Highlights from the Week's News

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Could a Houseplant Detect Toxins in Water?

October 29, 2023

The Colorado River Basin Looks to Be in Decent Shape for a Few Years

In the summer of 2022, the federal government announced the need for drastic cuts in allocations from the Colorado River to avoid a crisis in the system that supplies farms and millions of people with water and hydropower. However, last week the Bureau of Reclamation said that conditions have improved, and additionally, a plan by California, Arizona, and Nevada to curtail their water use will keep the region on a stable footing for the next few years.

Credit: Pixabay/Public Domain

The Bureau had released a proposal that would have forced the three states in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River to cut usage based either upon the current legal system, called prior appropriation, which would have affected cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, or proportionately, which would have significantly affected California farmers. The three states then made a proposal for voluntary reductions. That plan along with the wetter conditions this year have reduced the risk that water levels will drop at the two main reservoirs on the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell—at least through 2026. At that point a new set of rules will be in place.

As of September 2022, the risk of water levels at both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam falling below critical levels was above 50 percent, but those chances have now dropped below ten percent at both reservoirs despite still being at historically low levels, according to the Bureau.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told CNN that record conservation by California, Arizona, and Nevada is already affecting the reservoirs. Lake Powell is 52 feet higher than eight months ago and Lake Mead is 23 feet higher since November.  According to Bill Hasencamp with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Lower Basin states have only used 5.8 million acre-feet this year of the 7.5 million acre-feet they are allotted annually. Touton said that the last 23 years have been the driest on record for the Colorado River system, and it is increasingly likely it will be drier.   

BlueTriton Is Sucking Up Water and Attracting Opposition

People in the U.S. buy more bottled water than any other packaged beverage, some under names like Poland Spring®, Arrowhead®, and Pure Life®. The company that sells many of these brands is now BlueTriton, which was formerly Nestlé Waters North America.

Credit: Brett Weinstein/Creative Commons

BlueTriton is attracting much attention because of the millions of plastic bottles it uses containing fresh water often bought by the company at low cost and sold at much higher prices, according to the New York Times. Only one out of six of the bottles is recycled.

While the amount of plastic that the industry uses is drawing scrutiny, BlueTriton is also being criticized for its intensive use of local groundwater and river supplies. The Times revealed earlier that aquifers for nine out of ten water systems in the U.S. are being severely depleted from overuse and global warming.  

In Maine, BlueTriton wants to lock up a contract to pump groundwater for 45 years, and the company has a lot of political clout. However, a legislative committee approved a bill that would put a seven-year limit on contracts that send water out of the state.  Then, according to the Times, after a BlueTriton lobbyist got involved, the bill was effectively killed. The company’s efforts are supported by local water utilities that need the revenue to keep costs down.

Environmental groups in Colorado have been fighting BlueTriton’s withdrawal of water from the Arkansas River Basin that starts high up in the Rockies; nevertheless, a local county board approved a ten-year contract in 2021. In Michigan last year, a bill was introduced that would stop BlueTriton and other commercial users from pumping in the Great Lakes watershed. In California, BlueTriton is suing the state after regulators recently ruled that the company must stop pumping water from the San Bernardino National Forest for its Arrowhead brand.

Hydrologists warn that pumping groundwater to sell in bottles should be considered as an additional strain on watersheds and aquifers, not to mention residential wells. The USGS has begun a study of how the bottled-water industry changes groundwater supply, quality, and flow.  

BlueTriton Brands is a private company owned by One Rock Capital Partners and an investment firm, Metropoulos & Co.

Plants Have Been Transformed into Water Toxin Sentinels

In your house, you likely have smoke detectors to warn about fires or monitors that alert you of dangerous carbon monoxide, but what if you had plants that could tell you if your water has toxic chemicals? Researchers in California have devised such a thing. Although still in its infancy, a team at University of California, Riverside, have found a way to have leaves change their color when a plant detects toxins in water—in this case a banned pesticide.

Laboratory plants, normally green, turn red in the presence of a toxic pesticide.  |  Credit: Jingde Qiu /UCR

When plants are stressed during drought, they produce a hormone called ABA—short for abscisic acid. Protein receptors in the plant recognize the ABA compound and jump into action to close pores in leaves and stems to reduce evaporation and keep it from wilting. The researchers were able to “hack” those ABA receptors to recognize other chemicals, such as ones found in pesticides, and have them tell the plants to turn their leaves beet red when they sensed their target. (The “beet” color is from the genes of a beet plant that were genetically stitched into the study plants’ DNA.)

This idea isn’t new, according to lead researcher Sean Cutler, professor of plant cell biology at UC, Riverside, who spoke with H2O Radio. There have been attempts to use plants to detect TNT at military and mining sites that didn’t pan out.

This latest paper shows proof of principle but was a delicate balance between allowing a plant to grow and develop properly while also turning it into a toxin detective, but don’t expect to find these green sleuths at your garden center anytime soon.

Cutler said the concept would first have to go through a rigorous regulatory approval process but adds that there is great potential to use plant sentinels as a cost-effective way to signal not only pesticide pollution but also other contaminants in water supplies like pharmaceuticals or toxins at cleanup sites.

The study was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

So Long, Has-Beans. Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

“Waking up to smell the coffee” has taken on new meaning, as we come to recognize the environmental impacts of our lattes and caffè Americanos. Climate change is reducing the places where coffee trees can grow (something known as the “2050 Problem”), causing farmers to deforest cooler, higher-altitude areas, which adds to global warming.

Credit: Atomo Coffee

But a Seattle-based company wants to fix our unsustainable addiction to java by brewing it…without coffee beans. Atomo Coffee has created a “beanless” espresso drink made from plant waste that has the same molecular structure of traditional coffee using all natural ingredients.

Their grind comes from upcycled agricultural waste such as date pits and caffeine left over from green tea production. According to ExtremeTech, some ingredients were selected for helping to lower the coffee's water footprint like peas, which are drought tolerant, and millet which can be grown in arid conditions.  Atomo claims its initial "proof-of-concept" cold brew reduced carbon emissions by 93 percent and used 94 percent less water than regular coffee.

The formulation, which includes guava, lemon, and sunflower seed extract, creates the coffee’s flavor, which the company describes as tasting like “dark chocolate, dried fruit, and graham cracker.” And since October 10, if you’re in Midtown Manhattan, you can sample a cup to see if you agree.

If enough people do catch the Atomo buzz, it begs the question—are the likes of Starbucks going to become has-beans?