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Your Caffeine Habit May Be Harming Waterways, Wildlife

The Challenge of Measuring Groundwater in California’s
Central Valley

A new study estimates that around 9.5 cubic miles of groundwater was pumped from the region during the state’s five-year drought to make up the shortage from surface water supplies.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Jun. 2, 2017 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

California drought groundwater wellsEven after California's surface drought ended, the groundwater drought continues. From 2012 to 2016, the Central Valley lost around 40 cubic kilometers of groundwater.AP/Rich Pedroncelli, File

During droughts, groundwater pumping is increased to make up for losses from surface water. This is especially true in California’s Central Valley, which stretches roughly 400 miles from Redding to just south of Bakersfield, and is the heart of the state’s $47 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

For decades, many parts of the Central Valley aquifer have been overdrafted, but recent work by scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Houston have attempted to put a more precise number on how much water is being pumped.

They found that over the past five years of drought, California withdrew 9.5 cubic miles of groundwater – around seven times the amount of water in Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, also estimated that during another drought, from 2007 to 2009, the valley lost 4 cubic miles of groundwater. These numbers aren’t particularly surprising, said Dennis Lettenmaier, a professor of geography at UCLA and an author of the study. What is news, he said, is that the study puts numbers to something that is difficult, but important, to calculate. He points out that pumping up groundwater during a drought can make sense, but there needs to be a strategy for replenishing that resource.

Community water wells can run dry, Lettenmaier noted. “And there’s a practical issue with subsidence, the fact that the land drops” when water is extracted, he added. “It has been a problem in some parts of the Central Valley for a long time, but it certainly accelerated by the groundwater depletion.”

The Central Valley groundwater basin is the region’s largest single source of water. It may hold more than 1 billion acre-feet of water, said Thomas Harter, a professor of hydrology at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study. Water from rain, irrigation and surface water can soak into the ground and replenish this underground aquifer, but, in dry years, the state might pump 5 to 7 million acre-feet more groundwater than is being replenished by the natural system. In wet years, though, California probably only refills aquifers by 1 to 5 million acre-feet.


This Dec. 22, 2015, photograph shows a buckle in the lining of the Delta Mendota Canal near Dos Palos, California, caused by sinking land. Years of drought and heavy reliance on pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down California’s Central Valley, requiring repairs to infrastructure that experts say are costing billions of dollars. (AP/Scott Smith)

“So, you need a number of these above-average wet years to make up for a long drought like what we had in the last five years,” said Harter. “Until we’ve had those, the drought, from a groundwater perspective, isn’t really over.”

One way to measure this loss in underground water is by looking at changes in gravity. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) uses satellites to detect gravitational changes in an area of land. As water is pumped out of the ground, the loss of mass decreases the area’s gravitational pull, and GRACE can estimate how much was lost.

But the system’s resolution is large, and the readings can often include more than the valley.

So Lettenmaier and the other researchers looked at both GRACE data and calculated groundwater levels over time using the “water balance method,” which estimates groundwater based on how much water flows into an area, and how much leaves it. It’s analogous to estimating the amount of water in a bathtub by comparing the water pouring in from the tap to what’s flowing down the drain, Lettenmaier said. But it’s a little more complicated than that, and the researchers had to make some assumptions, like how much water was lost through evapotranspiration. So although it has a better resolution than GRACE, it has “a host of different uncertainties,” said Lettenmaier.

Still, despite such limitations, GRACE and water balance method results matched surprisingly well – both showed about the same amount of groundwater lost during the droughts. However, between the droughts there was some discrepancy. The researchers estimated that the Central Valley recovered around 5 cubic miles of groundwater from 2009 to 2012 – substantial, though not enough to make up for the overdraft created during the 2007 to 2009 drought. GRACE, meanwhile, showed no recovery at all.

Lettenmaier said that he doesn’t know exactly why those numbers don’t reconcile.

Still, the new study was an important step towards understanding Central Valley groundwater, said Peter Gleick, president emeritus and chief scientist of the Pacific Institute, and a reviewer on the paper. Now, he said, these numbers need to be refined. For one, he’d like to see an increase in resolution from GRACE.

“It would be nice to have more detail about the southern San Joaquin, versus the central part of the San Joaquin, versus the northern part of the San Joaquin,” said Gleick. “The Central Valley is not a single aquifer; it is many different groundwater basins, and ultimately every one of them has to be evaluated separately.”

Increased resolution isn’t currently possible, said Carmen Boening, a project scientist on GRACE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it is something that NASA is working on for the next version, called GRACE Follow On, to launch in late 2017 or early 2018.

As for water balancing, Gleick said that what researchers like Lettenmaier really need is more data.

“Ideally, we need to measure, monitor and report every use of groundwater,” said Gleick. “That’s the first step towards sustainable management, and we’re moving forward too slowly in that direction.”

Recent testing has found low levels of caffeine, even in relatively remote waterways around the West. Studies show it may be harmful to some wildlife species, but more research is needed.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Jun. 5, 2017 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Fall homes coffee
America's appetite for coffee may be getting so great that it's beginning to impact water quality. Numerous recent studies have found low levels of caffeine in coastal seawater, remote mountain creeks and other surprising locations. Peter Higgins, tasting room manager at Parlor Coffee, pours hot water over ground coffee during a coffee tasting, known as a cupping, in Brooklyn, New York, in July 2016.
Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press

What would we do without caffeine? Millions of Americans rely on it in coffee, tea and energy drinks to prepare for a day at work, keep focused on a long drive or simply stay awake after a big lunch.

