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Friday, July 26, 2013

Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought


Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought

Outlawing a type of insecticides is not a panacea. AP Photo/Ben Margot

As we’ve written before, the mysterious mass die-off of honey bees that pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the US has so decimated America’s apis mellifera population that one bad winter could leave fields fallow. Now, a new study has pinpointed some of the probable causes of bee deaths and the rather scary results show that averting beemageddon will be much more difficult than previously thought.

Scientists had struggled to find the trigger for so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has wiped out an estimated 10 million beehives, worth $2 billion, over the past six years. Suspects have included pesticides, disease-bearing parasites and poor nutrition. But in a first-of-its-kind study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture have identified a witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives. The findings break new ground on why large numbers of bees are dying though they do not identify the specific cause of CCD, where an entire beehive dies at once.

When researchers collected pollen from hives on the east coast pollinating cranberry, watermelon and other crops and fed it to healthy bees, those bees showed a significant decline in their ability to resist infection by a parasite called Nosema ceranae. The parasite has been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder though scientists took pains to point out that their findings do not directly link the pesticides to CCD. The pollen was contaminated on average with nine different pesticides and fungicides though scientists discovered 21 agricultural chemicals in one sample. Scientists identified eight ag chemicals associated with increased risk of infection by the parasite.

Most disturbing, bees that ate pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times as likely to be infected by the parasite. Widely used, fungicides had been thought to be harmless for bees as they’re designed to kill fungus, not insects, on crops like apples.

“There’s growing evidence that fungicides may be affecting the bees on their own and I think what it highlights is a need to reassess how we label these agricultural chemicals,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the study’s lead author, told Quartz.

Labels on pesticides warn farmers not to spray when pollinating bees are in the vicinity but such precautions have not applied to fungicides.
Bee populations are so low in the US that it now takes 60% of the country’s surviving colonies just to pollinate one California crop, almonds. And that’s not just a west coast problem—California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, a market worth $4 billion.

In recent years, a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids has been linked to bee deaths and in April regulators banned the use of the pesticide for two years in Europe where bee populations have also plummeted. But vanEngelsdorp, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, says the new study shows that the interaction of multiple pesticides is affecting bee health.

“The pesticide issue in itself is much more complex than we have led to be believe,” he says. “It’s a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product.”

The study found another complication in efforts to save the bees: US honey bees, which are descendants of European bees, do not bring home pollen from native North American crops but collect bee chow from nearby weeds and wildflowers. That pollen, however, was also contaminated with pesticides even though those plants were not the target of spraying.

“It’s not clear whether the pesticides are drifting over to those plants but we need take a new look at agricultural spraying practices,” says vanEngelsdorp.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Earth Nearing an Environmental "Tipping Point"

Science News

Is Earth Nearing an Environmental "Tipping Point"?

Humanity may be pushing the planet toward sudden, irreversible ecological changes


glacier, meliting, earth, tipping point
TIPPING POINT: Climate change, habitat loss, population growth and other human impacts may be pushing the planet toward a critical transition to another ecological state.Image: Flickr/NasaEarthObservatory

Human activities are pushing Earth toward a "tipping point" that could cause sudden, irreversible changes in relatively stable conditions that have allowed civilization to flourish, a new study warns.

There are signs that a toxic brew of climate change, habitat loss and population growth is dramatically reshaping life on Earth, an international team of researchers reported in the journal Nature.

Those pressures are greater than the natural forces that caused the end of the last ice age roughly 11,700 years ago, a time when half the planet's large mammal species went extinct and humans migrated out of Africa.

"We are doing enough to cause one of these tipping points," said lead author Anthony Barnosky, a paleobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The question now is, how close are we? Is it inevitable? What are the changes that we see coming down the road that we should be aware of in order to make the best of it, essentially."

The answer provided by Barnosky and more than 20 other experts in paleontology, ecology, geology, population biology and complex systems isn't comforting.

The scientists say it's likely -- though not certain -- that Earth is close to another wholesale transformation, but when that will happen and whether it will be irreversible isn't clear.

"We know that at the landscape scale, if you disturb between 50 to 90 percent of patches, you see major changes in ones that you haven't disturbed directly," Barnosky said. "We know that we are at a point on the planet where you have more than 43 percent of the land surface wholesale transformed for human needs. If we transform more and more, we'll be at a point where even places we haven't transformed with our sledgehammers will go through major changes."

