Archive for August, 2012

Arctic sea ice hits new low

August 29, 2012

The amount of sea ice in the Arctic has fallen to the lowest level on record, a confirmation of the drastic warming in the region and a likely harbinger of larger changes to come.

Satellites tracking the extent of the sea ice found that it covered about 1.58 million square miles, or less than 30 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, scientists said. That is only slightly below the previous record low, set in 2007, but with weeks still to go in the summer melting season, it is clear that the record will be beaten by a wide margin.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, a government-sponsored research agency in Boulder, Colo., announced the findings in collaboration with NASA. The amount of sea ice in the summer has declined more than 40 percent since satellite tracking began in the late 1970s, a trend that most scientists believe is primarily a consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases.

“It’s hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worst fears dictated,” said Jennifer A. Francis, a Rutgers University scientist who studies the effect of sea ice on weather patterns. “It’s starting to give me chills, to tell you the truth.”
–The New York Times  

Groundwater overused across the globe

August 13, 2012

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Groundwater is being overused
Humans are over-exploiting underground water reservoirs in many large agricultural areas in Asia and North America, sucking up water faster than nature can replenish it, according to a recent inventory of global aquifer use.

In a study published in the journal Nature, scientists mapped the “groundwater footprint” of 15 major agricultural regions, including California’s Central Valley. The analysis, which gave spatial representation to rates of water extraction, concluded that the global groundwater footprint was 3.5 times greater than the size of all aquifers combined.

The heavy consumption of groundwater was driven by a handful of areas, according to lead author Tom Gleeson, a civil engineering professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The areas included the Upper Ganges in India and Pakistan, western Mexico, northern Saudi Arabia, Iran, the High Plains of the United States and the North China Plain. Although 80% of the world’s aquifers had a calculated footprint that was smaller than their actual size, these major agricultural regions contributed to a global deficit.
–The Los Angeles Times

Wisconsin takes comment on 5,300-cow dairy 
The DNR has opened public comment on a proposed ‘super dairy’ near the town of Saratoga. The Golden Sands Dairy would be home to 5,300 cows on 8,000 acres of land. The proposal also calls for 49 high capacity wells to irrigate and water the herd and the cropland to feed them. Comments on the farm’s environmental impact statement will be taken through September 21, and you can find out more online.
–WSAU Radio

MPCA Bottle Buyology exhibit promotes recycling 
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s State Fair exhibit this year will examine the 1.5 billion plastic bottles Minnesotans use – and mostly discard without recycling – each year.  Learn more about the MPCA’s Eco Experience planned for the fair.

Carbon credits encourage harmful gases 
When the United Nations wanted to help slow climate change, it established what seemed a sensible system. Greenhouse gases were rated based on their power to warm the atmosphere. The more dangerous the gas, the more that manufacturers in developing nations would be compensated as they reduced their emissions.

But where the United Nations envisioned environmental reform, some manufacturers of gases used in air-conditioning and refrigeration saw a lucrative business opportunity. They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas.

That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.
–The New York Times

MPCA tests Minnesota River
The lowest summertime flow on the Minnesota River in 24 years is providing a rare opportunity: to compare water quality under similar conditions two decades apart.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been testing the metro end of the river to see whether the oxygen content may have reached dangerously low levels after seven recent months of drought and the second-hottest July on record in the Twin Cities. It’s the first test of its kind since 1988, the last time the river flow in July and August was so meager.

“We still haven’t seen a fish kill, so that’s good news,” said Glenn Skuta, water monitoring manager for the MPCA.

Workers were testing 21 miles of the river last week, from where it enters the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling to near Valley Fair in Shakopee. Test results, which won’t be known for several weeks, will be compared with those from 1988, another legendary hot and dry year.
–The Star Tribune

Research pushes climate change argument
The percentage of the earth’s land surface covered by extreme heat in the summer has soared in recent decades, from less than 1 percent in the years before 1980 to as much as 13 percent in recent years, according to a new scientific paper.

