Hot Weather Means Unhealthy Air, Even With Shutdown

Earlier this month we celebrated Southern California’s great air quality — with many caveats — but now, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it’s “Very Unhealthy” in some spots, even though we still have widespread shutdowns.

As you can see, as of midafternoon on April 29, people living in Rancho Cucamonga experienced “Very Unhealthy” (purple) air, whereas people in Santa Clarita and Corona had “Unhealthy” (red) air, followed by air that was “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (orange) in San Bernardino and Ontario.

Much of Los Angeles and Santa Monica was “Moderate” (yellow), while those in Long Beach seem blessed with the best air, at the moment.

Screenshot of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s hourly Air Quality Index, taken at 3:30 p.m. on April 29, 2020. (South Coast Air Quality Management District)

One of the biggest factors that’s changed between last month and now is the weather, a reliable determiner of bad air in L.A.

“When we have these warm heat spells in April or May, it’s not unusual to see some higher ozone levels,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer at South Coast AQMD for the Planning and Rules Division.

As it heats up we’re starting to get a clearer picture of our pollution problem.

That’s because the heat bakes emissions from planes, ships, construction sites, and cars that are all still operating, and turns them into smog. That’s why air quality tends to be worse during the hottest parts of the day.

It’s too early to tell exactly how widespread of an impact the shutdown is having on all sources of emissions (there are many). Fine estimates that there’s been a downtick of roughly 20% to 30% of traffic across the region.

It’s an interesting real-life emissions experiment that seems to make clear, if we want consistently clean air, that we’re going to need to go much further than a few electric cars and trucks on the road.

“We’ll be studying this probably for years to come,” said Fine.

Air quality should improve if emissions fall or we have a windy day that clears everything out.

Yosemite’s Pandemic Shutdown Allows Wildlife a Respite From Mankind

Coyotes are roaming empty campsites. Deer are grazing on empty fields. Rivers are rushing as the ice melts.

Yosemite National Park is virtually empty of humans.

For weeks now, wildlife has been allowed to move freely about the park since officials closed the mountains and valleys to humans to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can go for a run around a meadow and see deer and coyotes and hear the red wing blackbirds…and listen to the river from my bedroom window,” said Breezy Jackson, director of UC Merced’s Yosemite Field Station, where scientists normally conduct research and teach classes year-round. “I feel incredibly fortunate and well-placed to shelter the storm.”

Jackson has lived alone with her husband, Paul, in one of the station’s seven homes since stay-at-home orders took effect in March. A wildlife biologist who normally would be working with dozens of scientists, keeps watch on the site as a caretaker while her colleagues stay away.

Along with some residents and park rangers, Jackson is one of the few humans to stay inside the park since the shutdown.

“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Jackson said. “I get to enjoy the park with relatively few people around and be a steward of this place.”

Yosemite is usually a busy place. Last year, 4.5 million people visited Yosemite, ranking it at the National Park Service’s fifth most-visited park in the country.

Overcrowding also has been an increasing challenge, with hours long waits to enter the park. A normal day on an April weekend might draw 10,000 people.

But now, Yosemite’s empty, harkening back to an earlier time before humans invaded it.

For weeks since the park closed, Yosemite park rangers have posted videos on social media showing animals seeming to enjoy life without humans, wandering freely through campsites and on roads where normally they would find cars, hikers and danger.

The Yosemite Convervancy’s webcams have shown their online visitors deer and coyotes scampering through empty campsites, and bears enjoying open country. The nearly 85,000 webcam views in March doubled those from January and February. Clicks take viewers to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America; Half Dome; El Capitan; and the High Sierra.

“At any time of year, it’s fun to see Yosemite remotely from your house,” said Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which funds grants from donations to restore trails and habitat, protect wildlife and provide education programs. “You can get an actual live shot of what Yosemite is like – has it just snowed or is there a beautiful sunset.”

The “rewilding,” Dean said, is fun to see. Animals are reverting to their natural diets, not eating scraps.

In the weeks without humans, “roadkill” is down. Coyotes, squirrels and other animals aren’t being struck by cars, Jackson said.

