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Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink?

One in four Americans is drinking water that doesn’t meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, new report finds

Many Americans drink water straight from the tap. But maybe it’s time to rethink doing that. Our drinking water supply may not be as safe was we think. A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found nearly 77 million Americans are served by community water systems that had one or more violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015.

photo of water glassPhoto by Larry Vincent Research by the NRDC estimates that 77 million Americans are served by water systems that had at least one Safe Water Drinking Act violation in 2015.

The report estimates that 19.5 million Americans get sick each year from drinking water contaminated with pathogens. Estimates of “cancers, reproductive and neurological diseases, or other serious chronic health problems caused by contaminated tap water” remain unknown. (Read our special Teflon’s Toxic Legacy, to learn more about how contaminated water can pose serious health issues and even death.)

The top 12 states with the most violations were (in alphabetical order) — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that water providers follow certain protocols to test drinking water and report the results to their customers, state government, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. But violations of the Act are rampant across the country, and the EPA does not have the resources to properly address these violations.

Violations fall largely in two categories. Health-based violations — which occur when there is a failure to properly treat water for pathogens and other contaminants; and reporting violations — when water providers fail to monitor and test drinking water quality, neglect to follow proper water testing protocols, or don’t report results to their customers, the state, and the EPA. The NRDC report found an average of eight in ten health-based violations faced no formal action from the EPA, and only 13.1 percent of reporting violations were investigated by the EPA, and of those, only 3 percent received penalties.

This suggests a culture where violations go largely underreported and unpunished, leaving Americans extremely vulnerable. With EPA funding set to drop to its lowest levels ever under a budget proposed by the Trump administration, the agency may soon have even less bandwidth to properly address these violations.

Additionally, under the Act, the EPA is required to classify contaminants — defined as “any physical, chemical, biological, or …more

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Injured Birds of Prey Find a Caring Home in Kenya

Rehabilitation center lends a helping hand to owls and eagles, raises awareness about oft-overlooked raptors

In 2003, a barn own with a severely damaged wing was brought to the attention of Sarah Higgins, an environmentalist living by Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The owl had been brought to the vet but the wing did not heal correctly, which meant the bird could not be returned to the wild. So she built an owlery in her garden and named the owl Fulstop. Thus began the Naivasha Owl Center, one of only two places in Kenya that rehabilitate sick and injured birds of prey. Today, the Center is licensed for avian care by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency that manages the country’s wildlife, and Higgins is an honorary KWS warden.

photo of Klamath MountainsPhoto courtesy of Naivasha Owl Centre Falconry techniques are used to rehabilitate raptors at the Naivasha Owl Centre, one of only two such centers in Kenya that treat birds of prey.

Birds come to the center after sustaining injuries in the wild or because of harmful interactions in populated areas. Three young spotted eagle owls — called Snap, Crackle, and Plop — were rescued after being swept out of their nest on a quarry wall during a rain storm and tumbling down. Two of them sustained broken wings, but all three are now healed. They make clicking sounds of warning if you come too close.

Garfunkel is a Lappet-faced vulture that ate poisoned meat intended for lions suspected of killing cattle. He recovered from the poisoning, but had also been bitten in the wing by a jackal at the same carcass and is still healing. An African fish eagle named Baringo was rescued near Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley and transported to the center by KWS staff, who are not equipped to give specialized avian care.

And it’s not all raptors. At the moment, the center is also caring for a migratory white stork and a rather aggressive pelican that lost a wing to a powerline.

From its early days with just the one owlery, the center can now house 65 birds. There’s also an onsite hospital with an operating theater and recovery room. When birds are brought in, they receive veterinary care, proper feeding, and rehabilitation training to prepare them for a return to the wild.

Basic falconry techniques are used to exercise the birds and build up their flight muscles. On the day of my visit I found a falconer wearing a large yellow glove and training …more

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Perspective Changes Everything

Klamath film transports viewers to parts of the mountains inaccessible by road or trail

The Klamath Mountains are a complicated area of uplifted, folded, mashed, and twisted rocks in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Because the mountains are large and rugged, they’ve thwarted even the greatest explorers. Jed Smith, the famous mountain man, avoided the area. The complexity of the mountains’ form, however, has rewards. Biological diversity in the Klamath is outstanding, and the whole region, about twelve million acres in total, has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

photo of Klamath MountainsPhoto courtesy of Klamath Siskiyou Film Aaron Moffatt's film takes viewers to difficult-to-reach parts of the Klamath Mountains, making a strong case for preserving this stunning region.

Unfortunately, the mountains have also been victim to excessive exploitation. The US Forest Service went about logging and mining the region for decades, as if timber represented the region’s only value. The federal agency built roads that slid into creeks and loaded logging trucks with trees nearly a thousand years old. Mining operations in the 1800s gutted mountainsides and left huge piles of rubble in rivers and creeks. 

