TIME Environment

What We Can Learn From Australia and Turning Off the Tap

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Andrew Bain—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

The country's long drought taught people that they need to mimic nature

As an Australian, I have been taught from birth the value of water. In school, history lessons always included details of early explorers who died of thirst, such as Robert O’ Hara Burke and William John Wills’ disastrous expedition between the Gulf of Carpenteria and Melbourne in 1861. Today, the threat remains; it’s not uncommon for people to die from lack of water when their cars break down in the Outback.

And while we’re used to water scarcity in Australia, we do have particular periods of national drought, the latest stretching from 1997 to 2010. It has taught all of us that water is priceless, because we cannot live without it. It’s also brought a greater understanding in Australia’s towns and cities of what it is like to live in the bush. A drought so long and severe required all Australians to bear the burden.

Schools and community groups got deeply involved in Waterwatch, a national volunteer water quality monitoring and water education program. Farmers installed observation bores on their property and regularly measured water table levels and groundwater quality, to guard against salinity that can spoil water and land in droughts. If you drove into a country town during the drought, the first thing you saw was a large sign stating the level of water restrictions.

In the cities, people stopped washing cars, then stopped watering lawns, and then stopped watering gardens. Many of us had a bucket between our legs in the shower, but that was voluntary! The country has expanded water recycling, with many places aiming to recycle 100 percent of their waste water. We also invested heavily in desalination (though now, because the drought has dissipated, much of the expensive, energy-consuming equipment is no longer needed). The Australian nation has had to learn together to learn to turn the tap off and treat fresh water as a valuable resource.

Australians love water and we mostly live by the sea, but getting access to fresh water is getting more dangerous for those in the northern parts of Australia. Recently a 15-foot-long crocodile plucked a bloke out of his boat in front of his family in a national park. The croc was shot (a rare event, since crocs have been protected from shooting since 1972) and the man’s body recovered. The culprit was as much the dry conditions as the croc. Crocs always guard their piece of waterway, and they are always growing bigger. As it gets drier, the big crocs and humans have less water to use, and are drawn closer together.

As an agricultural consultant on a recent trip to Northern Queensland, which is still in drought, I was introduced to a new term: “sell’em or smell’em,” meaning that that if you do not sell your cattle livestock, you will smell them dead. There was just not enough water to keep them alive.

But droughts are not new to Australia and historically our landscapes have been able to function and flourish. The question is how a modern society can cope with the droughts, which affect everyone in our nation. Perhaps we can learn from Peter Andrews, a racehorse breeder and grazier from New South Wales, who wrote an excellent book called Back from the Brink. The book explains how the Australian landscape was distinguished by its ability to hold fresh water underground in huge floodplains. These plains released water over time, but also accommodated floodwaters by absorbing them into underground aquifers.

This natural process stored excess water and then released it in dry times, feeding streams at their highest point. Reed beds acted like biological safety values. They held water back and the water would rise. The rising floodwater and floating debris increases leverage on the top of the reeds. Then they would flatten like a protective blanket, protecting what was beneath them.

This process is no more as livestock and machinery have drained the floodplains of fresh water, removed the reed beds and in many cases allowed salt to move down into the lower parts of the landscape. The drought has again taught us that we need to mimic nature and learn to read the landscape in order to start to repair it.

For those in drought, my simple message is to remember that a drought normally ends with some form of flood, which can do more damage. As there is little vegetation to slow down the flow of water and precious topsoil is washed away, too much water ends up degrading farmland and undermining bridge foundations. You can’t erase a drought all at once. So be prepared.

Gwyn Jones is an agricultural consultant in Mudgeeraba, Queensland, Australia. This was written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Books

Why You Need to Hit the Beach Right. This. Second.

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4kodiak—Getty Images

There's some serious science behind water's ability to reduce stress, inspire creativity and promote empathy. How's that for a day in the sand?

What is it about water that pulls us, soothes us, inspires us and connects us?

During the decade I spent pursuing that simple question for my book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, I interviewed and met people around the world with a wide variety of relationships to water: surfers, swimmers, psychologists, artists, ocean managers, fishers, veterans, captains, floaters, neuroscientists, explorers, divers, inventors, educators, poets—and people with the surname Cousteau.

Being by the water can pull the stress from us, inspire creativity and draw us closer to those we love. Research shows that feeling of awe and wonder we get by the sea can also promote compassion and empathy.

Turns out there’s some serious science behind the Beach Boys’ famous lyric, “Catch a wave, and your sittin’ on top of the world.”