“I’ve seen tons of wildlife lately, lots of coyotes,” Jackson said. “It feels like the animals are more present. There are a lot of deer right now because the grass is coming up. They seem completely at peace.”

Trash is also down, especially the toilet paper people have used and discarded, and left for ravens to unravel, Jackson said.

When the park will reopen is unknown, and when her colleagues will return is unclear.

Just last week, Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection.

“When we do allow research, what will that be like?” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the future.”

Plan to ‘revive’ Uranium Mining Called Unneeded, Unwanted by Advocates

PHOENIX – Environmentalists are blasting a Trump administration call for “bold action to revive and strengthen the uranium mining industry,” an industry whose history they say has left a “toxic trail” through the Grand Canyon.

They are responding to a report last week by the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group, which called for the government to support both uranium mining and nuclear power technology to preserve national security.

The first step in that plan is a proposal for $150 million in next year’s Energy Department’s budget to buy and stockpile U.S.-mined uranium, the report said.

“As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear energy enterprise,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a statement announcing the report. He said a lack of U.S. progress on nuclear energy and technology “has threatened our national interest and national security.”

Environmentalists say there is no need to protect a “sagging” uranium mining industry and fear the report will lead the administration to slash environmental laws and regulations to allow for more mining. That is a particular concern in northern Arizona where there are hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that still pose health risks, they said.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to past mining in the region and incentivize new mining on public lands without even fully remediating environmental and public health hazards already present,” Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said in a statement responding to the report.

O’Halleran said there are more than 520 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation alone. The Environmental Protection Agency cites health threats from waste rock piled outside those mines that can contaminate surface and groundwater, and winds that can carry radioactive dust into communities.

The Obama administration imposed a 20-year moratorium in 2012 on uranium mining on 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon, and the House last year passed a bill to make that ban law. But the bill has stalled in the Senate and the moratorium could be overturned by another administration.

Longtime uranium supporter Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, applauded the working group’s report, saying there is no reason the U.S. should be importing “over 90% of the uranium necessary for domestic reactors from hostile countries like China and Russia when we have an ample supply here at home.”

Gosar said domestic uranium production would create “good-paying jobs, especially right here in Arizona,” downplaying the threat of environmental risks.

“Unlike other countries around the world, the United States has some of the strictest environmental and labor standards in the world,” Gosar said in a statement. “We can develop these bountiful resources and conserve our environment at the same time.”

Taylor McKinnon, a senior public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said history proves otherwise.

“It’s egregious that anyone is considering new mining let alone federal purchasing of domestic uranium or other policy measures to expand uranium mining, when we still have hundreds and hundreds of abandoned mines that both industry and the federal government have left polluting out on the Navajo Nation,” he said.

Tribal areas have been particularly hard hit by uranium mining in northern Arizona. In this 2016 photo, Klee Benally, a Navajo and member of the group Clean Up the Mines, takes part in an anti-mining rally at EPA headquarters.(Photo by Danika Worthington/Cronkite News)

Steve Blackledge, a conservation director with Environment America, said one of the greatest challenges of uranium mining is lack of cleanup – “it’s just not enough,” he said. The EPA said that, regardless of how uranium is extracted from rock, the process leaves behind radioactive waste.

O’Halleran said that cancer diagnoses on or near the Navajo Nation are “extremely high” compared to the national average, which he said is due to direct uranium exposure from mining. The risk for miners is also high, with government studies cited by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing an increased risk of lung cancer and higher mortality rates from lung diseases.

“As a result, it has left a toxic trail all throughout the Grand Canyon,” Blackledge said. “So people who live in this area, people who drink the water, are being exposed still. These things stay radioactive for a long time.”

Since the Colorado River supplies water for 40 million Americans, Blackledge fears the potential downstream results of uranium pollution.

“Why strengthen the uranium mining industry knowing that it’s dirty and dangerous and leaves behind a toxic trail?” Blackledge said of the administration proposal.

Uranium mining is just the first step in the report, which also calls for advancing U.S. nuclear technology and regaining the country’s leadership in the global nuclear market to become the world’s “responsible nuclear energy partner of choice.”