Largescale mining and logging projects persist in the region to this day. The US Forest Service continues to pursue massive timber sales in the Klamath National Forest. Just this year the USFS has proposed to log thousands of acres that burned in a wildfire last summer. This happens almost every year. Mining interests have for years suggested the development of a huge, yet ultra-marginal chrome deposit that would degrade rare wildlife and plant habitat and pollute crystal clear rivers.

Thankfully, efforts to save old growth dependent species, especially the spotted owl, have kept about three million acres of the Klamath from being raided for timber and gold, though these unspoiled areas of the Klamath Mountains are difficult to visit. The mountains tend to be either largely modified from their original state, destroyed and trivialized and contaminated, or wild and roadless — almost inaccessible.

It is the virtually untouched parts of the area that Aaron Moffatt’s film, Klamath, are all about: a stunning place, a land without time, a roadless region that is still intact. For three-and-a-half years, Moffatt carried camera gear to almost unreachable locations in the mountains, recording hundreds of hours of video that were later edited down to a one hour film. He used drones and a variety of robotic devices in the filming, insisting that the three dimensional nature of the space was essential to the production. Most of the …more

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Getting Smarter About Rain

How the San Francisco Bay Area can put rainwater to good use and improve drought resilience

This year, the Bay Area has been deluged with rain. After years of severe drought, we’re not complaining. However, the downpour has had side effects. Creeks, roads, and neighborhoods flooded. Sewage overflows caused major spills in local communities. Billions of gallons of rainwater washed off polluted surfaces, and moved heavy loads of trash, oil, and other contaminants into San Francisco Bay.

photo of rain on the SF BayPhoto by Brandon Doran>By getting smarter about rainwater, the Bay Area can take advantage of wet years to increase resilience to future drought.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Bay Area can get smarter about rain, and put it to good use. And rainy seasons can help make the Bay Area more resilient to future drought. What’s needed is a shift towards thoughtful conservation and collective planning: big actions by cities combined with small actions by us as individuals and families.

There are a variety of big actions to start planning for and implementing now. When re-paving streets and gutters, cities can use permeable materials that allow rainwater to soak into the ground. Paved surfaces can be re-envisioned to create parks and green space that absorb rainwater. The water will be filtered as it percolates through the soil, which can remove some pollutants. Eventually, the water will re-charge local aquifers — nature’s underground water storage tanks. In the dry season or during drought, communities can tap into those aquifers, further purify the water, and use if needed.

Cities can also use retention basins to collect rainwater and direct it to the ground. Instead of storm drains and pipes infiltrating and overwhelming sewage pipes, or carrying polluted water to San Francisco Bay, they can re-charge local aquifers.

Big projects like these can be costly. But planning for them now will cost far less than other ideas currently being touted as the solutions to California’s water needs, such as the proposed twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that would divert water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley and southern California. Plus, rainwater capture helps prevent flooding and increases California’s fresh water supply. The tunnels won’t do either.

And the rain that falls here can provide a lot of water. According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and TreePeople, if the Los Angeles-San Diego area and the San Francisco Bay Area captured their rain and recharged local aquifers, California could increase water supplies …more

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Trump’s Skewed View of Agriculture Threatens Farmworker Welfare

President wrote an executive order on rural America as if farmworkers don't exist

On April 25, President Trump issued an “Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America.” He truly went out of his way to avoid mentioning farmworkers. The order discusses farmers and ranchers and directs agencies to take actions to serve their interests and support “rural communities.” But other than promise those farmers and ranchers a “reliable workforce,” farmworkers are nowhere to be found.

photo of farmworkersPhoto by Bread for the World President Trump's recent executive order on rural America doesn't mention anything about farmworker welfare.

There is not one word about improving the living and working conditions of the 2.5 million agricultural workers who labor on farms and ranches. Reading between the vaguely-written lines, the president’s intent is to encourage agency policies and actions that benefit agricultural businesses at the expense of the health and well-being of farmworkers and their families.

The promise of a “reliable workforce” is an oblique reference to the reality that the majority of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Some growers have expressed concern that Trump’s actual and threatened deportations could remove much of their labor force.  

Trump’s assurance of a “reliable workforce” probably means he’s willing to support immigration and labor law changes to provide employers with workers who have little choice but to accept the wages and working conditions imposed on them. Guestworker programs, like the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program, accomplish that goal. Despite his vilification of immigrants for taking jobs away from US workers, Trump uses guestworkers at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and the Trump Winery in Virginia.

He seems likely to support converting the farm labor force into a system of vulnerable guestworkers. His vehement opposition to regulation suggests that his Department of Labor would slash H-2A program wage rates and other protections for US and foreign workers.

