Category Archives: Environment

October 2010 Harper’s Index

Total number of pages in the financial reform bill enacted by Congress in July: 848

Number of pages in the bills that created Social Security and the Federal Trade Commission, respectively: 29, 8

Percentage of this year’s federal budget deficit attributable to Bush-era tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: 38

Net change in the amount of money kept in U.S. stock-based mutual funds since 2007: –$249,400,000,000

Percentage of all revenue earned by S&P 500 companies last year that came from outside the United States: 47

Percentage of all U.S. railway freight cars that are currently in storage: 23

Percentage of municipal workers in Maywood, California, who were laid off in July: 100

Date on which the Oakland Police stopped responding to burglaries not in progress due to a budget shortfall: 8/2/10

Chance that a U.S. worker plans to change jobs when the recession ends: 1 in 3

Date that United Farm Workers began “Take Our Jobs,” a campaign asking legal U.S. residents to work as farm laborers: 6/24/10

Number so far who have been willing to do so: 14

Percentage of Oklahoma’s population that is Muslim: 0.81

Date on which its state legislature approved a referendum to ban judges from using shari’ah law in their decisions: 5/24/10

Date on which an evangelical Christian congregation in Gainesville, Florida, scheduled a Koran burning at its church: 9/11/10

Percentage of Afghans in a July survey who said they believed NATO forces were in Afghanistan to rebuild the country: 1

Percentage who said NATO was there to destroy Islam: 9

Number of Aerial Achievement Medals awarded by the Air Force to drone operators since January 2009: 3,497

Number awarded to pilots of manned aircraft during that time: 1,408

Minimum number of people prosecuted so far by the Obama Administration for leaking classified documents: 4

Number prosecuted under the Bush Administration: 0

Number of instances in which the New York Times characterized the practice of waterboarding as torture before 2004: 44

Number of times that it has since then: 2

Estimated number of “behavior detection officers” employed in U.S. airports to spot potentially dangerous travelers: 3,000

Percentage of the officers’ 266,000 referrals since 2006 that led to arrests: 0.7

Chance that an American adult is either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole: 1 in 31

Chances that a Chinese criminal prosecution will result in a guilty verdict: 9 in 10

Number of the world’s ten largest banks that were Chinese-owned in 2000 and 2010, respectively: 0, 4

Date on which the Xinglong Big Family Mall in Shenyang, China, opened a “venting store” for women: 3/8/10

Minimum amount a woman must spend in the mall to enter the store and destroy household furniture and electronics: $6

Percentage change in sales of birth control for women in the United States since 2007: +13

Chance that a Briton who has sent a sexually explicit text message has sent one to the wrong person: 1 in 5

Price of a lingerie calendar produced by the Czech Public Affairs Party featuring twelve female members of parliament: $20.73

Percentage of Americans who say they would have cosmetic surgery if they could afford it: 69

Percentage increase in the number of U.S. buttock-augmentation surgeries performed since 2008: 37

Inches by which the average width of a seat in a U.S. performing-arts theater has increased since 1990: 1

Percentage change since 2008 in the number of Americans who say they exercise regularly: +6

Percentage change in the number who are obese: 0

Number of different Halloween costumes a San Diego company markets for sale as “sassy & sexy”: 51

Date on which a Dutch porn star pledged to “give a BJ” to her Twitter followers if the Netherlands won the World Cup: 6/28/10

Number of people who signed up to follow her between then and the World Cup final: 105,269


The War on Tap Water

From Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water
by Peter H. Gleick

Tap water is poison.
—A flyer touting the stock of a Texas bottled water company.

When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.
—Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company’s United States beverage division.

September 15, 2007, was a big day for the alumni, family, and fans of the University of Central Florida and the UCF Knights football team. After years of waiting and hoping, the University of Central Florida had finally built their own football stadium — the new Bright House Networks arena. Under clear skies, and with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, a sell-out crowd of 45,622 was on hand to watch the first-ever real UCF home game against the Texas Longhorns, a national powerhouse. “I never thought we’d see this, but we sure are proud to have a stadium on campus,” said UCF alumnus and Knight fan Tim Ball as he and his family tailgated in the parking lot before the game. And in an exciting, three-hour back-and-forth contest, the UCF Knights almost pulled off an upset before losing in the final minutes 35 to 32.

Knight supporters were thrilled and left thirsting for more — literally. Fans found out the hard way that their new $54-million stadium had been built without a single drinking water fountain. And for “security” reasons, no one could bring water into the stadium. The only water available for overheated fans was $3 bottled water from the concessionaires or water from the bathroom taps, and long before the end of the game, the concessionaires had run out of bottled water. Eighteen people were taken to local hospitals and sixty more were treated by campus medical personnel for heat-related illnesses. The 2004 Florida building code, in effect in 2005 when the UCF Board of Trustees approved the stadium design, mandated that stadiums and other public arenas have a water fountain for every 1,000 seats, or half that number if “bottled water dispensers” are available. Under these requirements, the arena should have been built with at least twenty water fountains. Furthermore, a spokesman for the International Code Council in Washington, which developed Florida’s building code, said, “Selling bottled water out of a concession stand is not what the code meant.”

