earlier than it has in the past thirty years, and some scientists predict that Lake Superior will warm to such an extent that it will be ice-free in the next thirty years.

Fishes

Climate change provides both a benefit to some fishes and a threat to other fishes. Walleye fish are thriving in the warm waters of Lake Superior, which is bringing more fishing business to the lake. However, invasive species, such as the sea lamprey, also find the warmer waters of Lake Superior inviting. The sea lamprey is a parasite that attaches itself to the side of a fish, particularly the trout, and as a result of its feeding, eventually kills the fish. The sea lampreys thrive in warmer water, and as the population grows, the trout population of Lake Superior may significantly diminish.

Water Level

Scientists have not yet come to a consensus on how climate change affects the water levels of the Great Lakes. Climate change may result in increased water withdrawals from the Great Lakes, thus potentially lowering the water levels. Some research supports the position that the lake system may be sensitive to climate changes with data showing that the Great Lake water levels have been consistently below the long-term average levels since 1997. In 1997, a reduction in the duration of ice cover correlated to a water temperature increase and doubled the evaporation rate. Since 1997, however, the water in the Great Lakes has fluctuated normally, albeit below the average levels.

If the water level is affected by climate change, much of the wildlife living near the lake will be threatened. Wildlife, such as moose, rely on the wetlands surrounding the Great Lakes for food and protection. The reduced water levels exposes and dries out the wetlands around the Great Lakes and threatens the unique ecosystem. Before scientists can definitively determine if climate change has any effect on the water level and thus local wildlife, however, more conclusive data must be produced.

Minimizing the Effects of Climate Change

In order to address the potentially shrinking water levels of the Great Lakes, state and national governments need to adopt and implement programs that focus on encouraging agricultural and urban water conservation. Conservation could be achieved through creating closed systems to recycle used water. Because of the potential risk to the Great Lakes’ wetlands, local governments need to formulate plans to protect the wetlands in order to maintain essential wildlife habitats and the unique ecosystem the wetlands support.

Also, the Great Lakes must not be overrun by invasive species of fish. Invasive species growth in the Great Lakes will need to be monitored and potentially controlled to ensure survival of native fishes.

In response to these suggestions, the Obama administration developed a five-year Great Lakes Action Plan in 2010. The plan seeks to address multiple issues: restoring the wetlands, controlling invasive species, and promoting accountability and education efforts. Estimates to implement this plan are at approximately $2 billion.

Conclusion

The Great Lakes will need to be monitored as global temperatures continue to rise. Fishes who thrive in the warmer waters of the Great Lakes should obtain support, and invasive species must be prevented from spreading throughout the Great Lakes. The local, state, and national governments should emphasize the importance of conservation programs to prevent water levels in the Great Lakes from decreasing further. Plans must be made to maintain wetlands at lower water levels so that the wildlife surrounding the Great Lakes does not lose its natural habitat.  Finally, citizens need to be educated about climate change and how it affects the Great Lakes.

 

The title picture is a satellite photo of the Great Lakes from the SeaWiFS Project.

 


Sources:

Phillip Ross, Climate Change Causing Lake Superior to Warm ‘Faster than any Lake on the Planet’, Int’l Bus. Times (Oct. 15, 2013), http://www.ibtimes.com/climate-change-causing-lake-superior-warm-faster-any-lake-planet-1427474.

Lisa Borre, Warming Lakes: Climate Change and Variability Drive Low Water Levels on the Great Lakes, Nat’l Geographic (Nov. 20, 2012), http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/20/climate-change-and-variability-drive-low-water-levels-on-the-great-lakes/.

Dina Maron, Lake Superior, a Huge Natural Climate Change Gauge, is Running a Fever, N. Y. Times (July 19, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2010/07/19/19climatewire-lake-superior-a-huge-natural-climate-change-83371.html.

Global Warming and the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation, http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-Wildlife/Global-Warming/Effects-on-Wildlife-and-Habitat/Great-Lakes.aspx (last visited March 12, 2014).