The change is so drastic, the paper says, that scientists can claim with near certainty that events like the Texas heat wave last year, the Russian heat wave of 2010 and the European heat wave of 2003 would not have happened without the planetary warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases.

Those claims, which go beyond the established scientific consensus about the role of climate change in causing weather extremes, were advanced by James E. Hansen, a prominent NASA climate scientist, and two co-authors in a scientific paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
–The New York Times

Beverage firms invest in protecting water 
Fifty miles outside the nation’s fourth-largest city is a massive field of waist-high grass, buzzing bees and palm-size butterflies, just waiting to be ripped up by an entrepreneur. Rather than develop this pristine remnant of coastal prairie, vast enough to house more than 300 football fields, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure it remains untouched.

The project is part of the company’s $1.1 million investment in the Nature Conservancy, designed to benefit five Texas watersheds — including Nash Prairie outside of Houston — from which its bottling plants draw water.

The money will go toward preservation work, such as reseeding the grass, to restore and expand an ecosystem that once covered 6 million acres from southwestern Louisiana through Texas. The projects will improve water quality and quantity by preserving the prairies’ sponge-like attributes. But for Dr Pepper and other beverage companies engaged in similar work, the impetus is their bottom line — conserving water guarantees long-term access to the most crucial ingredient in their products.
–The Associated Press


How hot was July? Hotter than in ’36

August 9, 2012

July in the U.S. was the hottest month ever in records going back to 1895. And the 12-month period ending in July also was the warmest. Read a New York Times article on the records and the causes. According to scientists quoted by the Times, the drought afflicting most of the country reduced soil moisture, leading to higher daytime temperatures in July. The higher nighttime lows most of the country experienced are part of a long-term trend.

Analysis: 23 million acres converted to cropland

August 7, 2012

High crop prices and crop insurance subsidies contributed to the conversion of more than 23 million acres of grass, wetlands and other animal habitat into fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other crops between 2008 and 2011. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Environmental Working Group and the Defenders of Wildlife.

Read the report, titled “Plowed Under.” It is based on a comparison of satellite images collected by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read a Star Tribune article about the report.

“Plowed Under” says that more than 8.4 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetlands were converted to plant corn, more than 5.6 million to raise soybeans and nearly 5.2 million to grow winter wheat. The conversion totaled 1.34 million acres in Minnesota, according to the Star Tribune.

In 2007, a General Accounting Office report, titled “Farm Programs Are an Important Factor in Landowners’ Decisions to Convert Grassland to Cropland,” reached some of the same conclusions about the incentives that farm subsidies and crop insurance gave farmers and ranchers to plow up grassland.

Forest fires, a special grazing rule and Mojave water

August 6, 2012

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Forest Service changes let-it-burn policy
The U.S. Forest Service is temporarily shelving its let-it-burn policy toward forest fires. Read Duluth News Tribune environmental writer John Myers’ article on the change. Myers reports the renewed commitment to fighting small fires in remote areas is intended to conserve firefighters, money and aircraft and keep them available to fight fires near populated areas rather than battling wilderness blazes that start small and grow out of control.

Haying, grazing OK’d on conservation land in 70 counties
Farmers and ranchers in 70 Minnesota counties are now free to graze animals or harvest hay from land they own that is covered by Reinvest In Minnesota conservation easements.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources made the announcement Aug. 2 in response to drought in significant parts of the state.

Permission for the haying and grazing extends only until Sept. 30, and the BWSR action requires farmers and ranchers to maintain at least half of each easement in cover for wildlife. Stream banks and wetland basins are excluded from the relaxation of the normal rules.

Some land covered by RIM easements also are enrolled in federal conservation programs. In those cases, federal rules apply.

Read the BWSR news release. View a U.S. Department of Agriculture state-by-state list that identifies the 70 affected counties in Minnesota.

Massive Mojave water diversion inches forward
One of the West’s most ambitious private water marketing proposals has taken a step forward with the environmental approval of Cadiz Inc.’s plans to sell massive amounts of Mojave Desert groundwater to Southern California.

The board of the Santa Margarita Water District, which serves 155,000 customers in south Orange County, voted 5 to 0 to sign off on the project’s environmental impact report under state law. The board also agreed to buy one-tenth of the project’s proposed annual yield.