The initial reaction from the University was swift and remarkably unapologetic: UCF spokesman Grant Heston appeared on the local TV news to argue that the codes in place when the stadium was designed didn’t require fountains. A few days after the game, as news of the hospitalizations was reverberating, University President John Hitt said, “We will look at adding the water fountains, but I have to say to you I don’t think that’s the answer to this problem. We could have had 50 water fountains and still had a problem on Saturday.” Al Harms, UCF’s vice president for strategic planning and the coordinator for the operations of the stadium, told the Orlando Sentinel, “We won’t make a snap decision” about installing fountains in the new stadium. Harms did promise that they would triple the amount of bottled water available for sale, and give away one free bottle per person at the next game. Harms also said, apparently without a trace of sarcasm, “It’s our way of saying we’re sorry.”

For some UCF students, this wasn’t enough. One of them, Nathaniel Dorn, mobilized in twenty-first-century fashion. He created a Facebook group, Knights for Free Water, which quickly attracted nearly 700 members. He and several other students showed up at a packed school hearing, talked to local TV and print media, and ridiculed the school’s offer of a free bottle of water. Under this glare of attention the University did an abrupt about-face and announced that ten fountains would be installed by the next game and fifty would be installed permanently.

All of a sudden public water fountains have vanished and bottled water is everywhere: in every convenience store, beverage cooler, and vending machine. In student backpacks, airplane beverage carts, and all of my hotel rooms. At every conference and meeting I go to. On restaurant menus and school lunch counters. In early 2007, as I waited for a meeting in Silicon Valley, I watched a steady stream of young employees pass by on their way to or from buildings on the Google campus. Nearly all were carrying two items: a laptop and a throw-away plastic bottle of water. When I entered the lobby and checked in at reception, I was told to help myself to something to drink from an open cooler containing fruit juices and rows of commercial bottled water. As I walked to my meeting, I passed cases of bottled water being unloaded near the cafeteria.

Water fountains used to be everywhere, but they have slowly disappeared as public water is increasingly pushed out in favor of private control and profit.

Water fountains have become an anachronism, or even a liability, a symbol of the days when homes didn’t have taps and bottled water wasn’t available from every convenience store and corner concession stand. In our health-conscious society, we’re afraid that public fountains, and our tap water in general, are sources of contamination and contagion. It used to be the exact opposite — in the 1800s, when our cities lacked widespread access to safe water, there were major movements to build free public water fountains throughout America and Europe.

In London in the mid-1800s, water was beginning to be piped directly into the homes of the city’s wealthier inhabitants. The poor, however, relied on private water vendors and neighborhood wells that were often broken or tainted by contamination and disease, like the famous Broad Street pump that spread cholera throughout its neighborhood. At the time of London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, conceived to showcase the triumphs of British technology, science, and innovation, Punch Magazine wrote: “Whoever can produce in London a glass of water fit to drink will contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition.” Just three years after the Exhibition, thousands of Londoners would die in the third massive cholera outbreak to hit the city since 1800.

By the middle of the twentieth century, spectacular efforts to improve water-quality treatment and major investments in modern drinking-water systems had almost completely eliminated the risks of unsafe water. Those of us who have the good fortune to live in the industrialized world now take safe drinking water entirely for granted. We turn on a faucet and out comes safe, often free fresh water. Notwithstanding the UCF stadium fiasco, we’re rarely more than a few feet from potable water no matter where we are. But those efforts and investments are in danger of being wasted, and the public benefit of safe tap water lost, in favor of private gain in the form of little plastic water bottles.

The growth of the bottled water industry is a story about twenty-first-century controversies and contradictions: poverty versus glitterati; perception versus reality; private gain versus public loss. Today people visit luxury water “bars” stocked with bottles of water shipped in from every corner of the world. Water “sommeliers” at fancy restaurants push premium bottled water to satisfy demand and boost profits. Airport travelers have no choice but to buy bottled water at exorbitant prices because their own personal water is considered a security risk. Celebrities tout their current favorite brands of bottled water to fans. People with too much money and too little sense pay $50 or more for plain water in a fancy glass bottle covered in fake gems, or for “premium” water supposedly bottled in some exotic place or treated with some magical process.

In its modern form, bottled water is a new phenomenon, growing from a niche mineral-water product with a few wealthy customers to a global commodity found almost everywhere. The recent expansion of bottled water sales has been extraordinary. In the late 1970s, around 350 million gallons of bottled water were sold in the United States — almost entirely sparkling mineral water and large bottles to supply office water coolers — or little more than a gallon and a half per person per year. As the figure below shows, between 1976 and 2008, sales of bottled water in the United States doubled, doubled again, doubled again, and then doubled again. In 2008, nearly 9 billion gallons (over 34 billion liters) of bottled water were packaged and sold in the United States and five times this amount was sold around the world, feeding a global business of water providers, bottlers, truckers, and retailers at a cost to consumers of over a hundred billion dollars.

Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer — in fact, the average American is now drinking around 30 gallons, or 115 liters, of bottled water each year, most of it from single-serving plastic containers. Bottled water has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember that it hasn’t always been here. As I write this sentence I’m sitting in the cafe in the basement of the capitol building in Sacramento, California, and all I have to do is lift my eyes from my computer screen — right in front of me are vending machines selling both Dasani and Aquafina. Yet, like UCF football fans, I can’t tell you where the nearest water fountain is.

