“…water is on the table for every single one of us. When it’s gone, game over.” Erin Brockovich
The 7 p.m. Mexicana Airlines flight from DFW to Ixtapa was running late, so I spent the down time talking to a friend who had graciously provided transportation to the airport. We didn’t say a lot; didn’t need to. We had already said our goodbyes, so the extra time was spent sharing a peaceful moment. It had been a long day, and before the airplane had left the runway, I was sound asleep.
An hour into the flight, a heavy jolt awakened me. I sat up slowly, not fully alert, trying to orient myself to the dimly lit cabin. A streak of lightning fractured the night sky, illuminating an ominous cloud formation that loomed over the airplane’s starboard side. The aircraft rocked violently, and several seconds later, the seatbelt warning sign pinged on. I was a seasoned traveler and had experienced turbulent weather many times, but this storm was unlike anything I had ever encountered.
After a few tense minutes, a jagged bolt of lightning struck the aircraft, lighting up the cabin’s interior. Without warning, the aircraft nosedived.
A few of the younger passengers began to cry, and a Hispanic woman seated across the aisle made the sign of the cross over her chest. Traveling at that speed, I thought the descent would have happened quicker, but time crawled by, and like most passengers, I had an opportunity to imagine the worst case scenario. Then as suddenly as the nosedive had started, it ended. We exited the clouds and leveled off about a hundred feet above the ocean. Wave caps, lit by the moon, were clearly visible from the window. Several minutes later, we crossed the coastline and landed at a small airport somewhere between Guadalajara and Manzinillo, Mexico.
After we rolled to a stop, two soldiers carrying machine guns boarded the aircraft and motioned us to exit. We were forced into a queue beneath a long portico that separated two brick buildings. Once the line had tightened, I could see an army officer seated at a metal desk near the far end of the hallway. He was checking documents, which seemed odd because American citizens weren’t required to carry passports in Mexico at that time. None of the soldiers seemed to speak English. They paced back and forth, keeping a watchful eye on the passengers. Occasionally, one would stop and use the muzzle-brake of his gun to nudge an errant passenger back into line. “Papers, papers,” he would say.
The officer seated at the table informed us that a tropical storm was imminent, and because the airline was concerned for our safety, the flight had been suspended until the stormy weather abated. Once the officer was satisfied that our documents were in order, we were bussed to a large hotel that had been built on an embankment overlooking the ocean. When we entered the lobby, many of the passengers seemed to relax. The room was colorfully decorated, and soft lighting provided by a row of overhead receptacles added warmth to the lobby. Wide fern palms had been placed between dinner tables in an atrium to our right, creating a sense of intimacy that would have been appropriate for a scene in an old film noir production. The furniture was outdated but plush, and a faint floral scent hung over the lobby.
By the time I reached my room, daylight was peaking through the windows, and I was eager to visit the open-air restaurant in the atrium. I decided to take a quick shower, so I turned on the faucet, allowing time for the water to heat while I sat on the bed and undressed. When I entered the tiled stall and stepped beneath the stream of water, I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to vomit. The water reeked with an odor that I can only describe as a mixture of raw sewage combined with seawater. I jumped out quickly and dried off, realizing I had no way of removing the smell now. It wasn’t as if I could use the water to rinse off the stench of the water. My hair, my skin, every single inch of my body reeked. I fumbled through a suitcase and found a can of shaving cream, then applied a large dollop to a washcloth. Even though I sponged my face and torso repeatedly, nothing I tried could remove the putrid smell.
I applied a strong splash of aftershave, but when that didn’t work, I gave up and rode the elevator to the mezzanine. I followed an attractive restaurant hostess to a vacant table, painfully aware that the offensive odor was trailing me like a cloud of cigarette smoke.
I selected a coconut pastry from the menu, then ordered a cup of hot tea. Once my meal had been served, I gingerly lifted the drink to my nose and sniffed. The same stench of raw sewer interlaced with saltwater drifted upward from the teacup, forcing me to swallow several times to keep from gagging.
For the next three days, I tried desperately to find a source of liquid that didn’t carry that putrid smell, but since the hotel was isolated from any business that might serve beverages, and because the storm had made it impossible to travel, I quickly became dehydrated. Even soft drinks and beer reeked so badly I couldn’t take a sip.
I learned a very important lesson on that trip. A human can survive longer without food than without water. As Erin Brockovich said, “When it’s gone, game over.” A healthy human can live up to eight weeks without food but no longer than 3 to 5 days without water. When your body becomes so dehydrated that your lips crack and your tongue begins to swell, you lose interest in food. And once you stop eating and drinking, you can easily become confused. When you reach the stage where your body stops producing urine, you feel as if you are slipping into shock. From my personal experience, I can attest that water will become an obsession if you are deprived of liquid for more than two days: it will dominate your every thought.
A person who has been raised in the United States will become ill from drinking water that is as polluted as the water I encountered; in fact, consuming any liquid that has been contaminated by feces can be life threatening. To get a better sense of how contaminated some of the world’s water resources have become, click on the link provided below to see a photo of the Citarum River in Indonesia. It is the most toxic river on earth, and yet it is the primary source of drinking water for millions of people.
I live in Greater Los Angeles, an area that some scientists describe as an excellent laboratory model for studying the effects of climate change. We live on a large, flat basin that was formed by the sediment of three rivers. The Pacific Ocean forms a natural border to the west, and harsh deserts lie to our southeast. On days when the sky is free of pollutants, and depending on your location, you can see the snow covered peaks of the transverse mountain ranges that surround the city on three sides.
