When the levees break – again

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill – a local farmer – is a Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency board member. (India-West file photo)

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill – a local farmer – is a Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency board member. (India-West file photo)

Sunita Sohrabji for New America Media / India West

YUBA CITY, Calif. – On Jan 2, 1997, a break in a levee on the rain-soaked Feather River – which lies north of Sacramento  – unleashed a devastating flood, leaving vital farmlands under 30-feet of water. The deluge caused $25 million in damages to the large population of Sikh American farmers, who grow most of the nation’s peaches and prunes here in the Yuba and Sutter County region.

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill, who farms 200 acres of peaches and almonds, told India-West the 1997 floods made his town a ghost town for several days.

“Everyone was evacuated, all the businesses were shut down, a lot of trees were under water, and debris, garbage, oil and lead was running through the water system.

“When I got elected six years ago, fixing the levees was my first priority. We don’t want a disaster like New Orleans happening here,” he said, referring to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Fixing the levees must be a priority for government at all levels, and for the Sikh American population in this area, said Gill, who sits on the board of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency.

“It’s a race against time,” he said.  “You never know when you’re going to get hit again and whether there will be money to fix it then.”

The levees on the Yuba and Feather Rivers, in rural Northern California, have been in a state of disrepair for at least 50 years, causing economic hardship for the area’s sizable Sikh American farming community. The constant threat of flooding threatens vital cropland, hydropower plants that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, and a rich cultural heritage of the Sikh community that dates back to the 19th century.

And while these farmers have rebuilt their lives and farms after multiple floods, they are still waiting on promised federal funding to fortify the levees and gird against the next deluge.

Central Valley Sikhs are shown dedicating a new gurdwara in Live Oak, Calif., which opened last August.(Photo: Ranjit Kondala)

Central Valley Sikhs are shown dedicating a new gurdwara in Live Oak, Calif., which opened last August.(Photo: Ranjit Kondala)

Fertile farmlands and floods

A number of tributaries flow into the Feather River, creating ideal conditions for fertile farmlands.

The Sikh American population in the area is the largest outside of India, informally estimated at 100,000 people. Ninety five percent of the nation’s peaches are farmed by Sikhs here. Sikh farmers also produce 60 percent of the nation’s prunes here, and 20 percent of the country’s almond and walnut supplies.

But, what makes the region a productive farmland also makes it flood-prone, underscoring the need for a well-maintained and robust levee system.

The 2007 assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers found 125 observed “levee performance problem locations” on the Feather River since 1955. The problems include seepage, erosion, boils, breaks and cracks. The study concluded that a levee failure at any one of the problem locations could cause flooding with a depth of one foot to over 20 feet.

The study also found that most of the levees on the system did not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) standard of a 100-year protection plan – the length of time the levee should stay intact, resulting in much higher flood insurance rates for the area’s farmers.

Jaswant Bains, president of the Sacramento Packing Company, which farms 400 acres of walnuts and prunes, told India-West he lost an estimated $1.5 million in damages to his orchards, equipment and structures during the 1997 floods.

The Indian American agricultural entrepreneur has lived in the Yuba City area for more than 43 years. He said the Punjabi farming community has kept up a steady push to get the levees repaired and in 2010 paid assessments to fund some of the work.

The region has suffered massive flooding twice before: in 1955, a levee break at the Shanghai Bend levee on the Feather River killed 38 people on Christmas Day and forced 30,000 people to evacuate the area. In 1986, 895 homes were destroyed and 3,000 people were evacuated in the farming towns of Olivehurst and Linda after a levee break on the Yuba River.

Power and water

A map of the Yuba and Feather rivers in Northern California.

A map of the Yuba and Feather rivers in Northern California.

The YCWA also annually provides 350,000 acres of water to 18 irrigation districts, serving as many as 100,000 farmers.

Curt Aikens, general manager of the YCWA, told India-West that during the 1986 and 1997 levee breakages, all four hydro-electric plants were shut down for “several days,” leaving a large segment of PG&E customers without power.

Nevertheless, said Aikens, levee damage has had minimal impact on the agency’s ability to supply water and power to the region.

PG&E manages five hydroelectric plants on the stretch of Feather River that runs closest to Yuba City and Marysville, collectively producing 353 MW of hydroelectric power.