Millions of Americans still drink tap water at home and in restaurants. But there is a war on for the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of tap water drinkers, a huge market that water bottlers cannot afford to ignore. The war on the tap is an undeclared war, for the most part, but in recent years, more and more subtle (and not so subtle) campaigns that play up the supposed health risks of tap water, or the supposed health advantages of bottled water, have been launched by private water bottlers.

How do you convince consumers to buy something that is essentially the same as a far cheaper and more easily accessible alternative? You promote perceived advantages of your product, and you emphasize the flaws in your competitor’s product. For water bottlers this means selling safety, style, and convenience, and playing on consumer’s fears. Fear is an effective tool. Especially fear of sickness and of invisible contamination. If we can be made to fear our tap water, the market for bottled water skyrockets.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, when I opened my mailbox and found a flyer with a cover image of a goldfish swimming in a glass of drinking water. “There is something in this glass you do not want to drink. And it’s not the fish,” shouted the bold and colorful text in the mailer, offering me home delivery of bottles of Calistoga Mountain Spring Water. “How can you be sure your water is safe? Take a closer look at the water in our glass. Can you tell if it’s pure? Unfortunately, you can’t.” And the solution offered? The “Path to Purity” lies with bottles of water, delivered to your door by truck, under a monthly contract.

“Tap water is poison!” declares another flyer my neighbor Roy received in the mail in early 2007 touting the stock of Royal Spring Water Inc., a Texas bottled water company. “Americans no longer trust their tap water. . . . Clearly, people are more worried than ever about what comes out of their taps.” Roy, a thoughtful guy, told me he was actually more worried about what came out of his mailbox than his tap. The website of another bottler says, “Tap water can be inconsistent. . . . The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that hundreds of tap water sources have failed to meet minimum standards.”

These attacks could be dismissed as the inappropriate actions of a few small players, except that some of the world’s biggest bottlers have also targeted tap water. In 2000, shortly before he was made chairman of PepsiCo’s North American Beverage and Food division, Robert S. Morrison publicly declared, “The biggest enemy is tap water. . . . We’re not against water — it just has its place. We think it’s good for irrigation and cooking.” That same year, Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company’s United States beverage division, candidly told industry analysts, “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.” “We need to change the way we sell water,” said industry analyst Kathleen Ransome at the 2006 International Bottled Water Association annual convention in Las Vegas. “At what point will consumers turn to the tap?”

Subtler advertising approaches also play on our fears. PepsiCo hired actress Lisa Kudrow to promote Aquafina with the phrase “So pure, we promise nothing” in a campaign Brandweek magazine jokingly called the “Nothing” campaign. Kinley in India offers “Trust in every drop,” while another Indian bottler, Bisleri, advertises “Bisleri. Play safe.”

Officially, the large bottled water industry associations advise their members to refrain from attacks on tap water. Some bottled water companies have signed up to the International Bottled Water Association’s voluntary code of advertising, “which encourages members not to disparage tap water.” Alas, as Captain Barbossa notes in the popular movie Pirates of the Caribbean, “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules,” and even the bottled water associations cannot resist making critical comments about tap water. “The difference between bottled water and tap water is that bottled water’s quality is consistent,” said Stephen Kay, IBWA spokesman in May 2001, implying, of course, that tap water quality isn’t and thus worse. In 2002, Kay said, “Some people in their municipal markets have the luxury of good water. Others do not.” Similarly, the website of the Australasian Bottled Water Association pokes barbs at tap water, saying, “Some people also wish to avoid certain chemicals used in the treatment of public water supplies, such as chlorine and fluoride, and are therefore turning to the chemical-free alternative.”

In the fall of 2007 I attended the IBWA annual convention in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a pretty incongruous place to hold a bottled water convention. Planted in the heart of one of the driest regions in the United States, it has very limited access to water. Yet the IBWA’s major social event is a golf tournament played on water-intensive grass that consumes precious, limited water. The bottled water convention itself is a cross between a pep rally, a political campaign meeting, and a how-to seminar for individuals hoping to cash in on the bottled water craze. I wandered from session to session, from discussions of marketing strategies to closed-door meetings on how to deal with new regulatory efforts by federal agencies. I listened to talks on how to counter the efforts of anti-bottled water activists and watched demonstrations of the latest machines for bottling water. The culmination of the convention was the keynote presentation of Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which promotes a libertarian, free-market agenda. Smith extolled the virtues of a world where business entrepreneurs could make money selling water in bottles. The problem, Smith told me afterward, without a hint of irony, was that water “suffers most from being treated as a common property resource.” Smith believes that “water policy could benefit greatly from exploring the strategies that have been used to produce oil.”

It is this belief that water is fundamentally no different than oil or any other private commodity that lies at the heart of the controversy over selling water. A few months after the IBWA convention, Smith’s Competitive Enterprise Institute launched a special project called “Enjoy Bottled Water” in which they criticize the safety of tap water, ridicule opponents of bottled water, and promote the industry’s merits. “Bottled water is substantially different from tap water,” the CEI website declares. “When compared to bottled water, risks appear to be somewhat higher for tap water. . . . Available data indicates that bottled water has a better safety record.” The CEI is so ideologically anti-regulation that the site says, “The fact that anyone would want to ban or regulate a healthy and safe option like bottled water is really absurd.” It may come as no surprise to note that Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani bottled water, was the largest single supporter of CEI’s annual fundraising dinner in 2008.

