Watershed News is about watershed science, watershed pollution and how our estuaries, salt marshes, and rivers and streams struggle with nonpoint source pollution, stormwater runoff, and hardening shorelines. These watersheds feed and heal our coastal ecology, yet we know so little of how they work. We tell you more and why we must protect them jealously in Watershed News
Parasite Paranoid Populace Paying Price for Panning Plumbing-Free Potty 12.28.11
Thousands of these in our rivers and oceans
For idle minds there’s an answer for every problem, and what to do with gallons of unwanted urine managed to attract NBN’s metal wanderlust for this week. Let’s start with this “problem” that we would like to see a lot more people have. Right now, it’s safe to say few people in this country are looking to discard gallons of urine each week. That could change if we all started using composting toilets. Why would we do that? Because every sizable river in the country has many millions of gallons of partially treated sewage dumped into it every day. In the case of the Mississippi River, it’s hundreds of millions of gallons. During heavy rain, in dozens of older cites across the country, that sewage is dumped completely untreated into those rivers.
Composting toilet solid waste
_ America is poisoning its coastline in part through these wastewater treatment plants and we’ve made only token efforts to correct the problem. We have thousands of aging wastewater treatment plants across the country in desperate need of costly improvements at a time when public works spending is only figuratively going into the toilet. To put things into perspective, billions of dollars in the President’s Stimulus Plan to fix these plants—a small fraction of what is needed—is viewed by half this country as a waste of money. That brings us back to the problem NBN wants more people to have: discarding a few gallons of urine, and a few pounds of the stuff pictured here, each week. If we all used composting toilets, we’d turn our current river pollution problem into a land-pollution problem. Fortunately, answers are more readily available for the land-based version of this problem. For example: Bamboo loves urine and, according to this LATimes article, builders are starting to love bamboo. Why not install composting toilets alongside every home and surround them with bamboo which can then be harvested and sold for building products?
Doadzone map of coastal U.S.: Not this bad, yet.
_ This bamboo building boom brainstorm is what launched this alliterative exercise of an article and now it sounds like a silly oversimplification of a serious problem. But how much more so than killing our coastal ecosystems by dumping human fertilizer into our rivers, while farmers are buying fertilizer to grow crops? Worse yet, a large percentage of that farm fertilizer runs off the fields and into our rivers creating ever-expanding dead zones emanating from every estuary in our ecosystems. These dead zones are no joke, folks and the fact we’re so willing to sacrifice them for the sake of personal vanity is plain stupid.
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Smart grid power flows both ways. Pretty smart.
_ Obviously there are still a few wrinkles to be worked out with the composting toilets idea, but make no mistake, they may well be the least expensive solution. Cities will still have to fix up sewage treatment plants, but suburbs and farms will, someday soon, be forced lighten the load, or our entire coast will be one big deadzone. The solution presented above may well be over-simple, but there is nothing silly about the looming demands for taking greater individual responsibility for individual consumption and waste. It’s the only way to reduce both. Fifty years ago individuals producing their own electricity might have been thought silly. Today it’s called the Smartgrid.
New Study: US Wetlands Loss "Alarming"
Actually, Its More Like Horrific 10.15.11
Actually, Its More Like Horrific 10.15.11
NBN loves wetlands as much as life itself, because wetlands are life itself. So, upon hearing of a recent federal study saying wetlands are being lost at an alarming rate we decided to wade into the discussions. First, a study saying wetlands nationwide are being lost and an "alarming" rate is due for some serious clarification, because not all wetlands are created equal. Next, we notice the headline doesn’t seem to completely jibe with the conclusions of the study it cites. On one hand the study says, “The difference in the national estimates of wetland acreage between 2004 and 2009 was not statistically significant.” On the other hand it says, “There were notable losses that occurred to intertidal estuarine emergent wetlands (salt marsh) and freshwater forested wetlands.”
The loss of wetlands may well be statistically insignificant, but ecologically it’s a catastrophe when you look at salt versus fresh water wetlands. We’ll lean on some sports stats to lend texture to this topic. The “not significant” loss of wetlands between 2004 and 2009 was 62,300 acres. That’s about 62,000 football fields. However, when you compare that loss to the 110.1 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. you get a loss .0056 percent. In other words, there are more wetlands in this country than can fit into the entire state of Montana and over five years we’ve lost a little less than can fit into the NYC borough of Queens. (Photos above provided for pointless perspective.) That’s why the loss of wetlands is called “not statistically significant.” The significance comes in when you distinguish between salt and fresh water wetlands.
The former is more aptly called salt marsh and it is under siege. About four years ago a Long Island naturalist NBN reveres named Paul Stoutenburgh, at left, asked: “What about this sudden marsh dieoff.” The inquiry launched a year’s worth of phone calls and pleas to nature magazines and newspaper editors to let NBN do a story on this phenomenon. The effort resulted in few stories but a much better understanding of a problem that launched a half-dozen scientific symposiums on this subject. The upshot of it all is that marine wetlands, which make up 5 percent, or 5.5 million acres of the total wetlands in the country, declined by 84,100 acres, or 1.5 percent. Yes, we know 84,100 acres is more than the total loss listed above. That’s because wetlands can be created as well as destroyed and often developers are forced to create wetlands as a conditions of large scale building permits. But here again the distinction between salt and fresh water wetlands is key.
Back to that 1.5 percent loss of salt marsh. Again, it sounds like nothing. At that rate it will take more than 300 years before we run out of salt marsh. But what NBN found in its sudden marsh die-off study is that salt marshes are dying all over the country for all manner of reasons. On Cape Cod a crab is believed to be the culprit. In New Jersey a grasshopper. Farther south a fungus is thought to be involved and, of course, rising sea levels are taking a toll everywhere. In other words everything is killing the salt marshes and where fresh water wetlands can be replaced by bulldozers and backhoes, salt marshes are much more delicate and complex. Moreover they support and produce many, many times the biomass and biodiversity of fresh water wetlands.
So NBN would like to offer a clarification for the study that launched this column: Salt marshes are not being lost at an "alarming" rate. As this form of wetland is clearly in much shorter supply, we’d like to suggest that loss is horrific. Here’s a good article describing the state of understanding of sudden marsh dieback.
To Frack or Not to Frack 08.16.11
A poll out last month last week found New Yorkers are slightly in favor of Albany’s decision to allow hydrofracking in the state. That prompted NBN to attempted a more objective look at both sides of this issue to make sure there's isn't something in the drinking water in the Empire State. On one hand, NBN can kind of see where the support comes from. Don’t get us wrong, we loath the idea of burning more fossil fuels rather than expanding our exploitation of renewable energy. But on the other hand, Big Oil is willing to put big, private money into this sure bet called fracking, and boy does the country need the work and private investment. On the other hand, the New York Times seminal piece on the groundwater threats associated with this industry has us fearing for the health of the nation’s already struggling marine ecosystems and watersheds. And clearly the folks behind Big Oil (see photos above) cannot be trusted to place environmental protection over their own profits as they pulverize the nation’s bedrock and flood it with noxious chemicals.
Joplin, MO, after the spring tonado
On the other hand, we’ve apparently got enough of this shale-gas to wean the nation from its billion-dollar-a-day imported oil habit. That buys a lot of peace abroad and prosperity at home. On the other hand, global warming is starting to show some spooky signs that it means business. Spring’s tornadoes and the summer drought may well be unusual swings in normal cycles but if not, we need to pull two grams of carbon from the air for every gram we put in, starting today. (Figuratively speaking.) On the other hand, most renewable energies are way too costly at the present stage of the technology to pursue in earnest with this fragile economy. And the technology is evolving far too quickly for any investor, public or private, to invest with confidence. On the other hand, decreased dependence on centralized power sources—like power plants—vis-à-vis consumer-owned solar panels and wind turbines will make consumers less vulnerable to swings in supply and cost. (Boy, that’s a mouthful, but think about it.)
One the other hand…No, there is no other hand. Most of the points made above may leave the US, and NBN, pretty much split on this subject. But that last point has to be weighed more heavily than the rest. We must shift our power producing model.It’s not just the country that remains vulnerable by having massive utilities parcel out energy to customer bases that span across several states. The customer themselves are vulnerable as well to predatory pricing practices, and regional pollution issues to name a very few of the problems. We won’t wean ourselves completely of these behemoth power plants any time soon, but if we all start fixing solar panels and wind turbines to our roofs and smart grid converters to our basement circuit breakers we’re at least heading down the right road.
Letting multi-billion dollar energy companies continue to set the rates of payment and consumption of individual energy use only makes us weaker as a country as the demand for all energy skyrockets across all countries. Not to mention the fact it’s much more wasteful. Editor's note. We know this Youtube is a complete non sequitur. But in a lot of ways it fits. This country has a lot of traditions it's got to change if it wants to survive.
Report: China hushing up lead poisoning epidemic 06.21.11
We hate to say wetoldjaso, but we seem to do it a lot around the offices of NBN. Our premonition proved fact for this week is the spate of articles last week that China is covering-up a huge lead pollution problem challenging the country’s poor children. This is exactly what NBN alluded to an Opinion Page piece two weeks back. But this latest revelation is just about lead poisoning. What do you want to bet the next study out will be about PCBs, or benzene, or dioxin poisoning in China? The country’s problems with electronic waste have already been well documented.
This is going to sound like a horrible thing to say, but you have to wonder if, with a population of 1.3 billion, China isn’t all that worried about the health effects of lead or other toxins on its citizens. The country is amassing spectacular wealth, in part by paying little attention to the environmental impacts of amassing spectacular wealth. If anything, the Chinese must be feeling pretty proud, until they realize their kids are paying the price for that self satisfaction.
