Date:  3/7/09


Tonight’s topic is groundwater. March 8-14 was National Groundwater Awareness Week and we looking at what groundwater is, how it is being threatened all over the world, and what we can do about it. Our guest is Professor Dudley Burton, chair of the Environmental Studies Department at Cal State Sacramento.

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Background News and Information on Groundwater

From The Groundwater Foundation comes this explanation of groundwater:

Groundwater is water that is found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock. Groundwater is stored in–and moves slowly through–layers of soil, sand and rocks called aquifers. Aquifers typically consist of gravel, sand, sandstone, or fractured  rock, like limestone. These materials are permeable because they have large connected spaces that allow water to flow through. The speed at  which groundwater flows depends on the size of the spaces in the soil or rock and how well the spaces are connected.[….]. In areas where material above the aquifer is permeable, pollutants can readily sink into groundwater supplies. Groundwater can be polluted by landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, and from overuse  of fertilizers and pesticides. If groundwater becomes polluted, it  will no longer be safe to drink.  Groundwater is used for drinking water by more than 50 percent of the people in the United States, including almost everyone who lives in rural areas. The largest use for groundwater is to irrigate crops.

A United Nations Resolution in 1992 created World Water Day, celebrated this year on March 22nd in Istanbul. The purpose of World Water Day is to call attention to the lack of availability of safe water around the world. The UN reports:

The world water crisis is one of the largest public health issues of our time. Nearly 1.1 billion people (roughly 20% of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water. The lack of clean,safe drinking water is estimated to kill almost 4,500 children per day. In fact, out of the 2.2 million unsafe drinking water deaths in 2004, 90% were children under the age of five. Water is essential to the treatment of diseases, something especially critical for children. [. . . .] The lack of clean water, coupled with the lack of basic sanitation and a dearth of hygiene education, is one of the largest obstacles to progress and development in these regions and across the world. The UN has prioritized water access among its Millennium Development Goals because it contributes to such widespread suffering, including increased poverty, high child mortality rates, depressed education levels, and political instability. Without question, the world water crisis condemns billions of people to a perpetual struggle  to survive at the subsistence level, thus inspiring millions to engage and alleviate this problem.

From Western Water comes the report that while World Water Day was purported to address water issues throughout water-stressed areas, it was not universally celebrated by everyone:

 “activists from the Peoples Water Forum, an alternative formation representing the rural poor, the environment and organized labor, protested the official  event as a non-inclusive, corporate-driven fraud pushing for water privatization,” shouting “Water is for life, not for profit.”

From the Third World Network comes a  2000 story by Someshwar Singh demonstrating how widespread the threats to groundwater are:

High levels of chemical-use and waste generation in recent decades are slowly poisoning supplies of groundwater – the  major source of our freshwater needs. It is a silent disaster spreading through many parts of the world. Singh quotes an article by Payal Sampat, staff researcher at the WorldWatch who […] notes that worldwide, 97% of the planet’s liquified freshwater is storied in aquifers.[. . . . which] are beginning to mirror the increasing density and  diversity of the human activity above them. Whereas the pollutants  emanating from hog farms or copper mines may be quite predictable, the  waste streams flowing into the water under the cities contain a  witch’s brew of contaminants. […] In California’s Silicon  Valley, where electronics industries store assorted waste solvents in underground tanks, local groundwater authorities found that 85% of the  tanks they inspected had leaks.Silicon Valley has more Superfund sites – most of them affecting  groundwater – than any other area its size in the country.

From The Hindu, the online edtion of India’s national newspaper, dated  March 22, 2009, comes this this report by T. Ramakrishnan:

CHENNAI: The magnitude of groundwater pollution due to indiscriminate  discharge of solid and liquid waste by the industry and fertilizers/ pesticides used excessively by farmers have reached an “alarming  stage” in the State, according to a paper presented at a recent  workshop organised by the Central Groundwater Board. [. . . .] [S]pecial studies carried out by the Board in and around tannery  belts between 2002 and 2008 revealed that an undesirable change in  physical and chemical characteristics of soil and groundwater had been  noticed, rendering thousands of hectares of fertile land sterile.