The campaign against municipal tap water has been more than just words. In 2001, documents found on a Coca-Cola company website revealed that it had a formal program to actively discourage restaurant customers from drinking tap water. Working with the Olive Garden restaurant chain, Coca-Cola developed a six-step program to help the restaurant reduce what they call “tap water incidence” — the unprofitable problem of customers drinking tap water rather than ordering revenue-producing beverages. “Some 20 percent of consumers drink tap water exclusively in Casual Dining restaurants,” the program lamented. “This trend significantly cuts into retailer profits. . . . Research was conducted to better understand why tap water consumption is so prevalent and why consumers are making this beverage choice. . . . This research provides the valuable insight and understanding needed to convert water drinkers to profit-producing beverages.”

These documents, very quickly pulled from official websites when the media picked up the story, had already been downloaded and reposted elsewhere. “This is awesome,” commented one reader. “It’s what corporations say to each other behind customers’ backs, only it happens to be on the Web where mortals can see it.”

It isn’t just bottled water companies that have tap water in their sights. Full-service restaurants have recognized the profit-generating potential of bottled water. Servers in restaurants operated by the Omni Hotels and Resorts, for example, are trained to describe “the characteristics of the waters being offered and are also trained to approach the table with chilled bottles of water. They offer it to the guest as an option to tap water,” according to Fernando Salazar, corporate director of the food and beverage division in 2006. “It’s just part of the server’s presentation to offer bottled water first before offering tap water,” says Salazar. “Those restaurants that are not yet doing this are missing an opportunity to increase profits.”

Brita, a subsidiary of the Clorox Company that sells home water filters, has also been particularly aggressive in maligning tap water, which is their direct competitor in the home market. One of Brita’s advertising campaigns claimed that a Brita filter “turns tap water into drinking water.” Other Brita ads say, “We’d like to clear up a few things about tap water.” “Tap water becomes wonderful water.” “Too often, impurities are finding their way into the water. While you may not be able to see them, you don’t want them.” One of Brita’s television ads aired in the United States and Canada took a particularly graphic approach, with the camera focused on a glass of water in a kitchen. Viewers watch the glass drain and then refill to the background sound of a flushing toilet. Superimposed on the image were the words “Tap and toilet water come from the same source,” and the voice-over at the end of the commercial asked viewers: “Don’t you deserve better?” In the magazine version, the advertising copy read, “You deserve better than the water you mop with.”

These efforts sparked the ire of both the American Water Works Association, which represents municipal water agencies, and its Canadian counterpart. The Associations publicly objected to Brita’s “unsavory tactics” and called on Brita to cancel the commercials. Advertising Standards Canada, which regulates advertising, received eleven formal complaints and after reviewing the ads ruled that they “conveyed an inaccurate representation of a product/service/ commercial activity; omitted relevant information; unfairly demeaned, disparaged, and discredited another product/service/commercial activity (i.e., municipally supplied water); and misled consumers by playing upon their fears of the safety of drinking water.”

Looking at the massive growth in bottled water consumption, it is apparent that the bottled water companies have been winning the war against tap water. And in one of their latest campaign tactics, the bottled water industry is now arguing in debates, Congressional testimony, advertising, and media campaigns that the growth of bottled water sales doesn’t come at the expense of tap water, but rather other commercial beverages. In 2003, Stephen Kay, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, told E — The Environmental Magazine that “bottled water’s competition is soft drinks, not tap water.” In 2006, he told the Chicago Tribune’s “Morning Call” column that “bottled water’s competition is not your faucet but the soft drinks, juices, sport drinks, and teas that people buy while they’re on the go.”

The industry continues to push this argument. In August 2007, they bought full-page ads in the New York Times and other papers. “Whether it comes from a faucet or a bottle, drinking water is an easy step people can take to lead a healthier lifestyle. So, as far as we’re concerned, the drink in everyone’s purse, backpack, and lunch box should be water.” In December 2007, in testimony to the U.S. Congress, the IBWA President, Joe Doss, said, “Consumers also choose bottled water over other beverages because it does not contain calories, caffeine, sugar, artificial flavors or colors, alcohol and other ingredients.”

Bottled water consumption is good, the industry argues, because the growth of bottled water sales has come not at the expense of tap water, but of other beverages.

This is an intriguing and potentially powerful argument, except that it is false. After hearing the industry repeat this claim over and over, I went and looked up the actual numbers. Are we really drinking bottled water instead of soft drinks and other consumer beverages, as the industry argues, or are we actually drinking less tap water? The U.S. Department of Commerce collects and publishes excellent data on beverage consumption. Contrary to what the bottled water industry argues, the numbers show that we are buying more bottled water and carbonated soft drinks, and drinking less of everything else, including milk, coffee, tea, fruit juices, beer, wine, hard alcohol, and especially tap water.

The graph below clearly shows the growth in consumption of both soft drinks and bottled water at the expense of everything else we drink. Indeed, between 1980 and 2006, data on beverage consumption reveals that on average, each of us is actually drinking around 36 gallons per year less tap water now. With what have we replaced this water? Soda and bottled water. Over this same period of time, our consumption of carbonated soft drinks has grown by 17 gallons per person per year, our consumption of bottled water has grown by 25 gallons per person per year, and our purchases of all other beverages, including milk, juices, beer, tea, coffee, and hard liquor have dropped by 6 gallons per year.