But the damaged levees have little impact on the corporation’s ability to supply power to its consumers, according to Paul Merino, PG&E’s spokesman in Chico, Calif.

“The electricity generated by these plants isn’t dedicated,” Merino said. “It goes into a general pool from several sources.”

Digging for dollars

The Army Corps of Engineers oversees California’s extensive system of levees, which is owned by local and private agencies. Local agencies will occasionally ask ACE for help with a levee improvement project, but ACE has no overall mandate to repair or improve the state’s levee system, explained Chris Gray, a spokesman for ACE’s Sacramento district.

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who began representing this region in 2013, said ACE repair projects could take years – even decades – to begin.

“You’ve got some of the richest farmland in the nation in one of the highest hazard levee systems in the country,” he said, noting the hydrology and topography of the area.

“Devastating floods have simply wiped out their [Sikh] farms,” said Garamendi, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “They understand the necessity of improving the levees.”

Garamendi is a former Lieutenant Governor of California and he has served in Congress since 2009. He said California must prepare itself for climate change, which would bring on more, major storms and have disastrous effects on the 100 miles of levees within his district.

At a June House Transportation and Infrastructure committee hearing, Garamendi urged the Corps to fast-track levee work in his district in spite of the fact that ACE’s budget has been slashed by a quarter billion dollars.

Shanghai Bend

After long delays, two levee restoration projects are currently underway on both the Yuba and Feather rivers, but the work falls short of what is needed.

On Aug. 7, Garamendi and Rep. Doug LaMalfa joined state and local officials to kick off the Feather River West Levee Project, three years after it was slated to begin. The project aims to fix 41 miles of broken levees to get them to a 200-year level of protection at a cost of $312 million.

The project was initiated in 2010, but needed a 408 permit from ACE before beginning construction. ACE approved one mile of the complex project on July 17 this year, and approved the remaining 40 miles of the project on Sept. 13.

Traditionally, ACE has maintained its complex levee system across the country, but Garamendi noted it takes years – even decades – to get on the agency’s priority list.

The Feather River West Levee project has bypassed the ACE system and created a unique initiative funded by local assessment bonds and state dollars, and managed by local and state agencies.

Local assessments in 2010 kicked in $41 million for the project. On top of that, the State Department of Water Resources has committed $57 million to the first phase of the project, which is expected to be completed in 2015.

Delayed ACE approval means construction will start late: repair work must end in November, before the rains begin. In June, Garamendi and LaMalfa urged ACE to approve the 408 permit, noting that a break in a part of the levee could impact 40,000 residents in the area.

“We could have been going another mile this year but ACE has not given us permission,” said Mike Inamine, executive director of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency. “It’s been a very lengthy bureaucratic process. We’ve been applying a lot of pressure to Garamendi, LaMalfa and (Sen. Diane) Feinstein to get the projects approved.”

Inamine said that an additional five-mile stretch south of Yuba City has not been factored into the current project. The south stretch of the river is mostly agricultural land. The proposed project in this south area would fix levees to a FEMA-approved 100-year level of protection, reducing what Inamine called “draconian” flood insurance rates for farmers in the region.

FEMA “strangling” rural economy

FEMA regulations mandate that farmers have flood insurance against at least 100-year levels of flood protection. Inamine said that requirement is “strangling the rural economy.” No new structures can be built until the levees come up to code. Existing structures can’t be replaced.

FEMA has been remapping flood plains, designating many portions of Sutter County as a “Special Hazard Flood Area.” The remapping has raised flood insurance at cost-prohibitive rates; existing structures must also carry new insurance to meet FEMA’s standards, reports AgAlert, a weekly newspaper, quoting Sutter County farmers who said that meeting FEMA’s standards would mean a shut-down of their long-standing businesses.

Garamendi last year introduced the “Flood Insurance for Farmers” bill in Congress, which would allow farmers to build new structures and refurbish existing structures, despite the FEMA remapping. Farmers would also be allowed to purchase flood insurance at subsidized rates for new and existing structures. The measure is still pending, according to Garamendi.

Marysville Ring

A second initiative, the Marysville Ring Levee Project, finished its first phase of construction in June. The first phase was a 4,600 linear foot cut-off wall in an urban area of Marysville, reducing seepages from existing earthen levees.