If this sounds like the remarks of arrogant, arguably envious, Americans upset over seeing their country’s economy shrivel in part due to China’s disregard for the environmental impacts of its aggressive economic growth, we beg your indulgence for just a minute. First, we just got finished reading the book titled “Mao: The Untold Story.” This book makes Hitler look like a humanitarian compared to Mao Zedong. Most startling about Mao was his wanton slaughter of his own people for sometimes frivolous always nationalistic reasons. If you think Korea and Vietnam were serious efforts at communist expansionism, this book says China’s involvement was little more than a parlor game to Mao. The man was clearly a sociopath. But what does his ability to get 1 billion clearly bright people to sacrifice themselves for ill-conceived undertakings for the sake of country say about the mind set or priorities of those people? (The Statue at left is the latest one erected to Mao in China. It went up in 2005. How is it possible these folks still like this guy after he ruthlessly killed 80 million of his fellow countrymen.)
And it's got nothing to to with the Chinese as a people, per se. NBN suspects we can extend this paradox to the mindset of any large populations. This is more about what goes through any person’s mind when they look around and see they have to share resources with 1.299999999 billion of their fellow countrymen. How can you help but feel that human life is cheap. And when human life is cheap, how much more so the lives of the plants and animals around you. And with the world population expected to double in the next 50 years or so, what does this say about our future? Either we’re in for a lot more environmental regulation, or we’re in for a lot more pollutions problems.
Styrofoam, China and the High Cost of Cheap Stuff 4.26.11
These indestructible chunks of chlorine gas infused petroleum products overflowing from NBN’s normally diminutive weekly waste stream protected our new office lamp on a 10,000 mile journey from Shanghai to the Seabrook, NH, Lowes recently. The question NBN, and tens of millions of other Americans, face every day is: Now what do we do with it? Bury it, of course. There are very few Sytrofoam recyclers in New England. Not that we can find. This really good power point on the subject says there are under a dozen in all of New England. Who is going to drive 100 miles to discard the Styrofoam from a $90 office lamp when you can simply toss it in the trash and put it out at the curbside, never to be seen again.
The power point also says it will take nature 500 years to turn this trash-can-and-a-half of Styrofoam into something more organic. Make no mistake, this indestructible trash this country now owns for the next 500 years is the reason NBN's new lamp cost $90 and not $190. That, and one billion Chinese willing to work for $.82 an hour. Yup, that’s $6.60 a day and that’s the highest minimum wage paid in China. Consider what it would cost for a similar lamp made in America. That’s why you can’t buy a similar lamp made in America. Why are we writing about it in an issue devoted to watershed news? Because Mother Earth is making up the difference in price.
Forget for a moment the Styrofoam clogging our landfills, take a look at this Google Earth photo of the port of Shanghai. Now consider that this industrialized coast stretches for another 100 miles and is just one of five of similar size shipping all those lamps and such to Lowes, Christmas Tree Stores, Home Depots and the grand-daddy of all slave labor merchants: Wal-Mart. These endless industries and the ports that serve them are sitting on what where once China's most productive links in Pacific food chain, it's watersheds. Instead of producing food for fish, they are producing Styrofoam for lamps and no doubt a whole lot of other mysterious industrial byproducts no one knows about. Now consider that China has some of the most relaxed environmental laws in the world and you’ve got a watershed nightmare of global proportions heading straight for Hawaii and California. Spend some Google Earth time cruising China's shipping ports. They dwarf American shipping ports.
Which brings us to California congressman Dan Lungren who gets our public dis-servant of the week award for quietly rolling back the requirement that the Capital Building cafeteria ban plastics in favor of biodegradable utensils, plates and cups. Apparently, the biodegradable plates occasionally leaked and the utensils didn’t hold up well in hot meals. The horror! However, the good Congressman from California has no problem with Styrofoam consuming 30 percent of our landfill space for the next 500 years. What do you suppose Lungren thinks happens to those plastic plates, cups and forks once they are thrown out? Better yet, where do you suppose Lungren thinks all those styrofoam cups and plastic utensils come from? Judging by his complete lack of stances on issues outside the rights of indelible dishware, the congressman doesn’t think. The world is drowning in a sea of plastic and this guy wants to add more rather than find a less environmentally damaging solution.
Yes, this is a real river in China.
Which brings us to NBN’s poorly thought out overzealous stand of the week: Let’s boycott Chinese goods. It’s nothing against the Chinese, they are just doing what America has done for the past 100 years: taking advantage of their resources. But this is a different world today and the damage done is really starting to pile up. Don’t we have a right not to buy products produced from wantonly destructive behavior. If we don’t buy any more $90 stain glass lamps or $.10-per-gross Styrofoam cups the Chinese pollution problem stops cold. The Chinese aren’t to blame for the mess they are making of their watersheds and our oceans. At $6.60-a-day salaries they aren’t buying lamps packed in trash cans full of Styrofoam. It’s American consumers feeding this pollution problem. Instead of buying new lamps, what if we have our old lamps repaired by American craftsmen? Starting to see where we're going with this. So, the Chinese boycott is on in the offices of NBN. At least after we get the board of directors to sign off.
With Drinking Water in Short Supply
There’s Surplus Work in Wastewater 04.05.11
There’s Surplus Work in Wastewater 04.05.11
Yeah, this is a real river in China
Which brings us to NBN’s poorly thought out overzealous stand of the week: Let’s boycott Chinese goods. It’s nothing against the Chinese, they are just doing what America has done for the past 100 years: taking advantage of their resources. But this is a different world today and the damage done is really starting to pile up. Don’t have a right not to buy products produced from wantonly destructive behavior. If we don’t buy any more $90 stain glass lamps, or visit Christmas Tree Stores and Wal-Mart the pollution problem stops. Cold. The Chinese aren’t to blame for the mess they are making of their country and our oceans. At $6.60-a-day salaries they aren’t buying lamps packed in trash cans full of Styrofoam. It’s consumers feeding this pollution problem. So, the Chinese boycott is on in the offices of NBN. At least after we get the board of directors to sign off.
If only Ed Norton was around today. The nightly foil for Honeymooners star Ralph Krandem generated plenty of laughs through his fictional job in New York City's sewers, but look who is laughing now. Google “Job Opportunities” and “waste-water” and look at all the jobs out there. Right now billions of dollars are being sought or spent on wastewater treatment plans of every ilk in every community across the country.
For example. Can you imagine drinking recycled sewage? It's happening more and more these days and this release suggests getting into the sewage-to-slurping biz is a smart move. The release points out that there are already systems in place that completely recycle sewage into drinking water. It also notes that there are communities in the world in such need of drinking water that will have to eventually build such systems. However, the release only pays lip service to what has customarily been a very, very expensive process.
Tertiary wastewater treatment often involves plants beds for filters.
Primary, secondary and tertiary are levels of treatment used before sewage is discharged back into the environment. Tertiary is the cleanest and most expensive. Taking waste water the final step to drinking water costs a fortune. Sorry, couldn't find any firm cost numbers, but there is a reason why nobody is doing it and it's got nothing to do with marketing challenges. Here's a 2-minute video that explains the study decently. Here's another video from Orange County, CA, where they are already turning sewage into tap water.
Would it be easier to have in-home sewage treatment systems where sink, dishwasher, washing machine and shower water are recycled into, perhaps, your toilet? This home waste water, called greywater, can be collected and diverted to your toilet. Ski resorts are doing it. Nursing homes are doing it, and a lot of homes are doing it. The toilet accounts for 16 percent of household water use. OK, time to get radical. What if such systems were required in municipal building codes. In other words, you couldn't not build a home without one. Let's get even more radical, what if building codes required renewable energy systems like solar panels. Maybe we could also require annual building energy efficiency audits. Since this is starting to sound like environmental socialism let's also build into our municipal codes the right to pay a fee to not have to build such systems into you home. We could make those fees about the same cost of the systems themselves, that way if you really don't want to conserve our natural resources you don't have to.
No Money = Mixed Threats to Vernal Ponds 03.22.11
With the building craze at the turn of the century, conservationists truly feared for the future of the woodland creatures occupying wetlands like this called vernal ponds. One look at the house shown here illustrates why. This landscape business owner neutered this New England woodland wetland wonderland to show his skill in converting a thriving ecosystem into a high maintenance terrarium/aquarium with half the original biodiversity. Such wholesale destruction of these woodland habitats was rampant a few years back and prompted Massachusetts and several other states to offer wildlife fans a chance to protect them through citizen vernal ponds certification programs.
Here’s how it works in Massachusetts. You walk into the woods about this time of year and see these ponds all over the place. If you see five or more amphibian egg masses in one, you take pictures to prove the locations and presto, the place is placed on the state’s vernal ponds registry. That means before anyone can landscape the pond into sterility, you can request the town oversee those plans because the place has been documented as a wetland. The only problem is, in Massachusetts there is now an eight-month backlog of such certification applications sitting on the desks of the agency responsible for the paperwork. Dollars to donuts similar backlogs can be found in other states and a finsky gets you frosting the budgets for these agencies has been slashed to where those backlogs are now only going to grow.
Fortunately, it looks like the country is in the middle of a common sense renaissance of sorts, where grotesque displays of wealth conquering nature are starting to look like exactly that. Moreover, nobody can afford to build anything anymore. So the threat to these amphibians is not nearly what is was five years ago with our without the citizen certifications. Moreover, the efforts of the vernal pond people we talk about in biodiversity news this week will ensure arrogant landscapers are in ever shorter supply as their children learn different ways to appreciate nature. We just have to wonder if it’s ever possible we’ll go back to the days in this commercial. It hurts just to look at that. Were we ever really that gullible?
