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Food Waste Diversion is Key to a Sustainable Community

2014 December 10

By Lillianne Brown

Editor’s note: We’re happy to have this blog post from one of this year’s President’s Environmental Youth Award winners.

Over 20% of our country’s landfills consist of food we throw away.

When this organic waste breaks down in the landfill with other types of waste, it produces methane gas. When organic waste breaks down separate from the other waste in your composting bin, it creates carbon dioxide. Both methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, but methane is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Plus, the compost created from the diverted organic waste is a nutrient rich soil that can be used to garden. Diverting food waste is important because it turns something usually considered waste into a resource, which also decreases the amount of emissions from landfills.

Our project, Zero Waste Composting, has worked with area businesses, restaurants and schools to help divert food waste from landfills. Reducing organic waste has had a significant impact here in Iowa City. Our landfill is able to now produce more compost for the community to use. More people are educated on why composting is important and how they can take part in reducing organic waste in landfills. And, it saves space in the landfills, is economically viable because it generates money for the landfill, and produces less harmful greenhouse gases.

Students diverting food waste instead of throwing it away.

Students diverting food waste instead of throwing it away.

The diversion process and its benefits shouldn’t only be limited to our community. Many communities can get involved and help decrease the amount of food waste being sent to their landfills. Diversion can take place in homes, schools, restaurants and businesses.

At home, families can create a backyard compost pile that can benefit their garden. Food scraps, like coffee filters, egg shells and vegetable and fruit scraps can all be composted in a home composting area. Schools, restaurants and businesses can also start diverting their food waste. It’s an easy transition, with many third-party businesses willing to help. Most food waste, including meat and dairy, can be diverted when being sent to a commercial composting facility. The food waste is then hauled away to a composting facility.

Other cities and towns can learn from our successes and divert food waste from their landfills as well. Communities should start by contacting their local landfill to see what options are available for organic waste diversion in their region. Schools, restaurants and businesses should then educate students, employees and consumers about the benefits of composting before implementing a diversion program. If a compost facility is unavailable in a region, communities can still divert organic waste by showing families how to create backyard compost piles and compost their home food and yard scraps. The model we used is simple, and many communities can implement it.

About the author: Lillianne Brown is a senior at Iowa City High School in Iowa City. She is a member of the Zero Waste Composting team and won the President’s Environmental Youth Award in 2014.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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America’s Water Future: Smart, Green, Distributed

2014 December 5

By Charlotte Ely

I was raised with the saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To save water, I started making changes in my own home. Following the advice I’ve given to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities through my work with EPA’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, I assessed our use, identified ways we could save water, and made improvements.

I replaced inefficient fixtures and appliances with WaterSense and Energy Star models. I fixed leaks. Most recently, I installed a graywater system. Residential graywater is water from showers, baths, bathroom sinks or washing machines. Graywater can be used instead of drinking water to safely and beneficially irrigate gardens. The graywater system meets much of our outdoor water needs. Since installed, our household consumption has dropped to an average of 19 gallons per person per day — 60% less than the San Francisco average of 49 gallons per day and 80% less than the national average of 100 gallons per day.

 

The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.

The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.

 

As California enters its fourth year of drought, I’m struck both by the immensity of the challenges ahead, and the incredible potential to re-think how we manage our water resources. Innovative water management practices, such as residential graywater and on-site commercial re-use are examples of the kinds of investments that will help communities adapt to water scarcity. One good example is San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s headquarters building which uses 60% less water than similar sized buildings by reclaiming and treating all of the building’s wastewater on site.

I’m especially encouraged by organizations helping to re-envision our water infrastructure as a smart, green and distributed network:

  • Smart: Uses data analytics to optimize utility management.
  • Green: Use strategic landscaping to capture rainfall for reuse or recharge.
  • Distributed: Has onsite treatment and reuse.

Organizations, like Imagine H2O, are cultivating innovative concepts, technologies and entrepreneurs to help communities adapt—not only to climate change impacts such as drought, but also to an escalating need to invest in our nation’s drinking and clean water infrastructure. This year, Imagine H2O’s annual challenge will honor scalable, cost-effective solutions that improve water and wastewater infrastructure. I’m excited to see what the contestants come up with!