The beverage companies are winning the war on tap water. As long as people can be made to fear tap water, they will seek out alternatives they think offer more safety. But we have to ask: is bottled water actually any safer? What do we know about what’s actually in our tap water — or in the bottles of water we buy? And how safe is it to drink?

From Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water by Peter H. Gleick. Copyright 2010 by Island Press. Excerpted with permission by Island Press.

Dead in the Water

Years before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, before the underwater volcano of oil threatened to create a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists recognized another dead zone in the Gulf. The New Orleans Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer in 1997 for documenting the devastation around the mouth of the Mississippi River. The 7,000-square-mile dead zone was caused by algae blooms, feeding on agricultural and sewer runoff, that deplete the oxygen in the water. Combine the existing problem with the still-leaking oil well, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely destroyed ecosystem.

The following is a summary (by Mark Schleifstein) of a Pulitzer-prize willing paper about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, from 1996. It’s important to not that much of the problem here is coming from agriculture – fertilizer, pesticides, and CAFO runoff are literally killing the ocean. My husband can give you much more detailed information about soil fertility and the causes of runoff, but the basic fact is that the blanket applications of fertilizers, pesticieds, herbicides, antibiotics, steroids, etc. used in modern agriculture are ineffective, and mostly end up in the streams and aquifers near the farms. This water, in turn, reaches the Gulf of Mexico – killing it.


Is it possible to kill 7,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico? Alarmed scientists are beginning to think it is more than a possibility; it’s increasingly likely. Already, the dead zone, a seasonal area rendered almost lifeless byvast amounts of pollution pumped into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River, is expanding. Without action, it may become permanent.

Fertilizer, sewage brew dead zone

Biologist Nancy Rabalais fights nausea as she struggles into a wet suit and scuba gear on the pitching deck of the R.V. Acadiana about 15 miles off the Louisiana coast.

She is preparing to descend along the metal leg of an abandoned oil rig to the shallow bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where she will replace a meter that measures the amount of oxygen in the water.

It’s not the most pleasant of chores for a marine biologist prone to seasickness. But Rabalais considers a little nausea a small price to pay to gain another clue to the Gulf of Mexico’s biggest, most alarming mystery:

How do we stop the dead zone?

A 7,000-square-mile swath of Gulf water stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Texas border, the zone becomes so devoid of oxygen each summer that it kills the clams, crabs, worms and other organisms that live on and in the sediment, destroying the food chain from the bottom up.

A death sentence for the region’s rich fish stocks if it becomes permanent, the zone already is changing the face of fishing in the Gulf.

Every year, fishing boats are forced to go farther and farther out, sometimes hundreds of miles from port, to find viable fishing grounds beyond the zone — using precious time and fuel that can mean the difference between profit and loss.

The dead zone also is encroaching on areas usually rich in menhaden, the small fish used for fish meal, which is used to feed farm-raised fish. Commercial menhaden fishers suspect it is reducing the Gulf catch — worth $91 million in 1994 — by killing young fish emerging from the marshes and forcing others into distant areas of the Gulf, far from their nets.

The sheer size of the zone traps fish, forcing them to flee or starve.

“We know where oxygen is low that fish and shrimp and the food they eat disappear or die,” said Gene Turner, interim director of the Coastal Ecology Institute at Louisiana State University. “We can’t yet say they don’t go somewhere else and get caught, but we’re talking about 7,000 square miles.”

It begins in the spring, when the Mississippi River is swollen by rains and melted snow that wash a rich mixture of agricultural fertilizers and municipal sewage from 40 states downstream into the Gulf.

The lighter fresh water floats on top of the denser salt water of the Gulf, creating layers. As spring turns to summer, the sun combines with the pollution from fertilizers and sewage to fuel huge blooms of algae.

The chemicals in the pollution are mostly nitrogen and phosphorous, and they are known as nutrients, because they make things grow. When it’s corn in Iowa or wheat in Kansas, nutrients are good. But when it’s too much algae in the ocean, nutrients can be deadly.

When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom, where its decay uses up oxygen in the saltier water. Oxygen from the surface can’t get past the freshwater layer at the top to replenish the water below. By midsummer, all the oxygen in a vast area of the Gulf may be gone.

“The effect can be akin to taking Saran Wrap and placing it over (an area the size of) Connecticut and Rhode Island, slowly pulling it down and suffocating everything beneath it,” said Melissa Samet, a lawyer and wildlife biologist with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Mystery zone

Rabalais and other scientists want to learn the exact sources of the nutrients causing the algae blooms, determine the long-term effects of the low oxygen conditions — called hypoxia — on fish, and discover how to reduce the nutrients that reach the Gulf.

It’s already clear from the work of Rabalais and others that the dead zone’s expansion mirrors an increase in the use of chemical fertilizers by farmers in the Midwest and in manure runoff from livestock operations. Sewage from the heavy urbanization of land along the Mississippi and its tributaries is only a fraction of the problem, say officials of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Nitrogen, and to a lesser extent phosphorus, are thought to be the driving force behind the algae blooms. Both are used as fertilizers on millions of acres of farmland in the 30 states within the vast Mississippi River watershed. The chemicals also are found in animal and human wastes that are washed by rainfall into the river and its tributaries.