The working group, established by President Donald Trump last year, called for ending U.S. reliance on other countries for uranium, “removing strategic vulnerabilities across the nuclear fuel cycle and restoring a world-class workforce to provide benefits to the U.S. and to compete in the international market.”

In McKinnon’s view, the report aims to create “an artificial, subsidized market” for uranium and ease access to uranium deposits on public lands by lifting public land protections and streamlining environmental laws, including requirements for public, environmental and tribal review.

“Uranium mining companies are much better at mining stockholders’ pocket books in the U.S. than they are actually mining ore,” he said.

Blackledge said there is no way uranium mines can exist while also conserving the environment and protecting public health because of toxic waste. And McKinnon said the biggest uranium deposits are not even in the U.S., with deposits near the Grand Canyon low-grade and non-competitive compared to other world resources.

McKinnon said the industry should not be rewarded while people still suffer from the impacts of past uranium mining pollution in the West.

“Industry’s failure to clean up its mess in the past lays bare its track record and warrants complete mistrust from the public going forward,” he said.

Worse Air Quality In Phoenix Communities Of Color Could Mean Higher COVID-19 Risk

As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.

COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.

And in the Phoenix area, air quality is very poor.

“Maricopa County is actually one of the most contaminated counties in the country,” said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa, a Latino-focused environmental organization.

Chispa has focused efforts on air pollution in the Valley for years, but Dent is especially concerned right now.

“In some of these harder-hit areas, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be even more exacerbated,” Dent said.

A new study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows exposure to air pollution worsens outcomes for COVID-19. An increase of just one-millionth of a gram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air increases the chance of death from the virus by 15%.

All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.

Air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Atkinson/KJZZ)

“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.

Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.

Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.

“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.

Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.

Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.

“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.

As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.

“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.

Race and location data on Arizona coronavirus cases is still incomplete. But Davis fears lower income communities of color may eventually prove to be disproportionately affected in the Phoenix area too. She said, unfortunately, these outcomes are predictable.

“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.

Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Storyblocks)

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.

“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.

Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.

For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.

“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.

She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.

‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Feeding Sea Urchins Could be One Way to Restore the West Coast’s Vital Kelp Forests

LOS ANGELES – Considered a delicacy around the globe, sea urchins please the palates of the wealthy, showing up on sushi bars and swirled into pasta at fine restaurants. However, these spiny creatures in recent years have plowed through forests of bull kelp along coasts around the world.

Sea urchins pose a problem to kelp forests, which are an integral part of shoreline ecosystems because they provide food and shelter for fish, shellfish and sea otters. Bull kelp forests in Northern California decreased by more than 90% in 2014 because of warming waters, and they’ve been struggling to recover since then.

What’s to blame? Hungry purple sea urchins, according to Sheila Semans, the executive director at the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg.

“What we understand is this was sort of a perfect storm of events,” said Semans, whose marine protection and restoration group is working to slow the urchins’ population growth and “help the kelp.”

Urchinomics has operations in Japan, Norway, and California, where the group is testing the viability of its algae-based feed. (Photo courtesy of Urchinomics)

A marine heatwave that was discovered in 2013 – nicknamed “the Blob” – has caused such problems as toxic algae blooms, vanishing sea species and many other issues affecting the health of the oceans and fisheries.

Due to higher water temperatures, the Blob has negatively impacted many underwater ecosystems like that of the purple sea urchin, which now face starvation and overgrazing.

In Northern California, the problem began with a sudden, unexplained die-off of sea stars, the urchin’s main predator. Semans said researchers blamed a disease that’s thought to be caused by warmer water. The warmer water also stunted kelp growth at a time when the urchin population blew up and consumed the limited kelp supply.

“So we have large scale stressors combining (with) small scale stressors that are all climate-driven to create this problem,” Semans said.

The Noyo Center is part of the Kelp Ecosystem Landscape Partnership for Research on Resilience, which is composed of governmental organizations, nonprofits, academic institutions and for-profit businesses working to further the restoration of kelp forests.

“In the last two years, we realized that what we need to do primarily as a first step is clear some urchin out of the environment,” Semans said.

