Monday, December 19, 2011

Climate Change will strain NYS’s water even if we don’t Frack


New York State has a lot of fresh water and, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), we are going to weather Climate Change. The West and the South of the United States are not going to fare so well. So you might think that piling on hydrofracking (or Fracking), which will require a lot of our fresh water for drilling, to the stresses that will be caused by Climate Change wouldn’t matter much.

And that is actually the conclusion of the Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) report that NYSERDA funded and completed last month. This report is a very comprehensive look at Climate Change in New York State. What the report suggests is that “As much as 7 million gallons of water may be required to hydraulically fracture a well.” (Page 94, ClimAid) “Increased consumption due to natural gas drilling in deep shales” will be “low.” (Page 444, ClimAid). The report also states that we should feel assured about our fresh water because “The commissions already have guidelines for determining acceptable withdrawals during low-flow periods, and other possible guidelines have recently been proposed in the generic environmental impact statement related to shale gas drilling in New York State.” (Page 100, ClimAid)

On the face of it you would think that drill-baby-drill for Fracking as our state (and the planet) warms up is something we can handle. And maybe we can if everything goes according to plan. But Climate Change is going to be messy—even if we just stay within the parameters of the ClimAid study itself.

First off, let’s take a look at the state of water in New York State:

“New York State has an abundance of water resources. Despite having only 0.3 percent of the world’s population, the state is bordered by lakes containing almost 2 percent of the world’s fresh surface water: Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Champlain. It is home to the Finger Lakes in central New York, which are the largest of the state’s 8,000 lakes as well as some of the largest inland water bodies in the United States. The state has several high-yielding groundwater aquifers, particularly those underlying Long Island. It has an average annual rainfall of almost 40 inches, readily supplying numerous small municipal reservoirs as well as the extensive New York City water supply system with surface water impoundments in the Catskill Mountains and the Croton watershed east of the Hudson River. The state contains the headwaters of three major river systems in the Northeast: the Hudson River, the Delaware River, and the Susquehanna River. In 2000, New York State’s 19 million residents consumed approximately 2,200 million gallons per day of fresh surface water and 890 million gallons per day of fresh groundwater for public water supply, irrigation, and industrial uses (Lumia and Linsey, 2005).” (Page 87, ClimAid)

Pretty impressive, eh? Looks like we have it made: a relatively low population with a lot of fresh water. But, as with all things related to Climate Change, it gets complicated. Let’s go on. The study also notes that our region, because we will not suffer water loss as much as other areas of the country, will be a Mecca [my phrase] for those who do need more water. That means our population will grow significantly in a small amount of time. That population will need water—clean, potable water.

Also, agriculture in the West and other regions will suffer for the lack of water and, because we have water, it is likely that more of our state will be devoted to agriculture. Agriculture uses a lot of water. “Approximately 70% of the fresh water used by humans goes to agriculture” Water - Wikipedia. We should also note that as our climate warms up the insects that feed on our crops are able to weather our winters better, which means we will be dumping more pesticides (which will get into our water) and weeds will do better (because they utilize the increase in carbon dioxide more efficiently) and thus more herbicides, which again will get into our water systems.

This isn’t in the study, but I want to throw in this issue to what will likely happen when other regions dry up as we maintain our fresh water amidst Climate Change. Despite international agreements with Canada on diversion, or taking water from the Great Lakes, it is very likely that our region will have to divert water to the South and West so their communities can survive. Can we really stop a world thirsty for water from somehow getting our water? This will compound Climate Change for us because the Great Lakes water system is an almost closed hydrological system —meaning the water replenished just about equals the water going out. So, if you divert a lot of water from this system you will change our weather, then our Climate. (Which, of course isn’t hasn’t been factored into ClimAid.)

This increased use of water from possible diversion, population growth, and agricultural growth will get complicated by even more factors that come with Climate Change. Our water will get warmer. “Increasing water temperatures in rivers and streams will affect aquatic heath and reduce the capacity of streams to assimilate effluent from wastewater treatment plants.” (Pg 110, CliimAid). Which is nasty because there will be increased precipitation in the spring (extreme rainfall and flooding) and longer droughts in the late summer.

ClimAid states that we will be able to handle the combined sewer overflows (CSO) because overall precipitation will not increase during Climate Change. Because many communities, like Rochester, NY have increased the storage capacity of our wastewater treatment plants, it is assumed that we can handle backed-up sewage. And we probably can if these heavy rain periods don’t happen frequently. (Page 68) Which, of course, they will with Climate Change. In other words, if we have a nice Climate Change catastrophe where extreme weather events don’t happen too often we’ll be fine. Remember our state and states around the Great Lakes are mostly serviced by these kinds of wastewater systems that can handle only so many heavy rainfalls.

But there’s more. Sea levels will rise along our NYS shorelines creating salt-front movement. This means that as the oceans rise, their salty waters will affect communities that use aquifers and rivers directly connected to the ocean. For example, the City of Poughkeepsie could have a problem:

While this withdrawal of 10 million gallons per day is only a small fraction of total river flow, the intake is located far enough downriver that the saltwater/freshwater interface (salt front) could move above the City of Poughkeepsie’s intake as a result of reduced freshwater inflows or sea level rise. (Page 87, ClimAid)

Then there are droughts. Towards the end of each summer, with increasing frequency, there will be prolonged droughts that will affect many communities’ water storage capacity. A large city near a lake may not have a problem, but smaller communities that don’t have large storage capacity systems will ‘borrow’ water from other communities. And this may work fine, if the drought doesn’t last very long or impact too many communities at once—or you aren’t competing with the Fracking industry’s desire for our water. (Granted ClimAid has thought about this issue: “It is important to ensure that these withdrawals do not affect established users (such as public water suppliers) and ecosystem services and that the potential impact of climate change on low flows is accounted for in the permitting process.” (Page 94, ClimAid) However, when water is scarce will the drillers stop drilling? Or, will they run to the courts to keep the drilling going (the example of the 2011 Texas drought is hopefully not a harbinger in this regard)?

With Climate Change also comes more water evaporation, which causes more extreme weather events and lower lake levels. Which will in turn affect hydroelectric plants that use water, and nuclear power plants which need cool water to cool their spent rods. Not to mention a vast increase in the use of air conditioners, which will create even more need for energy—probably dirty energy that burn fossil fuels (i.e. greenhouse gases) to keep their turbines moving. There are a lot more positive loop scenarios that the ClimAid study is aware of, but seems incapable of connecting the dots to Fracking.

In short, the uncertainty about water use in New York State that comes with Climate Change should make us less inclined to throw Fracking into the mix. Admittedly, hydrofracking was factored into the ClimAid study and hydrofracking is included in the Revised Draft SGEIS on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (September 2011) - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation where public comment will end soon. But these documents are crunching their Fracking numbers in a way that makes a perversity of the Precautionary Principle.

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. Precautionary principle - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

But because of public doubt and a wide-spread disinclination for our nation to accept the science behind Climate Change, a sort of perverse reversal of the principle now rules: If a Climate Change action is suspected of causing harm to our economic system or status quo, the burden of proof should be put on the those who believe that Climate Change is happening.

The truth is that we don’t really get Climate Change, not even our government. We think we can handle something that we have never experienced before--a rapid acceleration of our Climate world-wide. We are so confident of this that we are willing to gamble that we can handle Fracking while our state and our world warms up, risking the most precious resource we have outside of the air we breathe – fresh water. Actually, New York State already uses its water thoroughly: Water Use in New York - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Pride Cometh Before a Fall, indeed.

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