But scientists concede that much about the dead zone and its dynamics remains a mystery:

– Why, for instance, was the 1995 dead zone so large two years after a major flood of the Midwest, when the amount of water carried by the river was back to normal?

– Are the nutrients trapped in the sediment on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico along Louisiana’s coast becoming remixed along the Gulf Coast in some unknown fashion years after major floods?

– And how will the repeated killing of bottom-dwelling organisms dependent on oxygen, and their replacement with sulfur-laced networks of non-oxygen-breathing bacteria, affect this most fertile area of the Gulf?

The answers found in dead zones in other parts of the world are not comforting.

Driven by the rapid pace of population growth and economic development, dead zones are a new and largely unstudied problem that is growing more quickly than governments and scientists can keep up with it.

Scientists say that in just the past few years, as many as a dozen dead zones have appeared in different areas of the world, all caused by the same combination of agricultural fertilizer and sewage runoff.

“No other parameter of such ecological importance has been changed so drastically in such a short period of time by human activities as dissolved oxygen contents in the world’s oceans,” said Robert J. Diaz, a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and president of the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society.

Five of those zones have so little oxygen that they are on the verge of collapse. “It won’t take very much more to push them over the edge,” Diaz said.
One of the five is the area off the Louisiana coast.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico waxes and wanes each year, but if it follows the pattern in similar areas, it could become permanent, bereft of oxygen-breathing life, including the valuable fish and shrimp along the coast.

Dead zones start as an infrequent occurrence, showing up every two or three years. Organisms on the sea floor are suffocated, but soon replaced when the zone breaks up.

Then the events become seasonal, as they have in the Gulf, and the ecology of the affected ocean becomes stressed over long periods of time, harming fish and driving fishing boats elsewhere.

Finally, the dead zone becomes permanent and a major change takes place: Fish, shellfish and crustaceans that need oxygen are replaced by forms of bacteria that thrive in a no-oxygen world.

The four other dead zones on the verge of collapse — all sandwiched between the highly developed Nordic nations and Germany — are seasonal.

“All you have to do in these systems is increase the exposure time at these concentrations (of low oxygen), or have a further decline of oxygen levels, and we are predicting permanent changes in the benthic (bottom-dwelling organisms) communities and the temporary or permanent collapse of fisheries stocks,” Diaz said.

Sometimes, perversely, a dead zone can temporarily produce more fish, slowing efforts to fix the problem.
In the 80-mile-wide Kattegat Channel between Denmark and Sweden, annual bouts of low oxygen began in 1980. By 1984, fishers were catching record amounts at the same time low oxygen levels were being recorded, Diaz said.

The catch, however, was the Norway lobster, which normally burrows into the ocean floor.

What was happening, Diaz said, was that the lobsters were trying to swim higher in the water to find oxygen, and were more vulnerable to being scooped up by trawls. In the Gulf of Mexico, biologist Don Harper of Texas A&M University’s marine laboratory has observed a similar behavior pattern in worms that burrow beneath the ocean floor, but in hypoxic waters climb over each other to form balls in search of oxygen.

In 1988, 3,000 square kilometers of the Kattegat Channel’s bottom was affected by hypoxia. Fisheries collapsed and bottom-living organisms were killed.

“The Norwegian lobster fishery still has not recovered,” Diaz said.

We’re way behind

The growth of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone has far outpaced efforts to pin down its specific causes and behavior, let alone come up with a policy to solve the problem. Like many other ecological problems related to fish habitats, it was discovered years ago, but its significance wasn’t realized until money was made available to study it.

And today, the responsibility for fixing it is mired in a complex mishmash of overlapping agencies and jurisdictions, a problem that afflicts much of fisheries management.

Although the National Marine Fisheries Service has the authority to deal with issues affecting ocean fisheries, including pollutants coming from inland sources, the farm runoff problems also fall under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as a variety of state agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey already is involved in a separate investigation of fertilizer runoff problems — the contamination by nitrogen of ground water that is used for drinking water across the Midwest.

Answers available

The solutions, in theory, are simple. But they may be politically impossible. Basically, they require changes in land use throughout the Midwest:

* Creating a buffer of grass between fields and streams that will filter much of the nutrients before they reach the water.
* Using farming methods that rely less on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, either through no-till farming or with new satellite-based computerized crop systems that measure the need for fertilizer more accurately.
* Building wetlands at strategic locations along the paths of agricultural runoff ditches to capture and treat the fertilizer runoff.
* Creating similar wetlands to treat sewage-tainted water washing from suburbs and cities.
* Improving enforcement of sanitary codes to force the replacement of inadequate septic tanks and sewage systems in urban and suburban areas.
* Forcing replacement of inadequate sewage-treatment ponds and drainage fields at pig, chicken, cattle and dairy farms.

The problem is persuading farmers and city-dwellers alike to shoulder the cost of such improvements for the benefit of people hundreds or thousands of miles away, and then finding money to pay for the improvements. That would be a massive undertaking requiring unprecedented cooperation between local, state and federal governments, and perhaps billions of dollars.