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” If we could change how we manage water, could we also change the ‘tendency’ of the water? Would it be less scarce? Less polluted? How do you think we can make our water infrastructure smarter, greener and more distributed?

About the author: Charlotte Ely joined EPA’s San Francisco office in 2006. She works for the Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, helping communities throughout the southwest increase the water and energy efficiency of their water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Helping the Hungry and the Environment this Holiday Season

2014 December 4

By Gabrielle Posard

Editor’s note: We’re happy to have this blog post from one of this year’s President’s Environmental Youth Award winners.

Five years ago, I was inspired to create a non-profit after learning a shocking statistic: one in five people in our country struggle to feed their families, while billions of pounds of good food are dumped into landfills.

This rotting food is a major source of methane gas, which speeds up climate change. It also wastes precious resources like water and is one of the largest sources of solid waste by weight.

Sadly, a third of the food that’s grown and bought in the U.S. gets wasted and thrown away. Millions of tons of fruit and vegetables rot in fields because they are misshapen or discolored. Major retail grocery chains are more likely to throw away fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats than to donate them to food banks. Although the federal “Good Samaritan Food Donation Act” protects grocers, growers, and food companies from liability, many are unaware of the legislation.

Most food reaching its “best before date” or “freshest by date” remains edible for up to one week if refrigerated properly. Foods with short shelf lives are most often tossed in grocery store dumpsters, but that food is often the healthiest. Diverting that good food to food banks instead of dumping it lowers the company’s dumpster fees, has potential tax benefits and reduces landfill waste.

The non-profit I founded addresses critical environmental concerns created by commercial food waste; millions of pounds of healthy short shelf life foods can feed hungry children instead of clogging landfills. We’ve also provided volunteer opportunities to thousands of teens across multiple states. Most of these teens were previously unaware of the environmental issues food waste creates and had never volunteered before to help the environment.

The holidays are a time many Americans give thanks for what they have, and want to help those who are struggling. We invite you to get involved this holiday season to decrease food waste, help alleviate hunger, and raise awareness about commercial food waste.

Gabrielle at the food distribution her non-profit, Donate Don’t Dump, runs where over 4,000 pounds of rescued food go to hundreds of people twice a month. This year, they were credited with an increase of over 1,000,000 total pounds in rescued food donations for one food bank alone, which went to feed families, not landfills.

Gabrielle at the food distribution her non-profit, Donate Don’t Dump, runs where over 4,000 pounds of rescued food go to hundreds of people twice a month. This year, they were credited with an increase of over 1,000,000 total pounds in rescued food donations for one food bank alone, which went to feed families, not landfills.

About the author: Gabrielle created Donate Don’t Dump as a way to get surplus and short-dated food from grocers, growers and food companies donated to the hungry instead of dumped into landfills. Her non-profit is 100% volunteer and teen-run with over 4,000 participants.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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40 Years of the Safe Drinking Water Act: The Small Systems Challenge

2014 November 25

By Mindy Eisenberg, Protection Branch Chief

When I meet operators and managers of water systems from small cities and towns, I’m always impressed by the tremendous pride they take in their local water services.

Today, more than 94% of the country’s 156,000 drinking water systems are small, serving fewer than 3,300 people. But maintaining those systems can be a real challenge. Having such a small customer base can make it tough to pay for needed repairs, hire and retain qualified operators or plan for future needs. Also, a large number of small water systems are actually schools, campgrounds or restaurants, so water service is not their primary function.

In 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to create new programs with small systems in mind. Now we partner with states to help these small systems reliably provide safe drinking water to their customers.

One of the ways the Safe Drinking Water Act helps small systems is through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Each year, we allocate funding to states, and then states use the money to finance drinking water infrastructure projects at low interest rates. States can also use some of these funds to provide training for operators and managers of small systems, help them with energy conservation and water efficiency, and implement source water protection programs.

We administer a national Training and Technical Assistance Grant for small drinking water systems. This year, we awarded over $12 million to technical assistance providers to help small systems with training and on-site technical assistance.

We also produce guides and tools for small drinking water systems. Projects include a software tool to track scheduled maintenance activities and develop a plan to manage their physical infrastructure (or assets); a series of fact sheets highlighting water and wastewater internships, community college programs and mentoring for new operators; and several fact sheets to help small systems with energy and water efficiency.