The $250,000 Highway Rest Stop Cesspool
Where PR Assumes a New Meaning and Spelling 03.08.11
Where PR Assumes a New Meaning and Spelling 03.08.11
Who spends $250,000 installing cesspools for a highway rest stop? The federal government who else. The same folks who brought us the $24 million space toilet. Lest you think we’re just taking cheap shots at an agency with a penchant for overspending on bathroom fixtures, let’s tell you a little about this highway rest stop cesspool. It’s alive! This septic system is actually a greenhouse growing beach grass and tropical plants in the middle of snow country using the nutrient-rich water flushed from the rest rooms about 40 away and above the basement botanical garden shown here.This botanical garden is called The Living Machine because it is both a machine and it’s alive. Rather than pump the toilet and sink waste water from the restrooms, The Living Machine gobbles the stuff up like an eight-year-old attacking a bottle of YooHoo.
According to the fellow who spends three days a week maintaining the system, here is how it works. The water leaves the restrooms for a settling tank where bacteria consume most of the solids, much like every other cesspool in the world. The water however, doesn’t seep into the ground, like most every other cesspool in the world. Rather, it’s pumped into a series of air-infused tanks where bacteria eat more of the waste removing a lot of foul odor in the process. Then the water is sent to the concrete garden boxes shown above which filter it and pull out more waste, now more aptly called nutrients. That water is then chlorinated and sent back for re-use in the toilets.
Sign Above the Rest Stop Toilets in Guilford
This system allows the Guilford rest stop to recycle 90 percent of the clean water pulled from the ground to run the toilets. In other words it's reduced ground water demand by 90 percent We’re talking a peak demand of 6,000 gallons a day. The sinks are the only fresh water needed to run the rest stop while signs, pictured here, are posted to prevent visitors from drinking from the toilets. Now, you might question the wisdom of bringing a camera into a highway rest stop restroom, but we assured the patrons looking at us askance, it was all in the interests of science. We had to show you this sign.
Rest-stop aficionado George Micahel and the sign he ignored
Think of the message being sent to half a million people who eyes really can’t wander anywhere else but that sign. That alone is worth several million dollars worth of Pee R. Seriously, folks this quarter million dollar septic system turned what would otherwise be a collection of vending machines alongside a Plexiglas laminated you-are-here map into a rest area that rivals Walden Pond. The living machine smells like a greenhouse, not a whiff of foul odor. That’s a wise use of tax payer money, don't you think?
Fracking: It's Not all it’s Cracked up to Be 03.01.11
If you can't read the photo text, read the story.
A while back NBN wrote that the natural gas extraction process called hydrofracking might not threaten ground water supplies as much as environmentalists feared because the pollution took place far beneath most groundwater aquifers. With natural gas being so much better for the environment than oil, we thought this whole fracking fear might be overblown. Once again the New York Times set things right. The Gray Lady’s roughly 3000-word piece Sunday left little doubt that fracking is an enormous threat to ground-water supplies and by extension, watershed, riverine and salt marsh ecosystems. Before NBN attempts a 430 word synopsis of this brilliant piece of journalism, we ask you read it for yourself and forego the remaining 200 words below. If you don’t have the 90 minutes needed to read and understand this piece, than forgive any over-emphasis or omission in the following synopsis.
Marcellas, the Saudia Arabia of shale
Fracking entails: drilling deep into oil-rich rock formations called shale, lining the bore hole with cement and iron, and then blasting holes through the iron-cement lining, shattering the surrounding shale. A slurry of sand, oil and antibacterial chemicals are pumped under high pressure into the shattered stone and what flows back into the well pipe, and eventually back to be collected at the surface, is a highly contaminated fluid with lots of natural gas soaked up from the surrounding stone. The natural gas is freed from pockets in the shale and easily makes it why back to the well thanks to the chemical/sand slurry which makes the shale much more porous. The problem is, radium, benzene, arsenic and other toxins are carried with the waste water back to the surface. What to do with the water.
The joke here is: The Oklahoma guy is a gas company exec.
We’re talking a lot of water. The NY Times piece says 1.3 billion gallons in Pennsylvania alone over the past three years. Most of that water was taken to waste water treatment facilities not designed to handle the radioactivity that measures hundreds and thousands of times what’s considered safe for human exposure. Wait, it gets better. Pittsburgh’s drinking water utilities downstream from these wastewater treatment plants don’t test for radioactivity. Let’s not leave out that the water that isn’t sucked up by these downstream utilities for making Koolaide in Monongahela households is heading into the Chesapeake Bay to nurture the oysters, fish and crabs we eat. If you think we’re exaggerating please, read the article. If anything we’re understating the case. This should be a huge black-eye for this industry but the newly elected Republican governor Tom Corbett took more money from gas companies than all his competitors combined and now plans to open state land to fracking and is opposed to an extraction tax on gas companies in his state. Where does Corbett stand on solar power? His 10-page campaign statement on the environment has two mentions “solar” twice and “gas" 16 times Let’s hope the Keystone state loves bottled water. Thanks to Jason over at Tube City Almanac for the cartoon.
Fun Meets Fanaticism on a Formerly Forlorn River 02.15.11
Editor’s note. I recycled the article below, which I did for the Boston Globe in 2006, because the group featured has singled-handedly cleaned up one of the most neglected rivers in New England with little fanfare and less interest in recognition. The Shawsheen River Watershed Association has pulled hundreds of tires, dozens of shopping carts, myriad appliances, endless plastic and a mannequin from this river that feeds into what was once the industrial heartland of New England. The north-central Massachusetts organization is dear to me and if you read on they will be to you too. We'd also like to take this moment to announce the launch of their new website.
My wife Laura had a slightly a skeptical expression when I invited her to go canoeing with me down the lower reaches of the Shawsheen River in South Lawrence recently. Canoeing? In Lawrence? Fresh in her memory was the last excursion I’d invited her on when I was doing a story for the Boston Globe’s South edition. We spent that day dodging droppings launched by screeching Roseate terns angry over our invasion of their nesting grounds on a place called Bird Island in Buzzards Bay. This was going to be different, I assured her. We’d be soundlessly slipping through quiet glades with nothing but nature to share the moment. Canoes come compliments of the Shawsheen River Watershed Association and we’d be back home before lunch. All we had to do was show up and enjoy the morning and our hosts would take care of the rest.
And that’s exactly how things started out. We launched our canoe into an idyllic stretch of the river where Riverina Road meets Worth Street just outside the city limits. Oak trees formed a canopy overhead and it was just cool enough to keep the bugs at bay. We were somewhere near the lead of the six or so boats in the water with us when we all stopped at a bend just beyond a small rapid to wait for others to catch up. The laggards turned out to be association vice president, Jack Brady and his wife who stopped to wrestle from the river bottom a discarded tire that now rested on the bottom of their canoe. I began to feel a little conflicted. I didn’t want the quiet morning on the river I’d promised my wife to turn into a salvage operation on her day off. But we both started to notice similar items of trash turning up in the boats of the others on the water with us.
As we continued to work our way downstream there was a subtle shift in the scenery. Lush woods still surrounded us, but more tires and an occasional shopping cart could be seen poking from the river bank and bottom. Soon, a discarded home hot water heater, an oil drum, and the top of a convenience store trash can that we’d passed by all started pressing in on my troubled conscience. Before long we had two enormous chunks of slimy Styrofoam packing material wedged into the middle of our boat. Next it was an eight-foot long sleeve of some kind of nylon netting filled with absorbent fiber that had once been used for erosion control. When I yanked it free from a tree limb hanging over the river, dirt and a variety of insects cascaded onto my head and into our canoe. By the time we made it to our haul out point on the Merrimack River, a yellow whiffle ball bat and an oversized plastic bag were added to the mix.
A quick inspection of the other canoes showed we’d held our own in this impromptu canoe trip cum clean-up. Most of us were streaked with mud and trash was bristling from our boats. The association has lots of river clean-up days when truck loads of trash are carted off at the end of the day by volunteer garbage haulers looking to do a good deed. This wasn’t one of those days. The Styrofoam and such we pulled from the river ended up befouling the back of our Jeep and I was left explaining to my skeptical wife that I’d find a place far away from home to throw this stuff out. Our quiet day on the water turned into a salvage operation after all. But there is something about this river and the dedication of this small band of fanatics who have been cleaning it up for the past 20 years. It’s awfully hard not to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty once you see how close to clean the river is getting down there. All thanks to the efforts of a few folks who find fun in fanaticism when it comes to cleaning up the Shawsheen.
Porous Pavement Proliferates 12.21.10
Asphalt may not be the most fascinating subject to read up on, but it will do on a rainy day. In this case the story is about porous pavement, a road surfacing product that’s proving real fascinating on rainy days. In this brilliantly written story two years ago, the virtues of porous pavement in keeping roads clear of rain and ice in southeast New Hampshire were spelled out in arguably excessive detail. Nonetheless, some folks have apparently taken the article to heart. When NBN Googled “porous pavement” this week we were bowled over by the number of news stories and images available. So much so, we thought we'd write about it this week.
New Hampshire, like many others part of the world, is plagued by contaminants in the rainwater that collects and runs off into creeks, ponds, wetlands and rivers after storms. The stuff is laced with salt, bacteria, fertilizers and lawn chemicals. It doesn't take much imagination to think what the rainwater rushing off a mall parking lot must do to the delicate wetlands creatures that have to suck it in searching for food and oxygen. Those contaminants are now the No. 1 source of water pollution in the nation and looming federal mandates are putting considerable fiscal pressure on communities to clean those contaminants out of community road runoff sources.
