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Water Issues and Natural Gas March 21, 2011

By the time you read this, World Water Day 2011 may have come and gone, but the issues it brings to light are important 365 days a year.  One such issue that has dominated the news media lately is natural gas fracing and its impacts on water resources.  People are asking the questions – will it contaminate our groundwater? Will it use up too much of our surface water? What are the long-term impacts to our water resources?  I am not a hydrogeologist, so I don’t want to get too technical here, but I will give some general information and point you in the right direction for more information.

Here in Pennsylvania, companies are extracting natural gas from a layer of rock known as the Marcellus shale formation.  This shale is located several thousand feet underground and only recently has it been economically feasible for drillers to extract the natural gas from the shale.  The process is called hydraulic fracing, where a hole is drilled into the ground and large quantities of water and other materials are flushed into the hole to bring out the gas. 

Each natural gas well uses more than 3 million gallons of water.  Sounds like a lot, huh? It is, but if you compare it to how much water one person uses for showering, drinking and washing their clothes (69.3 gallons per day, according to the American Water Works Association) and multiply that by the population of Pennsylvania in 2009 (12,604,767 people according to the U.S. Census), you get more than 873 million gallons of water per day.  The Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimates that when the natural gas industry is working at full capacity in the state it will use 28 million gallons of water a day; still a relatively low number when compared to other industries.  So yes, water use is important, but it’s not the key piece of the equation, in my mind.

What is more important is what happens with that water once the company is done with it.  An estimated 20 to 30 percent of the water put into the hole comes back up.  It is no longer just water though; it also contains brine, sand, drilling fluids, and perhaps radioactive materials from the rocks underground (the New York Times published an article recently about the radioactivity of the waste fluid, but state officials say the article misstated a lot. Who’s right? I’m not sure.)  If the fluid is sent to local waste water treatment facilities, they have to be able to filter out the pollutants. Some people question whether or not they have the capacity to do so.  Some of the drilling companies reuse their waste water, but eventually they have to dispose of it somewhere.

Then there is the issue of surface spills.  Accidents happen, no matter how careful you are.  So there is a worry that some of the fracing fluid, wastewater, or even the diesel fuel from all the vehicles involved in drilling and transporting water for fracing  might contaminate streams.  In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited over 850 violations of Marcellus shale drillers.  These violations include discharge of industrial waste including spills into streams (15 percent), violations of the Clean Stream Law (9 percent) and improper construction of wastewater impoundments (15), among other issues.

Natural gas drilling is here to stay in Pennsylvania.  No matter where you stand on the issue, that much is clear.  So it’s up to everyone to get informed, learn to distinguish the truth from the propaganda, and work to make the industry as clean, safe and environmentally-responsible as it possibly can be. 

For more information on Marcellus shale and fracing, go to: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/naturalgasexploration/index.htm

 

My Beef with Bottled Water March 18, 2011

The Story of Stuff tells the tale of bottled water best – http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/ – but in honor of the upcoming World Water Day (3/22) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the conundrum that is bottled water.

I work for a natural resource organization, yet time and again I see my colleagues carrying around bottles of water.  Sometimes they’re reusing old bottles and filling them up with tap water, which is ok, I guess.  But it still means that they had to have bought a bottle of water at some point.  And I am not 100% innocent in this either – although it’s been years since I’ve spent $ on individual bottles of water I have purchased a gallon or two for camping trips in years past.  It seems like we can’t avoid bottled water. I go to a conference – that’s what’s offered, I eat at a restaurant – that’s what they try to push on me.  Even when we’ve organized events with “sustainability” in their title, the event planners can’t understand why we ask for pitchers of water, rather than bottles.  Because it’s not sustainable, I want to shout!

I could tell you that bottled water is less heavily regulated than tap water, which it is.  I could tell you that many bottled water companies just filter tap water anyway, so you’re paying $2 for what comes almost free out of your tap, which is also true.  Or I could tell you that so much petroleum is needed to create a bottle of water – from making the plastic for the bottle to shipping it to the store – that it’s helping to fuel our addiction to foreign oil, which it is.  But what I am most concerned about our the impacts our addiction to bottled water has on the natural world.

When a bottling company withdraws water in state A, but then ships the water all over the country, the water doesn’t end up back in the watershed from which it was taken (in the form of wastewater treatment effluent from, you guessed it, your toilet).  This can lead to aquifer depletion in state A, because the water is taken out but not replaced at a fast enough rate from precipitation (enhanced by all our black top parking lots and roads that impede infiltration).  Without enough groundwater, not only do local residents have troubled getting enough water out of their tap (forcing them to rely on bottled water!) but the plants and animals that rely on that water are also at a loss (and they can’t go to the grocery store to buy some water). 

Another problem I have with bottled water is the bottle itself.  It’s made of plastic.  Some bottles are recycled, which is good, but most end up in a landfill where they won’t decompose, or worse yet, they get washed into a stream and end up in our oceans.  Eventually the bottles will break down in an oxygen-rich environment, but break down into easily eaten pieces of plastic.  Sea life can’t tell the different between tiny pieces of plastic and their normal food source.  The plastic may or may not kill them.  Companies are experimenting with plant-based plastics and recycling is becoming more common place, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ll get down off my high horse in a second.  Thanks for reading my rant.  If I can leave you with any parting thoughts it’s that I encourage everyone to cut down on their consumption of bottled water (and other beverages in plastic bottles, for that matter).  If you live in the U.S., chances are your tap water is very clean, very tasty, and very cheap in comparison to bottled water.  Buy a reusable stainless steel water bottle, fill it up at your sink, and make a statement that you like saving money and protecting the planet.  It’s not just a tree hugger thing to do, it’s a savvy saver thing to do.  And in this economic climate, who could use a few more dollars in their pocket?!

 

World Water Day is Coming March 17, 2011

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:19 PM
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March 22 is World Water Day.  It is a time to reflect on that essential natural resource that most of us take for granted.  After all, for those of us in the U.S., we don’t have to really think about water.  We turn on the tap and out it flows, clean and plentiful.  Every month we receive a bill for our water use, but the sum seems paltry in comparison to all the benefits water gives us.  Why is water so undervalued in our country?

Water seems to be everywhere, so we don’t look at it as a finite resource.  Lakes, rivers and oceans abound with the wet stuff.  But our consumption of water is increasing, particularly for “non essential” tasks like watering a lawn and filling a pool.  As more people move to dry areas like the southwestern portion of the U.S., the strain on water sources becomes more apparent.  Conflicts between farmers, golf courses, home owners and businesses can get out of hand if precipitation levels are reduced even minutely. 

What can be done to increase our perceived value of water?  We need to recognize that (1) water is essential to all life on earth, (2) potable water is a finite resource, (3) and it belongs to all so we have a responsibility to care for it.  When we realize that water is needed by everything in order to survive, we recognize the value and importance of it.  When we think of clean drinking water as a finite resource, we realize that when we squander it, we deprive it from others.  When we say that water belongs to everyone, we come to the conclusion that we all must do our part to protect the resource for generations to come.  We cannot allow water to fall to the tragedy of commons – when a resource belongs to all, no one takes responsibility for it, thinking “Someone else will do it for me.” 

As we near World Water Day, I will continue to blog about water issues and their importance, from the enigma that is bottled water to the impact of natural gas fracing on drinking water.