The organizations have been testing out solutions, like diving to manually “smash” the urchins, to decrease the sea urchin population size. One of these partners, the Bodega Marine Lab at University of California, Davis, has been working with a company to test the viability of sea urchin “ranching.”

In partnership with the company Urchinomics, the Bodega Marine Lab at University of California, Davis is testing a type of feed for urchins captured in the wild. (Photo courtesy of Urchinomics)

Although the die-off of sea stars allowed sea urchins to flourish, there is a predator who could help control the population: humans. Through ranching, scientists hope to sustainably control the sea urchin population by capturing and preparing them to sell to consumers.

The sea urchins the lab collects in the wild actually are starving, despite their voracious appetites for kelp, said Laura Rogers-Bennett, lead scientist for the lab. She has spent three years testing ranching practices that help save kelp by giving the urchins something else to eat.

“All the food resources (and) algal resources are scarce,” Rogers-Bennett said.

Divers remove urchins from affected kelp beds, and those that seem the most promising are sent to the lab to be “ranched and fattened up” for commercial purposes, Rogers-Bennett said.

“The idea here is that if we can remove hungry urchins from the wild where there are too many of them and we can (also) develop some sort of an economic incentive to do that removal effort,” she said.

The lab has been working closely with the company Urchinomics to develop and test a type of algae-based feed that helps the urchins grow and produce uni – the urchin’s edible gonads. After they complete testing, the company plans on opening commercial operations in the U.S. and begin selling purple sea urchins to restaurants.

“Our mandate is to work with them so that whatever revenues we make on the urchins, a portion of those proceeds can go back into the restoration effort so it’s like a full cycle,” said Denise MacDonald, director of Urchinomics.

The company has already tested operations in Japan with much success, MacDonald said. During its trial run, it sold uni at roughly $9 per unit, which is comparable to industry standards. The uni was well-received and apparently “sold out in minutes,” she said.

Scientists have developed an algae-based feed that “fattens” urchins so that they produce uni, which can be sold to restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Urchinomics)

Uni is the highly prized, soft gonads inside the urchin’s spiney casing. Some people love uni for its luxurious and “creamy” texture, while others have trouble overcoming the pungent ocean taste.

Miyabi Uni in Torrence specializes in unique uni dishes. In addition to traditional uni sushi, the restaurant also offers such dishes as an uni “shooter” and uni cream pasta.

The owners wanted to create a place that could be a kind of “heaven of the sea urchin-lovers,” manager Shintaro Yano said. The restaurant has seen a rise in popularity due to uni’s intriguing nature, and Yano said it is surviving California’s COVID-19 restrictions through deliveries and takeout.

Because sea urchins in the wild are running out of kelp, Yano is concerned that high quality uni will be hard to find. The restaurant has had to source their product from all over the world.

“This year we were having a hard time getting supplied from the vendors,” he said.

It’s even harder to find a local fishery or distributor to supply the restaurant with the needed amount of urchins, so they import the majority.

Urchinomics is driven to help save the kelp ecosystems, but it hopes to create new economic incentives for areas affected by the rampant purple sea urchin population.

“There’s a lot of fisheries that have closed along the Pacific Northwest and Northern California,” MacDonald said. “And we want to try to bring jobs back to these communities as well.”

With the business that Urchinomics intends to open, jobs in the fishing industry will be needed.

“I think that we are only a minor part of the overall solution,” MacDonald said. “We’re actually helping create jobs and helping the local economy and getting divers in the water using those urchins.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

A Lot Of You Had Questions About Coronavirus In The Water. We Have Some Answers.

The coronavirus pandemic is so new to us that things that seemed so certain — like the safety of our water supply — are suddenly raising questions. Among the nearly 1,500 questions our newsroom has fielded since the outbreak of COVID-19, some have been about water. They usually go something like this:

Can a person get the coronavirus from their home or work water supply?

The simple answer is: not really. Although the coronavirus can live in drinking water and sewage, it’s not likely to come into contact with you; our systems for moving water around, treating it, and disposing of it all work very well.