As we mark the 40th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, we’re as committed as ever to helping small drinking water systems to deliver safe and reliable drinking water to their communities. Their operators and managers should be proud. Against some tough odds, they do a commendable job.

About the author:  Mindy Eisenberg is the Chief of the Protection Branch in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. Her branch is responsible for overseeing the Public Water System Supervision program, Tribal drinking water infrastructure program, Capacity Development program and Operator Certification program, as well as managing training and technical assistance grants to assist small systems.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Importance of Effective Community Engagement for Sustainable Infrastructure

2014 November 24

By Hiwot Gebremariam

Maintaining water infrastructure is a constant challenge, but effective community engagement practices can help. I am a first-hand witness of the usefulness of these practices. Growing up in Ethiopia, I saw community bathrooms and water wells properly maintained only when communities were appropriately consulted and empowered.

I notice parallel situations in my career, too. While working for the United Nations in 2009/2010 on promoting public-private partnerships, I remember a water and sewerage project in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania that failed because consumers were not properly consulted on user rates.

At EPA,  I am part of the Infrastructure Task Force’s solid waste sub-workgroup that investigates strategies for engaging with American Indian/Alaska Native tribes and villages to promote sustainable solutions for solid waste issues, including open dumps. Indeed, evidence shows that utilities need to undertake effective community engagement to achieve sustainability goals.

This is also seen in some programs that I work on: the Clean Water Indian Set-Aside, Alaska Rural and Native Village Grant Program and the U.S.-Mexico Tribal Border Infrastructure Grant Program. The positive impacts of these programs, which increase access to safe drinking water and wastewater services, are being seen in public health and ecosystems’ improvements.

To sustainably maintain this infrastructure, effective community engagement practices are universally essential. Community engagement should consider communities’ specific needs, technical capacities, cultural and socioeconomic conditions. They should involve community members and social institutions at all phases in the decision-making process from the design, construction and completion to the operation and maintenance of projects.

At the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council public meeting held in early October this year, participants, including tribal representatives, echoed this argument. EPA is undertaking initiatives to enhance meaningful community engagement. As we observe Native American Heritage Month this November, I remain proud to participate in EPA’s initiatives that provide needed infrastructure in tribal areas and to work with people who constantly aim to make a difference.

About the author: Hiwot Gebremariam has two graduate degrees in economics and environmental science and policy analysis. She currently works as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. She grew up in Ethiopia and now lives in Maryland with her husband and three boys.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Kids Deserve Safe Drinking Water at School and at Home

2014 November 18

By Dr. Francine St-Denis, OGWDW

I love watching my boys playing outside. After running around, they’ll bound up to the nearest water fountain for a drink of water. Nothing seems to beat the fascination my boys and most young kids seem to have with water fountains. It could be that the bubbling stream of water offers numerous possibilities for misadventures like splashing your brother. But I know they need water to stay healthy and hydrated. As a parent, I am very interested in making sure that the water our children are drinking is safe. As a scientist in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, that is my top priority!

The majority of kids in the United States, including my own, spend large portions of their day in school. Most schools and child care facilities receive their drinking water from nearby public water systems. Public water systems must comply with the strict drinking water quality standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Water pipes and plumbing fixtures in school buildings can affect the quality of the drinking water. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen water fountains at child care facilities or schools that needed cleaning. Best practices for drinking water in our schools and child care facilities include the following actions:

  1. Clean water fountains daily (reduces bacteria) and clean debris out of faucet outlet screens (to remove particulate lead and other sediments).
  2. Test for your drinking water for lead. The only way to know if your children are exposed to elevated lead levels is to test it.

Over the years, we’ve taken steps to raise awareness of lead in drinking water as a possible source of lead contamination and to encourage facilities to test. As an example of those efforts, EPA has entered into a three-year agreement with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Calhoun County Public Health Department to conduct testing at schools and child care facilities in Calhoun County, Michigan, for lead in drinking water.

For recommendations on how to improve the drinking water in your building, please read EPA’s Drinking Water Best Management Practices for Schools and Child Care Facilities Guide.

