Earth Day

Today as we commemorate Earth Day, I am reminded of some of the functions and activities I have participated in throughout my life. During that participation I was amazed by the generosity of others either through their giving of time, money, or their talents to help make those events have even greater impact.


In my college years at Marist, the school always had a number of activities going on through the course of the day. I learned a great deal about the environmental issues effecting the Hudson River and the surrounding Hudson Valley communities. I participated in a variety of activities to volunteer my time with different environmental organizations in the area.


The pollution in certain areas of the Hudson River as a result of a variety of commercial and industrial activities going on there was an area of great concern to me. I assume that interest could have been driven from my time growing up on the New Jersey Shore and seeing the effects of water pollution first-hand. The pollution and garbage on beaches and in parks along the coast also bothered me a great deal growing up and still does today. I have offered my time in beach clean-ups with local organizations and I know my neighbors have done the same.


It is that spirit that I came to have a great affinity for with regard to Earth Day: it is a grassroots movement that organizes itself every year on the local level. It is the collection of many people doing many small things which collectively have a large impact on our environment and how we come to perceive our environment as part of our community.


Earth Day 2015 has been marked by a few key news stories from President Obama’s visit in the Florida Everglades to speak about the fragility of the ecosystem and climate change, to the man in Brooklyn who planned to swim the Gowanus Canal, to Google having a contest “what type of animal are you?” based on a short quiz. In addition the Gallup poll numbers regarding climate change were released today, which continues to be a highly divisive issue in the American national discourse.


The President urged greater awareness of the impact of carbon emissions on the environment. The EPA and several doctors warned the man in New York not to swim the Gowanus Canal which is contaminated by 200 years of industrial waste. In fact, I did a whole series on the EPA Superfund that included the planned cleanup of that Canal which was published in January 2014 (see this link: and can attest that swimming in that water is not medically advisable. However, the man, Christopher Swain, is trying to prove a point that people should not have to live near such a horribly polluted body of water.


In addition, for those of you who are wondering, yes I did take the Google quiz for Earth Day and found out that I am a Pangolin, known to be a practical sort who can fend off predators, well I am from New Jersey so I think I can definitely fend for myself.


In all seriousness, Earth Day is a reminder that we have been given the responsibility to be stewards of the natural resources provided to us by God. The issues of deforestation, erosion, drought, and pollution are rampant throughout the world. We need to work together to determine effective strategies to solve these complex problems and safeguard our natural resources and our ecosystem for the generations to follow.



California In Drought – Nestle Bottles Water?

The severe drought conditions being experienced in the West have been a source of concern for several months and have shown no signs of improvement. There are mandatory fines in California, Nevada, and other western states for watering lawns or washing down driveways. The agricultural consequences of this drought have been devastating to California with reports of crops lost.


The job market in California has been impacted as well with farming and other agricultural related jobs down across the board. The drought has effected small towns in the desert valleys and big cities near the coast, with nearly 95% of the Golden State’s population in some sort of water restriction.


Here on my blog, Frank’s Forum, I have covered the impact of the drought on Lake Mead and the subsequent water supply issues for Las Vegas, parts of Arizona, and Southern California. One of the “mega themes” of my blog is the environment and issues of sustainability, so this issue falls into both of those categories.


The media has reported recently about another controversial aspect dealing with the sustainability of water amidst the catastrophic drought gripping California at this point and that is the continued practice of Nestle to bottle water there for export to other states.


The issue is a highly charged and polarizing one with some viewing the activity by Nestle as wrong or unfair; and others viewing it as a necessary job creator and supplier of a healthy beverage alternative.


Current Conditions

The estimates from well-respected environmental science groups are that the Western states have lost 63 trillion gallons of water during the drought. This is driven primarily by the effects of climate change on the supply sources which in turn feed the reservoirs in those states.


In California, three major reservoir areas have been dramatically impacted by the drought conditions plaguing that huge state:

  • Trinity Lake = 29% capacity
  • Shasta (fed by Sacramento River) = 30% capacity
  • Oroville = 31% capacity

The City of San Jose recently instituted a city-wide water restriction policy for the over 982,000 residents of California’s third largest city. The restrictions include a fine of $500.00 for washing down a driveway.


Sacramento and other large cities throughout California have similar water restriction policies in place. The reservoir supply levels are so drastically low, that these policies are necessary to better protect the remaining supply of this dwindling and essential natural resource.


In my research, the local websites for news in California are covered with advertising for lawn replacement services promoting sales of synthetic grass products.  It is only natural that conditions dictate a market for other businesses to provide their products or services which are driven by the demand for those products; in this case due to the unfortunate severity of the drought conditions.


