Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Scientists rush to save ancient Colorado River fish

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a humpback chub in the Colorado River basin in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. The USFWS said Thursday, March 22, 2018 that it no longer considers the fish on the brink of extinction and will consider reclassifying the humpback chub as threatened within the next year. Federal officials say managing the flow of water from dams on the river and its tributaries, and removing fish that feed on humpback chub have helped boost numbers. But they say the species won’t fully recover without more work. (Travis Francis/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

Scientists are on a mission to save the “humpback chub” — an ancient fish under attack from not only invasive predators, but also from the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River.  

The chub, revived from near extinction decades ago, has increasingly become the prey of smallmouth bass, The Associated Press reported.  

Originally introduced as sport fish, smallmouth bass typically feast on the chub in the Colorado River’s upper section. The native fish has found refuge below Glen Canyon Dam, which obstructs the bass’s path to the Lower Colorado River, according to the AP.  

But as the water levels in Lake Powell — a key Colorado River reservoir — continue to plummet, the smallmouth bass have been edging closer to the dam and its penstocks, the pipes that deliver water to hydropower turbines, the AP reported.  

“If large numbers of bass and other predator fish are sucked into the penstocks, survive and reproduce below the dam, they’ll have an open lane to attack chub and other natives,” according to the AP.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll continue with the Colorado River theme and look at possible water cutbacks in store for next year. Then we’ll return to Iceland to see how it’s used geothermal energy to solve a key problem with renewable energy.

Colorado River states may face big cutbacks

The Colorado River’s reservoirs have plunged to such alarming lows that significant water reductions across the basin may be necessary next year, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Greater cutbacks imminent: Officials now recognize that preserving “critical levels” in the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs will require greater cutbacks in water deliveries, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as reported by the Times. 

“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today,” Touton said. “And the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.” 

  • Touton said that between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet worth of reductions will need to occur next year, according to the Times.  
  • These cuts will make a sizable dent in basin-wide water allocations. For the sake of comparison, California’s total Colorado River allotment is 4.4 million acre-feet per year, while Arizona’s is 2.8 million, the Times reported.  

An acre foot is a standard measure that describes the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep.

Three million football fields: Describing these reductions as “a mind-boggling amount of water,” an Arizona Republic op-ed said that this amounts to “enough to flood 1.5 million to 3 billion football fields with a foot of water” — or about 38 billion to 76 billion average showers.  

Even if Arizona, California and Nevada were to implement every cut delineated in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan — which defines voluntary reductions that should occur in the case of shortages — doing so would only save 1.1 million acre-feet of water, the op-ed attested. 

Salton Sea could disappear: An official from California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which holds rights to 70 percent of the state’s Colorado River water, told the Palm Springs Desert Sun that although cutbacks are necessary, they could have detrimental effects on the Salton Sea.  

The sea, which is the state’s biggest inland body of water, depends on Lake Mead runoff from farmers for its survival, district director J.B. Hamby told the Sun.  

Can’t save both: Hamby described the situation as a “Sophie’s choice” between preserving Lake Mead or the Salton Sea, according to the Sun.  

“You’ve got two lakes, you can’t save them both,” Hamby said.

For Iceland, geothermal key to replacing coal

Geothermal energy — which taps heat deep within the Earth for power — has been the key to Iceland’s renewables push for more than a century and now provides the majority of the country’s electricity and heat.  

  • Geothermal energy involves drilling into subterranean chambers of superheated and highly pressurized water or steam, then tapping the released power for either electricity or heat.
  • This is well-suited to Iceland, a country straddling — and created by — the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which forms a molten inverted Y-shape beneath its center. 

While Iceland is behind China and the U.S. in terms of sheer geothermal capacity, in no other country does this source provide such a large percentage of total power or heat. 

Now the country’s business and political leaders see big opportunities in exporting their technological know-how to countries where the technology is far more marginal. 

Securing the base: The biggest benefit of geothermal energy to the country is that — unlike wind and solar energy — it provides round-the-clock “base load” power,” Jóhann Snorri Sigurbergsson, of the country’s largest private geothermal plant, told Equilibrium. 

“We produce the same amount of energy every day of the year,” he added. 

A fine balance: While geothermal power is renewable, there are limits. Drawing steam for power lowers the pressure that forces it toward the surface, and therefore reduces the potential energy, Sigurbergsson said. 

  • That pressure can be replenished by injecting more water, but that risks cooling the hot spot below.  
  • That powerful pocket “can sustain itself forever — theoretically,” according to Sigurbergsson, who stressed that “you have to have your balance right.” 

Fixing intermittency: The continuous heat from beneath allows geothermal energy — along with hydropower — to provide the consistent power that  must otherwise come from fossil fuels, in systems that incorporate wind and solar power.  

