Water in the News

Sustainable Energy Stored in the Oceans

by Keith B Published 5.22.2014

R&D Magazine published an article on their website on April 7th describing some very interesting work underway at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Materials Science and Technology Division. They “have recently demonstrated proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.” They went on to demonstrate the viability of the fuel by using it to fly a model airplane. All this is very interesting and very important to the ongoing concerns of the buildup of man produced (anthropogenic) CO2, and the related issues of global warming and ocean acidification.

Photo of the ocean

Photo courtesy of Anita Berghoef.

Most of the press we are exposed to relating to mankind’s increasing release of CO2 from fossil fuel consumption ties it to atmospheric driven global warming and all the associated problems. However, another result effectively described on the US Department of Commerce—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) web site is the concern over the gradual decrease in pH in the ocean. The drop in pH (increase in acidity) is caused by water’s ability to absorb CO2 and the resulting carbonic acid that is produced. The NOAA-PMEL, National Geographic and other sources state that of all the CO2 produced by fossil fuel consumption, the oceans absorb 25%–50%. The remaining amount may be consumed by plants, or may end up in the atmosphere or elsewhere.

The drop in pH of the ocean, reported to be accelerating since the beginning of the industrial revolution and its associated increase in fossil fuel consumption, could have a significant negative effect on the marine ecosystem. We would expect to see significant effects on corals, crustaceans and mollusks, on vertebrates such as fishes and on echinoderms like starfish and sea urchins. Naturally, all other species that relied on them for food would also be affected, including man.

Some of these consequences can be substantiated by looking at ocean sediment from 55 and 250 million years ago when there were also increased levels of CO2 in the ocean from volcanic activity. Also, there are some specific localized shallow ocean waters near volcanoes that can be studied today, where CO2 is released into the water from underground sources. These locations have demonstrated many of the negative effects we may see if the ocean’s pH continues to fall.

So if we step back and dream about the further development of the work started by the NRL, is there a glimpse of a sustainable solution in there somewhere? If we can “harvest” CO2 from the ocean and use it to produce a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, when that fuel is consumed, it again produces some CO2, a portion of which gets reabsorbed back into the ocean. It isn’t a perfect closed loop, but together with real efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels, it might be a path towards improvement. Obviously, there is much more work to be done, but the article in R&D seems optimistic and one might imagine that in the eventual processing of copious quantities of sea water, there will be opportunities for filtration and separation technologies to play an important role.

Contact Keith B.


Standards for Bottled Water vs. Standards for Tap Water

by Ed R Published 2.13.2014

“The elephant in the room” is probably one of the most overused phrases in the last several years. It is basically meant to call attention to an impending situation which we know is looming but choose to ignore in the hope that it goes away. A current example of this elephant is the overall health of our drinking water. A recently published report by the DWRF (Drinking Water Research Foundation) is a must read. Entitled “Microbial Health Risks of Regulated Drinking Waters in the United States”, this report provides a comparative assessment of health risks associated with drinking tap water vs. drinking bottled water. It was authored by Dr. Stephen Edberg of Yale University who is an internationally recognized expert in the field of public health especially as it pertains to water and water treatment. (I had the opportunity to meet him in 2002 at the World Health Organization symposium on HPC Bacteria in Drinking Water in Geneva, but that’s another story.) The purpose of Dr. Edberg’s report is to help educate the public with regard to the risk of contracting a waterborne illness from a public water supply by contrasting it to bottled water. It does so by focusing on the differences in the following areas: regulations, standards, monitoring, advisories and distribution. For those of you that are not going to read the report (although I urge you to, it’s actually a pretty quick read), here is the “CliffsNotes” version with some commentary at the end.

Read the full report

Regulations: Both public drinking water and bottled water are heavily regulated. Public drinking water is regulated by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Bottled water is regulated by the FDA under The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) as it is considered a food product.

Standards: “Federal law requires that FDA’s regulations for bottled water must be at least as protective of public health as EPA standards for tap water.” Where these two differ is in microbial contaminants. EPA currently has no standards for total coliform or E. coli in source waters, only in finished water. In contrast, if a bottler is drawing water from a source other than a public water supply then both the source water and the finished water are subject to the standards.

Monitoring: It is in this section that the author shows the greatest discrepancy of the two. On a gallon for gallon basis the report shows that bottlers are required to test on a far greater frequency than public suppliers.