Many California residents have ripped up their lawns rather than watch them wither away and die because they cannot use the water to nurture their grass and other landscaping. This action also has a conservative effect in that the synthetic surfaces will obviously help retain water supply levels for use for drinking or other critical functions.  These same residents have varied opinions on the fact that one giant food and beverage company is still allowed to bottle water for sale while everyone else is dealing with shortages of this resource.


The Nestle Dilemma


The bottled water division of Nestle’, the world’s largest food company, has several brands under its umbrella. In the California desert, in Millard Canyon which is about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, is the site of the water source for Nestlé’s Arrowhead Natural Spring Water and Pure Life water brands.


The site is located on the Morongo Indian Reservation and is considered a sovereign nation therefore it does not have to comply with state laws concerning the drought restrictions on water. Nestle entered into a 25 year agreement with the tribe sometime around 2001-02.


Under the terms of this agreement, Nestle pays the tribe for the water it extracts from the site. An ancillary component of this arrangement is that the source site is exempt from local oversight and is not legally obligated to disclose the water amounts being utilized for the manufacturing of their product.


The reports from local residents are mostly negative toward Nestle because those communities are dealing with water restrictions, sewage issues, and disruptions in their water service. It is understandable that they would be upset that just down the road a huge corporation is drawing out water to bottle and export to other states across America.


The State of California has 100 bottled water facilities located within its borders, and their operation has been largely unaffected by the drought. The majority of the other water facilities have a different situation than the Nestle facility in Millard Canyon. Those production facilities have to report their water consumption activity to a state level agency. The water conservation restrictions are handled by the county level or local authorities, and they are essentially cut out of the situation when the bottled water manufacturers deal directly with the state agency in Sacramento.


It is important to mention that the other bottled water manufacturers have strong feelings regarding the Nestle deal at Millard Canyon and have aired those grievances to the media. The general consensus is that all the bottled water and beverage manufacturers should be held to the same standards for reporting their respective usage at all the facilities located in California.


This activity begs the question: Should the bottled water companies be allowed to proceed when the rest of the California is under such dire water restrictions? Should Nestle be allowed to bottle water in an essentially completely unregulated scenario on a Native American Indian reservation?


Meanwhile, CNBC published a very well done piece on this subject which explains how much water is used to make soft drinks, scotch whiskey, and other beverages.


In my own professional background working in the food and beverage industry and dealing with bottled water companies, I know that it takes water to make water. In order to make 1 liter of bottled water it takes 1.39 liters of water that is due to the amount lost during the various stages of processing.


In addition, it should be noted that the packaging used, which is also made in California, the PET plastic and the various other plastic bottle packaging uses a significant amount of water in the production process. In a place where water is in a critical level shortage it has raised debate over whether it is appropriate for this activity to continue.



Green Water


The bottled water industry is a $12.2 billion dollar empire and California is a state strapped with debt and other economic problems, making this situation even more problematic on a variety of levels.


Local residents also note that Nestle has a reputation for moving into small towns and communities and draining the area of all the water supply, “down to the last drop” as one resident explains, and then moves on to the next town.


Many groups of concerned residents and environmental conservationists maintain that this sort of activity by Nestle and other large beverage manufacturers involved in bottling water should be regulated and curtailed as soon as possible.


If California were to get involved in a regulatory measure against the bottled water manufacturers, it would constrain further the economic difficulties of this state in a post recessionary period that has been very difficult. However, the larger ethical questions raised and the ecological impact involved has become the central focus of the debate in the Golden State at this point which has become more important than the economic issues involved.


Nestle responded to some of these allegations but did not comment on the questions regarding their past practices of extracting a source to the end and then uprooting out of the respective community. The company did, in fair balance, raise the point that if they were to cease operations then the people of California would be forced to choose an alternative beverage such as soda, iced tea, or beer. The company spokesperson focused on their commitment to providing healthy choices through bottled water and that they have strict environmental standards in place to remain compliant with California laws.


The Nestle plant, it was noted, was designed to prevent damage to the local groundwater supply. Though the details to how it is designed specifically were not disclosed.


The Morongo facility is on tribal land, and they are not bound to disclose information on the water usage levels there. However, for those residents that maintain that it creates jobs, the detractors would point out that the facility employs 250 people.




The fact remains that water is a precious natural resource and it needs to be safeguarded and protected during times of drought or supply shortage. The concurrent theme running through this situation is that of the effects of climate change.


In my previous work covering the dire situation at Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the United States, it is apparent that climate change is having a dramatic impact on the mountain streams which feed the Colorado River, which in turn supplies Lake Mead.