Porous pavement, according to its advocates, filters those contaminants out by letting rain run through road surfaces instead over them. That allows the contaminated water to filter through the soil before heading to the rivers and streams that take it to the estuaries and oceans. The secret of porous pavement is larger stones mixed in with the liquid asphalt or tar. Much smaller stones or even sand is the normal ingredient and that makes pavement non-porous. Pretty simple concept, isn’t it? There are drawbacks. This image here shows how much bedding is needed for porous pavement to work, and that’s got to be expensive. Keeping the porous pavement porous also means keeping the surfaces clean of sand and dirt. On the plus side porous pavement involves considerably less, even the elimination of, sanding and salting of roads. One of the beauties of porous pavement is it is much less susceptible to flooding and icing over. That means porous pavement could ultimately put a serious dent in road maintenance budgets as well as accidents. And it's great for the environment.
Apparently, the pros outweigh the cons because porous pavement is catching on. Google News produced five pages of results for porous pavement. This is a science daily story about Temple University students mixing plastic in with soil and making a permeable substance that they say can be used for sidewalks and such. If we were to combine that product with the porous pavement, we could put a serious dent in the road runoff problem. That would save lots of money not spent spreading salt and plowing and help communities meet the new federal road runoff requirements. Expect to hear a lot more on this subject this winter, and we hope we'll see a lot less of this in winters to come.
The Return of the Cuyahoga 12.07.10
PBS had this documentary over the weekend. It's an inspiration for anyone intimidated by the ecological disasters this country faces today. A river that was on fire from extensive pollution in the 1960s now is talking seriously about having bass, chain pickerel, and walleye pike returned in numbers large enough to make a halfway decent fishing hole. What impressed us most about the movie is the massive volunteer effort, and the willingness of those volunteers to get filthy in pursuit of the dream that now appears to be realized along the banks of the Cuyahoga. That movie got us thinking about a similar effort on a similarly stricken river in Massachusetts called the Shawsheen. That too, was heavily polluted during the Merrimack Valley’s industrial heyday.
Rumor has it, the river used to run different colors depending on what color plastic sunglass frames the company that discharged wastewater into the Shawsheen was making on any given day. That's not the case now, thanks to the efforts of an anonymous crew called the Shawsheen River Watershed Authority.
Hundreds of spare tires, shopping carts, refrigerators, and just about anything else you can think of have been pulled from the river by volunteers willing to get just as filthy as those who helped restore the Cuyahoga. Those volunteers, and we have to single out Bob Rauseo who is the heart and soul of the SRWA, are the sole reason the Shawsheen is as clean as it is today. So, who can fault NBN for being so optimistic about the future, when we have clear cut proof right in front of us that even the worst messes made in nature can be made whole again. Here's a link to a short vid on Return of the Cuyahoga.
Pledge Allegiance to the Polluters 11.02.10
Imagine buying land on the water with the dream one day of building a home with a waterview or, even better, a good swimming beach and/or deep water dock. Imagine you’re just getting serious about following through on your dream when the county passes laws restricting construction on your land to little more than a cottage. Welcome to Craigville Beach, MA, a ribbon of land between ocean and estuary 60 miles southeast of Boston. The Cape Cod Times ran this piece Friday about the county’s passage of laws that restricted construction of McMansions along this coveted stretch of real estate and started the story with an anecdote like that above.
The country says the rules are designed to: improve groundwater quality, protect scenic views and wildlife, require setbacks, increase corridor views, and such. NBN suspects the first reason is the real driver of this legislation. Nowhere in the legislation or the CC Times story is mention of the disaster overdevelopment has made of the Cape’s ponds and estuaries, one of which snakes right past Criagville Beach. The paper says opponents decry being stripped of their “time honored property rights.” However, a Craigville Beach property owner quoted in the story cuts closer to the real issue in saying the new rules will divide the community into a new set of have’s and have-nots.
This woman is one of the haves. She owns a home along Areys Pond on Cape Cod. She’s holding up algae and seaweed that’s choking off all other life in that pond because fertilizer rich cesspools have pretty much soaked the entire Cape in you-know-what. Algae love you-know-what. Most Cape communities didn’t build sewage treatment plants for fear it would encourage development. That didn’t work. Now Cape communities like Craigville Beach are looking at more draconian ways to curb development and that’s angering the have-not’s: those who, unlike the Areys pond woman, don’t have homes on the Cape and want to build them. Clearly this is not a dispute between societal castes: pretty much everybody is rich out on the Cape. Which is what makes this case such an interesting example of what’s driving the national political debate and this week’s election: the role of government in our lives. Examples abound of citizens chaffing at government regulations.
As our population approaches 300 million, our natural resources are getting stretched nationwide. Like Cape Cod, the ground water underneath millions of acres of Midwest farmlands are also getting fertilized into infertility which is washing down the Mississippi and turning the Gulf of Mexico into the World’s largest deadzone. How do you think a government dictate that all our crops be raised organically would go over in this political climate in a place like Kansas? NBN has documented ad nauseum the fight over government regulations to stem the relentless decline in North Atlantic ground fish. And what about the biggest environmental battle of them all: global warming. The most effective policy to curb that, Cap and Trade is being held up as a poster child for the ongoing battle of personal liberties against big government.
But these are not disputes over personal liberties, these are disputes over dwindling natural resource and government efforts to protect them for public use, present and future. Yet, the right to build a home on your own land is the “American Dream.” As much as we love to hate the Koch brothers and Halliburton’s of this world, they’ve invested lifetimes and a mountain of money that would be devastated if Cap and Trade went through. New England’s groundfishing fleet is as proud an American tradition as Midwest farming. However, if we don’t push for more government regulation like Criagville Beach, the Clean Water Act, and Cap and Trade, each of which absolutely strip property owners of legal rights, two things are inevitable: our resources will continue to dwindle and we’ll be fighting ever-more bitterly over what’s left.
You know who will win those fights? Not Joe the Plumber or Soccer Mom, the Koch Brothers and Halliburton: the folks paying off the politicians to pass the legislation that protects their stranglehold over the nation’s dwindling supply of natural resources. Yet Joe and Mom have been recruited by the Koch Brothers and Halliburton to wage war nationwide against government efforts to protect these dwindling resources for public as well as private use. Sadly, government regulations run counter to a lot of the principals this country was founded on. Hence the ease with which people who truly love this country are recruited to fight government efforts to protect public over private interest. The Tea Party ingenious for any fan of politics and dispiriting for any fan of humanity. If you want to read Frank Rich making the same argument, this ran in the NY Times over the weekend.
In and Outs of Creek Tidal Flow 10.26.10
When campaigning for local office outside the Orient, NY, post office many years ago, I was regaled by a local bulkheading business owner upset over my promise to: "Stop Bulkheading and Save the Creeks." He argued that bulkheading is actually good for our creeks. It improves water circulation and that flushes out pollution while bringing in more plankton from the bays for the clams and mussels to eat. He said he’s seen it happen: Clam beds bouncing back in creeks after bulkheads are installed. My marine biology college courses failed me completely as this fellow provided me with insights from 40 years of pounding timbers soaked in creosote and chromated copper arsenate into Long Island creeks. He was right: increased tidal circulation does clean out the creeks. There was little I could say. He walked off feeling smug and I went on to lose the election.
Fast forward to a rainy October afternoon at a construction site near that post office where my builder buddy is regaling me on the state’s ill-advised dredging policy aimed at saving winter flounder. I’ve little sympathy for anyone not willing to lay down their lives to save the winter flounder. These delicious fish are the first excuse each year for any avid fishermen to wet a line right from shore. They’ve also largely disappeared and rampant dredging to keep creeks open to boating is being blamed. But my buddy was making a good point.
He said the new state dredging policy was based on one 1975 finding that dredging ruins winter flounder spawning grounds. For that one study, New York creeks are now silting up in August, just when boating season hits its stride. Then he added that increasing the water flow through dredging cleans out the creeks. Again I was at a loss for words, he was right. Dredging does improve water circulation.
Ironically, both the bulkheader and the builder make the same point being made by many environmentally minded civic engineers now pushing to widen road culverts restricting the tidal flow into creeks up and down our coasts. Now, in the presence of my computer, where I do the regaling, I’d like to point out a few differences. First, the culvert repairs are fixing a man-made problem where the bulkheading and dredging perpetuate other problems. Bulkheading wipes out a crucial section of marsh ecosystems called the intertidal zone while the wider culvert enhance those zones. A similar, albeit weaker, argument can be made about dredging damaging another marine ecosystem called the subtidal zone. The entrance to my buddy’s creek would be 10-inches deep, not 10-feet, if it wasn’t dredged. My buddy and I know from many April fishing trips that gaping hole is right next to where the winter flounder spend the winter. That can't be good for the flounder whether they are spawning or just sleeping.
So, can we say the bulkheaders and dredgers are manipulating nature, and their pro-environment arguments supporting that manipulation, for their own reward? Sadly there’s a new wrinkle to consider. Mute swan populations are skyrocketing and fecal bacteria from their copious droppings are increasingly closing Long Island creeks to clamming. At the same time over-development is pouring so many lawn chemicals into our creeks the only practical means of cleaning them is to amp up water circulation. So, do we let the dredging and bulkheading begin and find something else to fish for on those early April mornings? When it comes to cleaning up the environment, there are no easy options.
We have to end on a happier note then that. Scientists just launched a winter flounder fish farm on Martha’s Vineyard. The fry from there will be used to return the fish to creeks up and down the coast. Hey fellas, don’t forget Long Island.