Great Lakes Facts and Figures, Great Lakes Info. Network, http://www.great-lakes.net/lakes/ref/lakefact.html (last visited March 12, 2014).

Interview by Cynthia Canti with Tim Kline, PhD student, University of Washington, School of Aquatics and Fisheries (Dec. 4, 2013), http://michiganradio.org/post/lake-superior-heating-faster-any-other-lake-earth.

How does Stratification Affect Water Quality?, Great Lakes Literacy.net, http://greatlakesliteracy.net/_downloads/activities/stratification-water-quality.pdf (last visited March 12, 2014).


If the rains failed to follow the plow, it’s safe to reach the same conclusion about the freeways as well. California, the nation’s most populous state and largest agriculture producer, is enduring a three-year drought that has grown into the state’s worst on record. With the critical Sierra Nevada snowpack at 12% its normal capacity this season (as of Jan. 30, 2014), some communities are at a real risk of running out of drinking water, and an estimated half million acres of productive farmland are expected to lay idle. Californians can no longer afford the luxury of debating climate change; they are living it, and the unprecedented decisions burdening state officials could very well be the forecast for the rest of the arid Western states.

 State of Emergency

January is typically California’s wettest month; however, as precipitation continued to elude the golden state, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the 17th. This decree, in part, put water right holders on notice of being forced to limit and potentially cease water diversions in the upcoming months.  While junior appropriators are first to be cut, “[s]ome riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs that are releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion,” according to AgAlert, the weekly newspaper for California agriculture.

State officials have implemented vast water rationing procedures to conserve what little water is left for the routinely dry summer months. Governor Brown’s decree called on all citizens to reduce water consumption by 20% and mandated urban water delivery suppliers to implement their water shortage contingency plans. Furthermore, the decree also instructed state agencies to employ water use reduction plans at all state facilities and placed a moratorium on non-essential landscaping projects at state facilities and on state highways.  Additionally, Governor Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite the processing of water transfers to enable water to flow where it is most needed.

Governor Brown’s notice came to pass on January 31 when the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) announced that the State Water Project (“SWP”) would likely make zero water deliveries this year to all twenty-nine public water agencies it supplies. These adversely affected public water agencies help supply water to twenty-five million Californians and irrigate approximately 750,000 acres of farmland. Never before has the DWR announced a zero allocation to its customers. Further, deliveries to irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley that hold senior water rights will be cut by 50%, the maximum amount permitted by contract with the SWP. This marks the first time since 1992 that deliveries to these districts have been cut.

Worse yet, in the coming weeks, the federal Central Valley Project, which supplies the majority of the California’s agriculture water and irrigates over two million acres, is expected to announce a bleak summer delivery projection as well.

When the Wells Run Dry 

Affected communities have been directed to subsist primarily on groundwater until the reservoirs return to adequate levels. However, as state officials are cognizant that California’s groundwater is already being depleted like never before, aquifer levels are now under closer supervision. In fact, recent data shows that the equivalent of full Lake Mead has been pumped from below the Central Valley in the past decade alone. Accordingly, the DWR has been directed to monitor well construction and deepening projects as well as produce an expansive public report on groundwater levels throughout the state by April 30th.

Governor Brown also directed the state’s Drinking Water Program to provide technical and financial assistance to communities at risk of running dry and establish emergency interconnections within the state’s public water systems to help sustain these threatened communities. So far, ten communities, mostly in the northern part of the state, have been targeted for immediate aide as they could run out of drinking water sixty days from February 19. Correspondingly, state officials have begun trucking in drinking water and helping lay pipes to connect these communities to neighboring public water systems.