For more information about the Safe Drinking Water Act, visit: www2.epa.gov/safedrinkingwater40

About the author: Francine St-Denis is a chemist in the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW), where she serves as the implementation rule manager for the Lead and Copper Rule and the Radionuclides Rule. She also leads OGWDW’s efforts to reduce lead in drinking water in schools and child care facilities.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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An Internship that Wasn’t a Waste

2014 November 17

By Sarah Martynowski

During the summer, EPA hosts several events to provide interns with enriching experiences in the D.C. metropolitan area. Last summer, we visited the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, located along the Potomac River.  Designed to treat an average daily flow of 370 million gallons of wastewater per day, Blue Plains is the largest treatment plant of its kind in the world. It’s known globally for its state-of-the-art technology and innovative research.

We began the tour at the point where 1,800 miles of pipes bring both raw sewage and stormwater into the plant from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The first step screens and removes grit.  Then the wastewater moves through primary and secondary treatment. Primary treatment is a physical process that removes floating materials, while secondary treatment is a biological process that removes organic matter. And while most treatment plants stop after primary and secondary treatment, the advanced system at Blue Plains continues the process to remove nitrogen and phosphorous that can hurt local waterways. The treated water then passes through filters and is disinfected before flowing into the Potomac River.

Blue Plains is currently constructing an anaerobic digestion facility and a thermal hydrolysis process to further treat the solids that are removed in the treatment process. The digesters will produce enough biogas to generate 10 megawatts of electricity: enough to provide one-third of the plant’s own power requirements. The thermal hydrolysis process will create “Class A” biosolids that can be safely applied to land as a fertilizer.

DC Water is also working to improve treatment of its “combined sewer system,” meaning that storm water and wastewater come together when it rains.  A massive tunneling project called “the Clean Rivers Project” will capture excess flows.  Currently, many of these combined sewers become overloaded during storms and raw sewage overflows into local rivers.  When the tunnel system is complete in 2025, most of these excess flows will be captured and conveyed to Blue Plains for treatment.  As a result, DC Water expects to reduce overflows by 96 percent.

Our tour was an excellent opportunity to learn about wastewater treatment plants, beyond just the information found in my environmental textbooks. I may never operate a wastewater treatment plant, but I think it’s important to understand how they work and their vital role in keeping our waters clean and healthy.

About the author: Sarah Martynowski is a senior at the University of Cincinnati majoring in environmental studies and political science. She was an intern for EPA’s Office of Water during the summer of 2014.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Your city tests your tap water regularly. Find out what they’ve learned.

2014 November 6

By Adrienne Harris

“Is my city’s tap water safe?” I get this question from friends and family a lot because I work in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. Just recently, my parents moved to a new city and asked me if there was anything in the drinking water that they should be worried about. My response was, “Go read the latest Consumer Confidence Report!”

Many Americans get their water from a “community drinking water system,” including people living in cities, towns, manufactured housing communities and other facilities where people live full-time, such as nursing homes.  Each spring, all community water systems in the United States send an annual water quality report, or consumer confidence report (CCR), to their customers (either by mail or online). After explaining that to my parents, we hopped on the computer and quickly found the CCR for their city posted online. We learned that their city had performed a total of more than 150,000 tests for different contaminants in their drinking water – and none were found to exceed EPA’s drinking water limits.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was passed in 1974. In 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to require all community water systems to provide consumer confidence reports to their customers. Every CCR must contain information about the water system’s drinking water source, possible contaminants and health effects, and other relevant information (to see all the requirements, go to http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/ccr/index.cfm). Systems are required to deliver this information to every consumer.  Sometimes the CCR contains other useful information, too. My best friend is an avid fish collector who appreciated the information in her CCR about using her drinking water for her fish tank.

Water systems are also able to link to their online CCR on EPA’s website. Not all systems do that, but you can check for yours at: http://cfpub.epa.gov/safewater/ccr/index.cfm.

Like my parents, I also rely on my CCR to keep me informed about my city’s water. The Safe Drinking Water Act has strict standards for water quality in order to protect public health. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, take a moment to review your CCR.