So dive in and rank how blue your mind is—or how beach deprived you might be this summer—with this quiz.

Wallace J. Nichols is the author of Blue Mind and a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. He has spent his life getting near, in, on, or under waters all over the world. He also loves sea turtles.

TIME Environment

Toledo, Ohio, Headed for Third Day With Drinking Water Ban

Algae in Lake Erie may have caused toxin levels to rise

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated Aug. 4, 6:40 a.m. ET

Water tests on Sunday night showed a toxin thought to come from an algae bloom was continuing to contaminate the regional water supply from Lake Erie, threatening to leave residents of Toledo, Ohio, and part of Michigan without drinking water for a third full day, but officials said the results were improving.

Residents of Toledo and the surrounding area had been instructed on Saturday neither to drink their tap water or using it to brush their teeth, nor boil it, which would increase the concentration of microsystin, the Associated Press reports. Ingestion of the toxin could cause diarrhea, vomiting and other health issues.

While the city’s health department originally said the roughly 400,000 affected residents were free to take baths and showers, it advised that children and people with liver disease and sensitive skin avoid using water from the city’s treatment plant to bathe, CBS News reports. As of Sunday night, no serious illnesses had yet been reported.

City council members in Toledo, Ohio’s fourth-largest city, are due to go over the results at a meeting on Monday, the AP adds.

Ohio Governor John Kasich declared a state of emergency on Saturday and couldn’t say how long the warning would last or what caused the spike in toxin levels. He said the state was working to provide supplies and safe water for the affected areas.

“What’s more important than water? Water’s about life,” Kasich said. “We know it’s difficult. We know it’s frustrating.”

In a Saturday press conference, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins called upon residents to stay calm.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” he said, the Toledo Blade reports. “But this is not going to be our new normal. We’re going to fix this. Our city is not going to be abandoned.”

Meanwhile, police officers went to stores to keep the peace as residents stocked up on water in a scene one local said “looked like Black Friday.”

“People were hoarding it,” a different resident, Monica Morales, told the AP. “It’s ridiculous.”

One farmer from a nearby village, John Myers, put 450 gallons of well water into a container on his pickup truck and offered it up at no charge in a high school parking lot.

“I never thought I’d see the day that I’d be giving water away,” he said.

While the city runs more tests, the Environmental Protection Agency office in Cincinnati will also investigate water samples from the lake.

Though water plants along Lake Erie, which provides hydration for 11 million people, treat the water to combat algae, plant operators have grown concerned with threats from toxins in the past few years. A similar warning was in place for a small Ohio township roughly one year ago.

[CBS]

MORE: SlideshowToledo Ohio Crisis

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 25

1. Reinventing Justice: Seventeen states are fixing prisons by using data-driven sentencing practices and focusing on keeping the most dangerous prisoners behind bars. The federal government should follow their lead.

By Nancy La Vigne, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations

2. Social media has permanently altered our control over what we say and do. We need a new definition of “public.”

By Anil Dash in The Message, a curated collection on Medium

3. This might be the world’s last chance to rescue Ukraine.

By the editors of the Washington Post

4. Water as a weapon: the next escalation in modern warfare.

By Sarah Goodyear at Next City

5. Work local: Reimagining offices to work more like neighborhoods.

By Max Chopovsky in Harvard Business Review

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Environment

Satellites Show Major Southwest Groundwater Loss

A new report suggests that large swaths of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin have been depleted

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves, according to a new study released Thursday that used NASA satellites.

Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine say their study is the first to quantify how much groundwater people in the West are using during the region’s current drought.

Stephanie Castle, the study’s lead author and a water resource specialist at the University of California, Irvine, called the extent of the groundwater depletion “shocking.”

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of how much water we actually depleted” in the West, Castle said.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado River basin — the largest in the Southwest — has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons, of water. That’s enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year, or nearly fill Lake Mead — the nation’s largest water reservoir — twice.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, the study found.

Unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water, groundwater sources can become so depleted that they may never refill, Castle said. For California and other western states, the groundwater depletion is drawing down the reserves that protect consumers, farmers and ecosystems in times of drought.

“What happens if it isn’t there?” Castle said during a phone interview. “That’s the scary part of this analysis.”

The NASA and University of California research used monthly gravity data to measure changes in water mass in the basin from December 2004 to November of last year, and used that data to track groundwater depletion.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water-allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico, Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the study and senior water-cycle specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The Colorado River basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — as well as to people and farms in part of Mexico.