The Ripple Effect 

The drought is causing heightened surface and groundwater usage, which is compounding water shortage problems and increasing groundwater contamination. Unable to rely on groundwater to relieve surface use, the Orland-Artois Water District ran out of water in late January after it delivered more than triple the amount of irrigation water in the first three weeks of the month than it had ever delivered in the entire month. Further, contaminants generated mainly from agriculture runoff are becoming highly concentrated in aquifers, as less water is available to dilute them. “The state has helped about 22 of 183 communities identified last year as reliant on contaminated groundwater to bring their supplies into conformance with environmental guidelines, but the rest are still building or preparing to build systems,” according to CBS News.

Making it Rain

California lawmakers recently proposed a $687 million drought-relief funding plan aimed to clean up contaminated drinking water supplies, improve irrigation and water conservation systems, and provide emergency food and shelter to furloughed workers in agricultural related industries. Notably, the plan also increases penalties for illegal water diversions. President Obama also took action, pledging $183 million in federal aid to the state through the Farm Bill, signed February 7.  The federal aid package allocated $60 million to shore up California food banks and provided $100 million to compensate farmers for livestock loss.

Watch and Learn

California’s biblical drought will likely raise produce prices in grocery stores across the country as the California Farm Bureau estimates a $5 billion impact resulting from idled farmland. Ideally, national ramifications would end there. However, we must recognize that what is happening in California cannot be quarantined. The unfortunate future of the American West has arrived, and other Western states need to both prepare for and learn from what is happening in California.

It almost seems fitting that California, arguably the most progressive state in the union, is the first to take direct action in the face of climate change. California, however, has been forced in this position, and forced to act swiftly. Other Western states have the limited luxury to develop water conservation and management plants in preparation for what is being thrust upon California. The precedent is hastily being set, and we must learn what we can from the failures and successes of California’s response to climate change.

 

The title picture is of the San Gabriel Dam and Reservoir, located in Los Angeles County, in December 2013. The picture is attributed to Shannon1 and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Shannon1 endorses this blog.


Sources:

Jerry Brown, A Proclamation of a State of Emergency, Office of the Governor (Jan. 17, 2014), available at http://gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18368.

California Department of Water Resources, DWR Drops State Water Project Allocation to Zero, Seeks to Preserve Remaining Supply, News for Immediate Release (Jan. 31, 2014), available at http://www.water.ca.gov/news/newsreleases/2014/013114pressrelease.pdf.

Rueters, Water Contamination a Risk in California Drought, Experts Warn, CBS News (Feb. 19, 2014), http://www.cbsnews.com/news/california-drought-water-contamination/.

Norimitsu Onishi & Coral Davenport, Obama Announces Aid for Drought-Stricken California, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/us/politics/obama-to-announce-aid-for-drought-racked-california.html?hpw&rref=us&_r=1.

Kate Campbell, Rare ‘Curtailment’ Notice Underlines Depth of Drought, AgAlert (Jan. 29, 2014), http://www.agalert.com/story/?id=6347.

 

 

 


Acequia Background

Every spring farmers and ranchers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley gather to participate in annual community acequia cleanings. Acequias, which take their name from the Arabic word for “water bearer” or “barmaid,” are traditional gravity-fed irrigation ditches of Spanish origin. They have existed in southern Colorado and New Mexico since settlers of Spanish decent began to inhabit the areas and have been central to local communities since before Colorado became a state. In fact, the San Luis People’s Ditch in Costilla County has Colorado’s oldest priority right, assigned in April 1852.

In traditional acequia-based communities, open ditches transport water to long, narrow plots of land, known as vara strips, to maximize the amount of users who have access to the water. A mayordomo, or ditch boss, which land owners, or parciantes, elect in a one owner-one vote system, controls the allotment of the water. One of the most significant and unique features of acequias is their communal nature. Not only do the users share in the cleaning and upkeep of the ditches, they also share the available water equally. Acequia communities share water equally when it is plentiful as well as when it is in short supply, and small-scale agriculture in southern Colorado remains intertwined with the traditional acequia method of water allocation.

