Archive for September 14th, 2009

Widespread pollution, intersex and kudzu

September 14, 2009

Each week, the Freshwater Society posts a digest of some of the best regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to where they originally were published.

500,000 pollution violations in five years

Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.

Follow the New York Times link to look up pollution in Minnesota and other states.

– The New York Times

USGS study finds widespread intersex in fish

Intersex in smallmouth and largemouth bass is widespread in numerous river basins throughout the United States is the major finding of the most comprehensive and large-scale evaluation of the condition, according to U.S. Geological Survey research published online in Aquatic Toxicology.

Of the 16 fish species researchers examined from 1995 to 2004, the condition was most common by far in smallmouth and largemouth bass: a third of all male smallmouth bass and a fifth of all male largemouth bass were intersex. This condition is primarily revealed in male fish that have immature female egg cells in their testes, but occasionally female fish will have male characteristics as well.

“Although the USGS has already documented the severity of intersex in individual basins such as the Potomac, this study reveals the prevalence of intersex is more widespread than anyone anticipated, said Sue Haseltine, associate director for biology at the U.S. Geological Survey. “This research sends the clear message that we need to learn more about the hormonal and environmental factors that cause this condition in fish, as well as the number of fish afflicted with this condition.”

The study, said Hinck, presents the observed occurrence of intersex in a variety of freshwater fish species, but not potential causes. “This study adds a lot to our knowledge of this phenomena, but we still don’t know why certain species seem more prone to this condition or exactly what is causing it. In fact, the causes for intersex may vary by location, and we suspect it will be unlikely that a single human activity or kind of contaminant will explain intersex in all species or regions,” she said.

–USGS News Release

Texas speculators invest in water

In a scorching cow pasture silent save the lowing of cattle, Terry Gilmore picks up a stick and draws in the sand a simple map: divots in the ground for a handful of water wells, then a long scratch for a pipeline to deliver water to Austin’s eastern flank.

About 2,000 feet below him sits an underground reservoir, known as the Simsboro formation, that he and others hope will fuel development everywhere from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Gilmore, 60, the chief investor in a water development company called Sustainable Water Resources, has spent millions of dollars to try to make his lines in the sand a brick-and-mortar reality.

–The Austin American-Statesman

New York braces for higher seas

When major ice sheets thaw, they release enough fresh water to disrupt ocean currents world-wide and make the planet wobble with the uneven weight of so much meltwater on the move. Studying these effects more closely, scientists are discovering local variations in rising sea levels — and some signs pointing to higher seas around metropolitan New York.

Sea level may rise faster near New York than at most other densely populated ports due to local effects of gravity, water density and ocean currents, according to four new forecasts of melting ice sheets. The forecasts are the work of international research teams that included the University of Toronto, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., Florida State University and the University of Bristol in the U.K., among others.

Scientists are laboring to make their predictions more reliable. While they do, New York has become an urban experiment in the ways that seaboard cities can adapt to climate change over the next century.

–The Wall Street Journal

Satellites measure water use

Water management is serious business in the American West, where precipitation is scarce, irrigated agriculture is a major industry, new housing subdivisions spread across arid landscapes.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” water officials are fond of saying.

But measurement — trying to determine how much water is diverted from rivers and how much is pumped from hundreds of thousands of wells — has been an inexact and expensive science.

Now a tool developed by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the University of Idaho is changing the face of water management and conservation by efficiently offering specific measurements of the water consumed across a large region or single field.

–The Washington Post

EPA seeks to ban lead tire weights

It’s no secret that cars pollute the environment, but not all of that pollution comes out of the tailpipe.

The Environmental Protection Agency says 2,000 tons of lead tire weights —used in wheel balancing — are “lost from vehicles and ultimately end up in the environment each year.” Exposure to lead, the E.P.A. said, has a variety of health effects, including brain and nervous system disorders, high blood pressure, reproductive problems and hypertension.

Recently, the E.P.A. reversed previous decisions and agreed to follow Europe’s lead and seek to ban the manufacture and sale of  lead tire weights.

–The New York Times

Water managers eye  Mexican wetland

The Southwest drought has reached the point where even drain water is coveted.

