Archive for January, 2009

Climate change, runoff and love-struck lampreys

January 29, 2009

Every week, the Freshwater Society posts a digest of regional, national and international news articles and research reports on water and the environment. Go to the Freshwater web site to read the latest digest, or click on the links below to read the original articles.

Climate change alters conservation strategies
At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sea-level rise threatens to drown the brackish marsh on which migrating shorebirds depend. In Northern California, the shrinking snowpack has reduced stream flows that sustain the delta smelt, a federally threatened fish species. Higher summer temperatures in northern Minnesota have depressed the birthrates of the area’s once-populous moose, and just 20 inhabit the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge that was designed in part to shelter them.

As climate change begins to transform the environment in the United States and overseas, policymakers and environmentalists are realizing that the old paradigm of setting aside tracts of land or sea to preserve species that might otherwise disappear is no longer sufficient.
–The Washington Post

EPA to begin endocrine-disruptor screening
The success of one of the most ambitious and contested federal science programs in years may rest on the delicate shoulders of a one-pound albino breed of rat known as Sprague Dawley. In a hotly debated move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has selected this unassuming rodent as the primary test animal for a vastly complex and comprehensive new chemical-evaluation program. The effort is designed to investigate many of the most vexing public-health questions of the day: Are you putting yourself, your children, or even your children’s children at risk when you microwave food in plastic containers? What is contributing to hormone-related killers like breast, uterine, and testicular cancer? And are common garden sprays—like the one you use to keep the aphids off your hybrid tea rose—affecting your unborn baby’s developing brain?

The EPA initiative, called the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, is set to begin testing some of the 87,000 chemicals identified by a federal advisory panel for their potential to interfere with the body’s endocrine, or hormone, system.
–Discover Magazine

DNR to host Rochester forum on ag practices
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will host a public forum on agricultural practices in shoreland areas from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 4, at the Mayo Civic Center’s Riverview Room in Rochester.

Aimed at soliciting input from farmers and producers as well as agency officials and local government staff, the forum is part of the DNR’s effort to update shoreland management standards for the state’s lakes and rivers.
–Minnesota DNR news release

Runoff benefits some marine life, study shows
In many coastal regions, runoff from farms and sewers has caused widespread deaths of marine life. But fisheries off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast appear to be thriving from a similar nutrient-laden brew, scientists reported.
–The New York Times

Judge narrows pollution suit against 3M
The pollution case against 3M Co. keeps getting smaller.

A Washington County judge has thrown out several more pieces of the case, in which a group of residents claim traces of chemicals made by 3M hurt them.

District Judge Mary Hannon decided the chemicals did not cause physical injury or even emotional distress.
–St. Paul Pioneer Press

EPA plans cap on nutrients in Florida waters
Saying Florida’s rivers and lakes are threatened by its growth, the federal government plans to set new limits on nitrogen and phosphorous allowed in waterways.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules will cap the kind of water pollution that led state and Northeast Florida officials to approve a $600 million plan to help the St. Johns River last year.
–The Jacksonville Times-Union

California city considers reusing wastewater
Escondido is considering reclaiming wastewater for use as drinking water to augment its water supply.
In addition, the inland city stands to save hundreds of millions of dollars by avoiding upgrades to its sewage treatment plant and an ocean outfall pipe if the plan succeeds.
–San Diego Union-Tribune

Rate of extinctions overstated, research shows
A RARE piece of good news from the world of conservation: the global extinction crisis may have been overstated. The world is unlikely to lose 100 species a day, or half of all species in the lifetime of people now alive, as some have claimed. The bad news, though, is that the lucky survivors are tiny tropical insects that few people care about. The species that are being lost rapidly are the large vertebrates that conservationists were worried about in the first place.
–The Economist

Stimulus money sought for nuclear clean-up
Miles of tainted groundwater. Dozens of burial sites, silently brimming with dangerous radioactive waste. Weapons-grade plutonium still to be shipped off the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington presents no shortage of work toward cleaning up the site, work that is expected to continue for decades, but managers say they will miss 23 deadlines this year because budgeted funds were insufficient.
–The Associated Press

Synthetic pheromone tricks sea lampreys
A synthetic chemical version of what male sea lampreys use to attract spawning females can lure them into traps and foil the mating process of the destructive invasive species, according to Michigan State University scientists.