Despite having existed even longer than Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine, until recently, acequias existed outside the purview of Colorado water law. Acequias themselves may have a recognized priority right, but individual parciantes historically relied on the mayordomo to ensure that they received the proper allocation of water. Without their own priority rights, parciantes in southern Colorado had limited legal recourse within the prior appropriation regime to enforce informal entitlements to water.

2009 Acequia Recognition Law

In 2009, Colorado passed the Acequia Recognition Law, which allowed community ditches established prior to Colorado statehood and primarily irritating narrow strips of land perpendicular to the ditch to incorporate as an acequia ditch corporation. These corporations would then be able to draft bylaws that would allocate water equitably, rather than based on prior appropriation. Additionally, the acequia corporation could have the right of first refusal regarding the transfer of acequia surface water rights.

While the 2009 Acequia Recognition Law helped to solidify the cultural and economic significance of acequias in southern Colorado, two aspects of the legislation proved to be problematic. The 2009 law narrowly defined an acequia as a ditch that provided water primarily to long, narrow plots of land running perpendicular to the ditch, and in order to qualify as an acequia ditch corporation, two thirds of the irrigated land must fall within this limited definition. These limitations reflected the traditional form of acequia irrigation but excluded many modern acequia irrigators with non-conforming plots from taking advantage of the Acequia Recognition Law.

2013 Amendment

In attempt to rectify these inadequacies, the Colorado legislature amended the 2009 Acequia Recognition Law in 2013. The 2013 amendment deleted the original statute’s narrow language, thereby allowing ditches serving non-conforming plots to qualify as acequias and also allowing ditch corporations serving more than one third non-conforming plots to qualify as acequia ditch corporations.

New Opportunities

Following the recent legislative action, acequia irrigators and the communities in which they live have the opportunity to legally bolster the long-standing acequia tradition. To this end, the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado has partnered with nonprofits and local attorneys to assist acequia communities in taking advantage of the Acequia Recognition Law and the 2013 amendment. The Acequia Assistance Project unites practicing attorneys and law students to help unincorporated acequia organizations incorporate, conduct governance review for existing acequia corporations, and help individual irrigators understand and secure their water rights.

 

The title picture is of La Canova acequia near Velarde, New Mexico.

 


Sources:

Colorado Revised Statutes § 7-42-101.5 (2013) (amending Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-42-101.5 (2009)).

Gregory A. Hicks and Devon G. Peña, Community Acequias in Colorado’s Rio Culebra Watershed: A Customary Commons in the Domain of Prior Appropriation, 74 U. Colo. L. Rev. 387 (2003), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2269880.

Tom I. Romero II, Uncertain Waters and Contested Lands: Excavating the Layers of Colorado’s Legal Past, 73 U. Colo. L. Rev. 521 (2002).

Devon G. Peña, Presentation: Colorado’s 2009 Acequia Recognition Law: Punching a Hole in Prior? (March 2, 2010), available at  https://digital.lib.washington.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1773/16401/pena.pdf?sequence=2.

University of Colorado, Acequia Assistance Project, http://www.colorado.edu/law/research/getches-wilkinson-center/about-center/acequia-assistance-project (last visited March 4, 2014).


On January 9, 2014, West Virginia’s Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, declared a state of emergency after a storage tank containing crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (“MCHM”) began leaking into the Elk River, located 1.5 miles upstream of a water-treatment facility in Charleston, West Virginia. MCHM is a chemical compound used at coal processing plants to separate coal particles from the surrounding rock.

Alerting the Public of the Contamination

According to authorities, the contamination occurred after thousands of gallons of MCHM leaked through a one-inch hole, bypassed a containment wall, and seeped into the Elk River. Charleston residents quickly began to notice a licorice-like odor wafting from the chemical storage site. Upon arriving at the scene, State inspectors quickly advised 300,000 people in nine counties (Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane) not to drink or use the water. In addition, the contamination caused schools to close in at least five counties, and strict water bans prevented hospitals, restaurants, nursing homes, and other local establishments from using their water until further testing had been performed.