Those trying to solve the dead zone problem are going to have to deal with hard political realities, said Clyde Walker of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“The Environmental Protection Agency is faced with dramatic cuts to its budget and an apparently unsympathetic Congress,” he said.

And John Burt, special assistant to the chief of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that with the world’s grain supply low and prices for wheat, cotton and corn high, for the first time in a number of years there is pressure on farmers to increase production, which could mean they will increase their use of fertilizers.

Burt also complained that environmental groups have hurt the chances of finding the political clout to reduce agricultural runoff by focusing so much of their criticism on farmers, without targeting poor pollution practices of city sewage-treatment plants and residents who use too much fertilizer on their lawns and backyard gardens.

“When the floods of 1993 covered the Midwest, it wasn’t just agricultural land that was flooded, but sewage-treatment plants and urban streets,” Burt said. “All these loads made their way down to the Gulf,” he said.

© 1996, Times-Picayune ”


Water – what YOU can do

First, check out these two films about water.

And then, incorporate some or all of these easy suggestions into your life:

  • Don’t buy bottled water.  In the US, our tap water is the same or higher quality as bottled water.  Save the cash you’d spend and donate it to an organization that helps people without potable water.
  • Take ‘military style’ showers – turn the water on and jump in, get yourself wet, turn the water OFF while you soap up your hair and body, then turn it on again and rinse quickly.  You’ll cut down your shower times and drastically reduce your water usage.
  • Don’t run the water while you’re doing dishes – fill the sink about halfway with soapy water and you’ll be able to get your dishes clean and use less water AND soap.
  • Run your dishwasher and clothes washer only when they’re FULL – you can save up to 1000 gallons a month by washing one full load of laundry every three days instead of one small load each day.
  • Use the garbage disposal sparingly – they use a lot of water to operate properly, so compost anything you can and only run the disposal machine when you REALLY need to.
  • Put a bottle of tap water in the fridge – the reason most of us like bottled water is actually because it’s cold, not because it tastes any better than tap water.  So, keep a cold one handy!  I keep a washed-out cranberry juice bottle full of tap water in our fridge, and refill it every time I have some.
  • Check faucets and pipes for leaks, which can drain from 20 to 100 gallons of water per day, depending on the size of the leak (another method is to watch your water meter carefully – if it’s running unusually high, you can be fairly sure you’ve got a leak somewhere)
  • Wash fruits and veggies in a bowl or pan of water instead of running the faucet
  • If you boil water for pasta, use a bowl to collect the water under the strainer, and when it’s cooled off water your houseplants.
  • If you use a teakettle for tea, after it’s boiled and you’ve poured it into your teapot or mug, pour the still-boiling excess water over your dishrag or sponge – this will sanitize it!
  • Water your plants early in the morning, as the cooler temperatures and lower light level means your plant will absorb more of the water and you won’t have to use as much.
  • Collect water from your roof and from rain to water your garden.
  • Soak pots and pans instead of running water while you scrape food off.
  • Insulate your hot water pipes for faster hot water, so you don’t have to run the tap or shower for so long to get the temperature up.
  • Use COLD water for your laundry – I promise, it gets just as clean!! It takes much less energy to get the same result.
  • Turn the water off while you shave – follow Michael’s lead and fill the sink with about an inch of warm water to rinse your razor in, which will save up to 200 gallons per month.
  • To conserve water outside the home, use plants that grow naturally in your area to avoid having to water at all.

I’d like to add a caveat to this: please, for your sake AND mine, use biodegradable products. Everything that goes into your drain goes back into the water you drink – including the dish soap, shampoo, and cleaning chemicals you use. So, watch what you dump down there! We use Dr. Bronner’s “Sal Suds” for our dishes, floors, counters, etc…it’s entirely biodegradable and works like a charm on stains, stuck-on food, and cruddy floors. Seventh Generation products are good for laundry, and Dr. Bronners is great for in the shower.  And make your own shampoo! Check your labels, and while you’re at it, don’t buy any cosmetics or household cleaners that are tested on animals, please 🙂

Alternative Radio MP3 Programs

Alternative Radio ( has a discount for their MP3 programs: normally $5 each, you can buy 20 for $50 (which equates to half price). Use the code 20for50 at checkout, and download some of the most forward-thinking talks you’ll ever hear, by some of the world’s most innovative and intelligent thinkers.

In particular, they have several separate talks by Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others. I made selections based on my interests and Michael’s, but there truly is something for everyone there.

In addition, Alternative Radio is not affiliated with NPR. It gets its funding solely from public support – through donations or the purchase of transcripts, CDs, tapes, books, and MP3s. So, unlike NPR (which is funded by companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto), AR has no corporate interests influencing their programing. So please, buy some MP3s! Not only do you get excellent programing, but you also support a valuable resource.

Here’s what I’ve got (so if there are some you want to have a copy of, let me know and we’ll work something out):
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Shakti: Feminine Power for Change (by Vandana Shiva, via Alternative Radio)

This is a transcript of a program that aired on Alternative Radio, which I heard on NPR. I encourage you all to read it. It is a talk by Vandana Shiva on the topic of the environment, politics, bioengineering, trade, poverty, and hunger.

If you like what you’ve read, please consider making a donation to Alternative Radio by going to their website, . They have an exhaustive catalogue of programs which you can download as an MP3 for $5, buy a transcript of for $7, or order CDs of. I recommend buying either the MP3 or the CD of Vandana Shiva – she is a luminary.