Are there any other downsides? Yes, although proponents note they are small in comparison to the problems with fossil fuels. 

Geothermal energy still releases small amounts of carbon dioxide — 99 percent of the carbon earth is within it — and hydrogen sulfide.  

The steam also tends to smell faintly of sulfur, which gives Reykjavik a distinctive smell in winter months.

SUSTAINABILITY BEYOND CLIMATE

Iceland’s renewable energy campaign began in the 1920s — long before climate change was a policy concern — and sped up during the surging energy prices of the 1970s Arab oil embargo. 

  • Geothermal proved crucial in Iceland’s 20th century push to ditch coal and fuel oil, Halla Hrund Logadottir, director general of the National Energy Agency, the state energy regulator, told Equilibrium.  
  • Because the volcanic island is only roughly 20 million years old, it has no fossil fuels, which largely formed more than 200 million years ago. That forced the country to look elsewhere for cheap energy, Logadottir said. 

“We were lucky in the sense that we could develop the geothermal system from scratch,” she added. “We were not replacing another system.”  

Big savings: Replacing oil means “we are actually saving $1 billion every year in heating costs,” Árni Magnússon of Iceland Geo Survey, which consults with foreign companies on geothermal energy, told Equilibrium.  

Direct versus indirect: Iceland’s geothermal plants tap steam for electric power — but also use heat from the process directly for industrial purposes or to heat homes and businesses. 

“We are preaching the gospel of that direct use,” Magnússon said, noting that use in the U.S. is “not nearly as much as it probably could be.” 

Pilot in New York: On Tuesday, Cornell University began drilling on a geothermal borehole that it plans to tap for heat, according to the Cornell Daily Sun, a campus paper.  

That project was supported by Iceland’s Geothermal Research Park, the Cornell Chronicle reported. 

Lagging behind: Today the world currently uses about 16 gigawatts of geothermal energy — about 20 percent as much as global wind and solar, and 13 percent as much as hydropower, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

With just 2 percent growth every year, that lags far behind the 13 percent annual increase needed to keep the world on track to reach net zero by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. 

The Hill this week is taking a front-row look at the push for new energy technology, with reporting supported by Green by Iceland, a public-private partnership. To view Tuesday’s edition on energy grids, click here. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the country is building a business ecosystem that turns geothermal waste products into profit.

Kids more vulnerable from climate change: analysis

Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to the threats of both climate change and air pollution, experts argued in a new scientific analysis. 

Unequal burden: While all children are at risk, the greatest burden from these impacts falls on those who live in socially and economically disadvantaged communities, according to the authors, who published their evidence review in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday. 

But every child is at risk: “While there has been significant progress in reducing poverty-related environmental risks in recent decades, industrialization-related pollution has steadily increased,” co-author Kari Nadeau, of Stanford University, said in a statement

“Every single child in the world is expected to suffer from at least one climate change-related event in the next 10 years,” she added. 

Understanding the harms: Combining through dozens of research studies about the interplay between fossil fuel combustion and childhood health, Nadeau and her colleague Frederica Perera, of Columbia University, determined that health professionals must recognize the multiple harms that their patients are facing.  

And those harms are? The scientists identified a variety of issues: 

  • Extreme heat: linked to increased risk for preterm birth and low birth weight, hyperthermia and death in infants, as well as kidney disease in children.  
  • Displacement: climate-related events have already contributed to more than
    50 million children being forced from their homes worldwide.  
  • Air quality: 7.4 million children in the U.S. were exposed to lung-damaging wildfire smoke every year between 2008 and 2012 — a number that has only risen in recent years.  
  • Food insecurity: Developing countries are confronting ongoing climate change-related food insecurity issues, leading to a sharp rise in malnutrition.  
     
  • Diseases: The U.S. has encountered a considerable increase in Lyme disease, while the infection of pregnant individuals with Zika virus can lead to microcephaly and severe brain malformations.

Paying attention to disparities: Examining these climate-induced harms to children, the scientists also emphasized the disparities that exist among different populations.  

“Climate change and air pollution are exacerbating existing socioeconomic and racial and ethnic inequities in children’s health that are associated with structural racism,” they stated. 

To read the full story, please click here.

Water Wednesday

Thousand-year Yellowstone flood sign of things to come: expert 

  • All of Yellowstone National Park’s entrances were closed on Tuesday after downpours from an atmospheric river caused what the park superintendent described as a potential “thousand-year event,” The Hill reported.

EPA lowers safety threshold for ‘forever chemicals’ 

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is lowering its health advisories for two of the most notorious types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — PFOS and PFOA — to “near zero” levels: from 70 parts per trillion to 0.02 and 0.004 parts per trillion respectively, The Hill reported. 

Deepwater Horizon spill devastated the Gulf, but not BP’s stock 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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