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Final installment of a series examining the impacts of a “dewatering system” on an eco-system. The series began with “We have met the enemy and he is us” This post introduces the topic of the impacts of a “dewatering system” on the infrastructure of a city. Part II “It’s all related” continues the discussion with the impacts on water and rivers. Part III of the series “What watt?” looks at the direct and indirect energy use resulting from the installation of the system and the resulting CO2 emissions.

PVC or Polyvinyl Chloride seems to be everywhere these days. It’s in everything from electric wires, to toys, to portable electronic devices and of course pipes. The “dewatering system” installed underneath the new 1,000 Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis consists of almost 5,000 feet of PVC pipes. These pipes are used to gather the naturally occurring groundwater and funnel it to the sump basins where it is then pumped into the Indianapolis sewer system.

PVC has been the subject of a lot of attention since its first commercial uses in the 20’s and 30’s. Throughout its lifecycle (manufacturing, use, and disposal), it has been linked to various health issues including cancer, birth defects and reproductive impairment. Many of the environmental and health issues stem from the additives used to soften the normally rigid material.

During the manufacturing process workers exposed to the vinyl chloride face an increased risk of cancer of various types. Since the link between the vinyl chloride and the cancer in workers was discovered in the 1970’s, changes in the manufacturing process have virtually eliminated the exposure to the workers. Virtually eliminated…I don’t know about you, but virtually eliminated does not make ME feel warm and fuzzy, nor does it make me want to go to work in one of those factories. However, the danger does not stop at the factory doors. The EPA found “vinyl chloride emissions from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plants cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to result in an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible, or incapacitating reversible illness. Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen that causes a rare cancer of the liver.”

Another problem with PVC is its tendency to leach and off-gas its chemicals. Leaching is a process by which the carcinogens and other poisons transfer to other things that come in contact with them. This was discovered to be a significant problem in such things as soft toys that would be chewed on by infants and even in (sorry mom) some adult “toys” as well. This has led to bans on various additives in some products. Studies have shown that chemicals in the PVC can even leach into water as it moves through a pipe. Off-gassing, is the process in which these poisons are released into the air. You know that new car smell? Yep, you guessed it…off-gassing! NOT a good thing. This has led to various manufacturers (Toyota, Nissan, Microsoft and others) to eliminate PVC from their products. It has also led to retailers either reducing the number of PVC products they carry or eliminating them altogether.

Finally, disposal…products made from PVC are very difficult to recycle. Since they are made up of various additives, the process to break down the material into useful components is costly, inefficient and only so successful. Most of the products made with PVC end up in being disposed of by the consumer, either by burning it with their trash, or throwing it away in their trash, where it might go to a municipal incinerator or to a landfill. What is significant about this is the fact that when burned, PVC releases all kinds of toxic chemicals into the air, like hydrogen chloride and dioxins. (Do you know how common landfill fires are?)

If all these things are wrong with PVC, why is it still in use? The answer is simple…it’s CHEAP! Human Health vs. the Dollar…now THAT discussion is a whole other BLOG!

Conclusion-

So dear reader, I hope you have stuck with me through this series of articles. I hope they underscore the synergistic nature of our environment and the need to consider ALL impacts when trying to solve an issue. What first looks like the fast, easy, and inexpensive way out may prove to be just the opposite. Finally, I hope they inspire you to get involved in your community by asking why things are done they way they are done and seeking better and better ways to live on this planet without killing it (and ourselves).

 

 

I must apologize to all my faithful readers; I’ve been silent now for a couple of weeks. Frankly, I’ve been stunned into silence by something I read. The Missouri River is sinking. Yes, sinking. In some areas between Nebraska and St. Louis the river is now 12 feet lower than it was 50 years ago, relatively the same amount of water, but the bottom of the river as “sunk”.

What stunned me was this…scientist and engineers are trying to figure why. Really? The word EROSION comes to mind, but what do I know. The article went on to say that the engineers are trying to figure out what to do about it. Really? Another word comes to mind…NOTHING!

Now, I love all rivers, but I have a special affinity to the Missouri River. This River, by most accounts is the longest river in the United States. It begins in the mountains of Montana and carves its way for over 2600 miles to the Mississippi. It is UP this river that Lewis and Clark and their men (and one woman and an infant) rowed, poled, pushed, and pulled their boats in an attempt to discover a northwest passage over 200 years ago. It is UP this river, that I myself, once planned to retrace their steps (or strokes as the case may be) in a canoe. Operative word is PLANNED, until an acquaintance from Kansas City exclaimed, “You are going to do WHAT on the Missouri River? Have you SEEN the Missouri River?”

The Missouri has cut its path across the western United States since the last ice age. During those thousands of years its channel has “wandered” across the plains, especially south of the Dakotas and into Missouri. What I mean by wandered is that it continues to cut new paths through the sandy soil. Lewis and Clark campsites that were on the north side of the river 200 years ago, are now on the south. Sections of river they traveled are now oxbow lakes. During their trip up the river the described countless times when the banks were caving in around them as the river eroded the backs, giant trees crashing into the water. Islands on which they camped on the way up stream where GONE three years later when they returned. They had been eroded away by the powerful current.

Aerial photographs of the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi show the color of the Mississippi changing to a muddy brown from all of the sand and silt being carried by the “Big Muddy”.

So, what has changed in 200 years? We have constructed six dams, impounding 35 % of the river. This prevents the river from flowing freely as it once did. This has had huge impacts on the down stream portions of the river. In addition, we have channelized the river by dredging (especially in the 700 hundred miles between Rulo, Nebraska and St. Louis, Missouri. We have constructed wing dykes, which force the water to the center of the channel, and we have constructed levees to protect our cities.