All four phases of the Marysville Ring Project – a $92.5 million initiative – are expected to be completed by 2017, Robert Kidd, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, told India-West. Further construction has been stalled until additional federal funds are allocated, said Kidd, explaining that the federal government was expected to kick in two-thirds of the funds, while state and local sources would pay the remaining third. Those federal funds are in question, Kidd said, given sequestration cuts.

“Marysville has a strong interest in continuing to work on this project and reducing their risk of flooding,” said Kidd. “The community has many recent memories of flooding and has stepped up to make sure this project will get done.”

Rice Kings of Colusa

New Sikh immigrants arrive at Angel Island, circa 1910. The group arrived on the Nippon Maru from Japan, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. (File photo, courtesy of the late Tej Singh Sibia)

New Sikh immigrants arrive at Angel Island, circa 1910. The group arrived on the Nippon Maru from Japan, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. (File photo, courtesy of the late Tej Singh Sibia)

Economic hardships amid the forces of nature embody that Sikh American experience in the region.

Sikhs and Muslims migrated to Yuba City around 1907. Few of them spoke English, and they didn’t have professional skills, so they turned to farming.

The small community, never larger than 10,000, was not allowed to own land, but nevertheless leased thousands of acres. Later, changing miscegenation laws allowed the Indian American pioneers to marry Mexican women and buy land in their names.

“It’s amazing how well they did, given all the restrictions,” said Bruce LaBrack, professor emeritus at the University of the Pacific, noting that back in the day, Indian farmers in the region were known as “The Rice Kings of Colusa.”

He said the Sikh farmers have always been resilient.

“Farms got washed away, but then the rains stopped, the floods receded, the levees were repaired and they got back to work,” he said.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.

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The Connection Between Greenhouse Gases, Climate Change & Global Warming



Climate change is the shift in long-term, global weather patterns due to human action; it’s not exclusive to warming or cooling.

Climate change includes any change resulting from different factors, like deforestation or an increase in greenhouse gases. Global warming is one type of climate change, and it refers to the increasing temperature of the surface of Earth. According to NASA, the term global warming gained popular use after geochemist Wallace Broecker published a 1975 paper titled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?

Since 1880, the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by roughly 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit, but the rate it’s increasing is faster than that, depending on which region you live in. If you’re closer to the equator, temperatures are increasing more slowly. The fastest increase in temperatures in the United States is in Alaska, where average temperatures have been increases by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit per century. For a graph of average global temperatures by year, see the NASA website here.



Greenhouse gases are those thought to contribute to the greenhouse effect, an overall warming of the Earth as atmospheric gases trap electromagnetic radiation from the sun that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These gases are thought to affect the climate directly and indirectly, even though they constitute only a small fraction of the blanket of gases that make up the atmosphere.

Currently, the composition of the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with just 0.033 percent carbon dioxide and all other gases accounting for even less.



According to 2010 models cited by NASA, 20 percent of the greenhouse effect is attributed directly to carbon dioxide and 5 percent to all other greenhouse gases. The remaining 75 percent of the greenhouse effect is thought to be due to water vapor and clouds, which are naturally-occurring. However, even though carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases are such a small percentage of the total gas in the atmosphere, they affect when, where and how clouds form, so greenhouse gases have some relevance when it comes to 100 percent of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is thought to modulate the overall climate, like a atmospheric thermostat.

Some greenhouse gases are produced in natural processes, like forest fires, animal manure and respiration, or volcanic eruptions. However, the majority of new greenhouse gases are produced from industrial processes and energy production.

The four largest human sources of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2009 were energy, non-fuel use of fossil fuels, natural gas production, and cement manufacture, in descending order. Non-fuel, greenhouse gas-producing applications of fuels include industrial production like asphalt, lubricants, waxes and other . Emissions related to cement manufacture happen when limestone (calcium carbonate) is reacted with silica to make clinker, the lumps ground to make cement. ( Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis.)

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Water Depends on Energy, Or Is It The Other Way Around?

The United States took more than 400 billion gallons of water out of the ground, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs daily in 2005.  (more…)

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Ocean Energy

You don’t have to talk about hurricanes and tsunamis to know that the oceans are powerful. People have dreamed about harnessing their energies for centuries, and today there are many projects worldwide experimenting with just how to plug into the oceans.