Dim lights, Spotty Glasses:
Prices Paid to Protect the Planet 09.21.10
As Joni Mitchell so famously sang at Woodstock: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” Would Joni would feel the same about this article in the Saturday NYTimes, which cites numerous product reviewers saying phosphate-free Cascade dishwashing soap isn’t what it used to be. The article notes it works great for the environment, curbing rampant algae growth that robs our lakes, ponds, bays and creeks of oxygen fish need to live. But if you really want to get those nasty spots off your glasses, you either rinse the glasses before putting them in the dishwasher, or use soap with lots of phosphates.
But in 16 states you can’t use dish soap with phosphates. Legislators in these states—Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Mass., Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington (State), and Wisconsin among them—would rather have spots on their glass then dead fish in their ponds, lakes, bays and creeks.
So just how bad is this new soap? Reading the reviews suggests there’s a lot of angry dish washers out there. So NBN figured we’d better take a look at our own dishwasher. Pictured here is what we found. This coffee pot doesn’t look too bad. But then again we usually rinse off everything before putting it in the dishwasher. We also wash everything before putting it in the recycle bin. Thanks to a little OCD, we didn’t even know Cascade was now a phosphate free product.
It’s funny, but the same sort of thing happened last year when we read this NYTimes piece declaring that compact fluorescent light bulbs don’t work. Yet every bulb in the offices of NBN is a compact fluorescent. We can read just fine. Could this be a contemporary corollary to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Is it possible that, after a few years, we won’t know what we had when it’s gone. Could we be just as content with spots on our glasses if we had more fish in our waters. "Hey, people people, better use your phosphate free now. Have your spots on your dishes and leave the fish in the bays be." With apologies to Ms. Mitchell, for butchering her anthem to the environment, we now leave you with the original.
Oysterreef Resolution Arrested 08.17.10
NBN tries hard not to exaggerate the environmental impact of stories but this NY Times piece on the end of a New Jersey oyster reef project is a sleeper of interest to the nation’s entire Atlantic coast. Let’s forget about Jersey for a moment and focus on the two key players here: storm water runoff and oyster reefs. Runoff is quickly becoming ground zero in the nation’s fight against water pollution. All the septic and factory drain pipes that have been cleaned up or closed down in the past 40 years have been more than replaced with this much more insidious form of pollution—thanks largely to the rampant residential development along our coasts during this same time.
Think of stormwater runoff as something akin to what’s collected in the drains of a carwash: lots of oil, salt, dirt, and maybe some antifreeze. Next add fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides collected from lawns and farms, and the droppings from dogs, geese and other animals that cohabit with humans, and you’ve got stormwater runoff. INow, consider that half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast. That’s how stormwater runoff, also called non-point source pollution, attained the title of greatest water pollution problem today.
This is where the oyster reefs come in. There was a time, before all this water pollution, that oysters were the dominant life form everywhere fresh water met salt. So much so, they formed eons-old reefs comprised of one oyster growing on top of another and so on. Some scientists today believe these reefs were the back-bone of Atlantic Coast estuarine ecosystems—those are the marshy places were fresh water meets salt. Those reefs filtered the water in those estuaries looking for plankton to eat. In the process they filtered out a lot of other stuff making the water much cleaner and clearer along the way. Those reefs also provided all sorts of nooks and crannies for other little life forms to hide in functioning very much like tropical coral reefs. Imagine what those tropical coral reefs would look like without the coral and you have a picture of the transition in North American estuaries like New York Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay from the early 1800s to today. Sadly, we have to rely on imagination here because the only evidence we have about early Atlantic coast oyster reefs are a few early maps which drew them in as navigational hazards.
This brings us to stormwater runoff. The thing about stormwater runoff as a form of pollution is this: it’s not all that nasty, it’s just that there is so much of it and it’s everywhere. Just like the oysters of long ago, they were everywhere and there were lots of them. A single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day. Look at this video. It says that in the 1800s Chesapeake Bay oysters were able to filter all 18 trillion gallons of water in that estuary in a matter of days. Now it takes a year. Which might explain why so much of the Chesapeake looks like Yoo-Hoo.
There are a lot of numbers being thrown around here and the fact is no one really knows the historic dimensions of the Atlantic coast oyster reefs because they were destroyed so eagerly both for food and to make room for shipping. Thus, we have no idea how difficult it will be to re-establish them or how effective they will be in curbing stormwater runoff. We do know the largest impediment to finding those answers has nothing to do with an oyster’s ability to survive and build new reefs in modern-day Atlantic estuaries. No, the reason the Jersey project linked above is being shut down, and other projects have so much trouble getting started, is government regulations.
State and federal agencies like the FDA and New Jersey’s DEP and the NYDEP are putting the kibosh on these projects or greatly restricting their proliferation because they fear people might eat oysters grown in waters polluted by stormwater runoff. NBN knows of a case on Long Island where state water inspectors refused to let a fellow with creek front property plant baby oysters in front of his home because the creek showed elevated levels of coliform bacteria. Coliform are a nasty bacteria that live in the digestive systems of many animals including humans. They are Public Enemy No. 1 for Taco Bell’s marketing department and they are the reason these state and federal shellfish regulations were put into place. Coliform are also a prime ingredient in stormwater runoff. So, the government concerns are well founded. If you like raw oysters, you’re eating coliform bacteria. (This gets tricky because there are various kinds of coliform, some bad some not so. Generally speaking the more coliform present, the greater the chances of getting the bad kind.)
So, we have governments clamping down on oyster reef proliferation in waters with lots of coliform-laden stormwater runoff to protect an unsuspecting public from possibly dangerous oysters. But this is insane. Right now you can collect and eat oysters in any of hundreds of Atlantic coast creeks closed to shellfishing because of high coliform counts. No one will be the wiser. Enforcement of closure laws is non-existent no matter what state you’re in. What state can afford to stake out its creeks in hopes of stopping illegal oystering? Worse, the last we checked, oysters weren’t exactly a mainstream source of the nation’s nutrition. Yet, we have a potentially affective cure like oyster reefs for such an irascible form of pollution like stormwater runoff, being pulled back to protect the quality of such an exotic food source.This sounds like very poor policy. Are you listening Congress?
River Pollution is More Than Water 08.10.10
Which, is the country's most polluted river? Wiki-Answers says it's the Chicago River, which is annually laced with green dye in homage to St. Patrick. This video says it's the New River which runs from Mexico to the US. Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire once. The Standells put in their vote in this 1970s song for the Charles River in Boston. It's likely there are a number of solid contenders across the country.
The reason we write about it here is this: the real pollution often isn't in the river, it's under it. We use the Merrimack River pictured above, another solid contender for most-polluted status, to illustrate. We're going to look at how the Merrimack River is getting un-polluted, if that's indeed possible. Unpolluting a river is much more complicated than just upgrading sewage treatment plants and building retention ponds for road runoff. You've got to get under the river and that's what's happening in one particularly nasty stretch of the Merrimack in Lawrence, MA.
It's hard to imagine an American river that's suffered the environmental assault the Merrimack has. This was the birth place of industry in this country. There were some 40 mills in Lawrence alone. Not to mention Lowell, Haverhill and Nashua, NH, cities which have also sat on the Merrimack for centuries The mills in those cities were originally powered by the Merrimack. In Lawrence what powered them was a system of canals built on the banks of a section of river that dropped some 40 feet over a quarter-mile stretch. That natural drop, much like a waterfall only more gradual, provided engineers the opportunity to tap hydro-power from the river by channeling the fast moving water through mill buildings. An example of those channels, or chases, are shown just below. As the water rushed through the basements it was channeled past turbines of sorts. First it was a systems of paddles that turned gears and pulleys on machinery on the floors above. (A more industrial version of this image.) Later on, that water rushed passed turbines powering electric generators, the modern-day version of hydro-power.
That water power generated a lot of industry in the Merrimack Valley. Paper and textile miles first dotted the Merrimack. Later it was plastic companies, tire companies, shoe and buggy makers. All moved into the mill towns along the Merrimack. The Merrimack, and rivers across the country were quite literally the engines that drove the industrial revolution that helped make this such a prosperous country right from the start. What was less noticeable in the basements of these mill buildings were the discharge pipes. For well over a century everything these mills could flushed down a drain ended up in our rivers. Sadly, the logic back them was: why would you put it anywhere else?
A little perspective is in order here. Raw sewage is an esthetically unpleasant form of pollution, but in reality it's an almost organic pollutant. For the most part, it's all biodegradable. The biggest problem with sewage is the bacteria, which will make you sick, but it won't give you cancer. On the other hand, chemicals like dioxin, toluene, polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, de-greasing solvents, tetrahydrofuran, benzene, ethylbenzene and xylene will play hell with your kidneys, liver and even your teeth. Getting back to the Merrimack.
All the above, and a laundry list of other goodies have soaked into the sediments and soil lining the Merrimack in these milltowns thanks in large part to all those canal built along the banks. Those chemicals are presumably seeping every day, with the ground water flow, into the Merrimack River itself. At what's known as the GenCorp property in Lawrence, those pollutants have seeped so deep into the earth surrounding the river, they are locked into the bedrock beneath the soil and can't be extracted.
What about those areas that can be cleaned up? It's an very imperfect science that costs horrendous amounts of money and will never get everything completely clean. The first, and most important step is: don't let the place be declared a Superfund site. The epicenter of the Merrimack clean-up, indeed you could make the argument the fall-guys in the Merrimack clean-up, is the GenCorp property.GenCorp is a former tire maker that had the misfortune to buy what is possibly, the single most polluted property in the Lawrence mill basin. The GenCorp property is now being called the Lawrence Gateway. This region of eastern Lawrence, MA, was so-nobly named back when the US economy looked like the it had the strength to revitalize an impoverished mill-city 30 years past its manufacturing prime. The GenCorp property also held what was essentially the trap, to use a plumbing term, for the waste discharge pipes draining a large complex of mill buildings on the Merrimack's northern shore. This little stretch of canal is to industrial pollution what Yuca Mountain is to nuclear waste. But it's not a Superfund Site.Although, right now it may look like one. These canisters above are chemical filters located on the GenCorp site.