California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers, is three years into drought. While the state has curtailed use of surface water, the state lacks a statewide system for regulating — or even measuring — groundwater.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Is Your Water Safe to Drink?

Water aids in digestion, helps flush out toxins, hydrates our skin, and it may help with weight loss. But do you really know what’s in the liquid you’re drinking from the tap or bottle? Here’s how to make sure your H20 is safe.

Health.com:15 Big Health Benefits of Water

Check your water quality

If you’re on city water (as most homes and apartments are), water companies are required by law to monitor the supply for contaminants and reduce them to safe levels determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can request a report via your city’s website or contact the supplier via the number on your bill, says Nneka Leiba, MPH, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC. If you have well water, the EPA recommends homeowners test wells annually for harmful solvents. You can find a reliable testing lab at water.epa.gov.

Health.com:20 Foods You Should Always Have in Your Kitchen

Invest in a filter

Even with monitoring, “There can still be trace amounts of impurities present in tap water, including things like lead that leach from household plumbing,” says Cheryl Luptowski, Home Safety Expert for NSF International, a public health certification and research foundation. Even very low levels of lead in drinking water have been linked to cognitive issues, especially in children. A pitcher with a carbon filter (like a Brita) will remove most contaminants. If your report reveals even tiny amounts of arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and perchlorates, however, consider investing in a reverse osmosis carbon filter, which is installed under your sink for a couple thousand dollars.

Health.com:12 Foods That Control Your Appetite

Health.com:14 Surprising Causes of Dehydration

Don’t assume bottled is better

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water for safety, it’s not any more pure than what’s coming out of your tap, notes the National Safety Foundation. Like city water, it simply can’t contain any contaminant at a level that exceeds maximum allowable concentrations. Drinking filtered is just as good—and eco-friendly, too.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Environment

There’s a Huge Underground Ocean That Could Explain the Origin of Seas

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Getty Images

Geologists have found a vast body of water deep below earth's surface and say it is evidence that oceans came from water inside the planet that seeped to the surface

Geologists have long mused about the origin of earth’s seas. Did water, for example, arrive from somewhere else — like on icy comets that struck the planet? Or did water come from somewhere within?

The recent discovery of a subterranean sea, deep inside earth, has scientists excited about the latter possibility.

Like something out of early 19th century playwright Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth — in which characters stumble across a massive underground basin — a team of geologists led by Steven Jacobsen from Northwestern University have found a vast body of water, three times the size of any ocean, located near earth’s core. It’s possible that water from this enormous reservoir oozed to the surface.

“It’s good evidence earth’s water came from within,” Jacobsen told NewScientist.

Jacobsen and his team used seismometers in their find, studying the speed of seismic waves to determine what lies beneath the surface. The waves slowed down upon reaching a layer of blue rock called ringwoodite, indicating that they were passing through water as well as rock. The depth of the phenomenon — 700 km below the mantle, which is the layer of hot rock underneath the surface — is also the perfect temperature and pressure for water to ooze out of the ringwoodite “almost as if it’s sweating,” Jacobsen says.

The discovery has only revealed ringwoodite beneath the continental U.S. however, so further experiments will need to be conducted to determine where else on the planet it can be found.

[NewScientist]

TIME Environment

Supreme Court Rules Against Homeowners in Toxic Water Case

Court says too much time has passed in North Carolina case for legal action against electronics company CTS Corp

The Supreme Court ruled against homeowners from North Carolina attempting to a sue an electronics company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago.

The court ruled that the state’s statute of repose, which states that a plaintiff loses the right to seek property damages 10 years after contamination occurred, should stand. The ruling is a setback for property owners in similar positions.

The case on Monday involved property owners living where CTS Corp. made electronics in 1987. The residents did not realize their water was contaminated with chemicals until 2009, the Associated Press reports. The chemicals in the water can cause health problems ranging from birth defects to cancers.

Homeowners argued that under federal environment laws, their case was still valid despite the statute of repose. The Supreme Court did not agree.

The ruling is a blow for U.S. Marines families involved in a separate case in Camp Lejeune, N.C. It’s estimated that up to 1 million people may have been exposed to contaminated groundwater over several decades in Camp Lejeune. The Associated Press says the U.S. government is relying on the same law to avoid liability for the contamination.

[AP]

 

TIME Economy

These 7 States Are Running Out of Water

California Drought
Cracks in the dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, Calif., on March 13, 2014. Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP

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This post is in partnership with 24/7Wall Street. The article below was originally published on 247wallst.com.