Advisories: What happens when the water fails to meet either EPA or FDA Microbiological Standards? Under the SDWA this typically involves issuance of a “Boil Alert”. Two things trigger a boil alert, 1.) Detection of E. coli or any other pathogenic organism, 2.) Loss of system pressure, such as in the case of a water main break. Under the FDA Standards, contaminated water is prohibited from entering the food supply, and is subject to a recall. Public notification in both cases is required.

Distribution: Bottled water is processed, monitored, packaged under sanitary conditions, held and transported with no further outside influence of potential contamination. Tap water is processed, monitored, disinfected and delivered to consumers through a system of underground piping. (You should start to see the elephant now.)

Throughout this report the author purposely calls attention to the differences in the two most common forms of water used for human consumption, with the goal of pointing out to the reader where the source of the problem lies…the distribution system elephant. It’s not at the water treatment plant that we have a problem. The personnel there do a fantastic job of taking water from all kinds of sources and qualities to provide us with a clean, abundant and safe supply. Many of us absolutely take it for granted. When we turn on the tap we expect clear, cold, clean water and we expect it now. The report addresses some of the causal factors for the loss of quality as it pertains to the distribution system, things like source protection, cross connection, backflow prevention, and leaks. Let’s face it; some of the pipes have been in the ground for a hundred years. All of this is considered infrastructure. Numerous reports have identified the need to repair and replace our aging Infrastructure. So why are we ignoring it? There are only 300-500 billion reasons. You guessed it, dollars. But, there may be an alternative solution, and mark my words, you will be hearing more about it, it’s the final barrier concept. Take some time to read the report; it’s not too long or too technical.

Contact Ed R.


A Rare Agreement in the Middle East, Over Water

by Keith B Published 2.6.2014

Over the last 20 years, we have read predictions that the next great war will be fought over water and not riches, oil or geography. Some think water scarcity all over the world will bring on conflict between nations. In my blog entitled “Water Issues' Effect on Conflict and Civil Unrest” I discussed how water scarcity and changes have caused civil unrest and conflicts, but in a recent article published by both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, we read of water being the driving force behind an agreement between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. These nations are not known for their cooperation and peaceful relations; however, fresh water scarcity and changes brought on by attempts to address this scarcity have moved them to an agreement.

It turns out the water level of the Dead Sea, known and visited by tourists for its high salt content, has been dropping by more than 3 feet a year. This has primarily been caused by Jordan, Israel and Syria diverting the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s main feeder, to meet increasing needs for irrigation and/or domestic use. This change in the Dead Sea coupled with increasing water scarcity in several areas of these countries, has brought about some unique solutions to these problems. A new desalination plant—using reverse osmosis technology—will be built in Aqaba, Jordan, taking its source from the Red Sea and the highly saline reject stream will be piped across Jordan to the Dead Sea to add back volume. Normally the reject stream produced by a desalination plant is an unwanted byproduct of the process, but in this case it may become part of a win-win solution. There are still some environmental concerns over the salt make up of the reject and how it will affect the differing salt content of the Dead Sea, but those issues will be monitored and reviewed.

An illustrated map of the Dead Sea showing its reduction over time

This application reminds us that many of the technologies used in water treatment are really “separation” technologies—technologies that effectively separate something from water. Reverse Osmosis (RO) membranes are most commonly used to separate unwanted ions and/or contaminants from water. The water that passes through the membrane (permeate) is “pure,” and is generally the desired product of such a system. In some cases, however, it is the concentrated solution that has the value, not the permeate. An example of this is using membranes for the concentration and production of maple syrup. In the case of the desalination plant being built at Aqaba, both the permeate and concentrate are going to have value, making it unique.

I can’t help but think about how this, on a grand scale, is another example of man beginning to get involved in areas we long took for granted, to think about sustainability. In our homes, towns and cities, we will have to find uses for all of our “reject streams.” Maybe some of them can find end uses that benefit all of us rather than creating more problems. Certainly we can find a water more suitable than drinking water to flush our toilets, water our lawns, or wash or cars…right?


Is drinking water your home's only water safety concern?

by Keith B Published 10.24.2013

As water treatment professionals, most of our time is spent thinking about improving the quality of either drinking water or working water. (Working water is water used for cleaning, washing clothes, cars, dishes etc.) For drinking water, we often focus on aesthetics and health concerns, and for working water we typically just focus on the aesthetics. However, there is a third category when considering water used for bathing, swimming or playing where aesthetics and some unique health effects are of concern.