The researchers say there is a pressing need for better models and observations to help anticipate future changes and determine how close the planet is to a global tipping point.

The difficulty lies in developing methods to pinpoint the thresholds beyond which systems can flip from relative stability or slow, linear change to rapid transformation.

Scientists hope to reduce 'biological surprises'

 "We need to be able to anticipate what are the worst-case scenarios and develop work-arounds in time to actually work around them," Barnosky said. "What we don't want are huge biological surprises that affect how we grow our food or where we get our water."

The idea isn't new. In recent years, scientists who study the climate have argued that humans have changed it enough to push Earth into a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. Biologists have warned that accelerating rates of species loss suggest the planet is entering the sixth great extinction in its history, on par with the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

In 2009, another international team of scientists publishing a study in Nature attempted to lay out a series of seven "planetary boundaries" to preserve conditions in which humans can thrive -- and argued that the world has blown by three of those boundaries already.

"They're all pieces of the same puzzle," Barnosky said. "What's different about what we've come up with here is that we've looked at the past. We talk about the Anthropocene and all of these changes, but there hasn't really been a context to put it in."

The new study uses seven major, undisputed planetary shifts as its benchmarks: the transition 11,700 years ago from the last ice age to the current "interglacial" climate; the five mass extinctions that occurred 65 million, 200 million, 251 million, 359 million and 443 million years ago; and the Cambrian explosion 540 million years ago, when the number and type of species increased rapidly.

They tried to compare the forces currently reshaping the planet with the causes of those earlier planetary shifts.

They include the rapidly growing human population, which now stands at roughly 7 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2045 -- a factor that didn't play into events like the previous mass extinctions or the end of the previous ice age.

That surge in population is likely to multiply the stress from land-use change, freshwater depletion and climate change, the new paper says, unless humans wean themselves from fossil fuels, reduce the amount of land and water consumed per person, and protect yet-untouched parts of the land and oceans from future development.

U.N. report points to 'irreversible changes'

 Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University who did not contribute to the analysis, questioned the way Barnosky and his colleagues presented their results.

But Pimm agreed that the possibility of rapid, large-scale change is real.

"When you cut through all the unnecessary jargon and hype of tying this to obscure mathematics, they are saying we could be experiencing some significant changes, and they could be rapid. And they could be quite devastating," he said. "I think it's entirely plausible that could happen."

The new analysis comes as the U.N. Environment Programme issued its own report warning that Earth is undergoing unprecedented changes.

"As human pressures on the Earth system accelerate, several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded," UNEP's fifth Global Environmental Outlook says. "Once these have been passed, abrupt and possible irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur, with significant adverse implications for human well-being."

The analysis, released ahead of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development later this month in Rio de Janeiro, examines the world's progress toward achieving 90 environmental goals that have broad international agreement.

Humanity has made significant progress on just four of those goals, the report found. Climate change is among those for which no progress has been made.
Meanwhile, there are signs of "complex, non-linear changes" already at work in parts of the world, the report says -- such as increased incidence of malaria in areas where average temperatures have crossed the threshold that encourages the spread of mosquitoes that carry the disease.

But the situation is not hopeless, the UNEP analysis finds. It says the world is capable of meeting sustainability targets by the middle of the next century to improve human well-being and protect the environment.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

3,000 Years of Abusing Earth on a Global Scale



3,000 Years of Abusing Earth on a Global Scale


A new perspective emanating from archaeology and ecology suggests that humanity has spent thousands of years making widespread and profound changes to the "natural" world


GLOBAL REACH: New research suggests that humans have had a global environmental impact for at least 3,000 years.Image: NASA
Wherever you go on this blue, green and white globe of ours, odds are some person has been there before you—and left a mark. That's because the hunting, farming or burning practices of our most distant ancestors have shaped most land areas on the planet, argues an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and ecologists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If we are indeed living in the Anthropocene—a new geologic epoch brought on by the outsized environmental effects of the human species—then this new interval isn't just a few hundred years old, it is older than the industrial revolution.

The researchers set out to investigate just how long human being have been profoundly changing the environment on land. "This is a super important question for the identity of humanity," argues ecologist Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a co-author. "Are we the people who transformed the planet for hundreds of generations, or the people who just recently started destroying things?"