According to authorities, the contamination does not appear to pose lethal harm. “You’d have to drink something like 1,700 gallons of water to even approach a lethal dose,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. However, as a result of the chemical spill, approximately 300 residents had to seek medical attention. Symptoms ranged from nausea to rashes. State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary, Karen L. Bowling, reported no patients were in serious or critical condition.

Once word leaked out about the contamination, panic set in amongst affected residents who quickly stripped store shelves of items such as bottled water, paper cups, and plates. “If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” said Governor Tomblin at a news conference the day after authorities detected the leak. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and several companies, including Pepsi and Coca-Cola, sent bottled water and other items for people unable to use tap water.

In the Wake of the Spill

Initially, Freedom Industries, the chemical supplier whose leaking storage tank caused the federal emergency, reported that the contamination involved approximately 7,500 gallons of MCHM. However, almost two weeks after the initial leak, officials revealed that a second coal-processing compound, a mixture of polyglycol ethers known as PPH, had leaked into and contributed to the contamination of Charleston’s water system.

While PPH is thought to be less toxic than MCHM, the late disclosure outraged local officials and residents who had been awaiting accurate information regarding the extent of the contamination. “It is very disturbing that we are just now finding out about this new chemical, almost two weeks after the [initial] leak,” said West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Natalie E. Tennant.

On January 17, a mere eight days after the initial spill began, Freedom Industries filed a Chapter 11 petition with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of West Virginia. The Company used their bankruptcy documents as a forum to theorize on how the chemical spill occurred, stating that frigid temperatures caused a water line to burst, the ground beneath the storage tank froze, and some kind of sharp object punctured a hole in the side of the storage tank, causing it to leak.

While the bankruptcy filing has been described as “a tactic to freeze the two-dozen liability suits,” which have already been filed against Freedom Industries, it does not halt lawsuits against other third parties targeted in the spill. Some of the lawsuits also name West Virginia American Water Company and Eastman Chemical, the producer of the MCHM spilled. Furthermore, the bankruptcy proceedings do not strip the Freedom Industries of its responsibility to rectify the environmental damage caused by the spill.

While the full extent of damages remains unknown, Government entities, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, are continuing to investigate the spill as well as mitigate the long-term effects.

The title picture is of the Elk River.


Sources:

About 300,000 can’t use water after chemical spill near Charleston, W.V., NY Daily News (Jan. 10, 2014), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/chemical-spill-taints-water-300-000-w-v-article-1.1575847.

Chemical Spill in West Virginia Declared Disaster, Fox News Network (Jan. 10, 2014), http://news.discovery.com/earth/chemical-spill-in-west-virginia-declared-disaster-140110.htm.

Company files for bankruptcy after West Virginia chemical spill, Fox News (Jan. 17, 2014), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/01/17/company-files-for-bankruptcy-after-wva-chemical-spill/.

David Zucchino, West Virginia puzzled, outraged over chemical leak, Los Angeles Times (Jan. 16, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-chemical-danger-20140117,0,7792964.story?page=1#axzz2qsGvvf86.

John Schwartz, A Second Chemical Was Part of West Virginia Chemical Spill, Company Reveals (Jan. 21, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/21/five-big-questions-about-the-massive-chemical-spill-in-west-virginia/.

Kiley Kroh, West Virginia Declares State of Emergency After Coal Chemical Contaminates Drinking Water, Think Progress (Jan. 10, 2014), http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/01/10/3145221/west-virginia-emergency-coal-chemical-spill/.

Nick Visser. Freedom Industries, Company Behind West Virginia Chemical Spill, Files for Bankruptcy, The Huffington Post (Jan. 17, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/17/freedom-industries-bankruptcy-west-virginia-chemical-spill_n_4619385.html?ir=Green.

Paul Barrett, A Second Chemical Spilled in West Virginia, and the Company Said Nothing Until Now (Jan. 23, 2014), http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-23/a-second-toxic-chemical-spilled-in-west-virginia-and-freedom-industries-said-nothing-until-now.