Recently several articles have been written, including one by Matthew Hamilton on latimes.com, about the “Brain Eating Amoeba” found in the drinking water supply of a parish in Louisiana. The amoeba is said to cause a fatal brain infection called Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM) by being introduced into the sinus through the nose. Infections created by this amoeba are quite rare with CBS Houston reporting a total of 32 cases in the US from 2001 to 2010. Of concern is an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which is found quite frequently in warm, relatively stagnant waters throughout the southern United States. Louisiana state health officials report that drinking the water containing the amoeba does not cause illness, since stomach acid kills it. Most previous infections have been contracted by people swimming in these warm waters, getting water in their nose in the process. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Naegleria fowleri is commonly found around the world in warm fresh water, the number of reported cases is surprisingly low.

Photo of water splashing on a child's hands

Tragically, these most recent articles recount the death of a 4 year old boy from this disease, which he contracted after playing on a “Slip 'n' Slide” fed with municipally-supplied water in that parish. Jonathan Yoder, an epidemiologist with the CDC, stated that this was the first time that Naegleria fowerli has been found in a treated water supply in the US. CBS Houston and several other news agencies are raising the question if Hurricane Katrina might be the cause of the contamination. Their thought process is that after Katrina, so many people left the parish that the water lay dormant in the supply pipes for longer periods than it had before the hurricane, when the system was serving more people. As a result, the chlorine residual may have dissipated, allowing the organisms to grow. Presently, the parish is increasing chlorine content and flushing the water lines, which has some residents complaining about the taste.

Once again, we find ourselves faced with questions about the quality of our tap water—not because of problems at the central treatment plant, but possibly because of conditions outside of its control. In this case, buying bottled water is of little help since taking a shower, bath or playing in the water would be the cause of infection. As a home owner, options for treatment might include a point of entry (POE) solution like ultraviolet (UV) treatment or whole house water filtration, sized properly by an authorized source. Or, if your municipality has increased chlorine content in your water, you could use a point of use (POU) treatment system to remove the taste of chlorine from your drinking water.

Even if you don’t live in a warm climate like Louisiana’s, it never hurts to get your water checked out. I have been in the water treatment industry for a long time, and I have seen how contaminants in your water can cause all kinds of problems for your family and home. As I wrote in an earlier post, I find that it’s best to be proactive and informed about my home’s water quality, just in case.

Contact Keith B.


Water Issues' Effect on Conflict and Civil Unrest

by Keith B Published 8.26.2013

In the May 18th Sunday Review of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote a very thought provoking article entitled “Without Water, Revolution.” It covers what is going on today in Syria and how water issues play a big role in the civil unrest that plagues that country today. He describes how the drought that hit the country from 2006 to 2011 significantly changed the distribution of the population, forcing small, independent, proud farmers to abandon their rural lands and move to cities to try and eke out an existence; and how many of the few jobs that did exist were given to favorites of the government. What I found interesting was that when previously I had thought about the unrest in Syria, I did not think about water, and also that one of the main issues some of the people had with the existing government was that they hadn't done enough in reaction to the drought.

Illustration of a modern Syrian man and a Dust Bowl era American man, both drinking water

Further research on this topic found the article recently published in Science Magazine by Hsiang, Burke and Miguel entitled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict.” While most of this article (especially those parts relating to statistics) flew clearly over my head, it was easy to see that this subject has been studied in depth, and that with the many associated variables, coming up with a direct cause and effect is a challenge. Variables such as economic conditions, normal average temperature of a region, and interrelations between temperature and rainfall levels can all affect the data. There are even data presented linking high rainfall levels with unrest such as Hindu-Muslim riots. Hsiang et al state in their conclusions that “We do not conclude that climate is the sole—or even primary—driving force in conflict, but we do find that when large climate variations occur, they can have substantial effects on the incidence of conflict across a variety of contexts.”

In her review of this article, Rebecca Morelle of BBC News states “They estimate that a 2°C (3.6°F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by about 15%, and group conflicts rise by more than 50% in some regions.” She also found some opposing views where Dr. Halvard Buhaug, from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway finds that civil war in Africa was linked not to climate-related issues, but to other factors such as high infant mortality, proximity to international borders and high local population density. I might suggest that water quality could also play a role in the infant mortality issue and that the population density might be a product of previous drought conditions.

Refocusing from these studies covering centuries of change and human history to our lives in the USA today, I wonder what is going on right under our noses today that may someday become a blip in a future professor’s study. We know in American history, farms, towns, and cities were all built in close proximity to water supplies or areas with sufficient precipitation, or both. This was done for human consumption, irrigation or transportation needs. Immediate changes in the supply or quality of the water were readily apparent. Times in history like the famed Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains saw major changes in populations and occupations. Farmers left the dried up land and headed for cities like Los Angeles. This was an obvious change. But slow changes in water availability, like a dropping water table or increasing contaminants, are harder to see and react to. And now that most of us rely on underground pipes to “magically” supply us with water, we really don't give it much of a thought—until the day when we open the faucet and nothing, or something not exactly like water, comes out. When that happens will we look to our government, just as many Syrians have, and ask, “how could you let this happen?” Will this be a type of climate change that will bring conflict?