Warning! Tangential digression approaching: The US EPA operative overseeing the GenCorp clean-up told me it wasn't named a Superfund site because GenCorp was doing such a fine job of addressing federal and state clean-up concerns for the site. However, a local newspaper editor opined at the time the Superfund decision was being made, that politics more than pollution played a role in keeping GenCorp off the roll of Superfund sites. That ruling came down about the same time the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy was taking heat over his nephew's rape allegations. Lawrence Eagle writer Edward Achorn, now of the ProJo, speculated that Kennedy could have made life miserable for GenCorp director Michael O'Neil by pressing for the property to be put on the Superfund list. According to Achorn's column, O'Neil was a relative of the woman who was allegedly raped by Kennedy's nephew. Sorry, no link to Achorn's column. Back to the point.
The GenCorp property is so completely steeped in pollution it will never be completely clean. However, keeping it off Superfund may have been the right decision. There was so much industry along the banks of the Merrimack, you can travel another half mile upstream and find soil holding the same sorts of nasty chemicals being extracted from the GenCorp site. The GenCorp property may be as much about drawing the line in environmental clean-ups as it is about removing pollution: how much can you really hope to do and at what point are you just throwing money down the drain?
The Lawrence cleanup efforts are focused on a specific section of the GenCorp property called the raceway shown at right. This canal, which extends from the heart of the north half of the Merrimack industrial canal system, looks like it might have drained more than one building: numerous buildings have been torn down in the Gateway project. Here's an important point: when the river level was down from lack of rain, so was the flow of water through the raceway. So, what was dumped into the raceway didn't necessarily wash right away.
So, the clean-up now entails sucking contaminated water out of the raceway, purifying it through various filters on-site, then sending the water through a final sediment trap, shown here, before discharging it into the Merrimack. Intuitively, this sounds like the little Dutch boy plugging the dam with his fingers. The Lawrence Gateway is an eight-acre clean-up in the middle of several hundred acres of contamination that can be found found in any of the Merrimack cities mentioned above.
Sadly, there is no solution here. The damage is done and can't be completely fixed. The clean-up may be mole-hill-mountain stuff but it is getting more pollution out of the ground. It's entirely possible there's some chunk of sediment under one of the dozens of other industrial sites in those cities that's contaminated with enough dioxin to give a rock cancer. Such potential contaminates are going to inexorably work their way toward, and eventually into, the Merrimack River. The river will then wash that dioxin, or some other chemical over the Joppa clam flats 20 miles downstream pictured here. There's been talk of re-opening those clams flats, closed for the past 50 years over pollution problems, now that the Merrimack is getting cleaner.
But is it, really getting cleaner? The EPA official mentioned above said there are “tens of thousands” of ground water samples taken from this site. Several of the tests had bewildering entries, some scratched out and reentered numerous times. It would be easy to hide all manor of environmental disaster in the shelves of files on this cleanup record. Which brings us to the point of this column. Is the Gateway clean-up worth doing? Is it more than just an opportunity for the EPA and MassDep to say they are doing their jobs? Even the gargantuan Hudson River clean-up by GE is a more easily defined project than cleaning the banks of the Merrimack. Why hold GenCorp accountable when the pollution they are cleaning up got its start decades before they bought the land. Not to mention, there are hundreds of acres of polluted soil surrounding it.
Nothing Sudden about Marsh Dieoff 07.07.10
About two years ago I was talking to one of the most esteemed naturalists in one of the most esteemed natural locations in the country, the East End of New York’s Long Island, shown here. This fellow is making a frontal assault on 90 years old, yet he says to me, in stroke-slowed speech, “when are you going to write something about what’s happening in all our marshes. They’re dying.” He explained further that something called Sudden Marsh Dieback is killing salt marshes up and down the coast. I’d never heard of it, I told him. Further, I had to find an editor to buy the story before I could write anything. Then I found a group dedicated to the study of Sudden Marsh Dieback that was holding its second symposium on the subject out on Cape Cod. “Bingo, I’m in,” I thought. What editor could resist a story on the inexplicable, wholesale death of the most vital natural marine resource the planet has: salt marshes. Envisioning a 3,000 word cover article in National Geographic, I signed up for the symposium.
I walked out of that symposium as bewildered as I was alarmed. The Long Island naturalist was right, marsh is dying all over the country, but eight hours of expert lecturers from five East Coast states could not agree on why. Another 30 hours talking to even more experts on the phone yielded yet more theories on what’s causing sudden marsh dieback. In Louisiana, extreme drought was thought to blame. In New Jersey and Delaware, grasshoppers were a possible culprit. Connecticut marsh expert Ron Rozsa said marsh drainage and mosquito ditches might play a role. In New York, now retired DEC marsh expert Fred Mushacke said there was nothing sudden about the dieoff problem. He thinks it’s just the natural tendency of marshlands to subside, or sink, into the surrounding water. However, he said the subsidence problem is getting much worse in New York and he doesn’t know why.
Why am I beating this to death right now? Because another expert suggested all the above could be killing the nation’s marshes. The scariest theory put forth so far came from Massachusetts marsh expert Susan Adamowitz who, for lack of a more solid explanation, suggests the nation’s marshes are under all manner of stress; from pollution in stormwater runoff, to over fishing, to rising sea levels from global warming. Is it possible, we’ve just pushed our marshlands to the brink and now we’re seeing them lose the battle to whatever local predator or problem they’ve successfully fended off in the past? Let’s hope not. If so, it could spell disaster for the Gulf of Mexico salt marshes. A few weeks back we opined in these pages that those Gulf salt marshes may not be as vulnerable to the oil spill as everyone is saying. So far, there have not been any reports of them dying wholesale and it seems like enough time has passed for that to happen. However, if Adamowitz is right and all the country’s salt marshes are getting weary from decades of abuse, it could be a long drawn out death for the marshes set off by the oil spill.
One side note, the only national publication to show an interest in my story was the New York Times which gave me three slots in its regional issues for three different stories in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Audubon showed an interest but eventually killed the story because it wasn’t cheery enough. For real! The Audubon editor said they are tired of running bad news stories about the environment. Perhaps, we can see where he’s coming from. Bad news tends to outweigh the good in NBN, and we hate that. But my naturalist friend from Long island has watched salt marshes for some 80 years and he’s pretty bummed out about what’s happening. Should we just look the other way?
Get in Good with Gov Regulators 06.29.10
Property rights too often run afoul of environmental law needlessly. Take this story about this Salem, NH, Arlington Pond home. The photo here, originally printed in the Eagle Tribune, will help us tease this case apart. The homeowner here was fined $25,000 for the stone retaining wall and patio he built along the shore. Another $15,000 fine is suspended for three-years provided he doesn't break anymore of the state's wetlands protection statutes. He was also required to restore the property. Restore to what? The place looks beautiful. Reading the comments below the story provides insight into what is often the genesis of these conflicts, and they happen all the time, all over the country. The comments predictably run between tax payer anger over big-brother meddling in private property rights, to resident indignation over an arrogant neighbor thumbing his nose at official policy designed to protect the environment everyone enjoys. No mention is made in the comments or the story of the real problem or the solutions available.
The reason this fellow was cited is called, “hardening of the shoreline" and states across the country are taking action on it. The Trib story notes the homeowner was twice denied permission to build a retaining wall, so he went ahead on his own. Here's a question: What are the chances of his getting permission to build that retaining wall if he could have demonstrated he was not hardening the shoreline and instead actually improving environmental conditions around the pond? Damn good, it turns out. There are all kinds of tricks he could have used in his plans to control erosion and runoff that result from the “hardening” from the landscaping and bulkheading. Such tricks can gain favor with the officials reviewing his proposal. The same sorts of officials who ended up issuing the fines. This Google Earth picture shows that just about every inch of Arlington Pond is hardened, big time. These McMansions are to lawn fertilizer what southern New Hampshire ponds, like Arlington, once were to fishing: Ground Zero. Now these ponds have become better-known for their toxic cyanobacteria beach closings due to too much fertilizer which is running off the hardened shoreline and into the water. Which explains the fines the homeowner received.
What if the home-owner approached the officials considering his landscaping plans and said: “what do I need to do to get these plans approved.” There are all kinds of mathematics that go into finding compromises here, as noted in this excellent Boston Globe piece. All the officials want is for rainwater to sink into the ground before it goes into the lake, filtering out the fertilizer and dog crap along the way. An asphalt driveway doesn't do that, a bluestone driveway does. There are also paving products out there that provide a rigid/permeable driveway surface, like the one pictured here. There is even porous pavement as discussed in this excellent Boston Globe piece. The driveway and pavement are just examples of many ways to mitigate the negative impacts of development along shorelines. There are many other solutions that can be equally simple. If these options aren’t applicable on the land being developed, you can look at the surrounding lands for other run-off or erosion problems to fix. Such altruism will curry favor with the town you’re seeking a building permit from. Big time developers do it all the time. It’s called Low Impact Development. You can measure fairly accurately how much water runs off into a lake and how much runs into the ground. If your project results in more total water running into the ground than runs into the lake: Bingo! You should be getting your building permit. Instead, we have this fellow shelling out $25k for a fine that could be spent on mitigation efforts. Instead of taking advantage of a chance to clean up the pond while the house is being built, we've got hardened feelings along with the hardened shoreline along the shores Arlington Pond.
