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As Drought Worsens, The Feds Turn Off the Tap. That story and other headlines in the current newscast of This Week in Water

Federal Government Cuts Off Water to Irrigators, As Drought Crisis Looms

Water cutoffs, destroyed crops, and demonstrations—in western North America it’s shaping up to be the worst water crisis in generations, as severe drought stretches from Canada to Mexico.


Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
The Bureau of Reclamation announced last week that it would close a primary canal of the massive Klamath Reclamation Project, which leaves many farmers and ranchers in southern Oregon and northern California with no water this summer. Instead, much of the water will stay in Upper Klamath Lake, honoring senior rights that the Klamath Tribes have to protect two endangered fish species of cultural significance. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that this is the first year since 1907 that the Bureau of Reclamation will not deliver water to farmers and ranchers who have grown hay, alfalfa, potatoes, and cattle on more than 130,000 acres.

Irrigators reacted to the news of the cutoff with disbelief and said their livelihood is threatened if they can’t get water from the lake. About 30 protesters, who were reportedly with a far-right group founded by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, asked the local irrigation district to defy the federal order and instead deliver the water. Last year, a tractor convoy supporting farmers stretched 20 miles through Klamath Falls, and 2,000 crosses were planted near a highway. Members of the tribes say they've experienced racist intimidation and confrontations both in person and online.

The Bureau of Reclamation restriction also means water will not be sent downstream to sustain coho salmon in the Klamath River. The Associated Press reports the salmon are central to the diet and culture of the Yurok Native Americans, California’s largest federally recognized tribe.

There won’t be enough water to support the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuges, nicknamed the Everglades of the West, support up to 80 percent of the millions of birds that migrate on the Pacific Flyway.

Because of the drought, both the governors in Oregon and California have declared emergencies, and the federal government has set aside millions of dollars for aid to irrigators.

American River Too Dry for Salmon and Drought Forces Some Farmers to Destroy Crops

Young Chinook salmon, which normally swim down the American River near Sacramento to the Pacific Ocean, are making the journey by truck. As Reuters reports, because of the drought, rivers are low and that makes the water too warm for the fish to survive.

In spring, when the rivers have historically flowed, young Chinook have normally been released from the hatchery into the American River and then make their way to the Pacific Ocean to grow to adulthood.

California plans to truck 17 million of the smolt, as the young salmon are called, from various hatcheries to San Francisco Bay—an emergency step not taken since the last major drought in 2014.

Also, some farmers in the Central Valley of California are destroying their crops ahead of summer because of uncertainty whether they will get any water. Joe Del Bosque told KSEE that he had to destroy his asparagus to save water for other crops and said that thousands of acres won’t get planted. On his farm alone, the loss of asparagus means as many as 60 farmworkers are out of a job and the effects will also be felt on grocery store shelves.

Rule to Curb Air Pollution from Shipping Leads to Ocean Pollution

Most big ships on the ocean burn a cheap, heavy fuel oil that emits sulphur into the atmosphere, which contributes to acid rain and smog. So, last year the International Maritime Organization passed a rule to cut sulphur pollution from ship exhaust.

Screenshot Now, many ship owners are using equipment that sprays the emissions with water before they leave smoke stacks to contain the pollutants. Often the polluted water, which can contain mercury and other toxins harmful to marine organisms, is dumped at ports and sometimes near sensitive coral reefs, according to researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation. They say discharges occur in ecologically sensitive areas like the Great Barrier Reef, the Baltic Sea, and the Galapagos Islands.

The shipping industry says pollutants in the waste don't exceed national and international limits, and there's no evidence of harm. But as Science magazine reports, researchers say the scrubber water poses a growing threat and they want to see such systems outlawed. Cruise ships discharge the most waste while in ports, where they burn fuel to power casinos, pools, air conditioning, and other amenities. They’re usually docked in shallow water where pollutants can accumulate rapidly.

Sixteen countries have banned the scrubbers, but the researchers say instead of burning the heavy oil, the solution is for ships to use cleaner but more expensive fuel.

Ghost Forests "Fart" Greenhouse Gases

Climate change is adding new phrases to our lexicon to depict the impacts of a warming planet. One is “ghost forests”—a term that evokes what’s happening to coastal wetlands as sea level rise and extreme storms send saltwater farther inland. That salty seawater overtakes the freshwater that trees rely on, slowly poisoning them and leaving a haunted scene of tall, grey sticks protruding into the air.


Credit: Melinda Martinez
Although observations of dead trees near shorelines were first described in the early 1900s, there’s been a significant increase in the phenomena, especially along the Atlantic seaboard of the U.S. And, according to new research from North Carolina State University, the dead trees themselves are contributing to climate change by releasing greenhouse gas emissions in the form of “tree farts”—their term, not ours, but a new addition to our growing climate vocabulary.

The team found the farts by measuring the carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide gases coming from standing dead trees called “snags” and also from surrounding soil. Although overall average emissions from soils were approximately four times higher than from the snags, the researchers noted that trees did contribute significantly to emissions—and could add up as more wetlands succumb to saltwater inundation.

Coincidental to this latest research, in New York City last week, the latest work from artist Maya Lin intends to bring awareness about ghost forests to a wider audience. She installed 49 dead Atlantic white cedar trees from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in a Manhattan park, which had become victims of saltwater inundation. Lin told Reuters that more than 50 percent of Atlantic Cedars on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard have been lost.

Airport Uses Air Conditioners to Make Beer

SANBeer As the planet warms, air conditioning use will likely increase, as will the demand for water—and the necessity to conserve every drop. Or reuse them. That’s the idea behind a growing trend to take the water that’s a byproduct of air conditioning systems called condensate and use it for everything from irrigating plants to flushing toilets.

As Bloomberg CityLab reports, companies like Microsoft are using condensate to water landscaping at their massive campuses in Israel, the UK, and India, and cities are looking to stretch their supply as far as they can, too. Last month Austin City Council approved a funding program to incentivize developments to collect, treat, and reuse rainwater, stormwater, greywater, foundation drainage, and air conditioning condensate for non-potable purposes. Similar programs already exist in San Francisco and San Antonio.

There are a few obstacles to everyone tapping into their air conditioners. There are upfront costs to retrofit the systems and the condensate forms better in hot, humid places like the Deep South rather than the West, where solutions like these would be welcome.

Also, it’s better suited to larger buildings with bigger systems like, for example, San Diego International Airport, which in 2019, turned condensate into beer. The airport partnered with Ballast Point Brewing to turn some of the water from its cooling towers into a lighter German-style kölsch called SAN Test Pilot, which according to their website, is light and crisp brew with notes of ripe fruit.

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