But a dark side to the world’s most popular legal stimulant is slowly emerging.

It turns out that our bodies don’t absorb all the caffeine we consume. Some gets expelled in our urine and ends up entering sewage systems or the environment, posing a threat to wildlife.

Sewage treatment plants generally do a good job removing caffeine, and the treated wastewater they release back to the environment is generally free of it.

But in a number of recent studies, caffeine has been detected in water sampled from remote streams – far from urban areas and sewer systems. This suggests our appetite for caffeine has crossed some unseen threshold, and is beginning to impact the environment.

There are no natural sources of caffeine in North America. So any found in water samples surely came from humans, whether in beverages, food or pharmaceuticals. That’s one result of a study recently conducted by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“When we started getting results, we realized it’s way more prevalent than just from leaky sewer lines and septic systems,” said Carey Nagoda, a water resource control engineer for the water board. “So that was kind of a puzzle.”

Nagoda analyzed nearly 100 water samples over a seven-year period from throughout San Diego County and part of Orange County. They came from a range of sites encompassing raw sewage and treated wastewater in urban areas, as well as streams in remote open-space areas where there is no human development.


Cedar Creek Falls, a popular hiking destination in Cleveland National Forest, is one area where the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has detected caffeine in the water. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

The results, presented at the water board’s February meeting, showed that samples from urban areas tested positive for caffeine, which was not surprising, Nagoda said. Samples from untreated (raw) sewage contained between 0.052 and 8.5 micrograms per liter, while those taken near active septic systems ranged from 0.029 to 1.19micrograms per liter.

What did surprise her was that more than one-third of the samples from open-space areas tested positive for caffeine. The samples from these areas ranged from 0.032 to 0.662 micrograms per liter, or similar to those samples taken near septic systems.

“We were completely shocked by that,” Nagoda said. “What really ended up falling out was that the areas known for high recreational use – like fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping – were the ones that had caffeine hits.”

This suggests visitors in these areas may not practicing good habits, whether by urinating too close to streams or leaving waste behind.

The results also suggest that other contaminants found in human waste, such as pharmaceuticals and pathogens, could be polluting these areas..

For several years, water quality officials have used caffeine as a “marker” in water sampling. When they find caffeine in a sample, it usually means a leaking sewer line nearby, and it’s often associated with more harmful pollutants in sewage.

Caffeine has also been detected at remote locations in Oregon. In a 2012 study of coastal pollution, caffeine was found in beach waters near urban areas, and in coastal streams and estuaries. The highest concentrations, however, were found not near urban areas but in more remote coastal areas. These samples showed around .045 micrograms per liter – at the low end of the range found in remote areas of San Diego County.

That indicates poor-performing septic systems in rural areas, said Elise Granek, the study’s lead author and a marine ecologist at Portland State University.

Numerous studies have shown that caffeine is toxic to a variety of wildlife at high concentrations. The effects are less clear in cases of continual exposure at low levels – like those documented in nature by Granek and Nagoda – because little research has been done in this area. So far, clear toxic thresholds have yet to be firmly established.

In a separate study by graduate student Zoe Rodriguez del Rey and overseen by Granek, a common species of near-shore mussel was exposed to low levels of caffeine, similar to those found in both the Oregon and San Diego water samples. The mussels initially expended energy producing a protein designed to protect their DNA.

At greater caffeine exposure levels – yet still within the range found in coastal water samples –— the mussels stopped producing the protective protein. As a result, they may have faced a risk of genetic mutation.

“They get so stressed out at a cellular level that they can’t protect their DNA with this protein,” Granek said.

Other research at UC Irvine found that caffeine in seawater may contribute to coral bleaching.

Granek planned to do followup studies to learn more about chronic effects on mussels. Ironically, ambient caffeine levels at her urban Portland lab made that impossible.

It so happens that a Starbucks coffee franchise sits directly across the street from Granek’s lab. Caffeine is so easily aerosolized, she said, that it became impossible to obtain reliable “control” (or clean) conditions in the lab as a baseline for the study.

She hopes other scientists are able to continue this kind of research.

“There are so many things that are stressing out organisms and ecosystems, it’s not on a lot of people’s radar to be looking at these [caffeine] compounds,” she said. “It seems like people focus on things that they think are sexier compounds, like Prozac.”

Currently, there are also no water-quality standards established for caffeine in wastewater effluent.

So, what’s a caffeine-lover to do? An easy starting point is to adopt better waste disposal habits, says Helen Yu, a water resources control engineer at the San Diego water board, who is studying caffeine and other contaminants in the Tijuana River.

For instance, don’t dump leftover caffeine beverages or containers where they could enter streams or storm drains. And when enjoying the outdoors, exercise proper bathroom practices. That means using a designated restroom or outhouse whenever available. If that’s not possible, choose a proper site at least 200 feet from any waterway.

“Residents should do their part to help reduce caffeine release to the environment,” said Yu. “The cumulative effect on ecosystem health is not known at this time.”