We're all to Blame for the Gulf Oil Spill
And a lot of other pollution in the Gulf 06.08.10
NBN has been off-base enough in the past to have a little humility when we're right. That said, when NBC news last week cited biologist Kerry St. Pe saying the Gulf oil spill may not kill Louisiana's marsh grasses, we were just a little smug. On this page on May 25 we suggested the kinship between oil and plants might mean the marsh grasses in the path of the Gulf oil plume could survive. We realize now we failed to mention in that column our theory depends heavily on how much oil is spilled. We also left out that popular wisdom has it other marsh plants down there, like mangroves, are much more vulnerable to the oil spilled. Still the point is a good one because if the marsh grasses survive the wildlife that won't will return. If the grasses die it's a disaster on a scale with Chernobyl.
So, we feel the scientific support we've since seen for our argument emboldens us now to take a few shots at media coverage of this event while presenting a little perspective on how “fragile” they say these marshes are. First, there is a serious problem with environmental journalism that even NBN, in earlier incarnations, could be accused of: doomsday dependency syndrome. We've all heard the newsroom mantra “If it bleeds, it leads.” For environmental news it's more like: “If it's dying, we're buying.” Let's face it: the public gobbles up stories on environmental catastrophe. That puts a lot of pressure on reporters and editors to give you what you want. Forget perspective, focus on the gooey stuff. When you have fragile marshes under assault from a massive, ugly oil slick, you get the “David versus Goliath” angle which makes the story even more irresistible. That puts even more pressure on the media to “get” the story. If the first sources you find won't support your story, find sources that will.
Which brings us to the perspective part of this analysis: how fragile are these marshes? You could argue that the entire country's marshes have been under assault since colonist started wiping out oyster reefs and bulkheading shore lines 200 years ago. Pictured here is the Jersey Shore, near Barnegat Light. Miles and miles of marsh here have been back-filled and bulkheaded to accommodate tens of thousands of waterfront home with pointlessly over powered boats parked out front. Yet, despite this assault—let's not forget the sewage treatment plants servicing these homes—a massive network of marsh islands still survives around Barnegat Light. The water is reasonably clear. You can even catch a fish of two there, if you're real lucky. Now, take a canoe through the Meadowlands between Manhattan and New Jersey. You could argue those marshes have been subjected to as much pollution and man-made disruption as any in this country. Yet they still turn real green each summer and there are plenty of birds.
Now, look at this photo. It depicts the plume of sediments washed into the Gulf of Mexico each spring from farms lining the Mississippi watershed which drains almost half the country. Wanna guess what's mixed in those sediments? According to these folks 700 million pounds of toxic chemicals were reported dumped into the Mississippi River between 1990 and 1994. And that's just what was reported, mostly by two fertilizer factories, according to the same source. We have no idea how much fertilizer is in the rain washing off all those farms and into the Mississippi each year.
Sewage treatment plants are also not counted among the pollutants discharged into the Mississippi watershed. When asked how many sewage treatment plants there are throughout the Mississippi watershed, Eve Zimmerman, of the EPA's watershed department said: “Wow. lots of them. About 43 percent of the continental US drains into the Mississippi.” For lack of more detail, we're going to take a wild guess and say that each year hundreds of sewage treatment plants are discharging tens of billions of gallons of secondary-treatment sewage into the Mississippi River watershed. We bet that's even a conservative estimate.
Take a look at this video. It's just one sewage treatment plant in Boca Raton discharging into the Atlantic. And where does all this pollution, sewage, fertilizer and runoff dumped into the Mississippi end up? It washes over the “fragile” marshes which are now being threatened anew by the BP oil spill. Let's face it the Gulf's fragile marshes have been under assault since plumbing came over the Appalachian Mountains. Even more so since the advent of offshore drilling. Does anyone really doubt that there are numerous oil spills in the Gulf all the time that are too small to bother news crews about?
If you do, we offer up this Greenpeace photospread of oil industry damage to Louisiana marshes before the Deepwater Horizon fisaco. (Text continues underneath. No too much more, we promise.)
It's clear these Gulf marshes have been absorbing their fare share of pollution for decades. Yes, BP cut disastrous corners our regulatory agencies should never have let them near. But it seems there's an element of hypocrisy in the nation's outrage now over this oil spill, particularly in the Gulf coast states. Like we pointed out two weeks ago, the 75th Diamond Jubilee Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, where “oil and water do mix,” is still on for Sept. 2-6 in Morgan City, LA. Also Louisiana has 16 oil refineries taking in 2.25 million barrels of crude each day from offshore sources. Texas has 26, Mississippi, six. It's anyone's guess how many people work at those refineries or on the thousands of offshore oil platforms feeding those refineries. There were some 175 people on the Deepwater Horizon alone. Katrina may have been a bad hurricane, but what happens if a worse one comes along. How do we know there aren't other hardware problems lurking in these oil rigs waiting for something else to go wrong before they can surface. Like Jimmy Buffet said on NBC last night: "We are all using the oil this platform was drilled to produce."
So, what lesson do we to draw from all this perspective ? You tell us. Here's a little theme music to help you think.
So, what lesson do we to draw from all this perspective ? You tell us. Here's a little theme music to help you think.
Is the Gulf Oil Spill the Country's Environmental 9.11? 05.25.10
Is it too early to guess what the marshes of Louisiana will look like 40 years from now? Since the entire world of journalism is working overtime to tell you what it looks like right now, NBN thought it could leverage this Boston Globe piece, into some wishful thinking for what's shaping up to be the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl. The Globe story itemizes the lingering impacts of a 1969 spill in Massachusetts that disgorged 200,000 gallons of No. 2 diesel fuel into Buzzards Bay, shown here. It's clear from the story the marshes in Buzzards Bay have rebounded. Could this mean Louisiana marshes might fare better?
To answer that, we ask if it's possible the grotesque globs of crude just now washing up in Louisiana marshes could be less damaging to marine life than the diesel fuel that blanketed Buzzards Bay 40 years ago. Consider this: crude oil is essentially plants, compressed over eons into the viscous stuff camera crews are fawning all over right now in the Gulf. Yes, the stuff washing up right now will smother hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres of prime salt marsh. The key question is: will it kill the root structure that is the foundation of these marshes?
Let's consider again the difference between diesel fuel and crude oil. Is it possible the crude washing up in Louisiana marshes won't completely smoother these roots, show here. Instead, might that oil be broken down into less toxic elements by those roots, scalding sunshine and other marsh elements normally heading into high gear this time of year? Break it down, perhaps more readily than the diesel that washed up in Buzzards Bay or the crude spilled along the frigid rocky waters of Valdez, AK. To get a handle on these questions, dig into a healthy salt marsh. You get into some rich, black, funky-smelling stuff. Kind of like peat. It's a far cry from crude oil, but it's definitely got the idea. Oil and plants are no strangers to each other. It's what biofuels are all about.
In the final read for this piece Tuesday morning we began to think: “boy, this is very wishful thinking.” Then we found this Time magazine piece which suggests maybe we're not nuts. Make no mistake, it's likely acres of oysters, mussels, clams and sea worms, along with tens of thousands of shore birds, crabs, minnows, bait fish, game fish and turtles to name a very few, will disappear for years to come. (No, we did not forget shrimp. Please see Opinion Page.) But as self-appointed contrarians, it's NBN's job now to look for silver linings and we can't ignore the vital message being sent to the only country in the world that can prevent many million more times this sort of destruction in the near future. Yes, it's time to talk Global Warming. If you think this spill threatens the Gulf marshes, it's a joke compared to what rising tides will do to marshes world wide. This is where the all important marsh roots come in. If they can survive, or even help break down the crude oil, these marshes might bounce back quicker than Buzzards Bay. If the plants return, so will the animals. Rising sea level from global warming, on the other hand, will wipe out these marshes for good along with the animals that depend on them. Which is why we think this oil spill might be good news. Could the Gulf oil spill to be the country's ecological World Trade Center? This analysis in Saturday's NY Times suggests the administration may finally be waking up to this opportunity. If the marsh rebounds like we speculate above, this oil spill could end up being be a very painful lesson at a pivotal time in history we most need it.
Tea Party Polemic 04.05.10
When the collection of sign-waving folks gathered outside the American Legion Hall in Southold, NY, Saturday said they represented the 9-12 Project, I thought it was some kind of zoning regulation. It took a little explanation before the women closest to our car said they were part of the TEA Party: Taxed Enough Already. As I drove off, I wondered what they'd think if I told them I want a tax on rain.
As communities grapple with an insidious form of pollution called stormwater runoff and expensive federal mandates to clean it up, rain taxes are being proposed all over the country. Few places need a rain tax quite as much as the town these 9-12 folks were raising over-taxation awareness in. In some respects the term rain tax is a good one: when it rains, the water washes pollutants off our roads, lawns and parking lots and into the nation's rivers, streams, bays and oceans. Rain tax tries to stop that, yet the term is also becoming a poster child for government taxing excess. It doesn’t help that this rain tax seems to be arising in communities struggling to close budget gaps as noted in this USA Today piece.