We all need to continue to increase our attention to the wide variety of water issues that surround our neighborhoods, towns, cities, workplaces, counties, countries, and world. We must become more aware of changes in our fresh water supplies, learn to use those resources more efficiently, and embrace recycling concepts as often as possible. While we may not be able to affect climate temperature issues that drive conflict and unrest, it is possible that we can counteract somewhat those related to water changes.

Update February 6, 2014: I wrote another post about water and conflict…but this time it's about how water was part of a conflict's resolution!

Contact Keith B.


The Better Water Blog 1-Year Anniversary

by Kinetico Published 7.1.2013

Illustration of a tablet showing the blog, and a half-eaten slice of birthday cake

Time really does fly when you're having fun, doesn't it? Over the last year, we have tried to bring you posts that help you understand, value and respect life's most vital resource: water. We know some of you have been with us from the very beginning, and we're really grateful for that. But for those of you who are new to the Better Water Blog, here are some posts you could start with from this time last year.

Why are Boil Water Alerts So Important?

By Cathy J in The Science of Water

Have you ever had a Boil Water Alert (BWA) issued in your area? These public warnings can be worrisome if you've never heard them before. You may ask yourself, "Is my water really safe?" Cathy answers some common questions about BWA's in this informative first-ever Better Water Blog post.

How a Water Softener Works—Mystery Solved!

By Stuart P in Water Treatment Technology

Stuart's fascinating, lighthearted post clears up some of the mystery behind water softeners. Even if you already know all there is to know about ion exchange, water softeners, soap curds and electrons, you'll enjoy the fun, straightforward video presentation where we get to see how water softening works close-up, featuring Mr. Resin Bead! 

We All Have Our "Just In Case"...Mine Has To Do With My Drinking Water

By Keith B in Water in the News

Keith explains a few of the reasons why he and millions of others rely on reverse osmosis filtration for drinking and cooking water. "Better safe than sorry" is his philosophy as he illuminates some of the effects that fracking and PPCP's (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products) might have on your water.


Kinetico, a Pioneer in Hydrokinetics?

by Keith B Published 4.25.2013

There was a very interesting article written by Mark Crawford in Mechanical Engineering recently titled “Waves, Currents & Electrical Potential.” In it he discusses the “relatively young” field of hydrokinetics, and covers its huge potential. The term hydrokinetics covers everything involving moving water, so it includes waves, ocean currents, flowing rivers and streams. He states “this form of energy tends to be more reliable than solar and wind, and is abundant in certain regions.” He quotes Christopher Mahoney, Communications Manager - Environment and Renewable Energy for the Electric Power Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C. as saying “technically recoverable wave energy alone could provide about 25% of U.S. electrical demand.”

Pretty impressive, but as a new technology, it faces challenges. The largest being how to get the energy from the source to a place where it can be either stored or distributed. Large ocean buoys with floats that rise and fall with each wave can use that motion to create electrical energy, but the necessary wire to get it back to land makes it difficult to apply. Crawford confirms “the most popular hydrokinetic device is the turbine.” Submerging these devices in a constantly flowing river can be effective. Also, the turbines can be designed to change orientation if the flow direction changes, making them capable of being positioned in a harbor, for instance, that may go through flows in both directions several times a day. Here are some examples:

Image of a turbineAnother image of a turbine

Photo credits: ANDRITZ HYDRO Hammerfest (left) and Kris Unger/Verdant Power, Inc. (right)

Image of Kinetico's turbine

And here is a picture of my favorite turbine, and the one Kinetico has been featuring for more than 40 years. We have been using these turbines to drive our water softener and filter valves through their regeneration for quite some time. We have studied their designs and have greatly decreased the amount of water needed to perform their work. As we look into the future, what other ways can we harness the energy of the water flowing into homes and businesses? The energy is there, we just need to learn how to use it effectively and efficiently. On a grander scale, as the power generation turbines and power collection systems evolve, will we see a growing use of that technology merge with the possible changing water flows brought on by climate changes?

 Should I put a turbine in my rain gutter? Maybe.

 

Contact Keith B.


The Clues We Can Find From Waste Water

by Keith B Published 9.4.2012

I am intrigued by the ongoing advancements in water analysis technologies. Our ability to find trace quantities of specific chemicals in water and waste water, which are filled with so many other compounds, amazes me. And, as with many things, that starts my imagination running wild.