To answer that outstanding question the researchers started with a vast spread of archaeological and ecological data from around the world, particularly micro charcoal records from sediment cores. The charcoal delivers a long-term record of human burning, whether intentional or accidental, that coincides with the arrival of modern humans in a particular area. That arrival also often coincides with the extinction of large predators and large animals, generally.

But how exactly do humans impact a new environment? Scientists have used computer models that aim to estimate how quickly and how profoundly Homo sapiens change the landscape. One option estimates land use simply based on the number of humans around, assuming a minimum acreage required to support a person. The other model has humans relatively quickly sprawl through an entire area, but then contract to intensify land use in support of a larger but denser population. This might be dubbed the laziness principle—humans invest the least amount of work, technology or any other resource as possible to survive and even thrive, these researchers argue. "People are doing the easiest thing, knocking out top predators early on," Ellis explains. "There's a pretty big impact per person to make a living, [because people are] burning big swathes of forest just to make it easier to get some game."

According to this model, and the charcoal record where it is available, a relatively small number of humans began to transform most of the planet's land surface at least 3,000 years ago. "If people can get away with less work, they're going to do less work," says archaeologist Dorian Fuller of University College London, who also contributed to the research.

Take for example rice cultivation in Asia, developed some 6,000 years ago in the Yangtze River Valley but not adopted for another thousand years or so in areas of southern China and Southeast Asia. "You have relatively happy hunter-gatherer-fishers who don't want to put in the effort" to farm rice until population density requires it, Fuller explains.

As the human population swells—as seen in the record of fertilizer use in Europe and Asia—the resources then become more intensively used. This is not confined to agriculture; archaeologists find a similar intensification in the hunting patterns of Paleolithic Europeans after the decline of big game. These proto-Europeans began to hunt a wider range of smaller animals more intensively as well as developing the food preparation technology to extract more food from a larger array of sources. This idea further suggests that humanity has escaped time and time again from the Malthusian trap of population colliding with limited resources by transforming the relationship between human population and the environment through technology, whether through the invention of cooking or modern mechanized agriculture. Humanity simply applies technology to derive more from a given resource, whether it be copper or farmland.

That trend continues into the present day, the researchers argue. The most modern industrial agriculture focuses primarily on the best land it can get. The human population has shifted away from subsistence and low productivity agriculture, collecting in cities as fossil-fueled machines help fewer farmers work the land. "The next revolution is when the majority of people get into cities and are fed by a minority," Fuller explains. This process is already complete in industrialized countries where less than 1 percent of the population feeds the rest, but "we're not finished with that yet," in developing countries such as China and India, Fuller says. Peak farmland may be imminent.

If the human impact is longstanding and widespread, then the landscape is as much in recovery from past impacts as it is enduring new changes. Think of the cutting back of the Amazon rainforest—itself potentially a recovery from earlier, more intensive human use before the arrival of Europeans—versus the regrowth of the forests of the eastern U.S. In fact, the woodland ecosystems of Europe and South America commonly thought of as natural may be the legacy of prior human use. "Most of the forest have had people in them, interacting with them and transplanting species around for thousands of years," Fuller notes. "We have very little in the way of natural forests, which doesn't mean that we shouldn't be trying to reforest environments and have forests." After all, the modern phase of the Anthropocene may be the first time humans can choose intentionally what an appropriate level of impact might be.

Fully answering this question of how long the human impact on land has been widespread requires a broader global synthesis of the archaeological and paleoecological data on human population and land use. Most of that data is available—and has been examined—in a local rather than global context, such as the impacts of humans on the Yucatan Peninsula or Australia. Nevertheless, what data exists suggests that this is a "used planet," in the words of the authors. "We've been husbanding these biomes and creating our own types of ecologies—the cultivated lands, the rangelands—we've been doing this for a very long time," Ellis argues. "We've been living in that Anthropocene biosphere since prehistory."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Real Threat to Our Future is Peak Water


Published on Saturday, July 6, 2013 by The Observer

As population rises, overpumping means some nations have reached peak water, which threatens food supply

Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water. We can produce food without oil, but not without water.

Kansas's Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, during the worst drought in the United States in more than 50 years. (Photo: Jim Reed/Corbis)We drink on average four quarts (4.5 litres) of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 quarts of water to produce, or 500 times as much. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.

Grain consumed directly supplies nearly half of our calories. That consumed indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs supplies a large part of the remainder. Today roughly 40% of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land. It thus comes as no surprise that irrigation expansion has played a central role in tripling the world grain harvest over the last six decades.