That said, there are reasonable precautions you can take, and things you can do to help our public drinking water and wastewater systems best serve our collective health.

Here are answers to some common questions about drinking water:

What risk does coronavirus pose to our drinking water supply?

The risk is exceptionally low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Our major public water providers say coronavirus is not present in the drinking water supply coming to your home or work. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power which supplies the city of L.A., and Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water to much of Southern California.

The water in your home or business in Southern California comes from local underground wells, and from aqueducts carrying it from Northern California or Colorado. Some water systems also have water that has been recycled. But in all cases the water coming out of your faucet has been treated to remove pathogens and disinfected with chlorine.

Some small residual of chlorine should still be in the water when it gets to your faucet.

Also, water in underground pipes and inside your home and workplace is under pressure, which helps keep contamination from getting into the water.

So, is it impossible for coronavirus to get into our tap water?

It’s unlikely but not impossible.

UC Riverside chemical engineering professor Haizhou Liu studies water treatment. He co-authored a paper calling for more research into how to remove coronavirus from public drinking and wastewater treatment systems. He says scientists recognize that coronavirus can live in both drinking water and sewage and that conventional treatments inactivate or kill the virus, but that more needs to be known about that process and how to improve it.

In drinking water systems, organic microorganisms can develop what’s called a biofilm on the interior of corroded pipes. The biofilm creates a kind of structure that viruses in the pipes can stick to and colonize, Liu said.

Under limited circumstances, the corrosion could flake loose from the interior of a pipe and cause the biofilm and its coronavirus colony to flow through the pipe to end users — that’s you — by way of a faucet, showerhead, garden hose, etc.. That could happen, for example, if a water utility changed the source of its water (like switching from well water to imported water, or from lake water to river water), causing a change in the chemical balance of the water, Liu said.

But this isn’t exactly cause for alarm. Los Angeles DWP General Manager Marty Adams said there is a very low risk that biofilms could carry coronavirus into our homes:

“If you were away for weeks at a time or starting a brand new water service for a house that had been unoccupied, you’d probably want to flush your lines really well first. That’s because that water could be sitting, which means that the chlorine in the line could have dissipated and maybe a biofilm started to form.”

If tap water’s safe, why are people stockpiling bottled water?

Back in March, when we were all told to stay home for several weeks, this was such a new situation, it seemed rational for people to buy up the one thing they consider essential. And it’s a generally good practice, here in earthquake country, to always have a supply that could keep you going for about two weeks. It shouldn’t take pandemic to get us to stock up, but that’s what happened.

Bottled water, or the filtered water you use to fill your jug at the water store generally does not have the same chlorine residual in it that purifies tap water, Adams said. Once your bottled water is unsealed, or your jug of water from the local water store is open, it’s important to keep it clean so it doesn’t become contaminated.

Can I get coronavirus from a faucet that an infected person recently used?

We know by now that the coronavirus is spread by person-to-person contact, and also by touching items that infected people have touched. So you might think that includes a kitchen or bathroom faucet.

Good handwashing (instructions here) means using soap all over your hands under running water for 20 seconds. Soap breaks down the envelope membrane surrounding the virus and renders it inactive. Soap also helps remove the oils on your hands the virus sticks to. The running water rinses it away. Use a towel to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.

If you’re living in a home with a person who is self-isolating because they have or might have the coronavirus, that person should be the only one using that restroom, if possible. If not, clean the high-touch surfaces in that restroom after every use.

What about steam from showers?

Liu’s paper said the novel coronavirus could colonize biofilms that line drinking water pipes, making showerheads a possible source of aerosolized transmission, meaning the water droplets make a fine spray that can carry the virus.

But, again, most water treatment routines and residual chlorine are thought to kill or remove coronaviruses effectively in tap water Liu said.

Pipes convey wastewater at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach. (Phot by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Is coronavirus in wastewater?

Yes, if it’s in you, it’s going to get into the wastewater system through the kitchen, shower, washing machine and toilet. Wastewater moves in a closed system of underground pipes to regional wastewater treatment plants, it’s unlikely you would come in contact with it.