Beginning nearly 40 years ago, the briny runoff from the “salad bowl” of southern Arizona, some of the most productive farmland in the nation, has been channeled into an arid plain of the Sonoran desert in Mexico.

It is an engineered solution to the vexing problem of keeping the nearby Colorado River free of agricultural wastewater too heavy in salt compounds for drinking water and other uses. An accidental result south of the border has been a thriving man-made wetland, the largest in the river’s delta, a key stopover for migratory birds and home to a bounty of endangered and threatened species.

But now the protracted drought in the Southwest has led water managers to rethink the possibilities for the wastewater, placing the preservation of the wetland, the Ciénega de Santa Clara, at the center of a delicate balancing act between the growing thirst of California, Nevada and Arizona and the delta’s ecology.

–The New York Times

Jordan-Israel embark on massive water project

An acute water shortage has prompted Jordan and Israel to embark on water-supply projects that supporters say will prevent an impending regional crisis but environmentalists have criticized as ill-advised attempts to rewire nature.

The efforts include a pipeline to Amman from the Dissi Reservoir in Jordan’s southern desert and an extensive network of desalination plants Israel is building along the Mediterranean coast. The Dissi is an ancient, nonrenewable, underground pool of water that, once tapped, will run dry in an estimated 50 years.

Most controversially, the two countries are pushing for action on the long-standing idea of cutting a 110-mile path north from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water — about half a trillion gallons — would be sent through a network of pipelines or tunnels each year, with some of it desalinated en route and some used to reverse decades of decline in the Dead Sea’s water level.

–The Washington Post

Eden Prairie seeks erosion advice

Eden Prairie has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to diagnose a severe riverbank erosion problem on the city’s southern limits along the Minnesota River — one that could eventually threaten homes along the bluff above if not corrected, officials say.

Since 1937, the river has cut 300 feet into a point on its north bank in Eden Prairie, forming a sharp bend in the river and even washing away a chunk of old Riverview Road, a historic gravel road now used for hiking along the riverbanks. The erosion is occurring about a mile and a half west of Hwy. 169 at the base of a tall bluff lined by about a dozen homes overlooking the river valley.

–The Star Tribune

Dams drive California water debate

The stalemate over water reform in California these days swirls around a single word that for decades has ignited conflict among ideological opposites: dams.

Conservatives, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insist on building new dams, believing that pooling water in a canyon will end California’s thirst.

Liberals first want legal assurances that California will make better use of the water it has – a plea for more regulation that seems pointless to the thirsty.

–The Sacramento Bee

Devastating drought parches Kenya

The sun somehow feels closer here, more intense, more personal. As Philip Lolua waits under a tree for a scoop of food, heat waves dance up from the desert floor, blurring the dead animal carcasses sprawled in front of him.

So much of his green pasture land has turned to dust. His once mighty herd of goats, sheep and camels have died of thirst. He says his 3-year-old son recently died of hunger.

A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.

–The New York Times

Mexico suffers drought, too

In the parched Mexican countryside, the corn is wilting, the wheat stunted. And here in this vast and thirsty capital, officials are rationing water and threatening worse cuts as Mexico endures one of the driest spells in more than half a century.

A months-long drought has affected broad swaths of the country, from the U.S. border to the Yucatan Peninsula, leaving crop fields parched and many reservoirs low. The need for rain is so dire that water officials have been rooting openly for a hurricane or two to provide a good drenching.

–The Los Angeles Times

Finally, a kind word for invasive kudzu

Kudzu, the wild vine that has overtaken almost 10 million acres in the southeastern U.S., may be more nutrient than nuisance. Previous studies have suggested a chemical in kudzu may help alcoholics curb addiction. Now a study shows it can help regulate blood pressure, glucose metabolism and cholesterol levels.

Kudzu root contains polyphenols, and is already available in health food stores as a dietary supplement. In the new study, researchers gave half of a rat population kudzu root extract and compared them with rats that didn’t receive the extract. The findings, the authors wrote, “suggest that polyphenols in kudzu root may provide a nonpharmacological complement to traditional approaches for treating hypertension.” The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

–The Baltimore Sun


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