During the last half of the 20th century, the world's irrigated area expanded from 232m acres (93m hectares) in 1950 to 706m in 2000. This tripling of world irrigation within 50 years was historically unique. But since then the growth in irrigation has come to a near standstill, expanding only 9% between 2000 and 2010.

Farmers get their irrigation water either from rivers or from underground aquifers. Historically, beginning with the Sumerians some 6,000 years ago, irrigation water came from building dams across rivers, creating reservoirs that then enabled them to divert the water onto the land through a network of gravity-fed canals. This method of irrigation prevailed until the mid 20th century, but with few remaining sites for building dams the prospects for expanding surface irrigation faded. Farmers then turned to drilling wells to tap underground water resources.

In doing so, they learned that there are two types of aquifers: those that are replenishable through rainfall, which are in the majority, and those that consist of water laid down eons ago, and thus do not recharge. The latter, known as fossil aquifers, include two strategically important ones, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain and the Ogallala aquifer under the US Western Great Plains.
In looking at water and our future, we face many questions and few answers. Could the world be facing peak water? Or has it already peaked?

Tapping underground water resources, which got seriously underway in the mid-20th century, helped expand world food production, but as the demand for grain continued climbing the amount of water pumped continued to grow. Eventually the extraction of water began to exceed the recharge rate of aquifers from precipitation, and water tables began to fall. In effect, overpumping creates a water-based food bubble, one that will burst when the aquifer is depleted and the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge from precipitation.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world's people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers – China, India, and the United States – and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.

During the last two decades, several of these countries have overpumped to the point that their aquifers are being depleted and their wells are going dry. They have passed not only peak water, but also peak grain production. Their aquifers are being depleted, their wells are going dry, and their grain harvests are shrinking. Among the countries whose use of water has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In these countries peak grain has followed peak water.

Nowhere are falling water tables and the shrinkage of irrigated agriculture more dramatic than in Saudi Arabia, a country as water-poor as it is oil-rich. After the Arab oil export embargo in 1975, the Saudis realised they were vulnerable to a counter-embargo on grain. To become self-sufficient in wheat, they developed a heavily subsidised irrigated agriculture based largely on pumping water from fossil aquifers.

After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the Saudis announced in early 2008 that, with their aquifers largely depleted, they would reduce wheat planting by one-eighth each year until 2016, when production would end. By then Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tons of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its Canada-sized population of 30 million. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

Syria, a country of 22 million people riddled by civil war, is also overpumping its underground water. Its grain production peaked in 2002 and during the decade since then has dropped 30%. It, too, is becoming heavily dependent on imported grain.

Grain production in neighbouring Iraq peaked in 2004. By 2012 it had dropped 33%, forcing the government to turn to the world market to feed its people. In addition to aquifer depletion, both Syria and Iraq are also suffering to a lesser degree from a reduced flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as upstream Turkey claims more water for its own use.

In Yemen, a nation of 23 million people that shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the water table is falling by roughly 4ft a year as water use outstrips aquifer recharge. With one of the world's fastest-growing populations and with water tables falling everywhere, Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basketcase. Grain production has fallen by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain. Living on borrowed water and borrowed time, Yemen could disintegrate into an area of tribes warring over water.
Thus in the Arab Middle East the world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

Other countries with much larger populations, such as Iran, Pakistan and Mexico, are also near or beyond peak water. In Iran, a country with 81 million people, grain production dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry. One quarter of its current grain harvest is based on overpumping. With its population growing by over a million per year, it too faces a day of reckoning.

Pakistan, with a population of 177 million that is growing by 4 million per year, is also mining its underground water. Most of its irrigation water comes from the Indus river system, but in the Pakistani part of the fertile Punjab plain the drop in water tables appears to be similar to the well-known fall that is occurring in India.

Observation wells near the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi showed a fall in the water table between 1982 and 2000 that ranged from 3ft to 6ft a year. In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, water tables around the capital, Quetta, are falling by 3.5m per year – pointing to the day when the city will run out of water. Sardar Riaz A. Khan, former director of Pakistan's Arid Zone Research Institute in Quetta, reports that six of Balochistan's seven basins have exhausted their groundwater supplies, leaving their irrigated lands barren.

In a World Bank study, water expert John Briscoe says: "Pakistan is already one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to degrade into outright water scarcity due to high population growth." He then notes that "the survival of a modern and growing Pakistan is threatened by water".

