Las Vegas Sun

December 15, 2017

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Coffee tasting stimulates discussion on water quality as EPA cuts loom

Not only does Nevada’s naturally hard water cloud the taste of coffee, experts say — it also requires steady monitoring, even if lawmakers approve cuts to a federal agency that monitors quality.

An Oct. 9 coffee tasting at UNLV served as a platform to discuss potential budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency while illustrating how Nevada’s hard water can affect flavor. Environmental policy professor Ted Greenhalgh said the state’s geography adds minerals to the water.

Iron, calcium and calcium carbonate wash out from rocks and into the water supply, Greenhalgh said. Sandstone in areas such as Rainbow Rock in Henderson contain visible streaks of green copper and red iron, which wind up in our water.

“Water is used for everything ... whether it’s making those microchips that run our cellphones or it’s the water coming out of the tap,” he said. “It’s all the same water. It may go through the environment and get recycled in some way by some microorganisms doing all of our cleaning for us, or not, and maintain that toxicity by the time it gets back to our taps.”

Perchlorate, a chemical compound that often is commercially produced and can affect the thyroid gland, has been found in Nevada water, Greenhalgh said. The state’s water also contains a lot of particulate matter, contributing to its hardness. This intensifies during runoff season as snow melts, filling up the Colorado River, he said.

“It’s not unsafe, technically,” Greenhalgh said. “It meets all the EPA standards, more or less, but the thing about it is, it could be way, way better. But again, it comes down to cost, how much you’re going to pay for your water.”

President Donald Trump has asked for a $2.6 billion cut to the EPA, while a House bill would reduce the agency’s budget by $528 million. A short-term budget agreement runs through Dec. 8, at which point Congress must have a new spending plan in place to avoid shutting down the government.

The UNLV event was organized by Defend Our Future Nevada in part to illustrate the importance of monitoring water quality, a task that may suffer with budget cuts.

Environmentalists say drastic cuts to the agency could hurt enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and reduce grants that help support environmental programs in the state. According to the Center for American Progress, Nevada gets 31 percent of its environmental budget from the federal government.

Nonpoint source pollution — toxins picked up by runoff moving over land to rivers and lakes — is a major source of pollution. The Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Program would be bled dry if Trump’s proposed budget were approved, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection leads the state’s implementation of the program, and is using $1.37 million in federal dollars for efforts that reduce nonpoint pollution. That amount was part of more than $19.5 million in EPA funding announced in September for the state’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as pollution-reduction programs.

“Investing in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure helps communities provide clean, safe drinking water and proper wastewater treatment,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement at the time. “Water resources are vital for public health and Nevada’s economy.”

Greenhalgh said the government plays a role in getting the best environmental protection techniques to wider audiences. He said farmers could be incentivized to abandon pesticides but, politically, that type of policy isn’t possible if it hurts farmers economically.

“One of the biggest impediments to all environmental changes is getting the money to make those changes,” Greenhalgh said. “Most of the people who could benefit the greatest from it are the ones who are least likely to afford it.”

He said the government doesn’t always view environmental protection as its top priority, and policies are the next-best way to make a positive impact.

“The policies that politicians are promoting and the things that they want to do (must) align with things that are good for humans and good for the environment,” Greenhalgh said, “because we have to live in that environment.”

An EPA spokesperson said the agency “remains committed to ensuring that citizens across the United States receive safe drinking water,” including working with states to target assistance grants that help them meet core requirements while addressing particular priorities.

Café do Paraiso owner Owen Carver led the coffee tasting, pouring filtered water first over the coffee filter before putting in fresh grounds and allowing the hot water to percolate through.

“It’s unfortunate that to get the best kind of coffee, you have to do another layer of filtration,” Carver said. “It’s possible, being in Nevada, there are elements … that may also be getting through those filters as well.”

The startup company was formed to combine a ubiquitous commodity like coffee with activism, Carver said. For each pound of coffee sold, the business donates 50 cents to education programs in the origin countries of its coffees, including Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia and Indonesia, and 50 cents to Nevada through the Green Our Planet school garden program. Café do Paraíso donated $1,250 to the Green Our Planet Foundation to support the Mabel Hoggard Elementary School garden program.

Carver argued for farm-to-table practices as a means of cutting people’s carbon footprint.

“Even a gallon of gasoline takes water to produce,” he said. “The food miles that your food goes takes water to produce, and also what you decide to put on your plate and eat every day is probably most likely the thing that has the biggest impact on your personal carbon footprint.”

Greenhalgh said industrialized agriculture uses chemicals that can stay in the water for great lengths of time, influencing rivers, oceans and lakes.

“We have to be very conscious of what our decisions are,” he said. “Can we do better? Yes, we can, but we have to start.”