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March 22, 2015     Post 57
Just in time for World Water Day

Water and energy continued excerpt from a new book "Saving The Beautiful Lake"

Lake Ontario is home to about a quarter of Canada's population. It's also home to a couple of small nuclear research reactors and to 14 operating U.S. and Canadian nuclear power reactors all of which use vast quantities of water to re-condense the steam that drives their turbines and generators.

It takes from 5 to 700 gallons of water to create a megawatt of electricity from a nuclear plant so they have to be located near a large water source. In the dry summer of 2007 in the southeastern U.S., some power plants had to actually shut down due to low stream flows. Lake Ontario with its relatively steady water levels, is ideal for generating power with water thirsty nukes. There is one issue though that some of the lake's 9 plus million U.S. and Canadian lake water drinkers find troubling, that of tritium.

The trouble with tritium, a weakly radioactive form of hydrogen, is that the Canadian CANDU reactor designs dump huge amounts of of it into the lake with their once through cooling water outputs. It has been reported that all of Canada's reactors, about half of which are on Lake Ontario, are the world's largest single emitter of tritium. And no one knows exactly how much of a health threat it poses to the lake's water drinkers.

Presently the acceptable level of tritium in drinking water in Canada is 7000 Becquerels per litre, almost ten times the U.S. drinking water limit of 740 Bq per litre. In Europe the limit is 100 Bq per liter and the public health goal in California is 15 Bq per litre. Tritium has a half life of 12 years, and the overall amount of tritium in the lake appears to be slowly increasing.

In 1998 the level in Lake Superior (which has no nuclear plants on its shores) was 2 Bq/liter. In Lake Ontario that year it was just over 7 Bq/liter. That was nearly twenty years ago.

We survived our cruise around the lake with Sara B, and I came home with more questions than answers. But I will venture to guess that the energy demands of our society will remain tied to water for years to come in a world that is increasingly hot flat crowded and thirsty to paraphrase Tom Friedman's book title. Along with the generating stations, the shale oil, tar sands bitumin, and gas energy extraction business also is increasingly dependent on water.

My crystal ball is cloudy and cracked, and my guesses for Lake Ontario's future energy-water nexus are backed up by nothing prescient. But I am going to go out on a limb and say that if we continue to do business as usual the lake will not fare well.

Lake Ontario has something rare in the northeast- space. Some think it's a perfect location for offshore wind farms and a 500 MW one has been proposed for the shallows southwest of Main Duck island. Wind farms aren't necessarily an environmental disaster depending on their location, but they are controversial. Ontario Province put a hold on various projects in 2011 after loud squawks from lake shore residents.

It's worth noting wind generators are among the most water efficient ways to produce electricity. And offshore wind farms are presently among the most efficient producers of wind power. In the future the spaces of all the Great Lakes could host as much as 700 gigawatts of offshore wind generation. This would allow us to take some geriatric nukes off line including two of the oldest ones in the country here on Lake Ontario.

Most climate change models predict increased drought risks in the future. How long will it be before the pressure is on for water diversions from the upper Great Lakes to parched but heavily populated areas to the south? As has often been observed, water flows towards wealth regardless of gravity. There's a lot more money and people in the sunny southwest than up here in the rustbelt and Canada.

But the Great Lakes are essentially a closed system from a hydrological view point. Only about one percent of the water in them is renewed each year. Remove more than that and the familiar white bathtub ring so evident during a boating trip I made on Lake Mead last winter will appear along Lake Ontario's shore.

The statistics are terrifying when you look at the big water picture- half the rivers in China don't make it to the sea any more. Something like 780 million people in Africa don't have access to clean safe water. The vast Ogallala aquifer that underlies the U.S. cornbelt may be gone within fifteen years.

Droughts are unique says William deBuys author of the book “A Great Aridness”. Unlike other natural disasters that crash upon a village or a city in the form of a tidal wave or a hurricane, they are a slow moving train wreck, not unlike the climate change issue. By the time you're in a mega drought it's too late to do anything about it. Then things get ugly, as the history of numerous civilizations that have disintegrated in drought induced war and chaos suggests.

While short lived natural disasters like floods and earth quakes often bring out the best in people in crisis mode, this does not seem to happen in droughts.

“We must recognize that we are in a water crisis now,” says Maude Barlow, long time social justice champion water activist and chairman of the Council of Canadians. She says our survival depends on a new water ethic, one that recognizes water as a common heritage of all humanity present and future. Water must be treated as a public trust, a commons, that is managed for all. “Water can teach us how to live together if only we will let it.”

Our next post will deal with how we might move towards that ideal of water as a common heritage.

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