In Mexico – home to a population of 109 million that is projected to reach 129 million by 2050 – the demand for water is outstripping supply. Mexico City's water problems are well known. Rural areas are also suffering. In the agricultural state of Guanajuato, the water table is falling by 2m or more a year. In the northwestern state of Sonora, farmers once pumped water from the Hermosillo aquifer at a depth of 35ft. Today they pump from 400ft. Mexico's water supply appears to have peaked. Peak grain may be imminent.

Thus far only smaller countries have suffered a water-driven decline in grain harvests. Some midsize countries, such as Iran, Pakistan and Mexico, appear to be on the verge of doing so. But now aquifer depletion also threatens harvests in the big three grain producers – China, India and the United States – that together produce half of the world's grain. The question is not whether water shortages will affect future harvests in these countries, but rather when they will do so.

Among the big three, dependence on irrigation varies widely. Some four-fifths of China's grain harvest comes from irrigated land, most of it drawing on surface water. For India, three-fifths of its grain is irrigated, mostly with groundwater. For the United States, only one-fifth of the harvest is from irrigated land. The bulk of the grain crop is rain-fed, produced in the highly productive midwestern corn belt, where there is little or no irrigation.

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the United States as the wor1d's largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in 2001 indicated that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country's wheat and a third of its corn, was falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well-drillers to turn to the region's deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.
The survey reported that under Hebei province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 10ft per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. He Qingcheng, head of the groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer is depleted the region is losing its last water reserve – its only safety cushion.
In 2010, He Qingcheng reported that Beijing was drilling down 1,000ft to reach an aquifer, five times deeper than 20 years ago. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China's water situation that foresees "catastrophic consequences for future generations" unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more alarming in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. In India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year, irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. And since there are no restrictions on well drilling, farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water.

In this global epicentre of well drilling, pumps powered by heavily subsidised electricity are dropping water tables at an accelerating rate. Among the states most affected are Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south. In north Gujarat, the water tables are falling by 20ft per year.

In Tamil Nadu, a state of 72 million people, falling water tables are drying up wells everywhere. Kuponlari Palanisamy of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University reports that falling water tables have dried up 95% of the wells owned by small farmers, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the last decade.

India's grain harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but in part for the wrong reason, namely massive overpumping. A 2005 World Bank study reports that 15% of India's food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million Indians are now fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water. As early as 2004, Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that "half of India's traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometre."

As India's water table falls, well drillers are using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water, going down a half mile or more in some locations. In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is now rainfed and drinking water must be trucked in. Tushaar Shah, who heads the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station in Gujarat, says of India's water situation: "When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India."
In the United States, farmers are over-pumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. In these states, irrigation has not only raised wheat yields but it has also enabled a shift from wheat to corn, a much higher-yielding crop. Kansas, for example, long known as the leading wheat state, now produces more corn than wheat.

Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions.

In the states that draw their irrigation water from the Ogallala aquifer, wells are starting to go dry. In Texas, a large grain and cattle state, which is located on the shallow end of the aquifer, irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma, irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska, now also a leading corn-producing state, saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%. Even though aquifer depletion is reducing grain output in several key states, it is not yet sufficient to reduce the overall US grain harvest, the bulk of which is produced in the rain-fed midwestern corn belt.

At the international level, water conflicts, such as the one in the Nile river basin between Egypt and the upstream countries, dominate the headlines. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply as aquifers are pumped dry, but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. In large areas of the United States, such as the southern great plains and the southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. As the value of water rises, more farmers are selling their irrigation rights to cities, letting their land dry up.
In the western United States, hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Half or more of all sales are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities. Felicity Barringer, writing in the New York Times from California's Imperial Valley, notes that many fear that "a century after Colorado river water allowed this land to be a Cornucopia, unfettered urban water transfers could turn it back into a desert".

In June, 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that the farmers in California's highly productive Imperial Valley had agreed to sell a massive quantity of irrigation water to San Diego county. This sale of water, enough to meet the household needs of nearly one million people, is the largest farm-to-city transfer of water in US history. It will dramatically reduce food production in the Imperial Valley, a huge vegetable garden not only for California, but for countless other markets as well.
Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the wor1d's most active water markets. Cities and towns of all sizes are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas river basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one-third of the basin's farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 19,000 acres of cropland in the Arkansas valley. The US Geological Survey estimates that 400,000 acres of farmland dried up statewide between 2000 and 2005.