However, ocean energy projects are expensive because of the nature of their energy source. The salty seas can be corrosive, unpredictable, and destructive.

Several aspects of the ocean’s energy can be exploited to generate power;  we’re not limited to the crashing waves. The three most well-developed ideas are tidal power, wave power, and ocean thermal energy conversion.

There are many different projects in various stages of development in coastal states today. However, as yet, ocean energy isn’t a significant source of energy nationally.

Ocean energy is renewable, and it’s clean because of its lack of emissions. However, using ocean energy along coastlines can cause conflict with other coastal uses – transportation and scenic oceanfront – and ocean energy can as affect marine life and environmental conditions.



Wave energy capitalizes on the power of waves as they roll through the ocean. There are small wave systems generating small amounts of electricity today, though the development costs are high and it is difficult to design equipment that can withstand the salt water, weather and water pressures.

Systems have to be designed for average waves but must also withstand the much stronger waves that occur in seasonal storms and the extreme waves that appear only rarely. Waves shift direction, so systems are designed to move to optimize direction.

Prototype plants currently operating have capacities of fractions of a megawatt, which is the tiniest drop in the bucket compared to average-sized power plants in the hundreds of megawatts.

There are over 100 wave energy technologies in various states of planning and testing or in operation as prototypes. However only one type is operating commercially, the Pelamis Wave Power, according to the World Energy Council.

In the United States there are other projects in planning or testing in Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, and California.



Using the potential energy of rising and falling ocean tides is called tidal energy.

One way of harnessing the tides is to trap the high tide behind dams.When the ocean rises to its highest tide, the dam is closed and high water is held in a reservoir by the dam. After the water recedes in low tide, the trapped water can be released through turbines like in hydroelectric plants.

Tidal energy plants of this type demand a large height difference between high and low tides, a condition that applies to only select global locations. However, research is ongoing to bypass this limitation.

The one major tidal power plant in operation is the 240 megawatt plant in La Rance, France, which has been operating since 1966, according to World Energy Council. There is also an 18 MW experimental plant in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and a 0.4 megawatt plant near Murmansk, Russia.

Tidal energy can have the same drawbacks as hydroelectric power, such that dams may interfere with aquatic life.



Thermal energy conversion harnesses the difference in temperature between the warm, surface waters of the ocean and the colder, deep water. The two temperatures of water are matched to a fluid that has a low boiling point, like ammonia. Using the heat of the warmer water in a heat exchanger, the ammonia is evaporated and, once in gas phase, it rotates a turbine. Then, the colder seawater cools the ammonia back to liquid in a second heat exchanger. The rotating turbine generates electricity.

Open-cycle thermal energy conversion is similar but uses low pressure vessels to boil the warm surface water, instead of employing a fluid like ammonia. Water will boil at lower than its boiling point if the pressure is less than atmosphere. The steam runs a turbine, and then the cold seawater cools the steam back into fluid water.

These projects are expensive and difficult to site, since they must have deep enough water to get a substantial enough difference in temperature, yet the site must also be close enough to shore to transmit electricity.

Thermal plants can change the temperature gradient of the ocean around them, having a potential affect on marine life.

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Energy Efficiency, Principles of Consumption, and Conservation

A blower-door test.

Transportation efficiency
Calculating home energy
Lighting efficiency
Heating and Cooling



When trying to lower your energy use, a good place to start is getting a picture of the many ways you use energy now.




An average American uses more than four times as much energy per year than the global average, 308 million British thermal units (Btu) annually, compared to 73 million Btu per person per year globally,according to recent U.S. government estimates. That guess doesn’t account for foreigners’ use of gathered fuels like wood or manure. However, it also doesn’t include the foreign energy used to source, assemble, and ship an endless profusion of products to the United States from other countries, like China.

The most straightforward uses that you can measure and control are probably in the home and through transportation. Every year, the average car in the United States is driven 12,300 miles and consumes about 67.8 million Btu worth of fuel. On average, Americans use more energy in homes than for transport.  The average household uses less (around 41 million Btu worth of electricity). However, to use electricity at home, we have to generate an additional 90 million Btu of primary energy at the power plant, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. What is a Btu?