The changes in temperatures and environmental as well as atmospheric conditions coupled with the increased westward population migration trend in the United States, and the result is a significant problem with potentially dangerous consequences to a huge number of people. The impact of climate change and migratory patterns of several species of birds including the changing temperatures being tied to the deaths of these animals has also received increased media attention this week.


In Nevada, the state and local government agencies have worked diligently on programs focused on sustainability of the water supply through the reuse and recycling of the water in their system. Some reports I researched detailed the proposals currently pending in California regarding similar measures, though some members of the population are hesitant about the recycling processes involving wastewater, so it remains a work in progress.


I believe that recycled water technologies are going to account for a large amount of the innovations moving forward as a method to deal with the effects of climate change. The system currently in place to provide water service to residences and businesses in many regions of America leaves some room for improvement and increased focus on sustainability.


The question remains: Should Nestle and other beverage conglomerates be allowed to bottle water for export to other states during severe drought conditions where residents are dealing with restricted access to water?


That debate will continue to be a part of our national conversation but the role of climate change in this scenario cannot be overlooked. The larger question of our role in environmental stewardship will also continue to frame a much larger argument in the months to come.


(Background information and statistics courtesy of CNBC, USA Today, The Associated Press, and the International Bottled Water Association)



Critical Condition: Lake Mead At Drought Level – Follow Up

In a follow up to an earlier story I wrote on this issue, the news out West is rather daunting: Lake Mead is at the lowest water level since the Hoover Dam was finished and the Colorado River reservoir was established back in the 1930s.


This vital reservoir which provides water to about 40 million people in its service area, is according to the AP, currently 39 percent full and 1,082 feet above sea level. These figures are alarming, they are even lower than the data recorded in November 2010 during that terrible drought, which I covered in my earlier piece on this issue. Lake Mead is at the lowest point since 1937.


In contrast, Lake Powell is 52% full and through the process known as control management, which I detailed in my original article, the two lakes can have water shifted from one to the other to balance out any deficiencies in the water level. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is considering utilizing both control management and conservation protocols in order to address the plummeting water level in Lake Mead.


Multi-faceted Cause for Concern


The current state of Lake Mead leaves a multi-faceted cause for concern at this point because not only is Lake Mead a popular recreational area and attached to the Hoover Dam which is a huge tourist attraction; the lake is also the main source of water supply for Las Vegas and the millions of visitors that resort city attracts each year.


I detailed in my earlier piece that Las Vegas already has multiple conservation methods in place and is very environmentally conscious with their reuse of water and other natural resources. Any type of water supply delivery cuts would have a significant impact on Las Vegas and both the residential population as well as the tourism industry which is the backbone of the entire state of Nevada’s economy.


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asserts that through the control management and other conservation methods they plan to employ, they should be able to stave off any water delivery cuts for a full year. The summer of 2015 though could be a very different scenario, and if these drought conditions continue, then delivery cuts to the water supply will have a detrimental impact on the Las Vegas area during the crucial summer vacation travel period.


In addition, a water supply cut during the summer months where the hottest temperatures will be experienced in the Lake Mead service area will create massive public health concerns.


Keeping Watch


The government entities involved will continue to monitor the water levels in Lake Mead and the other Colorado River based reservoirs to insure water supply deliveries are not altered in the coming weeks and months.


However, this drought raises concerns again over the demographic shifts in population growth to the American West, and whether the infrastructure can adequately sustain the new burdens placed on those systems.


This situation also raises more questions about climate change and the impact that it has had on the supply of water to the Colorado River, which then supplies Lake Mead and Lake Powell.


The unfortunate conclusion here is that this drought raises more questions that we do not have answers for at this point. It also points to the need for a longer term solution as these factors which drive the potential for water supply interruption are not going away any time soon.


(Statistics and some background information courtesy of AP )



Lake Mead: Crisis or Climate Change?

The conditions at Lake Mead seem to get worse each year. It is the largest reservoir in the United States and it supplies water to 20 million people living in 3 states in the Southwest.


The water level in the lake is dangerously low and is anticipated to drop another 20 feet this year, which would place the water level perilously close to drought stage levels. This change in water levels would require the implementation of water conservation protocols throughout the region.


Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States and the 16th largest man-made lake in the entire world. It is located 24 miles southeast of Las Vegas, and it is responsible for supplying 90% of the water supply for the internationally renowned tourist resort.


The reservoir is supplied water through the Hoover Dam and the adjoining Lake Powell via the Colorado River through snow melt in the Rocky Mountains and rainfall as well. The water level decrease is due to less snow fall in those mountain areas and shifts in rainfall patterns.