Colorado is not alone in losing irrigation water. Farmers in India are also losing their irrigation water to cities. This is strikingly evident in Chennai [formerly Madras], a city of 9 million on the east coast. As a result of the city government's inability to supply water to many of its residents, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from nearby farmers and hauls it to the city's thirsty residents.

For farmers near cities, the market price of water typically far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately the 13,000 privately owned tank trucks hauling water to Chennai are mining the region's underground water resources. As water tables fall, eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving rural communities of both their food supply and their livelihood.

In the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, farmers always lose. The economics do not favour agriculture. In countries such as China, where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the water supply.
In countries where virtually all water has been claimed, cities can ty
pically get more water only by taking it from irrigation. Countries then import grain to offset the loss of irrigated grain production. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Thus trading in grain futures is, in a sense, trading in water futures. To the extent that there is a world water market, it is embodied in the world grain market. We can now see how overpumping, whether in the Arab Middle East or the US great plains, can lead to aquifer depletion and shrinking grain harvests. In short, peak water can lead to peak grain. For some countries this is no longer merely a theoretical possibility. It is a reality.

Thus far, aquifer depletion has translated into shrinking harvests only in smaller countries in the Middle East. When we look at middle-sized countries such as Iran, Mexico and Pakistan, with tightening water supplies, we see that Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind. In Mexico the water supply may have already peaked. With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest.

In summarising prospects for the three big grain producers – the US, China and India – we see sharp contrasts. In the US, the irrigated area is starting to shrink largely as a result of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer , making it more difficult to continue increasing grain production.

China, with four-fifths of its grain harvest coming from irrigated land, relies heavily on irrigation, but it is largely river water. A notable exception to this is the all-important North China Plain which relies heavily on underground water. With tight water supplies in northern China and with cities claiming more irrigation water, the shrinking water supply will likely reduce the harvest in some local situations. And before long it could more than offset production gains leading to an absolute decline in China's grtain harvest.

Of the big three countries, the one most vulnerable to overpumping is India. Three-fifths of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. And since only a small portion of its irrigation water comes from rivers, India is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water. Its 21m wells, each powered with a diesel engine or electric motor, are dropping the water table at an alarming rate.

The Indian government, recognising the political significance of its falling water tables, has classified data on aquifer depletion, refusing to make it public. India may have already passed peak water. The question is, will peak water be followed by peak grain or is there enough unrealised technological potential remaining to raise yields enough to offset any imminent losses from wells going dry?
The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. There is a large area of land that could produce food if water were available. Water scarcity is not our only challenge. Two huge new dustbowls are forming , one in northwest China and the other in the Sahelian region of Africa. These giant dustbowls dwarf the US dustbowl of the 1930s.

Just as harvests are shrinking in some countries because of aquifer depletion, they are shrinking in other countries because of soil erosion. Among the more dramatic examples are Mongolia and Lesotho, which have both seen their grain harvests shrink by half in recent decades as a result of soil erosion.

The bottom line is that water constraints augmented by soil erosion, the loss of cropland, a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology, and climate change are making it more difficult to expand world food production. Is it possible that the negative influences on future food production could offset the positive ones during this second decade of the century?

EPA’s Abandoned Wyoming Fracking Study One Retreat of Many

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By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.

In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wy. – the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.

The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.

Industry advocates say the EPA's turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:

·      Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.

·      Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.

·      Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.

·      Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.

"We're seeing a pattern that is of great concern," said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation."
The EPA says that the string of decisions is not related, and the Pavillion matter will be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing, which it says will draw the definitive line on fracking's risks to water.

In private conversations, however, high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill – as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House -- is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well.

Last year, the agency's budget was sliced 17 percent, to below 1998 levels. Sequestration forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion harder to fund.

One reflection of the intense political spotlight on the agency: In May, Senate Republicans boycotted a vote on President Obama's nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, after asking her to answer more than 1,000 questions on regulatory and policy concerns, including energy. 

The Pavillion study touched a particular nerve for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the former ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

According to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Inhofe demanded repeated briefings from EPA officials on fracking initiatives and barraged the agency with questions on its expenditures in Pavillion, down to how many dollars it paid a lab to check water samples for a particular contaminant.