Untangling the individual’s footprint comes with unrelenting complexities. Perhaps you live in an apartment in a big city and commute to work on the train, plug in your phone and computer at work, eat out every day, shower at a gym, and only come home to sleep. Maybe you travel for work, and your employer pays the expenses. You may pay almost nothing for energy directly. Yet, you are participating in energy use through your work, transportation, food, clothes, water, air travel, and electronic devices.

It’s also difficult to calculate how much energy is used up in buying new things. If you replace your car every two years, or you have a large home that you’re constantly remodeling, chances are your true energy footprint is much larger than you will be able to calculate.

The good news is you can calculate some aspects of your energy use and reduce it. And even if you plug in at work, it’s quite possible to make a decent ballpark estimate of how much energy that takes, too.



As a driving culture with access to cheap fuels — relative to our incomes — Americans use a lot of energy getting around. Transportation of goods and people accounted for almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Reducing energy use in transportation is guaranteed by replacing car, truck, or motorcycle trips with biking or walking. For a normal healthy adult, walking a mile or two daily should be well within reach. Biking is a faster option, but it’s often considered a child’s transportation method in the United States. In countries like the Netherlands, it’s ordinary to see anyone on a bike, from babies in handlebar seats to well-groomed professionals.

Nonetheless, social customs, transportation infrastructure, suburban development, weather, and promotion of driving over other forms of transportation make it inconvenient and sometimes impossible to change Americans’ driving habits, at least without changing jobs or moving to a new city. A 2005 ABC News/Time magazine/Washington Post poll found that only 4 percent of 1,203 Americans used public transportation to get to work.

Even if driving is a must, driving efficiency can be improved. More efficient vehicles are available, like hybrids and some electric vehicles. Fuel economy can be improved by better car design and better driving. There’s also car-sharing and carpooling.

Analyzing, grouping, and prioritizing destinations can cut down on unnecessary trips. Yes, getting to work is mandatory perhaps, but a whopping 85 percent of car trips are for shopping, errands, and social or recreational reasons, according to a 2001-2002 government survey.

Other alternatives include public transit, ridesharing, and smaller transportation modes like skateboards, scooters, Segways and even electric bikes.

In China, the low-speed electric bicycle is extremely popular and far more efficient than driving or even taking the bus. It’s a regular pedal bike with a rechargeable battery that boosts the pedaler’s power but doesn’t travel faster than about 12.4 miles per hour. Somewhat heavier than standard bikes, electric bikes can still be pedaled without power on the flat or downhill, and the battery can help the rider stay sweat-free and comfortable on the uphill climb.



Estimating home energy use is getting easier now that utilities have installed smart meters that display electricity demand moment-to-moment. Depending on the utility that supplies your power, if you have a smart meter, you may already be able to log in online and track your hour-by-hour power use on any particular day, compare weekdays to weekends, or see if the house-sitter blasted the air conditioning. You can see how much electricity your home draws right now, and you can turn on and off appliances to see how each one contributes.

If you don’t have a smart meter, to calculate the energy that individual items in your home use, you need to look up how many watts each device — televisions, refrigerators, computers, routers, lights, electric air and water heaters — uses. That nameplate wattage is usually printed on the device.

Some sample nameplate wattages (watts):

Clock radio: 10
Coffeemaker: 10
Dishwasher: 1200-2400
Ceiling fan: 65-175
Space heater: 750-1500
Computer: 200-300 (awake), 20-60 asleep
Laptop: 50
Refrigerator: 725

Weekly energy per device = wattage x hours it’s “ON” per week

For devices that cycle on and off, like refrigerators and air conditioners, you’ll divide the resulting number by three.

You’ll also want to examine how much natural gas, propane, or other fuels you use for heating and cooling space, heating water, and cooking. While electric devices tend to be more efficient than gas-powered devices in your home, electric devices actually tend to use more energy overall because of loss of efficiency when the electricity was generated and transmitted to your home.

If you’re in the market for replacing you refrigerator or other appliance, and want to find out more about efficient options, a good resource for information is the Energy Star program.

Another detailed resource for tracking your energy-related emissions of greenhouse gas is the Home Energy Saver, built by the U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Know that devices don’t precisely use what their nameplate wattage says. Various factors affect how much energy something uses. For example, using the maximum brightness setting on a laptop computer will require more energy. Air conditioners will require much more energy to operate in very hot weather not only because it’s hotter outside but because the refrigerant becomes less efficient as it gets warmer, particularly if the refrigerant gets into the high nineties Fahrenheit. See below for more about heating and cooling.