About the author: Adrienne Harris joined the U.S. EPA in 2005 as an environmental scientist and currently works in the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.  Adrienne serves a rule manager of the Disinfectants and Disinfection By-products Rules, Public Notification Rule and the Consumer Confidence Report Rule.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Getting an Education on Septic Systems

2014 October 30

By Leslie Corcelli

Most of us don’t think or talk about where things go when we flush. Let’s face it, it’s a little awkward. However, I’m fortunate enough to be an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Around here, wastewater is the topic. Guess what? There’s a lot more to it than you think.

Did you know that nearly one million households in Virginia have onsite wastewater treatment systems? Many of these are septic systems. For many households and communities, there are site limitations that prevent traditional systems from being practical. That’s where alternative systems are essential.

During EPA’s annual SepticSmart Week, I attended a tour that demonstrated five types of alternative onsite wastewater systems in northern Virginia. The tour covered Fairfax and Loudoun counties and was hosted by Virginia Department of Health, which was accompanied by the Fairfax County Division of Environmental Health and the Loudoun County Health Department.

We visited five very different sites — a residential home, a volunteer fire department, a low-income community, a commercial center, and a residential community with 25 homes. They ranged in age from old to new, and the amount of wastewater generated per day varied from 750 gallons to 22,000 gallons. There were dispersal systems, black water recycling, drainfield systems and sand filters.

In addition to the technical information, I took something else away with me. There are some seriously dedicated wastewater and health professionals at the local, regional, state and federal level who are committed to ensuring public health through effective wastewater management. They have to consider planning, design, installation, and ongoing operations and management, not to mention local, state and federal laws. They also engage with a variety of stakeholders, including the individuals and communities for whom the alternative systems are necessary. It’s quite a feat.

They’re amazing folks, but they need our help. I now realize how important it is for us to do our part. For those of us with septic systems, we need to think much more about what happens when we flush. These systems require maintenance and ongoing management. Maintaining your septic system will save you money and protect your property and environment. Go to http://epa.gov/septicsmart to learn how.

About the author: Leslie Corcelli is an ORISE research participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West Part 2

2014 October 28

Welcome to part two of my blog on the California drought. In my last blog, I discussed how low rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures are worsening the drought and causing severe water shortages.

The changes that are affecting the drought in the Southwest – lower-than-average rain, higher temperatures, and changes in snowpack and runoff patterns – are consistent with the changes we expect to see with climate change. The Southwest is already the hottest and driest region in the United States, and, according to the National Climate Assessment this area is expected to get even hotter and drier in the future.

Impacts on Human Health
There are consequences of long periods of dryness. When vegetation is dried out or stressed, wildfires are able to start more easily and burn hotter. Wildfire data in California suggest a trend towards increasing acres burned statewide. The annual average of acres burned since 2000 is 598,000 acres, almost twice the annual average for the 1950-2000 period. This is almost the area of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Increased wildfires increase the risk of harmful respiratory and cardiovascular effects of those who are exposed to the smoke. Wildfire risks can even spread hundreds of miles downwind from burning acreage and affect the health of those many miles from the blaze. In addition, increased wildfires can cause significant damage ecosystems and property, and put firefighters and rescue workers at risk.

Impacts on the Economy
The predicted total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. The impacts of California’s drought – water restrictions, wildfires that threaten homes and health, and financial cost – will not only affect California residents, but may have ripple effects across the country. According to a study by UC Davis, expected water shortages through 2014 are projected to cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. The water shortage not only threatens California’s agricultural production, but could impact food prices felt by the rest of the country.

In short, the drought in California is serious, and climate change is increasing the odds for longer and more intense droughts like the one occurring now. Fortunately, there are numerous initiatives underway to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and to better prepare for the changes that are already happening. States, like California, have taken the lead in reducing emissions through market-based initiatives, and many states are making strides with climate action plans, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency resource standards. Under the President’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is promoting standards for vehicles and power plants that build on what these states have accomplished and will provide billions of dollars in climate and health benefits in the next few decades.

With our combined efforts, we can reduce the risks we all face from our changing climate. I’m proud to support EPA’s climate efforts – for the sake of my home town and all those impacted by climate change.

Learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change, what EPA is doing to address it, and what you can do about climate change on our website.

Learn more about California’s response to climate change on the state’s website.

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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