In a real sense, we have shackled the river and no longer allow it to wander. We continue to use its sands as a free source of sand for concrete and other uses. In the year 2000 alone 7.4 million tons of sand was dredged from the river for commercial uses and development.

Now, a sinking river does create an incredible set of complex problems ( imagine a bridge pylon that was buried 16 feet into the river bottom and now is only buried 8 feet), but does anybody else out there see the correlation or is it just me. We have strangled the river, forced it into a channel, stolen its resources for concrete and yet, we are mystified as to why it is sinking?

Now, what do about it? Imagine, if you will, the discussion a couple of kazillion years ago as the Colorado River began to cut its way through the soft rock of the Arizona desert. “Gosh, do you think we should do something about it? Maybe if we divert some of the water, it won’t wash away the village. Maybe we could line the bottom of the river with those big hard rocks and it won’t wash them away. OrOR, MAYBE WE SHOULD JUST MOVE THE TEEPEE TO A SAFER LOCATION!”

So when ARE we going to learn that you really can’t mess with Mother Nature; you can’t REALLY control a river; you can’t really prevent a flood; when you build in a flood plain you are just asking to get wet? My vote is, move the bridges, don’t move the river!

Ever since I accompanied my son’s youth group on a canoe trip in Ontario, Canada in the early 90’s, I have been passionate about rivers. While I don’t always make it out on the water as often as I would like, I always make it a point to canoe several times a year and, at the very least, stop to watch rivers in our area as often as I can.  There is something about the peacefulness, the solitude, the simpleness of dipping a paddle in the flowing water that helps to make the world make sense. There is something about the power, the roar, the magnitude of a river as it crashes and pounds its way through a canyon that creates a sense of awe and wonder. For years I have claimed a river to be my place of worship. In fact, for my mother’s 74th birthday I invited her to visit my “church”. We canoed for 10 miles on a perfect autumn day…and yes, she paddled the entire way.

It was through rivers and such organizations as American Rivers and Riverkeepers, that I first became involved in environmental issues so it seems fitting to begin with a discussion about water and rivers.

It has been said that water will be the next oil and that whomever controls the water, will control the money and power. Throughout history water and water rights have been the catalyst for disagreements, arguments, fights and even wars. You only have to look as far as Georgia and Tennessee to see the importance of water rights even today. Due to the recent droughts in the south eastern United States, water has become like gold and has prompted Georgia to lay claim to 150 square miles of Tennessee based on a border dispute dating back to the early 1800’s. Not so coincidentally, a portion of the Tennessee River flows through this territory. Having this piece of land and the water rights that would accompany it would be very beneficial to the state of Georgia. In another case, South Carolina has sued North Carolina over the amount of water the latter pulls from the Catawba River, a river which tops the American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers List.

As droughts grip portions of the country and perhaps become even more prevalent in the years to come, conservation of our water resources will become more and more important. I was very glad to see that the US Green Building Council increased its emphasis on Water Efficiency in the new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System for Existing Buildings. To me this validates an increased awareness.

Water conservation can have a positive impact on our rivers and streams in several different ways.

  • First, reducing the amount of water we use reduces the amount of water that needs to be drawn from our rivers and streams. You only need to look at the Colorado River and observe the trickle of water that now makes south into Mexico to see the impact of drawing too much water from a river.
  • Second, most of the water that is used is flushed back out into our rivers and streams adding pollution in the form of chemicals, garbage and human waste. A significant portion of our rivers are unsafe to drink from, fish from or swim in due in large part to this overflow.
  • Third, the embodied energy to pump and process this water adds to our overall energy usage which contributes to carbon emissions.
  • Fourth, we the consumers pay for the costs to pump, process, store and to building the infrastructure to support these activities in the form of utility, sewer and tax bills.
  • And last but not least, there is evidence that the continued draw of water followed by the flush of water back into the rivers is causing the them to “age” faster. The change in water flow is increasing erosion and sedimentation of the rivers which restricts the flow, may lead to increased flooding, and harms the wildlife that depend on the waters. Like the effect cholesterol has on our blood vessels, this sedimentation has the same effect on our rivers and streams.

A thought occurred to me while my wife and I were discussing ways to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle around our house. Several years ago my wife and I bought an RV so we could follow the Lewis and Clark Trail across the country. For those not familiar with RVing one of the great things about it is being “self contained”. You take your water and all your “facilities” with you. You can then park just about any where and camp. What you learn very quickly, is that you are limited in how long you can be “self contained” by, of all things, water.

An RV has three tanks (basically); the fresh water tank holds all your potable water for drinking, cooking, washing, showering and flushing; the gray water tank holds all of the waste water from the sinks and showers and the black water tank holds the flushed water. When either the fresh water runs out, or the gray or black tanks fill up you have to pack up, move the RV and dump the tanks and fill the fresh water. Because our RV and its takes are relatively small, we have learned to adapt.

When washing dishes for example, we get the dishes wet then turn off the water. We then scrub a sink full of dishes at a time before rinsing them. This method uses very little water. We use a similar concept when showering…get an area wet, turn off the water, soap it up, then rinse it. We find that even little things, like brushing our teeth are done with as little water as possible.

So, back to the thought I mentioned, I wonder if it would be possible to change our living habits to incorporate this minimalistic approach to using water in our day to day lives. I have started with turning the water off while brushing my teeth. Seems simple enough, yet a surprisingly difficult habit to break. Its a way to start, I think. Maybe we will try an “RV Week” and try use as little water as possible during the week. It will be interesting to measure the impact of just one week on our water consumption.