He also wrote a letter to the EPA's top administrator calling a draft report that concluded fracking likely helped pollute Pavillion's drinking water "unsubstantiated" and pillorying it as part of an "Administration-wide effort to hinder and unnecessarily regulate hydraulic fracturing on the federal level." He called for the EPA's inspector general to open an investigation into the agency's actions related to fracking.

When the EPA announced it would end its research in Pavillion, Inhofe – whose office did not respond to questions from ProPublica -- was quick to applaud.

"EPA thought it had a rock solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, WY, but we knew all along that the science was not there," Inhofe said in a press release issued the day of the announcement.

Others, however, wonder whether a gun-shy EPA is capable of answering the pressing question of whether the nation's natural gas boom will also bring a wave of environmental harm. 

"The EPA has just put a ‘kick me' sign on it," John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog in response to the EPA news about Pavillion. "Its critics from all quarters will now oblige."


Before fracking became the subject of a high-stakes national debate, federal agencies appeared to be moving aggressively to study whether the drilling technique was connected to mounting complaints of water pollution and health problems near well sites nationwide.

As some states began to strengthen regulations for fracking, the federal government prepared to issue rules for how wells would be fracked on lands it directly controlled.

The EPA also launched prominent scientific studies in Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, stepping into each case after residents voiced concerns that state environmental agencies had not properly examined problems.

The EPA probe in Pavillion began in 2008 with the aim of determining whether the town's water was safe to drink. The area was first drilled in 1960 and had been the site of extensive natural gas developmentsince the 1990's. Starting at about the same time, residents had complained of physical ailments and said their drinking water was black and tasted of chemicals.

The EPA conducted four rounds of sampling, first testing the water from more than 40 homes and later drilling two deep wells to test water from layers of earth that chemicals from farming and old oil and gas waste pits were unlikely to reach.

The sampling revealed oil, methane, arsenic, and metals including copper and vanadium – as well as other compounds --in shallow water wells. It also detected a trace of an obscure compound linked to materials used in fracking, called 2-butoxyethanol phosphate (2-BEp).

The deep-well tests showed benzene, at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols -- another dangerous human carcinogen -- acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel, which seemed to show that man-made pollutants had found their way deep into the cracks of the earth. In all, EPA detected 13 different compounds in the deep aquifer that it said were often used with hydraulic fracturing processes, including 2-Butoxyethanol, a close relation to the 2-BEp found near the surface.[1]

The agency issued a draft report in 2011 stating that while some of the pollution in the shallow water wells was likely the result of seepage from old waste pits nearby, the array of chemicals found in the deep test wells was "the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field."

The report triggered a hailstorm of criticism not only from the drilling industry, but from state oil and gas regulators, who disagreed with the EPA's interpretation of its data. They raised serious questions about the EPA's methodology and the materials they used, postulating that contaminants found in deep-well samples could have been put there by the agency itself in the testing process.
In response, the EPA agreed to more testing and repeatedly extended the comment period on its study, delaying the peer review process.

Agency officials insist their data was correct, but the EPA's decision to withdraw from Pavillion means the peer-review process won't go forward and the findings in the draft report will never become final.

"We stand by what our data said," an EPA spokesperson told ProPublica after the June 20 announcement, "but I do think there is a difference between data and conclusions."
Wyoming officials say they will launch another year-long investigation to reach their own conclusions about Pavillion's water.

Meanwhile, local residents remain suspended in a strange limbo.

While controversy has swirled around the deep well test results -- and critics have hailed the agency's retreat as an admission that it could not defend its science -- the shallow well contamination and waste pits have been all but forgotten.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal government's main agency for evaluating health risk from pollution, has advised Pavillion residents not to bathe, cook with, or drink the water flowing from their taps. Some have reported worsening health conditions they suspect are related to the pollution. They are being provided temporary drinking water from the state in large cisterns.


The EPA opened its inquiry in Dimock, Pa., after residents provided it with private water tests detecting contaminants and complained that state regulators weren't doing enough to investigate the cause.

When an elderly woman's water well exploded on New Year's morning in 2009, Pennsylvania officials discovered pervasive methane contamination in the well water of 18 homes and linked it to bad casing and cementing in gas company wells. In 2010, they took a series of steps against the drilling company involved, citing it for regulatory violations, barring it from new drilling until it proved its wells would not leak and requiring it to temporarily supply water to affected homes.
But residents said state officials hadn't investigated whether the drilling was responsible for the chemicals in their water. The EPA stepped in to find out if residents could trust the water to be safe after the drilling company stopped bringing replacement supplies.