You can improve your efficiency by replacing appliances and redoing construction, but you can also conserve energy by using less demanding settings, adjusting the thermostat, and turning items like computers and televisions off when they’re unused.



Unlike the days of candles and whale oil lamps, today we have many electrical lighting options. Our most popular, the standard 100 watt bulb, is being phased out, in part due to Clean Energy Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007.  The maximum wattage incandescent bulb allowed will be 29 watts by 2014, down 70 percent from pre-2011 levels.

Instead, that type of bulb will be replaced by lower wattage incandescent bulbs, as well as compact fluorescent bulbs and even light-emitting diodes.

We can save lighting energy by

1. Turning off unused lights

2. Changing the type of light bulbs we use (see chart)

3. Changing the lighting plan, including adding natural light in the form of windows and skylights and solar tubes.

For more information about design, see the Energy Savers website.

Light can be measured in lumens. A 100 watt incandescent light bulb gives off around 1750 lumens.

The standard light bulb has a tungsten filament that exhibits incandescence when electric current travels through it. The filament burns out over time. The bulb keeps the filament in a special gas atmosphere like argon, instead of being exposed to regular air. Tungsten halogen bulbs operate somewhat similarly, with an incandescent filament, but the bulb contains halogen gas, which helps keep the filament from burning out as quickly.

Compact fluorescent bulbs, the sometimes spiral-looking bulbs, fluoresce instead of incandesce. Electric current travels through argon gas and a small amount of mercury vapor, which emit ultraviolet light. That light, in turn, excites a phosphor (fluorescent) coating on the inside of the bulb, which then emits visible light. So called CFLs are far more efficient and have much longer lifetimes. They do, however, contain a small amount of toxic mercury vapor and shouldn’t be thrown into the trash.

LEDs are also much more efficient than incandescent bulbs and don’t emit mercury if they’re broken. This technology is  sometimes called Solid State — even though the type of physics that the name is based upon has now changed to Condensed Matter. Extremely long-lived and very energy efficient, LED’s use around 20 percent of the energy of an incandescent for the same amount of light. However, they are far more expensive than similar fluorescent or incandescent options. For more about how LEDs work, go here.



Heating and cooling take a lot of energy. Replacing heaters, refrigerators, and single-paned windows costs money. Ripping out walls to add insulation is scary and can become a huge project.

However, today, a wide array of tools and professionals are available to assess the efficiency of heating and cooling and put it into perspective with cost. Home efficiency experts can use infrared detectors to track where heat is lost, and they can use blower door tests to check how quickly air is being exchanged with the outdoors through holes and leaky ducts.

Blower door tests change the air pressure inside a building relative to the outside to measure how quickly the air pressure returns to normal. If you walks through a pressurized house during the test, you can also track where air is leaking.

Even without a professional, you can reassess your home energy use. For tips on do-it-yourself home energy assessment, try the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website.



1. Repairing leaky ducts, an often neglected source of heat loss! Ducts are much easier to access than replacing insulation, and they often have holes and cracks, making them a major  source of cold air infiltration, and also indoor air pollution.  Leaks suck in cold, dirty crawl space air including asbestos, dirt, and volatile chemicals (paint thinners, pesticides) that we stow or spray under the house. For more about indoor air quality see the Environmental Protection Agency’s website here.

2. Improve insulation and weather stripping, and seal up cracks. Use curtains or blinds to trap heat in during the winter and block sun out during the summer.

3. Replace air conditioners and heaters with more efficient models.

4. If you live in a dry climate, open windows to vent your home in the evenings, keep windows closed and A/C on during the morning before its the hottest hour of the day. Resist cranking the A/C up during the hottest hours of the day when the coolant fluid is the least efficient.

5. Replace windows and doors with better rated ones. For more about how windows are rated see the National Fenestration Rating Council.



The invention of new electricity-dependent devices outstrips the speed that we are making our homes more efficient. Today, heating, refrigerators, and air conditioners are using less energy, but televisions, computers, and an ever-expanding selection of other electronics are demanding more. For more about electricity in the home see the Basics of Electricity and how energy moves through the home.



