Finally, some good news on the California drought beat: Californians reduced their residential water usage in May by a whopping 29 percent compared to the same month in 2013, according to a report released today by the State Water Resources Control Board. That's the steepest drop in more than a year.
Californians may have been inspired to reduce their water use by the mandatory, statewide municipal water cut of 25 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April, though those cuts didn't go into effect until June. (Those 25 percent reductions did not apply to agriculture, which uses an estimated 80 percent of the state's water, though some farmers have faced curtailments.)
"The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure, which is welcome news in the face of this dire drought," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus in a press release. "That said, we need all Californians to step up—and keep it up—as if we don’t know when it will rain and snow again, because we don't."
In May, California residents used 87.5 gallons per capita per day—three gallons per day less than the previous month. Big cities that showed the most dramatic cuts include Folsom, Fresno, and San Jose. But water use by area varies drastically, with places known for green lawns and gardens, like Coachella and Malibu, using more than 200 gallons per person per day. Outdoor water usage is estimated to account for about half of overall residential use.
Officials are cautiously optimistic. Board spokesman George Kostyrko says Californians "did great in May and we are asking them to keep doing what they are doing and work even harder to conserve water during these critical summer months and beyond."
Four flight attendants sued the Boeing Company on Tuesday, alleging that crew and passengers are sometimes exposed to toxic fumes in airplane cabins that can lead to devastating health problems.
All Boeing commercial jets—with the exception of the company's newest model (the 787 Dreamliner)—use a venting system in which air is pulled through the compressor of the engine to provide pressurization in the cabin. Airbus, Boeing's rival, uses the same system. When something goes wrong in that process—like a leaking engine seal or an overfilling oil reservoir—air can be contaminated by the chemicals in the oil of the engine, mishaps known as "fume events."
"Since stepping on that plane my life has been turned upside down," says one of the plaintiffs.
The four flight attendants allege that such an event occurred during a 2013 Alaska Airlines flight from Boston to San Diego. Three of the four women lost consciousness, leading the plane to land early in Chicago, where they were hospitalized. According to the complaint, all four flight attendants still suffer from medical problems, including tremors, blurred vision, memory loss, and chronic fatigue. Two of the four flight attendants can no longer work. "Since stepping on that plane my life has been turned upside down," says Vanessa Woods, one of the plaintiffs.
Cabin air contamination isn't a new problem—or even one specific to Boeing. A oft-cited 2008 study by researchers for the Association for Flight Attendants and the International Association of Mechanics sought out reports of contaminated air in the US commercial fleet over an 18-month period spanning 2006 and 2007, and found 470 cases. That translates to roughly one fume event on US planes per day.
It is unknown if passengers on the plane suffered from health effects as well.Rainey Booth, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, says this may be because flight attendants are on board earlier than the passengers (in this case, about 45 minutes before) and some of the health effects are cumulative, leading cabin crew to be more susceptible to health problems over time. "The risk to any individual passenger might be low on a daily basis, but what we know is, every day people in this country are exposed," he told the Chicago Tribune.
A 2009 report funded by the Federal Aviation Administration found that exposure to contaminants in cabin air "can be responsible for some of the numerous complaints of acute and chronic health effects in cabin crew and passengers." According to the study, the contamination, which has an oil or chemical odor, typically is noticed during take-off or landing, and reported health effects include nausea, dizziness, slurred speech, shortness of breath, and memory loss. Boeing isn't the only company facing lawsuits; the BBC recently reported that seventeen former and current cabin crew are planning to sue some British airlines for contaminated cabin air, citing similar health problems.
The complaint filed yesterday alleges that Boeing had been "put on notice more than 40 times that its aircraft was unreasonably dangerous but failed to rectify the flawed design." Among other evidence, the suit cites an internal email from 2007 in which Boeing engineer George Bates complains about the lack of reporting of cabin air contaminants. "With all the diversions (about 1 every 2 weeks) and Return to Base events due to Haze in the Cabin, I would have thought the FAA would have made the Engine Manufacturers address this by now," he writes. "Bottom line is I think we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take interest."
A Boeing representative told Mother Jones, "This lawsuit resurrects a series of old and discredited claims about the quality of Boeing's cabin air." The representative also said that independent studies confirm Boeing planes' safety.
Judith Anderson, an industrial hygienist who studies cabin air safety, told the Chicago Tribune that she doesn't think that passengers should avoid flying, but they should be aware of the problem. "I'm not suggesting this happens on every flight and all passengers are getting sick—it's not like a conspiracy theory," she said. "But it happens often enough that regulators should be doing something about it."
Drama on the California drought front: On Friday, a group of water districts sued the State Water Resources Control Board in response to an order prohibiting some holders of senior water rights from pumping out of some lakes and rivers.
"This is our water," said Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, to KQED's Lauren Sommer. "We believe firmly in that fact and we are very vested in protecting that right."
Water allotments in the Golden State are based on a byzantine system of water rights that prioritizes senior water rights holders, defined as individuals, companies, and water districts that laid claim to the water before 1914. Typically, those with the oldest permits are the first to get water and the last to see it curtailed.
But on June 12, the state ordered the 114 senior water rights holders with permits dating back to 1903 to stop pumping water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, a normally fertile area encompassing most of northern California. "There are some that have no alternative supplies and will have to stop irrigating crops," admitted Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. "There are others that have stored water or have wells that they can fall back on. It's going to be a different story for each one and a struggle for all of them." This is the first time since 1977 that the state has enacted curtailments on senior holders.