Our Questions for Dudley Burton, Chair of the Environmental Studies Department, Sacramento State University:

1. Tell us a little bit about the Environmental Studies Program at Sac State. What does your program train students to do? What sorts of careers are they pursuing after finishing your program?
2. Tonight the focus of our show is challenges to groundwater. What are the most pressing issues related to groundwater around the country and the world?
3. In researching your background, we noted that you taught at Baylor before coming to Sac State. How are the groundwater issues different in Texas from the ones in California? Where is our groundwater in the Sacramento Valley? What condition is it in?
4. Are there particular challenges to groundwater that we have in Northern California that are different from other places you’ve studied or worked?
5. In an article in the Chico News and Review a couple of months ago, you were quoted talking about the new claims for green products in the market place. What is the difference to the environment in products made from petrochemicals and products made of “natural” products? What are “natural” products?
6. What impact do domestic cleaning supplies have on our groundwater? What concerns should we have about the products we use in our spring cleaning?
7. What impact do you think the individual can have on maintaining a healthy groundwater system? What can one citizen do?

Do-It-Yourself Groundwater Preservation

From : Top 10 Ways to Protect and Conserve Groundwater

1. Dispose of chemicals properly.
2. Take used motor oil to a recycling center.
3. Limit the amount of fertilizer used on plants.
4. Take short showers.
5. Shut water off while brushing teeth.
6. Run full loads of dishes and laundry.
 7. Check for leaky faucets and have them fixed.
8. Water plants only when necessary.
 9. Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator.
10. Get involved in water education.

From the Portland, Oregon, Water Board:Portland, Oregon, Water Bureau

  • Learn more about where your water supply comes from, potential sources of contamination, and local and state water protection efforts.
  • Organize a groundwater forum, community water festival, water testing or other educational event.
  • Support groundwater education in local schools.
  • Consider safe alternatives to hazardous products. Follow instructions carefully when using, storing and disposing of household hazardous wastes. Take toxic chemicals like weed killers, pesticides, paint, thinners, strippers, wood preservatives, furniture polish, cleaners, and bleach to a hazardous waste collection center – don’t dump them down the drain or on the ground.
  • Find out if you have underground storage tanks on your property. Residential tanks typically are used to store heating oil. Active tanks should be checked for leakage, which can increase with age.
  • Check for leaking fluids from vehicles. Clean up drips with an absorbent like kitty litter or sawdust and properly dispose of contaminated absorbent. Do not use water to wash spills since water percolates into the ground or discharges to storm drains in the street (which typically lead to streams and rivers).
  • Inventory your hazardous household products like thinners, solvents, oil based paints, stains and finishes, paint and finish preparation products, photographic chemicals, and art supplies. Store only what you’ll use; properly dispose of waste materials; and give extras to a neighbor for their use. Use less toxic alternatives whenever possible.

From Lori Bongiorno’s  GreenGreenerGreenest: A Practical Guide for Making Eco-Smart Choices a Part of Your Life (Penguin Group).

Bongiorno points out that “Cleaning is supposed to make our homes healthy, but in our frenzy to banish dirt, dust,mold, and germs we may be doin more harm than good. The sheer number of producsts is completely unnecessary, and we know very little about the effects of combining all these chemicals” and “Many conventional cleaning products [as we’ve heard] are made from petroleum.” She recommends a couple of websites for learning more about recipes and products for green cleaning: Care 2 and The Green Guide

Bongiorno also provides a lesson in “Decoding Cleaning Products Labels” She notes that “Manufacturers of cleaning producsts are not required to list their ingredients on labels of they are considered trade secres. This makes it difficult to determine what harmful chemicals some of them contain. However, if you look closely enough at a label you will find some clues about toxicity because the government requires toxic products to be labeled as such.” So, a product that contains the word “Danger” or “Poison,”  is typically the most hazardous. “Caution” or “Warning” means that there is a medium hazard. More information about the anger will be next to the signal word. She goes on to say that “Unfortunately, there aren’t any meaningful labels for cleaning products right now.” She suggests for getting ratings of some green cleaning products.

Playlist for Ecotopia #27:
1.  G. F. Handel, Water Music–Horn Suite in F 
2. Cool Water, Sons of the Pioneers
3.  Wade in the Water, the Packway Handle Band
4.  Poison in the Well, 10000 Maniacs
5.  Cool, Cool River, Paul Simon
6.  We Will Reweave the Sunshine, Peter, Paul & Mary