Alternet water story is wrong, wrong, wrong!

Hate to pick on Alternet, which I think is generally great, great, great, but I’m not sure why they chose to publish Yasha Levine’s article titled “Why Just About Everything You Hear About California’s Water Crisis Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong“. (Whoaa, that title is long, long, long!)

I don’t think the article is necessarily wrong X 3, but it’s misleading at best, irresponsible at worst. Levine’s central claim is that, essentially, California is not experiencing a drought. This amazing assertion seems to be based on Levine’s “fact-checking” at the Bureau of Reclamation’s site, which notes in a report about its Central Valley Project (CVP), that Northern California’s 2009 precipitation was 94 percent of the average. While Levine lauds the “power of simple fact-checking,” he (or she) neglects to point out that the report is careful to state that:

. . .runoff remained low at about 70 percent of normal due to the 3 years of dry conditions (based on the Sacramento River Index). In the CVP, runoff is a better indicator for water supply availability than precipitation.

Also, as the table below shows, the end-of-year storage stats for 2007–2009 are substantially (like 40- to 50-percent) lower than the previous two years.

There is a drought in California. Why do I think that? Well, I could just say that it’s because Dr. Peter Gleick, who unlike Levine is an actual expert on California water, says there’s a drought, that’s why. However, read Levine’s own article to see that this is not even a controversial issue. Everybody looking at the situation– except Levine–agrees that there is a drought, as even Levine points out in this article.

I don’t disagree with a lot of Levine’s conclusions. I think the drought is being used to create panic and convince people to support building dams and whatever the flavor-of-the-day name is for a peripheral canal. I believe that there are entrenched water interests working every angle to their advantage, particularly Central Valley corporate farmers. And yes, there’s a whole bunch of lying going on. What I object to is making an absurd claim and cherry-picking facts that support it, and–as characterizes the article in general–failing to link to sources for details and assertions, both to give real reporters credit and lend credence to your piece. And I think that if Alternet wants to be taken seriously as a news source, they won’t publish what is essentially a fact-challenged opinion piece as journalism.

Advertisements’s New Year’s Resolutions!

Like the “Fifty things to do before you die” lists, New Year’s resolutions are driven by a nagging, narcissistic dissatisfaction that feels an awful lot like guilt. But the “fifty things” lists are more ambitious than the typical beginning-of-the-year vows to go to the gym five times a week and organize your iTunes library. They’re usually based on the premise that you’re, if not affluent, at least comfortably middle-class, and are convinced that no life is well lived until one has, for example, scaled K2, jammed on a violin over the Hungarian minor scale with a blown-away Yo Yo Ma, taught English to the grateful inhabitants of Lesotho, made perfect soft-boiled eggs at several different altitudes, and impressed residents of Beijing with flawless Mandarin.

Of course, the must-do lists of the billion or so poor of the planet are no doubt less ambitious but more immediate: Get access to clean water before I die, eat before I die, get decent medical care before I die, etc. Everything’s relative.

This year, I’ve decided to come up with a hybrid of the two sorts of list, water related of course: Ten New Year’s Resolutions to Do Before I Die. Rather than just bore the reader with my self-involved and possibly grandiose goals, I’ve linked each item to a compelling–and in some cases fascinating–bit of information about everyone’s favorite sugar-free beverage.

  1. Collaborate with Dr. Peter Gleick to put a stop to the gargantuan, insane, destined-to-fail desalination project moving relentlessly forward in Southern California.
  2. Help Matt Damon move mountains.
  3. Get myself appointed Obama’s special peace envoy to broker settlements to supposedly imminent water wars.
  4. Work feverishly with NASA scientists to figure out how to efficiently transport moon water to Earth.
  5. Save the salmon!
  6. Fish for Asian carp in the Great Lakes.
  7. Work with Willie Nelson to develop an iPhone app version of his home water-from-air system.
  8. Jet-ski the Golden Age Lake!
  9. Join up with Food & Water Watch. (This may be the only attainable goal on this list.)
  10. Not go for months without posting.

Waterblogged, waterblogged, fly away home!

Dead steelhead trout, killed by chloraminated water accidentally dumped into a creek near San Mateo, California

Dead steelhead trout, killed by chloraminated water accidentally dumped into a creek near San Mateo, California

This morning, is bogged down in the arduous process of moving its operations back to Northern California–San Mateo, California specifically, approximately 20 miles south of San Francisco. It’s a difficult undertaking because it involves cramming souvenirs and gifts into imaginary spaces in luggage that was way overpacked in the first place.

Serendipitously, or coincidentally–but not ironically, for god’s sake–early morning research on our new favorite drinking water additive, chloramine–essentially a compound of chlorine and ammonia–turned up in this recent article about a fine levied against a San Mateo water supplier for accidentally dumping chloraminated water into a local creek, thereby killing 30-plus federally-protected steelhead trout.

