This wouldn’t be much of water resource blog if I failed to mention the catastrophe unfolding this week in Western Hungary. This one has “top ten water resource disasters in history” written all over it. Around noon on October 4, 184 million gallons of toxic aluminum production waste was released when a containment reservoir ruptured sending out a wave of sludge that flooded 15 square miles. Five people were killed and over a hundred injured as they tried to escape the sludge, which at times was over 6 feet deep. Anyone who came into contact with the substance was immediately burned by the red chemical mixture. Check out these photos from Boston.com:
Here’s a story I’ve been following for a while. It’s interesting because of the legal dispute but also because it’s emblematic of the larger issue of abandoned and unmaintained private dams. In this case, the dam in question is privately owned by Jerry and Georgia McGonigle of Hutchinson, Kansas. It’s a small dam that collects runoff and protects about 42 area homes from flooding. The problem is that the dam hasn’t been maintained over the past 30 years and now requires $1 million in repairs. Unfortunately, the McGonigles knew none of this when the bought the dam, along with 20 acres of property and a house, for $300,000 back in 2008. Now the city is telling them to fund the repairs, which they say will bankrupt them. The McGonigles claim that the dam repairs should be the city’s responsibility because the dam protects downstream developments that the city approved. They also claim they should not be held liable for 30 years of neglect because they’ve only owned the property for two.
The McGonigles’ argument hinges on a 1977 agreement made between the city and the prior owners of the property. The agreement specified that the city was solely responsible for the engineering design and construction of improvements to the dam, but whoever owns the property is responsible for maintenance. The dam was inspected by the city in 1993, 1997, and 1999 and all inspection reports criticized the dam for lack of maintenance. When the McGonigles purchased the home they were neither informed of the condition of the dam nor of the agreement with the city making them responsible for maintaining it. The question now is who is responsible for repairing the aging dam? The current owners, the city, or the prior owners?
The McGonigles have filed a claim with their title insurance company for failing to inform them about the agreement during a routine title check performed when they bought the property. In response, the title insurance company is suing the city, the McGonigles, and the prior owners claiming that, because the dam and lake are private, any agreements concerning their maintenance would not be reported in a title search and therefore would not be reported in a title search.
So, whose dam is this? The McGonigles would like nothing more than for the city to take responsibility for repairing and maintaining the dam but the city seems to be insisting that it’s a private structure. Obviously, there’s going to need to be a trial in order to sort all of this out and it’s a story I plan to keep watching. Also, watching closely are 42 homeowners who have been informed that their homes would suffer damage if the dam were to rupture; some of whom were planning to sell their homes before this fiasco frightened away potential buyers.
“Hutchinson homeowners surprised by $900,000 bill for dam” by Mary Clarkin
“Title firm sues over dam costs” by Mary Clarkin
In today’s edition of Drought Watch we check out conditions in the U.S. and then take a look at the rest of the world.
This week’s U.S. Drought Watch Winner is Central Louisiana, which has gone without rain for more than a month. What started out as a blessing – dry conditions for cotton picking this summer – is becoming a concern this fall as winter approaches and ground moisture has not been able to recharge for the next growing season. Local firefighters are also on alert as high winds combined with the dry conditions have caused multiple bushfires, typically caused by trash burning or the flicking of cigarettes into dry grass.
Globally, northeastern Russia continues to experience the worst drought the country has seen in at least 50 years, though Russia’s Grain Union has said the drought is the worst since record-keeping started 130 years ago. The country’s wheat farmers have been hit hardest as crop yields have fallen and the ongoing drought may mean that farmers will be unable to plant their winter crop.
Winters in Plant City, Florida can be a scary time of year. When the temperature drops below freezing, the strawberries in this self-proclaimed “winter strawberry capital of the world” get rowdy. Roads begin to buckle, schools are closed, and homes are swallowed up by the earth. The culprit? Sinkholes. Sinkholes caused by the 8,000 acres of strawberry fields surrounding the city.
Under normal circumstances, fields of strawberries are quite harmless. The problems start when near-freezing temperatures threaten the crop and farmers turn on the sprinklers. As the water freezes on the plants, it releases just enough energy to keep the plants themselves from freezing. That’s the risk of growing strawberries in Florida in winter; if the temperature drops too low you could lose your entire crop. Freezing that many strawberries, however, takes a lot of water — a lot more than you might think.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida says that each acre of berries needs 6,800 gallons an hour to coat crops in a protective layer of ice. That means a 20-acre farm can use 3.2 million gallons — the equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools — in 24 hours. It’s about the same amount of water used by the 32,000 residents of Plant City in a single day. With 8,000 acres of strawberries to cover in a 110-square mile area around the city, that’s over one billion gallons of water per day. [Source]
This past January the city got 11 straight days of near-freezing temperatures. Farmers ran sprinklers night and day with only occasional breaks. Billions of gallons of water were sucked up from the Floridian aquifer beneath the town. Pumping that much water out of the ground at once destabilizes the already sinkhole-prone Florida landscape. Sinkholes began appearing overnight in seemingly random locations around town.
