What’s Current? Issue #4 – Mass Timber, Tough Questions About Water Policy, Wastewater Recycling

Welcome to Issue #4! Our goal is to bring you information about solutions for California that will create sustainable abundance. To tame that alleged oxymoron, we shall always offer you numbers. Not anecdotal numbers (enough water to fill 8 zillion Olympic-size swimming pools), but numbers that matter – the relevant units, with denominators included in order to provide useful context.

Are California’s Cities Ready for Renewable Skyscrapers?

“Mass timber” is a product that affects water because overgrown forests don’t let rain percolate. It also replaces energy intensive concrete. Also known as cross-laminated timber, using boards and glues made from trees, factories are now turning out floor panels, girders, and columns of sufficient strength to replace reinforced concrete. U.S. forests hold 12 trillion board feet of timber volume. About 2 percent is harvested per year, which does not keep up with natural growth. For mass timber to replace half the concrete used in commercial construction (74 million cubic yards), the U.S. forest harvest would only have to increase from 186 billion board feet to 210 billion board feet. What are we waiting for?

The Water Question California’s Politicians Keep Refusing to Answer

An August 6th guest op-ed, originally published by the Sacramento Bee, made a compelling argument for adding 18.5 feet to the height of the Shasta Dam. It would increase the reservoir’s storage capacity from 4.5 to 5.1 million acre feet. This extra 634,000 acre feet of cool water summer releases would have been available for downstream ecosystems, farms and cities three times in the past decade, 2017, 2019, and 2023. There are concerns that when full, the raised lake would inundate a 3,500 foot stretch of a 24-mile reach between the lake and the upstream McCloud Dam. But that is less than 3 percent of the habitat.

Algal Bloom Returns to the San Francisco Bay

The “Red Tide” is back, possibly destined to be an annual problem. It depletes the oxygen in the water, kills fish, and the surface scum releases toxins into the air that are potentially harmful to humans. This massive “bloom” of algae is nourished by over 400,000 acre feet of sewage per year from 37 treatment plants surrounding the SF Bay. Plant upgrades to eliminate the nitrogen and other nutrients that remain after existing treatment would cost an estimated $14 billion. If this were done, more water could be harvested from the Delta for farms, cities and upstream ecosystems.

Wind Farms Off California’s Coast Should be State’s Clean Energy Grid

Read this with skepticism. Recently published in the LA Times, this guest op-ed calls for up to 500 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2050, with California leading the way. Wind turbines off the California shore have to float in water a mile deep, tethered to the sea floor by cables. A 10 megawatt wind turbine is over 1,000 feet tall from the top rotor to the waterline. Since the average output of a wind turbine is at best only half its capacity, to get 500 gigawatts of baseload power, you need 100,000 of these leviathans. To be fair, completely electrifying California would probably only require around 100 gigawatts of baseload power. That’s still 20,000 machines, each one the length of an aircraft carrier.

California Plans to Turn Sewage into Drinking Water

If offshore wind is quietly reaping billions in subsidies with too little public skepticism, recycled wastewater gets too much. Unlike gigantic floating wind turbines, which aren’t even adequately prototyped, wastewater recycling is already a large-scale commercial reality in Orange County and San Diego County, and as this article explains, it’s on the way in Los Angeles County. Using this technology is way past due in the SF Bay Area. One caveat to this well-researched primer — why not overinvest in water recycling and wastewater capture? Southern California is within a few years of becoming independent of imported water. This is an extraordinary accomplishment. But why stop at subsistence?