Until recently, our summer weather has been mild ― a Mediterranean climate that is hot, but dry ― a type of heat that would rarely make you feel uncomfortable during the daytime. The temperate weather is the number one reason most people give for moving to the Southland. But those bucolic days are about to change ― drastically. The mild temperatures that once produced a climate similar to the weather found along the coastal region of France have been replaced by intensely hot days that produce record setting highs, making our summer peaks seem more like midday in the Mojave Desert than the temperate été days of the Mediterranean.
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012:
—Yesterday (Aug. 13), 65 record daily highs were broken or tied in the United States, with much of the heat centered on California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.In a report recently prepared by Laura Tam for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, she identified three principal climate changes that are expected to increase in severity in the Bay Area (and California):
NOAA (emphasis mine)
· Higher temperatures and heat wavesCalifornia covers 163,707 sq. miles, but only 25 to 30 percent of our water comes from local sources. The remaining 70 to 75 percent is imported, primarily through three conduits: the Colorado River Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Because of the severe drought conditions occurring in Colorado, the water that is imported through the Colorado Aqueduct is now endangered. In a sense, our entire water system is on life support.
· Changes in the hydrological cycle, including drought, flooding, and wildfire
· Sea-level rise due to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting land-based ice
Snowpacks that frequently form on California mountain peaks are expected to melt. Winter precipitation that normally falls as snow will be replaced by rain, which will have a negative impact on our ground water resources. Runoff will flow too quickly, preventing the earth from replenishing natural water storage.
Also, when snowpacks melt, the rapid runoff can create catastrophic events, primarily flooding on an epic scale. Think of New Orleans. And we could experience similar flooding events if seawater rises to predicted levels. Salinity intrusion would then damage some of our fresh water supplies, causing bacteria levels to rise in our drinking water.
Pollution of our bays caused by drainage systems and sewage dumps, both treated and untreated, is forcing local health departments to close many of California’s beaches. Despite the best efforts of environmentalists to determine the scope of the water and sand toxicity plaguing the coastline, it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem because Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenenegger, in 2008, defunded programs that monitored the health of California state beaches. Information in earlier databases, such as the 2005 records, reveal that 5,496 California beaches were closed because of bacteria levels that had exceeded public health standards. In other words, they discovered feces in the water and the sand.
From the Los Angeles Times:
But just at Los Angeles County and Orange County beaches alone, the report says, one study estimates that 600,000 to 1.5 million gastrointestinal illnesses each year might be caused by fecal contamination.And I gathered the following tidbit of information from an article written by Patrick Wall of Earth Alert:
Through the Hyperion treatment plant in El Segundo, the city of Los Angeles contributes 42.5% of Southern California’s daily output of 1 billion gallons of sewage. Of this 425-million-gallon share, only 100 million gallons—less than 25%--receives secondary treatment, which removes suspended solids missed by primary treatment. When suspended solids are removed, so are most of the toxins, which adhere to them.Contaminated urban runoff, magnified by overdevelopment, is seriously altering the health of many marine life forms that exist less than 600 feet from the surface of the ocean.
All 425 million gallons a day are pumped through a common pipe that ends five miles off Santa Monica beach in 180 feet of water. This effluent is only 60% free of toxins because only 25% of it has undergone secondary treatment. If the entire output had received secondary treatment, 90% of the toxins would have been removed.
From Think Quest:
From the land, high levels of pesticides and toxins are being carried to the oceans, dramatically affecting shallow coastal zones, sea grass marine nursery areas, and coral reefs. Over sixty percent of the raw or treated sewage produced by man, rich in nitrogen, is being dumped into the oceans causing eutrophication in coastal waters. This overabundance of nutrients is causing algae blooms world-wide, impacting the marine food web. The red tide blooms (dinoflagellate) have caused shellfish poisoning in humans and mass mortality of clams.
More than half of the solid waste generated by man and being dumped into the oceans is highly durable plastics. Marine species become entangled in plastic debris and die from ingesting fish nets [sic], plastic bags, cigarette filters and condoms. Many species die in drift nets. We consider our coastal zones a convenient alternate to landfills, dumping any waste, including radioactive materials and toxic dredged materials, into the unseen ocean depths.
L.A. Times staff writer, Kenneth R Weiss, once described the effect of climate change on the fragile biological systems living just below the ocean’s surface as “a primeval tide of toxins.” In a July 30, 2006 article, he described an event at Moreton Bay, Australia, where a strain of cyanobacteria ― a species of bacteria and algae that existed 2.7 billion years ago ― wreaked havoc on local fisherman.
Moreton Bay, Australia — The fireweed began each spring as tufts of hairy growth and spread across the seafloor fast enough to cover a football field in an hour.We have overfished, poisoned, and dumped so much oil into the Euphotic Zone that only 10% of the big fish that once existed now remain, and many of them are currently listed as endangered species. And we did this to one of the most important trophic levels of our food chain. (emphasis mine)
When fishermen touched it, their skin broke out in searing welts. Their lips blistered and peeled. Their eyes burned and swelled shut. Water that splashed from their nets spread the inflammation to their legs and torsos.
"It comes up like little boils," said Randolph Van Dyk, a fisherman whose powerful legs are pocked with scars. "At nighttime, you can feel them burning. I tried everything to get rid of them. Nothing worked.
Any prescient human can understand that the world we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren is dying. And we know that in their lifetimes, they will witness the extinction of over 50% of life that inhabits this planet. They will experience many devastating events including natural disasters and the catastrophic loss of human life. They will mourn the loss of a significant part of our forests, hunger because supplies of fruit and nuts will be limited, and suffer because of the depletion of fresh water supplies. The number of fish and marine life will be so depleted, our children and grandchildren will be eating jellyfish instead of tuna or salmon.
We have polluted almost everything they will touch, drink, eat, or breathe. And that is only a small part of the suffering they will endure because of this generation's unwillingness to protect the environment.