It’s a typical tale of the kind of corporate malfeasance that so closely resembles the charmingly clueless behavior of mischievous children–a careless accident followed by the agreement not to tell Mommy and Daddy Regulatory Agency in the absurd hope that they won’t notice, and, after being caught, the desperate placing of easily disproved blame on something else, and finally complaining that the punishment–in this case a $200,000 fine–is just not fair.

The trout succumbed because, as all aquarium owners know, chloramines are deadly to fish and reptiles–this is not disputed. But what worries publicly-minded folks like the members of Citizens Concerned About Chloramine (CCAC), based in San Francisco, is that chloramines, for a variety of reasons, pose a danger to human beings as well. (For the sake of’s famous concern for balanced reporting, a rosy assessment of the use of chloramine here, brought to us by the city council of nearby San Bruno, California.)

California is No. 1!!

Taken at's short-lived celebration

Taken at's short-lived celebration

On American Rivers’ annual list of America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers, that is. Dang! The editorial staffers here at–headquartered in Northern California–were all momentarily florid in the face from that ferocious rush of adrenaline-laden pride that engorges all Americans who learn that their country, state, municipality, area code, school, team, car, child, patchwork quilt, or pet rabbit has been ranked No. 1. Then we read the fine print.  From AlterNet’s coverage of the announcement:

The nation’s most endangered river is actually an entire river system threatened by outdated water and flood management policies. California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, the largest watershed in the state is on the verge of collapse, American Rivers warns. The risks are numerous – climate change, population growth, water supply demands, and endangered species listings.

OK, we get it. California got owned by American Rivers, and this No. 1 business is an ironic tribute to the Big Bad-assed Bear’s relentless race to the bottom ranking in every category. (We were recently named No. 1 on the list of the least amount of money spent per student in our K-12 system! Below Mississippi. Really.)

But yo, other states! You runner-ups, no-shows, and wanabees have to admit that we do everything big in the Golden State, including fail! This isn’t that little trickle you call Flint River, second-place Georgia! This is an entire friggin’ system that we’re neglecting at our own peril! We’re talking major watershed, suckahs! Deal with it!

Nickel day at! (with free desalination cartoons for those who read until the end!)

The Big Nickel in the Nickel City

The Big Nickel in the Nickel City

Pop quiz: What’s the “hidden metal”? If you answered “nickel,” you’re right, but how did you know, and what the heck does it mean? Based on its web site’s banner, The Nickel Institute knows–and I bet they’d tell you for a nickel.

The banner also states that the modest mineral is the “ubiquitous metal” and the “enviro-metal!” The trade organization’s online journal, creatively named Nickel Magazine, is a treasure chest spilling over with nickel nomenclature and knowledge, including this article about nickel’s profitable place in the future of desalination technology.

The article is targeted at nickel industry insiders who can’t get enough comparative data about nickel alloys, so it’s really not for anyone who’s read this far and still thinks a nickel is just five cents and what’s the fuss. Not surprisingly, the writer concludes that currently available data “. . .confirms nickel-containing alloys as both essential and in growing demand for the complex industrial process of making potable water from seawater.”

The image is of the aptly named Big Nickel, a landmark of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, nickelnamed the Nickel City. The city of 160,000 or so inhabitants modestly traces its history back 2-billion years, when the area it occupies was ground zero for what is possibly the planet’s largest and most catastrophic meterorite hit. But there’s always a silver lining, or in this case nickel plating: The meteorite kicked up massive amounts of subterranean minerals–including one that the reader is possibly tiring of–kindly leaving it for the fine folks of Subbury to mine, once they evolved, became civilized, and developed technology.

A brief NPR segment from August 2007, that discusses the state of desalination in the state of California. A basic–maybe too basic–introduction to the concept of reverse osmosis.

An article about desalination in Australia on, by Sherry Obenaur.  Good because it presents a pretty comprehensive list of both the pros and cons.

Desalination cartoons. Really.

Yet another desalination update!

Figure 2: Electricity consumption of various California water sources

Figure 2: Electricity consumption of various California water sources

As promised, yet more additions to our ever-growing compendium of desalination-related links, the entirety of which can be found on this page: Getting serious with desalination. There you’ll find a madcap multimedia mashup of links to articles, papers, pdfs, videos, and audio on an often discussed but little understood topic.

Too many among us believe that desalination is the answer to current and future water shortage issues–an attitude which attributes to a blind faith in technology and a desire to get on with the day without having to think of anything depressing.

While we certainly want you to have a nice day, we also want to help spread the word that deploying desalination on the scale necessary to even partially mitigate our dwindling water resources is a tremendously complex, expensive, and environmentally risky undertaking.

Why take’s word for it? Check out a fantastic article (also listed in our resources below) by Debbie Cook, water and energy expert, and former mayor of Huntington Beach, CA. (The barely readable graph above that compares the energy requirements of desalination to other water sources is from the article–where it is legible.) She says: Turning ocean water into municipal drinking water:

. . .Sounds great until you zoom in on the environmental costs and energetic consequences. It may be technically feasible, but in the end it is unsustainable and will be just one more stranded asset.