The appropriate policy solution at the intersection of immigration and labor policy is legislation that grants undocumented farmworkers and their family members the opportunity to obtain immigration status and citizenship. But Trump did not say that.

The Executive Order instructs federal officials from numerous agencies to participate in a “Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity” that will be led by the Secretary of Agriculture and produce a report with recommendations. There is obvious bias in who Trump believes the Task Force should listen to. The EO tells the Task Force to provide state and local government officials “and farmers, ranchers, foresters, and other rural stakeholders — with an …more

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In Peru, Learning from the Nasca

Finding parallels between the demise of an ancient culture and contemporary environmental challenges

In early April I felt like I’d entered a time warp. I had been immersed in writing a novel set in sixth century Nasca on the coast of Peru, a period filled with decades of drought and natural disasters, and every time I looked up from editing, a new calamity had struck the modern coast of Peru.

Water service in Lima had been cut off for five days a few weeks ago as a result of debris and flooding in the Rimac River, which supplies water to most of the city. People with cisterns and tanks made it through by rationing, but many of metropolitan Lima’s 11 million residents had to scramble to get water, waiting in lines, finding friends willing to share. Store supplies were emptied on the first day. Water trucks delivered overtime. Meanwhile, severe flooding and mudslides, or huaicos, were wreaking havoc in smaller cities north and south of Lima.

photo of Nasca LinesPhoto by Joeke-Remkus de Vries The Nasca, who disappeared around the eight century, are best known for the enigmatic figures and lines they created across Peru's desert.

Unseasonal rainstorms have been pelting the inland mountains since January. More than 300 bridges collapsed across the country, isolating entire communities. Roads were  washed away. Schools stayed closed. Major cities like Piura, Trujillo, and Ica were under water. River-beds that had been dry for decades were overrun by uncontainable furies of water. More than 1.1 million people had been affected. This time it’s not due to the familiar weather anomaly, “El Niño” that results from major ocean currents arriving warmer than usual. (El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, was given the Spanish nickname for the “Christ child” because it often arrives around Christmas.) This time it is not due to its opposite, either. “La Niña” events happen when unusually low water temperatures distort weather patterns. Instead, the current disasters were being blamed on a rare “Niño Costero,” an unusual warming of waters close to Ecuador and northern Peru that creates extreme precipitation. 

The first response to the severe flooding was chaos, panic, and frustration with the inadequate support and failing infrastructure, though the government, development organizations, businesses, and the general public have been working overtime to get services to people whose lives have been devastated. But another response has been the outpouring of compassion. A video of a mud-covered woman emerging from a vortex of debris went viral and her image has become a symbol …more

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The Food Saviors

In five Argentine cities, volunteers rescue leftovers from parties and events and take them to community meal programs

Three strangers meet at midnight, take a ride in a car, and then knock on the back door of a party venue. When they get inside, they cover themselves from head to toe: face masks, hairnets, aprons, and gloves; they don’t want to leave any traces. Discreet and perfectly coordinated, they pile kilos of food onto plastic trays; it’s freshly prepared food that will not be sent to the party’s buffet line. They wrap the trays, load them into the car, and leave.

photo of food rescuePhoto by Marcelo EscayolaGonzalo Martínez heads one of the volunteer teams during a food rescue that saved 120 kilos of food from a Christmas party.

Minutes later, in the early morning hours, they knock on the door of a home for children. When they get inside, they unload almost 200 portions of food, say goodbye, and leave. The car drops each passenger at their house. The spontaneous team dissolves into the night. They may never see each other again. This is how, like a commando of on-call superheroes, Proyecto Plato Lleno (“Project Full Plate”) functions. It’s an Argentine non-profit initiative that serves as a nexus between leftover food from large events and community soup kitchens that feed those in need. A simple idea that reduces food waste and provides an example of how avoiding waste is simpler than it seems. Their motto is #LaComidaNoSeTira (Food is not something to be thrown out).

The Case Against Waste

According to figures gathered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a third of all food produced on a global level is thrown away without being consumed. In the world of catering, it’s calculated that for every event close to five percent of the food will end up in the dumpster. Catering budgets must factor in this “loss.” For weddings and banquets, around one kilo of food per person is prepared. This means that at an event with 1000 guests, 50 kilos of freshly prepared food will go directly into a trash bin without ever having left the kitchen.

Alexis Vidal and Paula Martino know this reality firsthand because they both work in event planning and sustainability. In 2014 they met while working at a banquet and shared the same contempt for the systematic waste of food. Alexis proposed a simple idea: to ask the catering companies for permission to save the leftover portions and take them to those in need, to soup kitchens or shelters. They talked …more

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