Pheromones, chemical scents used to attract a mate, are well-documented in the insect world. Weiming Li, MSU professor of fisheries and wildlife, has focused much of his career on the well-developed sense of smell of the sea lamprey. In 2002, after four years of painstaking research, Li and his team published results detailing their isolation and identification of the chemical that male lampreys use to attract females.
–Michigan State University news release

States, EPA seek E. coli in Ohio River
Six states bordering the Ohio River are joining the Environmental Protection Agency in the largest study of its kind to identify and reduce dangerous levels of bacteria that plague the waterway.

Unsafe levels of fecal coliform, or E. coli, have been identified in about 500 miles of the 981-mile river, which stretches from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill.
–The New York Times

Ballast water drives spread of invasives
Crisscrossing the seas on global trade routes, cargo ships suck up billions of tons of water to provide a steadying weight, and then dump that water back into the ocean when it’s time to take on new cargo. Each year, ocean-faring vessels from overseas discharge enough of this ballast water in US waters to fill about 20,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
–The Boston Globe

Divvying up $168 million for water resources

January 7, 2009

By Patrick Sweeney

If you had $168 million to spend on studying, conserving and cleaning up Minnesota’s ground and surface waters, how would use the money? How much would you spend on educating the public? How much would you spend on bricks-and-mortar projects?

With a mandate, written into the state constitution, that new money from a sales tax increase approved by voters in November must not replace “traditional” funding for the environment, how do you determine what should be funded with other taxes and what can be paid for with the sales tax revenue?

Those are decisions the Legislature will face over the next several months as lawmaker divide up revenue from the sales tax increase. And it’s a task that the state’s Clean Water Council is eager to help perform.

The 23-member council spent five hours Monday listening to requests from state agencies, university researchers and non-profit environmental groups seeking a share of the new revenue.

The state agency requests, all presented informally because Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not yet given lawmakers his proposed budget, included:

 A Minnesota Department of Health appeal for $1.8 million over two years for a new research center devoted to the study of new contaminants for which water-quality standards have not been set, and for an additional $3.25 million to protect ground and surface waters used by public water systems.

 A Department of Agriculture proposal for $2 million to $5 million to look for acetochlor, a herbicide, in surface waters and to improve efforts to protect ground water from nitrates.

 A request from the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority for $17 million to $32 million to provide grants and loans to communities seeking to build or upgrade sewage treatment plants.

Cliff Aichinger, administrator of the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition, urged the Clean Water Council to recommend spending 4 percent to 8 percent of the $168 million on educational activities aimed at persuading property owners to reduce runoff from their homes and businesses.

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, made up of the Farm Bureau, corn and soybean growers’ groups and a number of other agriculture industry groups, asked the council to support spending $1 million a year to fund a University of Minnesota-led “Discovery Farms” program. The program, patterned after a similar one in Wisconsin, would study water quality on a small scale – individual fields and farms — at 10 to 12 sites around Minnesota.

All the funding proposals presented Monday are scheduled to be posted soon on the Clean Water Council’s web site.

The Clean Water Council, established by the Legislature in 2006, has assumed the responsibility – unless, or until, lawmakers decide differently – for recommending how the Legislature should spend revenue the new tax will produce for water projects over the next two years.

One-third of the total tax is earmarked in the state constitution to protect and improve water resources. The $168 million is an estimate of the portion that will be available for water projects. Of that amount, at least 5 percent much be spent to protect drinking water.

The constitutional amendment authorizing the sales tax increase also funds fish and game habitat, parks and trails, and the arts.

It is unclear how much attention legislators will pay to the Clean Water Council’s recommendations. Lawmakers last year created the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, a 12-member group named by legislative leaders and the governor, to recommend spending priorities for the tax proceeds designated for habitat. No such body exists in law to screen spending proposals for water projects.

But the Clean Water Council has undertaken that role, and it is possible the role will be formalized. State Rep. Paul Torkelson, a freshman Republican from St. James who currently is a member of the council, said Monday he planned to introduce legislation that would make the council the official screening body for water projects.

Torkelson acknowledged, though, that some lawmakers want to re-structure the council to give the Legislature a say in appointing its member if the council is to be designated as the official screening body. At present, the governor appoints 19 voting members of the council, and four state agencies provide non-voting members. Torkelson also said that, if legislation giving the council that role eventually is enacted, it probably would be with a Democratic-Farmer-Labor sponsor. Both the House and Senate have DFL majorities.

The Clean Water Council in December approved a biennial report to the Legislature, recommending $98 million in water spending over the next two years. On Jan. 26, the council is scheduled to make recommendations on an additional $70 million. Most of the proposals Monday dealt with that $70 million.

Citizens may comment on water-related spending by contacting the council’s staff,, until 5 p.m. on Jan. 14.