Top Ten Worst Water Resource Disasters?
I’m starting this blog today because water is important to me. It’s important to you too. I’m sure you realize that, but you may not realize just how important it is. I’m sure you know that you need water to live and that plants need rain to grow but so many of us take it all for granted. Maybe because water easily and constantly flows through your tap, or because when drought destroys a crop in one part of the world another part of the world seems to effortlessly pick up the slack and your local grocery store hardly notices the difference. I hope this blog helps people to better understand how essential water is to life and how reckless human beings can be when trying to manage it and how dire the consequences can be when it is poorly managed and water is taken for granted.
I thought a good way to start this blog would be by writing a Top Ten list of the worst water resource disasters in history. A lofty goal since I’m still learning about the history of water myself, but certainly an eye-catching first post! However, as I began to compile my list, I ran into some snags. First, I needed to define “Water Resource disasters.” A water resource disaster (WRD) is different from a water disaster. Simply put, a WRD is not an act of God. A tsunami, an iceberg, floods caused by torrential rainfall, these are acts of God. They become WRDs when they are exacerbated or sometimes directly caused by human attempts to control water. A flood, for example, may occur when a poorly constructed dam breaks. A city may go without drinking water when a poorly maintained water line bursts. A WRD results from the severe misuse or wasting of a water resource to the point that it negatively impacts ecology or the continued use of that resource.
The line between an act of God and a man-made disaster is growing ever thinner. As scientists continue to better understand the effects of global warming, increases in extreme weather events may soon come to be seen as a result of governmental failures to reduce emissions and not as acts of God at all. However, it’s doubtful that governments of the world will ever be held liable for bigger, stronger, more frequent hurricanes or heavier than expected monsoons.
The Titanic vs. the Exxon Valdez
Once I started considering WRDs I quickly came upon the question of oil spills. Is an oil spill a water resource disaster? If the answer is yes, then my top ten list quickly starts to resemble a list of the top ten worst oil spills in history because, let’s face it, we’ve had some really horrible oil spills. Can an oil spill be considered an act of God or is allowing oil tankers to traverse through iceberg ridden waters near environmentally protected lands without functioning sonar, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez, a regulatory failure to properly assess the risks? The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg and resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people. Was this an Act of God or a WRD because White Star Line failed to provide enough lifeboats for its passengers?
In either case, the ocean is clearly a water resource used for transporting passengers and freight. However, I think we could all agree that Exxon Valdez feels more like a WRD than the sinking of the Titanic. I think the difference hinges on the long term ecological impacts of each disaster. While the Titanic was tragic, it did not result in a loss or reduction in the ability of others to utilize the resources of the ocean. In contrast, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez resulted in an oil spill that blanketed the pristine Alaskan coast damaging arctic habitats that may take up to 30 years to fully recover. The human cost of the Exxon Valdez may be more difficult to calculate because it occurred in such a remote location. However, you only have to look to the Gulf of Mexico to find examples of oil spills that have a devastating effect on both the environment and the economic well-being of thousands of communities that rely on the waters of the gulf for recreation, tourism, and fishing.
Fresh vs. Salty
In the end I decided that, though salt water is an important water resource, this blog will mainly focus on the potable variety. After all, as a civilization we spend a lot more time trying to control and manage our sources of potable water than we do trying to manage the ocean. This is especially true when you consider just how little potable water we have compared to how much time and money we spend trying to manage it. Below is a graph from Wikipedia. It gets right to point. It says the out of all the Earth’s water, only 3% is fresh. Out of that 3%, 68% is frozen at the Earth’s poles. 30% of our fresh water is sequestered in the ground leaving only 0.3% as easily accessible surface water. I don’t know about you, but when I consider how essential fresh water is to life on Earth and how little of it there is to go around and then think about the health of rivers and streams near my home, I get a bit concerned.
I think it’s a bit premature for me to make a top ten list of the worst water resource decisions but hopefully this blog will unveil a strong list of nominees for such a dubious honor. I plan on posting about both current water resource issues as well as taking a look back at the history of water use and hopefully see what we’ve learned.