Western Drought Isn’t Going Anywhere. It’s Time to Rethink Water Use.

Categories

Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Mark Schlosberg

You wouldn’t know it by the water use in much of the Western U.S., but the region is mired in its worst drought in over 1200 years. Driven by the climate crisis, more than half of the West is in exceptional, extreme or severe drought. Only 17% of the West is experiencing normal conditions. 

This is bad news for our water supplies. Reservoir levels in California and across the West have sunk to historic lows. For instance, the Colorado River system provides water for 40 million people. Its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are just 26 and 27% full, respectively. 

This drought isn’t going away anytime soon. One study projects a 75% chance that it lasts through 2030. But if climate change escalates unabated, dry conditions could last even longer. 

It’s time for our elected leaders to take a hard look at the biggest water abusers and drivers of climate change. It’s time to take on big agribusiness and the fossil fuel industry. 

The Fossil Fuel Industry Drives Drought While Abusing Our Water

We know that climate change is driving drought and Big Oil drives climate change. Yet in the West, oil and gas keep flowing, as do permit approvals for more drilling. 

In California and New Mexico, for example, the very industries driving the drought continue to flourish. California is the seventh-largest oil-producing state. New Mexico, meanwhile, is the third-largest producer of oil and a top-ten producer of natural gas. 

On top of climate-changing carbon emissions, oil and gas production uses a huge amount of water. In California, the oil and gas industry has used over 3 billion gallons of water since 2018. That’s enough water for nearly 150,000 people for a year. 

Plus, wastewater from drilling can pollute limited fresh water supplies. The industry has even dumped its wastewater into clean aquifers. 

Thirsty Crops And Factory Farms Make Matters Worse

Another culprit behind the megadrought: Big Ag. In the West, thirsty farms abound. Agriculture makes up 80% of California’s water use, most of it industrial. We see this pattern in other Western states like New Mexico and Oregon, too. 

The West’s agriculture industries are so thirsty in part due to water-intensive crops that aren’t suited for our dry climate. Of California’s 80% freshwater used for agriculture, 20% goes to water-intensive tree nuts. 60% of these crops, like almonds and pistachios, are exported abroad.  

Similarly, 16% of that agricultural water goes to growing alfalfa — another water intensive crop, some of which is exported. In New Mexico, it’s the same story: Big Ag uses scarce water resources to grow alfalfa for hay, 30% of which it exports. 

Much of what Big Ag doesn’t export, it uses to support factory farms. These operations also suck up large amounts of water while causing massive amounts of water and air pollution. 

In Oregon, there are 11 mega-dairies with over 2500 cows each. Combined, they consume 8.2 million gallons of water a day just for drinking and washing. This doesn’t even include the water used to grow feed. All this water could meet the average daily indoor water needs of over 124,000 Oregonians. 

In New Mexico, mega-dairies (500 head or more) use over 32 million gallons a day. And in California, mega-dairies use a whopping 142 million gallons a day. That’s enough water for every resident of San Diego and San Jose combined. 

At the same time, factory farms produce huge amounts of waste, polluting air and water and contributing to climate change. Those 11 Oregon mega-dairies produce emissions equivalent to that of 318,000 passenger vehicles

Agriculture is critical and we need to produce food to feed people. But we also need a sustainable food system that works in our current environment.  

Droughts Hurt Communities, Especially Those Already Disadvantaged

These water abuses and the droughts they cause are hurting communities across the West. For example, the drought has caused salmon runs to collapse in California. This significantly impacts the Indigenous communities that have long relied on salmon fisheries. The devastated fisheries, along with limited water and disputed allocations, hits these communities especially hard.

Moreover, the drought contributes to the water scarcity crisis that threatens access to clean drinking water. Hundreds of wells are running dry, while water pollution intensifies. These two factors threaten the human right to safe, accessible, affordable water. In California alone, over a million people lack reliable access to clean water. 

We Need Accountability For Water-Abusing Corporations. Not More Energy-Intensive Projects.

To meet our water needs, elected officials and their appointees must take on these industries. They must also reform water rights and allocations to prioritize the human right to water and protect our water as a public trust resource. 

Moreover, elected officials can conserve our water supplies by stopping permits for new fossil fuel projects and factory farms. Rules and legislation can further rein in senseless water uses in a dry climate that will only get drier. 

Many of the West’s water systems, from California’s aqueducts to the Colorado River system, were established during historically wet conditions. Now, we have swung in the other direction. 

Our governors, state legislators and Congressmembers will need to revisit old assumptions and adapt to our new reality. That means moving toward renewable energy and sustainable farming, while centering water as a human right. 

Unfortunately, some are doing the opposite. Governor Newsom in California, for example, just announced his water plan. While it contains some good measures around stormwater capture and water efficiency, it doubles down on an industrial model. It calls for more dams, a costly and destructive water tunnel and a buildout of ocean desalination plants by gutting regulations. 

These facilities are not only unnecessary — they’re energy-intensive and bad for the ocean environment, too. 

This approach also sidesteps the root of the problem: big corporate water abusers. We won’t see improvements in our water crisis until those in office face down water abusers and rebalance our water system. 

We don’t need energy-intensive and expensive industrial tech fixes. Rather, we need to aggressively transition off fossil fuels and factory farms and towards a renewable and sustainable future. 

Spread the word: A sustainable water future means stopping abuses by Big Ag and Big Oil!