Those plants are where the coronavirus gets killed. The kind of wastewater treatment common in Southern California removes many pathogens that are actually more difficult to kill than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Traci Minimide, chief operating officer for LA City Sanitation and Environment, which includes the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach.

“The coronavirus is what they call an enveloped virus. And once that envelope is broken, then that basically inactivates the virus,” Minamide said. “And it’s much more fragile than other viruses.”

One of the big problems at wastewater plants right now is that people are flushing lots of things they shouldn’t. When toilet paper was hoarded during the panic purchasing of March, Angelenos started using other products that don’t disintegrate in the sewer system.

Paper towels and so-called flushable wipes can block some of the equipment at pump stations and treatment plants. So Minamide asked the public to flush only toilet paper and dispose of other products in the trash.

Is it safe to be in the ocean?

Some treated wastewater is discharged into the ocean from the Los Angeles city sanitation plant near Dockweiler beach. That water is not given a final disinfection with chlorine because it could harm ocean life. That already-treated water is discharged into the ocean using a pipe that is 5 miles long and 200 feet deep. It’s a very cold and salty environment. Minamide said local studies have shown that the discharged water does not return to the beach. So beachgoers or surfers should not be at risk from that water.

That said, surface runoff that might have virus in it does reach the ocean, so there is still a good reason to avoid the beach for now.

Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, solid items like paper towels, sanitary supplies and “flushable” wipes being skimmed from raw sewage on Nov. 12, 2015. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Myth is Reality: Discovery of Bald Eagles Nesting in a Saguaro Confirms Longtime Speculation

PHOENIX – For eight decades, biologists have speculated that bald eagles build their nests in large saguaros.

This week, that speculation became reality.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department on Wednesday announced the discovery of the first bald eagle nest in a saguaro since before World War II.

“It was absolutely amazing when I got the first report,” said Kenneth Jacobson, raptor management coordinator for the department. “When we were able to get out there and see (the nest) from the ground and verify it was quite exciting.”

The nest was first reported by a member of the public, and Game & Fish flew over to confirm the report. Biologists say there are two bald eagles and an unknown number of eaglets in the nest, which is near a central Arizona reservoir.

“This is something biologists in Arizona have been aware of the possibility since the 1970s,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been looking for them, so finally finding one and seeing one is quite amazing since it’s been on our radar for a very long time.”

The only other record of a saguaro nest was in 1937, Jacobson said. In the 1970s, biologists found a mention to Kermit Lee of Lee’s Trading Post, who had reported large nests in saguaros along the lower Verde River.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on large saguaros for decades,” Jacobson said. “But all the ones that were seen with large nests had no documentation of egg laying or raising of young or any information like that.”

The department won’t disclose the location of the nest to protect the birds and their habitat.

“This is one of those things that is pretty exciting, but the last thing we want to do is draw a lot of attention to it,” Jacobson said. “If we get a lot of people coming out and checking it out we may end up inadvertently causing problems for their nesting attempts.”

The years of speculating are finally over for biologists like Jacobson, and confirmation is as thrilling as he expected.

“It’s been an 18-year trek for me, keeping my eye out for a bald eagle nest in a saguaro, so finally finding one is amazing,” Jacobson said in the department’s press release.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Prescott’s Bid to Draw More Groundwater Could Threaten Verde River

The Verde River, one of the few perennial rivers in Arizona, is known for its fishing and recreation, but it also provides water to Prescott and metro Phoenix.

The more than 170-mile long river flows from its headwaters near Flagstaff south to the Salt River. Along the way, the Verde supplies water to the Little Chino Aquifer, from which Prescott draws its water. With a growing population and new housing developments coming to Prescott, this water faces increasing demand that could threaten the river itself.

That’s something Gary Beverly, who has lived in Yavapai County for almost 50 years, has witnessed many times.

“(The Verde River) is the longest surviving river in the state of Arizona,” Beverly said. “Out of six perennial rivers, this is the only one that’s still in good ecological condition, and we are positioned to lose it if we don’t change the way we handle our groundwater management.”