The United States is currently engulfed in one of the worst droughts in recent memory. More than 30% of the country experienced at least moderate drought as of last week’s data.

In seven states drought conditions were so severe that each had more than half of its land area in severe drought. Severe drought is characterized by crop loss, frequent water shortages, and mandatory water use restrictions. Based on data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the highest levels of severe drought.

In an interview, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meteorologist Brad Rippey, told 24/7 Wall St. that drought has been a long-running issue in parts of the country. “This drought has dragged on for three and a half years in some areas, particularly [in] North Texas,” Rippey said.

While large portions of the seven states suffer from severe drought, in some parts of these states drought conditions are even worse. In six of the seven states with the highest levels of drought, more than 30% of each state was in extreme drought as of last week, a more severe level of drought characterized by major crop and pasture losses, as well as widespread water shortages. Additionally, in California and Oklahoma, 25% and 30% of the states, respectively, suffered from exceptional drought, the highest severity classification. Under exceptional drought, crop and pasture loss is widespread, and shortages of well and reservoir water can lead to water emergencies.

MORE: 10 Companies Paying Americans the Least

Drought has had a major impact on important crops such as winter wheat. “So much of the winter wheat is grown across the southern half of the Great Plains,” Rippey said, an area that includes Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, three of the hardest-hit states. Texas alone had nearly a quarter of a million farms in 2012, the most out of any state, while neighboring Oklahoma had more than 80,000 farms, trailing only three other states.

In the Southwest, concerns are less-focused on agriculture and more on reservoir levels, explained Rippey. In Arizona, reservoir levels were just two-thirds of their usual average. Worse still, in New Mexico, reservoir stores were only slightly more than half of their normal levels. “And Nevada is the worst of all. We see storage there at about a third of what you would expect,” Rippey said.

The situation in California may well be the most problematic of any state. The entire state was suffering from severe drought as of last week, and 75% of all land area was under extreme drought. “Reservoirs which are generally fed by the Sierra Nevadas and the southern Cascades [are] where we see the real problems,” Rippey said. Restrictions on agricultural water use has forced many California farmers to leave fields fallow, he added. “At [the current] usage rate, California has less than two years of water remaining.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the seven states with the highest proportions of total area classified in at least a state of severe drought as of May 13, 2014. We also reviewed figures recently published by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service as part of its 2012 Census of Agriculture.

MORE: The Most Polluted Cities in America

These are the seven states running out of water.

1. California
> Pct. severe drought: 100.0%
> Pct. extreme drought: 76.7% (the highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 24.8% (2nd highest)

California had the nation’s worst drought problem with more than 76% of the state experiencing extreme drought as of last week. Drought in California has worsened considerably in recent years. Severe drought conditions covered the entire state, as of last week. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency earlier this year as the drought worsened. California had 465,422 hired farm workers in 2012, more than any other state. Farm workers would likely suffer further if conditions persist. The shortage of potable water has been so severe that California is now investing in long-term solutions, such as desalination plants. A facility that is expected to be the largest in the Western hemisphere is currently under construction in Southern California, and another desalination facility is under consideration in Orange County.

2. Nevada
> Pct. severe drought: 87.0%
> Pct. extreme drought: 38.7% (5th highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 8.2% (4th highest)

Nearly 40% of Nevada was covered in extreme drought last week, among the highest rates in the country. The drought in the state has worsened since the week of April 15, when 33.5% of the state was covered in extreme drought. According to the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD), the main cause of the drought this year has been below average snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. Melting snow from the Rocky Mountains eventually flows into Lake Mead, which provides most of the Las Vegas Valley with water. John Entsminger, head of both the LVVWD and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said that the effects of the drought on the state has been “every bit as serious as a Hurricane Katrina or a Superstorm Sandy.”

3. New Mexico
> Pct. severe drought: 86.2%
> Pct. extreme drought: 33.3% (6th highest)
> Pct. exceptional drought: 4.5% (5th highest)

More than 86% of New Mexico was covered in severe drought as of last week, more than any state except for Nevada and California. Additionally, one-third of the state was in extreme drought, worse than just a month earlier, when only one-quarter of the state was covered in extreme drought. However, conditions were better than they were one year ago, when virtually the entire state was in at least severe drought, with more than 80% in extreme drought conditions. NOAA forecasts conditions may improve in much of the state this summer.

Visit 24/7 Wall St. to see the remaining states on the list.

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