In response, an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (which includes the Oakdale Irrigation District) has sued the state. In addition, the Patterson and Banta Carbona irrigation districts filed two separate lawsuits. The lawsuits claim the state overstepped its authority by curtailing water to districts that claimed rights to the water before the state set up a control board in 1913 to oversee water rights.
"Water right holders were here before the state exerted any authority over water," said Knell. "Most of our water rights go back to the mid-1800s. So the state having authority over something that we developed long before the state got into this business is the legal question we will be asking a judge."
Groundwater loss isn't just a California problem: According to a recent study by researchers at NASA and the University of California-Irvine, humans are depleting more than half of the world's 37 largest aquifers at unsustainable rates, and there is virtually no accurate data showing how much water is left.
The study, published this week in the journal Water Resources Research, used 11 years of satellite data to measure water depletion. Eight aquifers, primarily in Asia and Africa, were qualified as "overstressed," meaning they had nearly no natural replenishment. The most stressed basin was the Arabian Aquifer System, beneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other quickly disappearing aquifers were the Indus Basin aquifer, between India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin, in northern Africa.
Five other aquifers, including California's Central Valley Aquifer, were "extremely" or "highly" stressed, with some natural replenishment but not enough to make up for growing demand.
The growing demand on water, exacerbated by overpopulation and climate change, has led to a situation that is "quite critical," says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA.
Aquifers house groundwater, which serves as a savings account of sorts: It's good to rely on in droughts but takes decades or centuries to replenish. Groundwater usually makes up about 40 percent of the California's freshwater supply, but now, as California endures its fourth year of drought and as farmers have resorted to drilling for water, that number has leapt to more than 60 percent. The state recently implemented regulations to measure groundwater supply that will gradually be implemented over several years.
NASA satellite images show groundwater loss in California. UC-Irvine/NASA
Measuring exactly how much groundwater remains around the world is both difficult and expensive, as it involves drilling, sometimes thousands of feet, into thick layers of bedrock. As a result, estimates of how much longer the existing groundwater will last often vary by orders of magnitude—from decades to millennia.
The researchers got around that problem by using data that shows subtle changes in the Earth's gravity, which is affected by the weight of the aquifers. They acknowledge that this is just a start, and call for more local, detailed data.
"We know we're taking more than we're putting back in—how much do we have before we can't do that anymore?" said lead author Alexandra Richey to the Los Angeles Times. "We don't know, but we keep pumping. Which to me is terrifying."
What do almonds, golf, fracking, and Kim Kardashian's lawn have in common? They've all been publicly shamed for their outsized water use during California's ongoing drought.
But you likely haven't heard as much about one of the state's major water sucks: oil refineries, which are estimated to be the second-biggest water user of non-ag businesses in the state (after golf).
The plants process more than 80 million gallons of oil per day, turning it into products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each gallon of oil takes between 1 and 2.5 gallons of water to refine, most of which is either dumped into the ocean after it's used and treated, or evaporated as steam. Once in the ocean, the water is unusable unless it's desalinated.
Because California mandates a specific standard of fuel, most of the output produced by refineries stays in the state, powering the state's 26 million cars and 1 million trucks. Even though California is the third-largest refiner in the nation—after Texas and North Dakota—the Golden State doesn't collect data on the water consumption of its refineries. So I reached out to the six companies that make up more than 90 percent of the state's refining capacity, asking how much water each California refinery consumes.
Three companies were forthcoming about their water use; ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, and Valero declined to comment. Let's assume that these three companies use 1.5 gallons of water per gallon of oil refined—an estimate provided by David Kujawski, at the consulting group Refinery Wastewater Associates, and one that matches up with water use of other refineries in the area. That means that at full capacity, the six companies together use about 94 million gallons of water per day in California—more than twice as much as the daily water use of San Francisco homes, or about a third of that of Los Angeles homes. When you're looking at the chart below, keep in mind that companies often sell products to gas stations with different brands; gasoline that's refined at the Tesoro plant, for example, is often sold at Exxon, Shell, and ARCO stations.
So far, the refineries have largely avoided the water cuts that other industries are facing. Though California Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered homes and non-agricultural businesses to reduce water use by 25 percent, many oil refineries won't be subject to the reductions because they have their own wells and use the water indoors. (According to George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the state's water board, the cuts apply to outdoor irrigation for those with their own wells; policy "doesn't dictate terms for industrial or commercial operations inside the buildings.")
I won't go into the details of the refining process (if you're interested, you can find good information here), but in short, refineries are responsible for taking crude oil—most of which is imported to California from Alaska, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, and Iraq—and turning it into fuel and other petroleum-based products. (Note that refining is different—and more water intensive—than oil extraction, which includes fracking.) The water that the refineries use varies in purity: Some refineries use mostly freshwater, while others run mostly on treated wastewater (the kind of water that would normally be used for irrigation or street cleaning).
Once at the refineries, the bulk of the water is used for heating up the oil and cooling down equipment. Though technology exists for zero-discharge refineries, there are no such refineries in the United States, since water has traditionally been such a low-cost resource.
When refineries are done with the water, some of it is evaporated as steam, but most of it is treated and discharged into local bodies of water. In the case of California, where refineries cluster around San Francisco and Los Angeles, that means the water is dumped into the ocean. Environmental activists also worry about contamination of the ocean and ground with chemicals and heavy metals, including ammonia and selenium.
Kujawski, who worked as an environmental engineer at several refineries in California before becoming a consultant, doesn't think the water intensity of the industry is going to change without tougher policies that affect the bottom line. "There's plenty of technology out there" to decrease water use, he says. But "environmentally, they're going to only do what they're forced to do."