The Prescott City Council is responding to a growing population and new housing developments by proposing a new water policy to provide water for the city’s population of 43,314 and its future residents. The new policy proposal calls for an increase in the city’s withdrawal from the Little Chino Aquifer to supply thousands of acre-feet of water a year to the homes.

The Verde River stretches more than 170 miles from north-central Arizona all the way to the Salt River. It could see a decrease in its average water levels if the Prescott City Council passes a new water policy for the city. (Photo by Christopher Howley/Cronkite News).

“People are going to move here,” Mayor Pro Tem Billie Orr said. “They’re going to move out in the county. We know that they’re coming. So we just need to grow … and manage (the increase), not let it be just crazy out there in chaos. So that’s our purpose” for the proposed policy change.

Housing developers are looking to build just north of downtown. The city predicts that 10,000 to 15,000 housing units could be annexed over the next few decades. The developments would turn to the city for water resources.

“Water resources are an interesting topic because we have a legal right to water and it’s debated as to how much…so water controls growth,” said Jason Gisi, CEO of Arizona Eco Development, one of the companies planning to build in Prescott.

Although the city and the developers support the change, some conservationists are worried an increased focus on development and groundwater pumping will cause more of the Verde River’s average flow to decline.

“Every bit of water that we draw out of the Little Chino Aquifer to feed growth in the Prescott area is a drop of water that isn’t going into the Verde River,” said Joe Trudeau, the Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. “Expanding the city’s impact, potentially to tens of thousands of acres to the north, is all those more straws that are being pumped out of the Verde River.”

The Prescott City Council has proposed a new policy that would provide water to its growing population and future housing developments. (Photo by Christopher Howley/ Cronkite News)

Conservationists already are concerned about the river’s average flow, which has decreased over time.

“It’s incredibly important for the city of Prescott, in its review and analysis of water policy, has to look at the degree to which the city is far below a balance with the amount we are drawing out of the aquifer,” Trudeau said. “This is called overdraft, we are drawing far more water out of the aquifer than we are returning to the aquifer through recharge mechanisms.”

Since 1986, Prescott has relied on those recharge mechanisms to replenish the Verde River and store a certain amount of its unused water underground for later use.

The city transfers treated wastewater below ground that’s adjacent to water tables. The Arizona Department of Water Resources carefully quantifies the amount of treated water that is recharged into the Little Chino Aquifer.

Beverly, who also is president of the Citizens Water Advocacy Group, said he has seen the groundwater reserve and the Verde River decrease far too much in his lifetime.

“Arizona’s other perennial rivers are dried up,” he said. “It (the Verde River) is unique. This is the last one we have left and we just cannot lose this. You don’t have to take it all.”

This isn’t the first time Prescott has dealt with debates surrounding water conservation. The city has been vocal about decreasing its annual water usage, Orr said.

“We have been talking about water issues for the past, I would say, decades in the city of Prescott,” she said. “We are actually using less water today than we did 14 years ago.”

As multiple sides continue to plead their cases, the City Council hoped to vote this summer, but city officials say the COVID-19 pandemic may push that decision back until later in the year.

“Water is political on one hand and some folks would say it’s the basis of life on the other hand,” Gisi said. “We are striving for balance where you have some of both.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Traffic, Emissions Reduced As Arizonans Stay Home

Arizonans staying home amid the pandemic are making a measurable impact on road congestion and air quality. Weekday vehicle traffic volume is down by a third since early March, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Average weekday traffic volume on Valley roads has declined since early March. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)

More Valley workers are telecommuting than ever before, and if some workers continue to do their jobs from home after social distancing orders are lifted, Eric Anderson, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, is optimistic that could create long-term benefits.

“Even a 5% reduction in travel, if people are going to be telecommuting more in the future, could have a big, dramatic impact on how our future transportation system performs,” Anderson said.

Data from analytics company INRIX shows Valley travel speeds are up and travel delays are down. And with fewer cars on the road, satellite measurements show nitrogen dioxide in Phoenix’s atmosphere is more than 10% lower than at the same time last year.

To talk more about this is Eric Anderson, executive director of MAG.

Comparing the same period of March 2019 to March 2020, findings show a reduction of 10.5% in nitrogen dioxide emissions. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)