A British thermal unit – almost always written Btu or BTU – is a measurement of thermal energy.  The scientific community usually uses the more manageable unit of the joule, which is a metric measurement of energy.  (A Btu is roughly 1,000 joules) A Btu is the English unit.

Fuels are often measured in Btu to show how much potential they have to heat water into steam or provide energy in other ways, like to engines. Steam turbines produce most of the electricity in the United States.


For more about the Smart Grid go to the Power Grid Technology section.

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Groundwater, the Water Cycle, and Depletion


Water is created and destroyed in natural chemical reactions within plants and animals. However, most water sticks around. It changes phases through the water cycle; it can become polluted with salt, toxic chemicals, or pathogenic organisms. However, it generally doesn’t go away, globally speaking.

The water, or hydrologic, cycle describes how water moves through the atmosphere, on the Earth’s surface, and underground.

As “surface water” in the lakes, streams, rivers and oceans warms from the sun’s electromagnetic radiation, some evaporates into the atmosphere.

This water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into rain and snow, called precipitation. The precipitation falls on the Earth, eventually feeding into streams, lakes, and oceans. Some of the water seeps into the ground and collects in underground aquifers as groundwater. About 20 percent of the U.S. water supply comes from groundwater.

Groundwater can resurface from springs or it can discharge into lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans. High pressures deep inside the Earth can force groundwater up through artesian wells, or groundwater can be pumped up or pulled up in old-fashioned buckets from wells. (“Artesian” means that there’s sufficient water pressure that the groundwater need not be pumped).

Briones Reservoir in Northern California

Humans use water from the surface sources (lakes, rivers, oceans), we collect rainwater and snowmelt, and we also use groundwater. Most of this water gets discharged back out into waterways or oceans. However, water used in homes and businesses is sent to municipal water treatment, after which it is discharged into waterways, returning to the water cycle.




Groundwater isn’t as free-flowing as surface water. Predicting and modeling how it flows is wildly complex, factoring for what’s dissolved in the water and what materials it’s moving through, in three dimensions. What is easy to say is groundwater moves slower than surface water, and it gets recharged more slowly. Because modeling is complex, and tracking depletion involves drilling wells, it’s far more difficult to gauge groundwater depletion than water shortages on the surface.

When groundwater is depleted, it is still there, just lower down, as many as several hundred feet lower in extreme cases. However unseen it is, groundwater depletion – and the lowering of the water table – is very serious for several reasons.

Trees and plants rely on groundwater, and if they cannot reach water with their roots in regions where it doesn’t rain all year long, they can die, and with them all the life that depends upon them.

For people who rely on well-water, depletion can be equally disastrous. As the depth needed to reach the water increases, the amount of energy required to pump it out also increases. Lowering the water table can pollute the water, as saltwater zones can underly freshwater zones.

And even for those who depend on surface water, which is all of us, groundwater depletion can have its effect because ground water feeds surface water and vice-versa. Groundwater depletion can reduce the amount of water in streams and lakes, even if the effects take years to become obvious.



An apartment building in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

As the water table lowers from groundwater depletion, the materials within the ground dry out and the ground can actually collapse in on itself, either suddenly or slowly over time, a phenomenon called subsidence. The most dramatic incidents of subsidence are sinkholes, but most of the sinking is happening imperceptibly slowly. This sinking is why some regions of the Netherlands came to be below sea level; centuries of pumping water out of the peat-based soils shrank them, and the land — protected from flooding by the North Sea and Rhine River waters behind dikes — sunk lower and lower.

Today, subsidence from pumping of water has been recorded all over the United States, but the Santa Clara Valley in California was the first area in the country where land subsidence from human use of groundwater was recognized and the first place that organized remediation to stop the subsidence in 1969, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

While today the region is best known for its Silicon Valley technology, in the late nineteenth century, Santa Clara was full of fruit orchards irrigated with groundwater, much of it from artesian wells, meaning that the wells filled themselves with the pressure of the water created by confined aquifers. Constant reliance on this easy source of groundwater meant by 1930, wells that formerly filled themselves had to be pumped, and by 1964 one well in downtown San Jose had sunk well over 200 feet below the surface.  As water was permanently removed from the ground, the ground shrank, and by 1984, downtown San Jose had sunk quite substantially, to just 84 feet above sea level from 98 feet above sea level in 1910.


For more about water use and energy see here.

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