An Ongoing Problem


The water level decrease has been a consistent and ongoing problem over the past several years at Lake Mead. Since the year 2000, the reservoir has lost 4 trillion gallons of water. The Southern Nevada Water Authority which oversees the site, has significant concerns about the disruption in the water supply to Las Vegas and the surrounding areas served by Lake Mead.

Any disruption in the water supply would have a negative effect on tourism and for the residents of the resort city. The tourism dollars generated by Las Vegas and the other resort areas, fuel the economy for the entire state of Nevada, so the consequences here are steep.


The Southern Nevada Water Authority concedes that they have moved dangerously close to the drought stage water level before, but the weather pattern shifts have them very concerned at this juncture for the potential of a drought this summer.


Therefore, all of this data presents a central question: is this shift in water levels tied to climate change or is it a crisis? What steps can be taken to avert the potential for drought or water supply disruption? What role can technology or advancements in engineering play in this situation?


Las Vegas Misconception


The misconception about Las Vegas with regard to water use is that the city is excessive and wasteful when, in fact, the city recycles 93% of their water supply. The government also offers incentives for residents who remove their lawns to reduce the consumption of water.


These steps towards conservation leave very little more that the resort city can do to decrease their burden on the water supply system. In fact, the Las Vegas metropolitan area actually grew in population and decreased their overall use of water according to a report from CBS News.


In California, the government has placed restrictions on water use in several regions which are supplied by the reservoir in Lake Mead. So the effort toward water conservation is unified throughout the multi-state area supplied by this important reservoir.


Despite all of these efforts, the increasingly likely event of a drought persists to the south at Lake Mead, and the Colorado River which feeds the reservoir also shows signs of drying up. These are alarming events and the government is looking to take measures to avoid this situation.


Evasive Action


The way that the reservoir surrounding the Hoover Dam is constructed allows for the diversion of water from Lake Powell over to Lake Mead, so that is the first evasive action that will take place in order to avert a drought level event from occurring.


The water levels in Lake Mead coupled with the choked supply of resources from the Colorado River have left the water plummeting toward falling below the intake tunnels, which would be a disastrous situation.


In response to these shifts in water level, climate patterns, and “snow pack” in the Rockies, the government is drilling a new intake tunnel to feed Lake Mead which is further down below the surface than the other intake system.


According to a report by CBS News and information provided by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, they have a massive drill working on the new intake which will be completed in 2015 at a total cost of approximately $800 million.


Climate Change


What if this situation is driven solely by climate change? What if the levels of snow continue to vary and the rainfall patterns continue to shift? How will these factors impact the future of Lake Mead, and thereby the future of Las Vegas?


The National Park Service estimates that 96% of the water in Lake Mead is supplied by melting snow from the Upper Rockies region. What if the snow fall amounts in that region decrease over a sustained period of years? That would spell a catastrophe for the water supply in those areas of the American West.


The flow of the Colorado River has been slowing down over the course of several years. It is obvious that warmer temperatures will lead to more evaporation and a decrease in flow from the river. In the area of water management that decrease in water flow from the river is a big problem because the water is already over allocated.


Therefore, any decrease in water flow will have drastic consequences and result in some form of disruption to the water supply. Climate change in the form of rising air temperatures will result in higher ozone levels which will impact power plant emissions which would be limited by the government to comply with ozone level regulations.


Higher air temperatures and drought conditions would cause increased health problems such as asthma, stroke, heart attack, and other respiratory or cardiovascular issues throughout Nevada. That would put the elderly population there at high risk and also drive up the cost of health care.




The future of Lake Mead and consequently, the water supply for people living in three states in the region, is uncertain. The experts admit they have no idea what impact this new intake will yield in 2015.


Many groups have suggested solutions to the water supply issues with the Colorado River and the reservoir at Lake Mead. It remains to be seen whether this situation will be isolated or if it is a crisis that will plague the region in the future.


Some people have called for the building of more dams, others have suggested the implementation of other systems to retain more water flow from the Rockies and contain the amount currently lost in runoff.


However, still other groups believe that the world is changing and that water conservation and other steps will only take the region so far; that life with water restrictions is going to be the rule rather than the exception. The future will be a lifestyle where the limitations on water will be an everyday part of living in that region.


I was struck by the amount of information that predicts a very bleak future for the water supply in Nevada and parts of Southern California. I have worked in the past with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they are very open minded about solutions and highly committed to providing the best quality water that they can in the conditions they are functioning within.


The future of this matter may be uncertain, but some aspects remain clear. A solution to this water level problem is needed before it reaches a crisis level. I hope that solution is found before it reaches that point. The future of Las Vegas depends upon it.   


(Statistics and background information courtesy of CBS News, Science World Report, Las Vegas Sun, National Park Service, Sierra Club, Southern Nevada Water Authority,  and NBC News)