The actions are a boost for Cadiz, whose owner, British-born entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, has been trying for 15 years to make money off the aquifer that lies beneath his desert holdings 200 miles east of Los Angeles.

But Cadiz has many more hoops to jump through before Brackpool’s dream becomes a reality. The project, with a preliminary price tag of $225 milion to $275 million, lacks financing. It faces legal challenges and the possibility that it may still have to win approval from the federal government.
–The Los Angeles Times

U.S. approves water pipeline for Las Vegas
Federal regulators have signed off on a plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across eastern Nevada, but they left out a valley on the Utah border where the project has met stiff resistance.

After roughly seven years of review, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials are recommending access across federal land for water pipes and power lines extending roughly 300 miles from Las Vegas to Spring Valley in White Pine County.

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority would not be allowed to extend its multibillion-dollar pipeline into neighboring Snake Valley under the preferred alternative as part of BLM’s review of the project.
–Las Vegas Review-Journal

Judge: EPA over-stepped authority on mining
Dealing another blow to the Obama administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal, a federal judge threw out new federal guidance that aimed to reduce water pollution from Appalachian coal mining operations.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority under federal water protection and strip mining laws when it issued the water quality guidance.

Walton also found that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson “infringed on the authority” of state regulators to govern their own pollution permit and water quality standard programs.

The guidance in question aimed for tougher permit application reviews, including more detailed studies of whether mining impacts can be avoided or reduced, new testing of potential toxic impacts of mining discharges, and recommended limits on increases in pollution-related electrical conductivity, a crucial measure of water quality.
–The Charleston Gazette

N.C. suit alleges pollution by pork farm
The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Waterkeeper Alliance and Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation have filed a lawsuit in federal district court against a North Carolina hog farm and its owners alleging water pollution of the Neuse and Trent rivers.

The lawsuit asserts that Taylor Finishing, Inc, Trenton, NC, and its owner are in violation of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, by illegally disposing of animal waste into creeks, rivers, ditches and lands surrounding the facility.

According to the lawsuit, analyses of water samples taken from around the facility from 2008 to the present reveal unacceptably high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal coliform.
–Pork magazine

DNR, conservation groups sign prairie pact
A coalition of conservation groups and agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, took a significant step forward in the protection, restoration and enhancement of the state’s prairies, restored grasslands and prairie pothole wetlands.

They signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together for the benefit of prairie landscapes under a document called the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.

The document outlines a 25-year strategy to protect the state’s remaining 235,000 acres of native prairie; restore and conserve and grasslands and wetlands; to connect and buffer prairies and wetlands; and enhance prairies and grasslands through prescribed burns and livestock grazing.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr signed the MOU along with representatives from: Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Minnesota, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
–DNR News Release

MN FarmWise aims to clean up, protect streams

August 6, 2012

The Freshwater Society and several partners are organizing a community-based farmer-to-farmer initiative designed to protect streams by supporting the voluntary adoption of conservation measures on agricultural lands. The project, MN FarmWise, has been planned over the last year by an advisory group that includes farmers and other agricultural professionals. It is a partnership between Freshwater, the National Park Service and the Cannon River Watershed Partnership. It is sponsored by The Mosaic Company Foundation. Read the Aug. 6 news release announcing the program’s launch.

MPCA to test Minnesota River’s health

August 2, 2012

On Friday – Aug. 3 – the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will take advantage of unusually low water in the Minnesota River to begin a week’s worth of testing of the effectiveness of improvements in sewage treatment plants along the river.

Read an MPCA news release about the effort to measure dissolved oxygen in the river water.

A 2004 anti-pollution plan set new standards requiring sewage treatment plants to cut phosphorus discharges by 40 percent. Wastewater treatment plants are already meeting their 2015 reduced phosphorus discharge goals, according to MPCA researchers.

The river monitoring to begin Friday will test whether the phosphorus reductions are achieving the desired effect of keeping the river’s oxygen levels healthy for fish and other organisms.