PFAS: No Sticking, No Staining … And Not Going Anywhere

Categories

Food SystemClean Water

By Mia DiFelice

The story begins in 1938, with the accidental invention of Teflon. Made famous by the miraculous “nonstick” cookware, Teflon flooded American kitchens in the 1960s. But Teflon’s stick- and stain-fighting power comes from the chemical PFOA. As Teflon sold the miracle of PFOA to consumers, new, similar chemicals flooded the market. Those chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are showing up in our baby clothes, our burger wrappers, our blood. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Is That a Bad Thing?

Very — and PFAS manufacturers have known this for a long time. In 2005, the EPA fined Dupont, the maker of Teflon, $16.5 million. The fine penalized Dupont for covering up decades of studies that linked PFOA to cancer, birth defects and liver damage. Dupont and 3M, the maker of another PFAS chemical, knew back in the ’60s that these substances could be dangerous.

Now, we see studies linking PFAS to thyroid disease, decreased fertility, endocrine disruption, cognitive problems and immune system impacts (for example, reduced response to vaccines). There is even evidence linking PFAS exposure to greater risk of COVID and more severe COVID symptoms.

Despite this research, the U.S. still lacks federal regulations for PFAS. Chemical companies can keep information on PFAS close to the chest, so we often can’t know if a product we purchase contains the chemicals. Our federal government does not regulate all industrial PFAS wastewater discharges, either. On top of that, it has not designated PFAS as hazardous substances, which would help clean up contamination sites.

Where Do We Find PFAS?

In short, everywhere. If a product is labeled non-stick, stain-resistant or water-resistant, there’s a good chance it contains PFAS. And once PFAS are in the environment, they spread and persist. When we toss garbage with PFAS in it, the chemicals leach from the landfill into our air, water and soil. Then they can get into the groundwater. Scientists have even found PFAS in places thought to be undamaged by humans, like the Arctic and the deep ocean. In the U.S., researchers estimate they’re in 97% of people’s blood.

And PFAS, also called “forever chemicals,” are nearly impossible to get rid of. If a manufacturer stopped using PFAS right now, they could still find traces in products coming out of that plant a decade later.

The Stuff We Buy

Stain-resistant and water-resistant fabrics usually have PFAS. For instance, a recent study found 60% of fabrics used in children’s products labeled “waterproof” or “stain-resistant” contained PFAS. When PFAS-treated upholstery or carpeting wears down, we inhale the dust. We can eat PFAS when they slide off our water-resistant food packaging. They’re also in our cosmetics and our toiletries, where they are most likely to get into our systems through our eyes.

The Food We Eat

When we flush products with PFAS down the drain, the chemicals build up in our sewers. Many wastewater treatment plants filter out the solids and clean the water. But those solids have to go somewhere, and often, they go to farms. Farms have long-used sewer sludge as fertilizer. As a result, the Environmental Working Group estimates that 20 million acres of US cropland could be contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals now appear in the crops of PFAS-affected farmland — and in the meat and milk of animals that eat those feed crops.

The Water We Drink

In 2021, EWG found PFAS contaminants in the public and private water of all 50 states. We might drink from the tap several times a day, so if PFAS are in the water, our bodies are continuously contaminated. Researchers have found PFAS in the drinking water of towns near factories that work with the chemicals. They’ve found the chemicals in the drinking water of towns near military bases, which use PFAS-laden firefighting foam for training exercises. We depend on water to survive — our government should not allow it to be laced with toxic forever chemicals.

What Can We Do About PFAS?

Many companies have voluntarily phased out PFAS, especially in the last twenty years as their dangers came to light. However, the EPA has not set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, nor required manufacturers to help clean up contamination.

In 2021, the agency released its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” committing the agency to several measures to combat PFAS in the next few years. And just this week, it designated $1 billion of Infrastructure Bill funds to help local communities address PFAS. In the same announcement, the EPA published health advisories on four major PFAS chemicals — but this is out of thousands in the family.

While these are important steps in the right direction, the advisories aren’t enforceable, and communities have already waited decades for action. There is so much more work to be done. 

Food & Water Watch calls for:
  1. PFAS to be regulated as a class of chemicals, not on an individual level. Much of the work on PFAS so far has focused on PFOA and PFOS, allowing dozens of other PFAS to come onto the market with little scrutiny. When PFOA came under fire, Dupont was quick to replace it with GenX, shorter-chain compounds that share many of the same toxic traits as its sibling chemicals. But GenX may be even more toxic and could be more difficult to remove from drinking water. Without addressing PFAS as a category, the EPA will continue playing whack-a-mole with the thousands of varieties.
  2. Enforceable national drinking water limits, not only for legacy PFAS chemicals but all the chemicals in the family.
  3. Hazardous substance designation under the Superfund law for PFAS as class to jump start the cleanup of contaminated areas. 
  4. Passage of the WATER Act, which provides greater support for local water systems to test and treat for PFAS in drinking water and wastewater systems. This support must reach both public water utilities and household wells. If remediation isn’t possible, Congress must provide support to connect communities with contaminated water  to new, clean water sources. 

We need more funding and better policy for PFAS. Tell Congress to pass the WATER Act!

2.FACTORY FARMS MAKE US SICK

Categories

Food System

Factory farms make us sick

The damage caused by factory farms is insidious and affects everyone.

Factory farms are responsible for a rise in antibiotic resistance.