Other Resources (full list here):

A February 2009 article about the current state of desalination in California. As of 2007, 20 water agencies have been considering and/or developing desalination options. The article is a good introduction to the arguments put forward by proponents and opponents of large-scale desalination plants. There is a bonus nifty diagram, complete with map of proposed California desal facilities.

A HowStuffWorks video,  a good basic introduction except that it never mentions the drawbacks to desalination and makes it all seem very simple. Interesting segment about the Santa Catalina island desal facility, which makes desalination appear to be nothing but an upgrade to paradise.

From, “the website for the water and wastewater industry,” a comprehensive look at the (drum roll) Global Water Awards’ 2006 ‘Desalination Plant of the Year’ : the Ashkelon Desalination Plant in Israel. While  a PR piece created to get potential customers and investors all hot and bothered about desal’s potential, the article also reveals the mind-boggling technological complexity behind the dream of  desalination and drives home the fact that we’re talking about massive, power-hungry, environment-threatening, ugly-assed industrial complexes–and can thus be cited by opponents as arguments against themselves.

A Google video about the Ashkelon Desal Plant. An upbeat report with nary a negative word about industrial-scale desal plants. A highlight is a visitor to the facility,  the 88-year-old Sydney Loeb, who partnered with another student researcher in the 60’s to “perfect” the reverse osmosis process. I don’t know what “perfect” means in this context. If they’d perfected the process, it would be in wide-spread use by now.

Desalination: Energy Down the Drain. The title of this data- and link-rich article by Debbie Cook, former mayor of Huntington Beach, CA, kinda gives away her position on the topic. In 2003, she was invited to serve on the California Desalination Task Force, a legislatively mandated effort by the Department of Water Resources to study desalination facilities and “report on potential opportunities and impediments…” Her experience from then on turned her into a self-confessed water-obsessive, deeply concerned about the relationship between water and finite energy resources.  She’s unequivocal: “It is my knowledge of our energy and resource constraints that leads me to reject ocean desalination as the water of our future.” This is posted on The Oil Drum, the stated mission of which is “. . .to facilitate civil, evidence-based discussions about energy and its impact on our future.”

Breaking news: Company that builds desalination plants defends desalination!

[Below, following this absurdly long note, is a comment on’s 3/16/09 post, Desalination: No silver bullet in the Middle East, which links to a National Geographic story that is essentially a skeptical–and reasonable–look at desalination as the solution to the constant droughts and the shortage and maldistribution of water in the Middle East. The email address of the person who left the comment indicates that he/she works for Water Consultants, Inc–a company that can hardly be considered a disinterested party when it comes to debating the pros and cons of industrial-scale desalination.

The editor in chief of realized that our response was so incisive, informative, wise, and witty–not to mention self-important, defensive, derogatory, snide, and judgmental–that it could easily be repurposed as a entry! Cut and paste and take the rest of the day off! See end of post for more exciting desal info!]

Thanks to the Pacific Institute,

Thanks to the Pacific Institute,

The corporate shill says:

Your link to the referenced NatGeo article is broken. Pity I would have loved to read who the so-called “experts” were that think that way about desalination plants. Most desalination plants are good environmental citizens, properly regulated and diligently operated where ever they are needed to be a valuable asset to a communities balanced portfolio of water supply options.

Thanks to the PR flak from Water Consultants International, Inc–a company whose business is, per its site, “planning, design and implementation of advanced water treatment (AWT), and membrane and thermal desalination projects”–for pointing out the broken link, which I fixed.

Thanks also for the breathtakingly perfect example of corporate-speak–marred only by garbled syntax, a misspelling, and at least one punctuation and one grammatical error. Not bad for 60 words.

It would be fair to take or any other blog to task for referring to “experts” without citing anyone specific. But, National Geographic? Cut me a break.

Hey dude, you want “experts” without the quotation marks? Well, I’ll give you experts without the quotation marks: the fine folk at the Pacific Institute (PI), headed up by Peter Gleick,  one of the nation’s foremost authorities on water. In the institute’s recent report, Desalination, With a Grain of Salt: A California Perspective, the researchers’ take a moderate and cautious position on desalination, one most likely held by the experts dismissed by our pen-pal from WCI. From PI’s site:

The potential benefits of ocean desalination are great, but the economic, cultural, and environmental costs of wide commercialization remain high. In many parts of the world, alternatives can provide the same freshwater benefits of ocean desalination at far lower economic and environmental costs. These alternatives include treating low-quality local water sources, encouraging regional water transfers, improving conservation and efficiency, accelerating wastewater recycling and reuse, and implementing smart land-use planning.

For a humongous amount of information on desal–both fer and agin’–go to’s page Getting serious with desalination. There you will find links to papers, articles, videos, and pdfs, that will help you be the center of attention at the next beer-bash when desalination inevitably comes up. A good beginning is a mutimedia presentation by journalist and water expert, Cynthia Barnett, A Tour of Tampa Bay’s Desalination Plant.