I recently read in the “Chromatography Techniques” section of the Laboratory Equipment web site that a master’s student at Texas Tech Institute for Forensic Science had studied the waste water in Lubbock, Texas specifically loIllustration of waste water with words like 'detergents' and 'chemicals' floating in itoking for trace amounts of illegal drugs. In particular she was looking for benzoylecgonine (BE), which is a chemical produced by humans when they ingest and metabolize cocaine. The article states that the ratio of BE produced to actual cocaine ingested is consistent enough to allow for back calculation of the amount of cocaine used over a time period in the upstream population. Her testing led to very interesting results, the weekend “amount ingested” projections were significantly higher than weekday results. (Probably obvious, but the analytical data is still valuable.)

Also noted in the article was a reference to some similar work done in Europe where specific neighborhoods were able to be pinpointed for increased drug usage, and thereby linked to increased criminal activity. So a city’s waste water stream sort of becomes like its bloodstream or its urine sample… able to be analyzed for its “health”. If we can begin to see trace quantities of today’s PPCPs (see my Blog entitled “Just in Case”) and now illegal drugs, will we soon be able to evaluate the waste water from a city, neighborhood or even a home to determine eating habits?

 Are we just a short time away from wet suited french-fry and doughnut police?

Contact Keith B.


Global Warming – Grab your bucket?

by Keith B Published 8.20.2012

My initial impression of a future world with runaway Global Warming was one of deserts, droughts and being really thirsty. From what I have recently learned from reading some information provided by Paul Durack and others in Science magazine April 2012, there will actually be more rain as the temperature increases. I suppose if I had taken a little time to think about it I would have reached the same conclusion. The warmer the temperature is, the more evaporation there will be, which means an increase in the water cycle.

Illustration of the earth inside a thermometerI am not saying I fully support all the claims of the coming disasters of Global Warming (that is for another blog), but I am interested in the concept of the possible acceleration of the water cycle. Mr. Durack estimates that the water cycle could undergo as much as a 24% increase if there is a 3° C average (5.4°F) temperature increase by the end of the century as some have predicted. The problem is, and always has been, that the evaporated water is not equally distributed around the surface area of the globe. As the water cycle accelerates dryer regions could get drier and wetter regions could get a lot wetter. Overall, there will be more fresh (non-salt) water falling from the sky than today. 

So, why are we always hearing that we are running out of fresh water? Because we are. We can’t harvest all of it. Much of it just falls back into the ocean (77%) and the rest quickly runs off as surface water, returning to the ocean, in some cases, after flooding low lying areas. The scientific challenge is to think of ways to improve our “catch and hold” methods. Giant floating tankers with pipelines to land based reservoirs? More dams on land?  Large underground storage tunnels? And of course, any land storage methods of holding water would also need some ingenious methods of reducing their evaporation losses.

These are all great engineering puzzles….maybe we can ask Siri how to fix it?

Contact Keith B.


Flash Flood Sure, But Flash Drought?

by Ed R Published 7.20.2012

This year’s mild winter, low soil moisture and an early June heat wave have created the perfect “heat storm”. In their June “Global Analysis Report” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has determined that this June was the warmest in U.S. history since 1880, and was the warmest month on record for the entire northern hemisphere.

Illustration of popcorn popping right off the stalkA new term has been coined by the NOAA. If you are encountering a condition where there is a sudden unexpected, lingering burst of high temperatures (90+), low humidity and lots of sunshine (not a cloud in the sky), then you are in a “flash drought”.

This condition is occurring in many parts of the Midwestern United States. Hardest hit is the Corn Belt, Missouri in particular. According to the Drought Monitor (a weekly report of drought conditions throughout the United States), approximately two thirds of the Midwest is in some stage of drought.

Affected are the major staple crops such as corn and soybeans. The drought hit when the young plants were most susceptible. This has lead to decreased corn production. Forbes reports that grain prices have risen approximately 47% since mid-June on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Water Districts throughout the Midwest have asked their customers to use water wisely and implement voluntary water conservation measures. If this continues then mandatory measures won’t be far behind.

Here in Northeast Ohio, June wasn’t so bad, but July is getting nasty. Most all of the lawns are some shade of brown, and on the home front (my backyard) despite my best efforts, the zucchini are pretty much toast and the cucumbers are withering away before really bearing much fruit. The tomatoes and especially the peppers however are growing through the roof. Win some lose some I guess.

 

Contact Ed R.


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