Starting in early 2012, federal officials tested water in more than five dozen homes for pollutants, finding hazardous levels of barium, arsenic and magnesium, all compounds that can occur naturally, and minute amounts of other contaminants, including several known to cause cancer.

Still, the concentration of pollutants was not high enough to exceed safe drinking water standards in most of the homes, the EPA found (in five homes, filtering systems were installed to address concerns). Moreover, none of the contaminants – except methane -- pointed clearly to drilling. The EPA ended its investigation that July.

Critics pointed to the Dimock investigation as a classic example of the EPA being overly aggressive on fracking and then being proven wrong.

Yet, as in Pavillion, the agency concluded its inquiry without following through on the essential question of whether Dimock residents face an ongoing risk from too much methane, which is not considered unsafe to drink, but can produce fumes that lead to explosions.

The EPA also never addressed whether drilling – and perhaps the pressure of fracking – had contributed to moving methane up through cracks in the earth into their water wells.

As drilling has resumed in Dimock, so have reports of ongoing methane leaks. On June 24, the National Academy of Sciences published a report by Duke University researchers that underscored a link between the methane contamination in water in Dimock and across the Marcellus shale, and the gas wells being drilled deep below.

The gas industry maintains that methane is naturally occurring and, according to a response issued by the industry group Energy In Depth after the release of the Duke research, "there's still no evidence of hydraulic fracturing fluids migrating from depth to contaminate aquifers."


In opening an inquiry in Parker County, Texas, in late 2010, the EPA examined a question similar to the one it faced in Dimock: Was a driller responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' water wells?

This time, though, tests conducted by a geologist hired by the agency appeared to confirm that the methane in the wells had resulted from drilling, rather than occurring naturally.

"The methane that was coming out of that well … was about as close a match as you are going to find," said the consultant, Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and expert in unconventional oil and gas who has been a member of both the EPA's Science Advisory Board for hydraulic fracturing, and a National Research Council committee to examine coalbed methane development.

The EPA issued an "imminent and substantial endangerment order" forcing Range Resources, the company it suspected of being responsible, to take immediate action to address the contamination.
But once again, the EPA's actions ignited an explosive response from the oil and gas industry, and a sharp rebuke from Texas state officials, who insisted that their own data and analysis proved Range had done no harm.

According to the environmental news site Energy Wire, Ed Rendell, the former Governor of Pennsylvania, whose law firm lobbies on behalf of energy companies, also took up Range's case with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Internal EPA emails used in the EnergyWire report and also obtained by ProPublica discuss Rendell's meeting with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, though Range has denied it employed Rendell to argue on its behalf. Neither the EPA nor Rendell responded to a request for comment on the Parker County case.

In March 2012, the EPA dropped its case against Range without explanation. Its administrator in Texas at the time had been assailed for making comments that seemed to show an anti-industry bias. He subsequently lost his job. An Associated Press investigation found that the EPA abandoned its inquiry after Range threatened not to cooperate with the EPA on its other drilling-related research.
Agency critics see a lack of will, rather than a lack of evidence, in the EPA's approach in Parker County and elsewhere.

"It would be one thing if these were isolated incidents," said Alan Septoff, communications director for Earthworks, an environmental group opposed to fracking. "But every time the EPA has come up with something damning, somehow, something magically has occurred to have them walk it back."


So where does this leave the EPA's remaining research into the effects of fracking?
The agency has joined with the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Interior to study the environmental risks of developing unconventional fuels such as shale gas, but those involved in the collaboration say that little has happened.

That leaves the EPA's highly anticipated national study on hydraulic fracturing.

When the EPA announced it was ending its research in Pavillion, it pointed to this study as a "major research program."

"The agency will look to the results of this program as the basis for its scientific conclusions and recommendations on hydraulic fracturing," it said in a statement issued in partnership with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

That national study will concentrate on five case studies in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota and Colorado.

It will not, however, focus on Pavillion or Parker County or Dimock.

Nor will it devote much attention to places like Sublette County, Wy., where state and federal agencies have found both aquifer contamination and that drilling has caused dangerous levels of emissions and ozone pollution.

It will be a long time before the EPA's national study can inform the debate over fracking. While the agency has promised a draft by late 2014, it warned last month that no one should expect to read the final version before sometime in 2016, the last full year of President Obama's term.