(Talk given at the Metropolitan State College, Denver, CO 19 October 2009)
Vandana Shiva is an internationally renowned voice for sustainable development and social justice. A physicist, scholar, political activist and feminist, she is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi. She’s the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. She is the author of many books including “Water Wars,” “Earth Democracy,” and “Soil Not Oil.”

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Polemic: Industrial Tourism & the National Parks (by Edward Abbey)

Edited and abridged. The full version of this essay originally appeared in the book Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, published in 1968.  Written while Abbey was employed as a park ranger at Arches, this essay describes the process by which the U.S. Park Service transformed the then-primitive Arches National Monument into a developed National Park. Interested readers should refer to a print version of Desert Solitaire for a complete version of the essay.

I like my job. The pay is generous; I might even say munificent: $1.95 per hour, earned or not, backed solidly by the world’s most powerful Air Force, biggest national debt, and grossest national product. The fringe benefits are priceless: clean air to breathe (after the spring sand-storms); stillness, solitude and space; an unobstructed view every day and every night of sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons; a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the discovery of something intimate — though impossible to name — in the remote.

The work is simple and requires almost no mental effort, a good thing in more ways than one. What little thinking I do is my own and I do it on government time.

The ease and relative freedom of this lovely job at Arches follow from the comparative absence of the motorized tourists, who stay away by the millions. And they stay away because of the unpaved entrance road, the unflushable toilets in the campgrounds, and the fact that most of them have never even heard of Arches National Monument. (Could there be a more genuine testimonial to its beauty and integrity?)

But only a few days ago something happened which shook me out of my pleasant apathy.

I was sitting out back on my 33,000-acre terrace, shoeless and shirtless, scratching my toes in the sand and sipping on a tall iced drink, watching the flow of evening over the desert. Prime time: the sun very low in the west, the birds coming back to life, the shadows rolling for miles over rock and sand to the very base of the brilliant mountains. I had a small fire going near the table – not for heat or light but for the fragrance of the juniper and the ritual appeal of the clear flames. For symbolic reasons. For ceremony. When I heard a faint sound over my shoulder I looked and saw a file of deer watching from fifty yards away, three does and a velvet-horned buck, all dark against the sundown sky. They began to move. I whistled and they stopped again, staring at me. “Come on over,” I said, “have a drink.” They declined, moving off with casual, unhurried grace, quiet as phantoms, and disappeared beyond the rise. Smiling, thoroughly at peace, I turned back to my drink, the little fire, the subtle transformations of the immense landscape before me. On the program: rise of the full moon.

It was then I heard the discordant note, the snarling whine of a jeep in low range and four-wheel-drive, coming from an unexpected direction, from the vicinity of the old foot and horse trail that leads from Balance Rock down toward Courthouse Wash and on to park headquarters near Moab. The jeep came in sight from beyond some bluffs, turned onto the dirt road, and came up the hill toward the entrance station. Now operating a motor vehicle of any kind on the trails of a national park is strictly forbidden, a nasty bureaucratic regulation which I heartily support. My bosom swelled with the righteous indignation of a cop: by God, I thought, I’m going to write these sons of bitches a ticket. I put down the drink and strode to the housetrailer to get my badge.

Long before I could find the shirt with the badge on it, however, or the ticket book, or my shoes or my park ranger hat, the jeep turned in at my driveway and came right up to the door of the trailer. It was a gray jeep with a U.S. Government decal on the side – Bureau of Public Roads – and covered with dust. Two empty water bags flapped at the bumper. Inside were three sunburned men in twill britches and engineering boots, and a pile of equipment: transit case, tripod, survey rod, bundles of wooden stakes. (Oh no!) The men got out, dripping with dust, and the driver grinned at me, pointing to his parched open mouth and making horrible gasping noises deep in his throat.

“Okay,” I said, “come on in.”

It was even hotter inside the trailer than outside but I opened the refrigerator and left it open and took out a pitcher filled with ice cubes and water. As they passed the pitcher back and forth I got the full and terrible story, confirming the worst of my fears. They were a survey crew, laying out a new road into the Arches.

And when would the road be built? Nobody knew for sure; perhaps in a couple of years, depending on when the Park Service would be able to get the money. The new road — to be paved, of course — would cost somewhere between half a million and one million dollars, depending on the bids, or more than fifty thousand dollars per linear mile. At least enough to pay the salaries of ten park rangers for ten years. Too much money, I suggested — they’ll never go for it back in Washington.

The three men thought that was pretty funny. Don’t worry, they said, this road will be built. I’m worried, I said. Look, the party chief explained, you need this road. He was a pleasant-mannered, soft-spoken civil engineer with an unquestioning dedication to his work. A very dangerous man. Who needs it? I said; we get very few tourists in this park. That’s why you need it, the engineer explained patiently; look, he said, when this road is built you’ll get ten, twenty, thirty times as many tourists in here as you get now. His men nodded in solemn agreement, and he stared at me intently, waiting to see what possible answer I could have to that.

“Have some more water,” I said. I had an answer all right but I was saving it for later. I knew that I was dealing with a madman.

[Click this link to see the full blog entry & continue reading the essay] Continue reading