Let's put this rain tax idea into different perspective. As we’ve noted many times in this website, any community 50 or older probably has a particularly nasty form of rain pollution called combined sewer overflow that discharges raw sewage directly into the nearest river. Now, add that sewage to all the oil, fertilizer, plastic, pesticide, herbicide and other chemicals humans use to nurture or neuter nature and you have stormwater runoff. Should American's and businesses pay for their chemical contributions to stormwater runoff? That's rain tax. Look at this video above. It's the Powow River in Amesbury MA, swollen to flooding with rain that's just scrubbed 22.8 miles of New England neighborhoods and farm fields. That water is heading straight to the Merrimack River and then the Great Marsh, considered one of New England's finest salt marshes. Southold’s beloved Peconic Bays suffer a similar fate, only worse. They swallow millions of gallons of CSOs on a semi-annual basis from the Peconic River sewage treatment plant at the mouth of this magnificent estuary,. The Peconics are also surrounded by farm fields and McMansions laced on a near weekly basis with chemical weed and pest killers. When I saw one sign saying “Taxed Enough Already” I wanted to step out and explain to the holder of said sign that some people aren't paying enough taxes. Then I notice half of the signs had a cut up snake on them and said: “Don’t tread on me.” It got me thinking. Since these folks are easily swayed by catchy phrases, maybe I'll join the next rally and hold up my own TEA Party sign: “Tax Effluent Adequately.” Nah! Too many syllables.
Where Stimulus Ends and Investment Starts 03.18.10
Along the banks of northeastern Massachusetts' Merrimack River these past few days there was a distinctive sewer odor. An odor likely detected along other East Coast rivers swollen by the past weekend's deluge. That smell comes compliments of millions of gallons of raw sewage discharged into the nation's rivers every time inches out number days during a rain storm. It's one of the dirtier legacies of the our nation's early civil engineering called combined sewer overflows. Municipal sewer systems were first designed to discharge directly into the nearest river. With the advent of the sewage treatment plant, those old pipes were simply hooked up to the new plants, leaving the old river connections open and intact for emergencies. Now, when heavy rains overwhelm those aging plants, the old river pipes take the overflow which often means hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage are discharged into the bulk of the nation's rivers every year. This produces a flood of bacterial contamination that affects clamming, fishing and recreation. Below is a good video explaining CSOs.
Still, combined sewer overflow is not exactly a household word. News about these sewage escapes—over one hundred million gallons from one Lowell plant went into the Merrimack last weekend—was eclipsed by stories of sandbagging the Red River in South Dakota. However, Canada, Indiana, and Rhode Island all suffered from CSOs during this past storm. That's why the EPA has been leaning heavily on municipal waste water treatment plants since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1994 to fix the CSO problem. The nearly prohibitive cost of replacing all that underground piping or upgrading the capacity of these plants is why nothing's been done.
Then along comes the Stimulus Bill. The failed Stimulus Bill according to some. The pork barrel Stimulus Bill according to others. However, the bill has $1.4 billion for fixing up sewer plants with $185 million of that to clean up Massachusetts rivers like the Merrimack. Yet skeptics like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn criticize this and dozens of other expenses in the Stimulus plan as “non-stimulative.” These non-stimulative expenses, according to Coburn include:
• $2 billion to develop advanced batteries for hybrid cars
• $5 billion for weatherizing buildings
• $5.1 billion for environmental cleanup around military bases
• $2 billion to develop advanced batteries for hybrid cars
• $5 billion for weatherizing buildings
• $5.1 billion for environmental cleanup around military bases
In some respects the senator is right. If the fed wanted to stimulate the economy it could invest in small businesses, presumably through tax relief, with an eye toward making those businesses grow more jobs. Many of these projects he singles out are one-time fix-ups and clean-ups that don't sound like they are going to spawn more jobs. Are these improved sewer plants along the Merrimack going to put more people to work in those plants? Probably not.
So, upgrading these plants is hardly investing in a growth industry like Coburn wants. But the reduction in bacteria in the water from cleaning up the plants will mean fewer shell-fishermen sitting at home after heavy rains. That means more, less expensive fresh clams for restaurants—and there is no clam like New England Ipswich clams. Not to mention the myriad other benefits from not having hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage dumping into our rivers annually. As for the other items Coburn singled out: the $5 billion for weatherizing buildings mentioned above is hardly going into a growth industry. How many times can you weatherize a building? However, that work will mean fewer American dollars into the black crude blackhole overseas and more comfortable buildings to live and work in back home. Also not a bad return on investment. Same story with cleaning up around those military bases.
Such projects are not just about pulling the country out of an economic slump. They also aim to set the country on a different course. Accordingly, they may not be felt as immediately as cutting taxes, but the money has to be spent some day and many of these projects require immediate attention even if the pay back is less so. Bridges need to be fixed, our dependence on foreign oil has to decline. Are we going to wait for a rainy day to clean up the military bases? Cutting taxes doesn't fix these problems. Critics like Coburn like to say we're saddling our future generations with a tax burden with this bill. But, aren't we also saddling them with a burden, that could possible be more costly over time, if we don't fix these problems now?
Fun Trumps Filters at Oyster Farm 03.15.10
The fellow proposing an oyster farm for a Mattapoisett, RI cove, has moved his project where it will offend fewer neighbors, and not clean up the water those same neighbors wanted to keep clear for recreational purposes. Is it unfair to assume "recreational purposes" in this case probably means some kind of gas-powered entertainment. At least more-so than sailing and canoeing? This is a Google Earth image of the cove. We see a marina but not too many neighbors. The fact is, the water these people were protecting for there fun will be dirtier than if the oyster farm went forward. A few fun facts about oysters and a reality check for the folks in Mattapoisett is in order.
A single Oyster filters as much as 50 gallons of water a day. The oysters that once grew in the Chesapeake Bay filtered all the water in that bay, (about 19 trillion gallons) in a week. Today, the same feat takes the remaining oysters more than a year. Accordingly, oyster farms are going in every where, as a means of pollution control as much as agricultural enterprise. (When you think about it, the enormous filtering abilities of oysters might make them more questionable table fair in this age of road runoff. Watch the video to get a good appreciation of how funky this runoff can be.)
There's no doubt the residents surrounding this proposed oyster farm have a legitimate beef. The project being proposed for Matapoisett was an individual effort, undertaken as a retirement project. But as this image shows, they can turn open water into an obstacle course. An oyster farm will also result in more oysters growing everywhere, not just on the farm, and oyster shells are sharp. The idea of being propelled from your seat when your jet ski hits an oyster reef at 40 mph could keep you taking in the view from your dock rather than getting into the water. Add on the fact that these reefs, once they establish themselves, are kind of like a mound of razor blades jutting from the water at low tide. But such reefs once dominated the nation's bays and marshes. They are like the coral reefs of the north, attracting and giving shelter to all manner of water creatures. If we ever want these water bodies restored to their former ecological glory, they will have to once again. And that means making some sacrifices.
River Bottom Blues 03.08.10
From our "what-did-you-expect" department: General Electric's Hudson PCB dredging project is sending PCB levels in the river water skyrocketing. This has the EPA and GE now talking of throttling back on the project, trying to keep PCB levels down, further stalling an already very drawn-out, very expensive project. Would it make more sense to just let the PCB levels spike and get the dredging over with? Then again, who knows how much of the industrial lubricant and suspected carcinogen is buried in the sediments of the Hudson. It's hard to imagine, in this age of environmentalism, the amount of pollution dumped into the nation's rivers between 1870 and 1970. It was so bad, some rivers used to catch fire. A lot of that pollution washed out into the ocean and is now locked probably forever in the sediments of the ocean floor. A lot of those pollutants are also locked into river bottom sediments like those now being stirred up in the Hudson.
This sediment problem gets even more interesting when you look behind the 75,000 dams still sitting in the nation's rivers. Many of these dams are derelict and are being removed at an growing pace as maintenance costs are proving too high to leave them in place. This links to a website which details 38 pages of dam removal projects across the country. That's some 550 dams in the process of getting yanked. This video above is of the Marmott Dam removal project two years ago in Oregon. It illustrates pretty nicely the dramatic change a river undergoes when a dam is removed.
That brings us to the other half of this damn dam story: they keep fish like salmon, herring, alewife, shad, and eels from swimming to spawning grounds upstream. Millions of dollars have been spent on clever fish ladders and lifts, like the one shown here at left, to help get these anadromous fish upstream to their traditional spawning grounds. Some work better than others and none work nearly as well as the river without a dam. If the fish migrations and pollution problems with dams aren't complication enough, here's another piece about the impact dams have on the species of fish in these rivers. So, why write about it here? NBN is a big proponent of tearing out dams and letting these watershed revert back to their natural states. At the same time, these demolitions will release a torrent of toxins locked up in the sediments behind these dams. Such concerns are doubtless why the Hudson River project has dragged on. We want to ask if it wouldn't be better to get it all done at once. Pull the dams, dredge the rivers, suffer the fish-kills and move on. Any takers on this one? Please leave a comment.
More Dams Dumped 01.27.10
Here's a wonderful article about progress going in a direction our founding fathers may not have envisioned. For the first time since colonial days, New Hampshire's Winnicut River doesn't have a dam. Dam removal is a big deal when it comes to restoring our rivers and the fish runs through them. Now, it's hoped that the Winnicut salmon and herring runs will return with the dam removed. If that happens, it will breath new life into the Great Bay's estuary ecosystem which is fed by the Winnicut. The Great Bay estuary is called an eco-system because there are all kinds of plants and animals that live and work together here in a way completely different from an ocean or fresh water environment.
Spartina grass provide homes for small crabs, eel grass does the same for shrimp and seahorses. Oysters reefs are once again starting to re-establish themselves in the Great Bay thanks to the great work being done by Ray Grizzle at UNH. It's hard to estimate how taking these dams out of these rivers will help all these critters in the ecosystems these rivers feed. That's because many of the dams have been here so long, we don't know what these estuaries looked like before they were built.
Dam removal is happening all over New England. This may not look like much of a ecosystem, but Ox Pasture Brook in Newburyport, MA, just got a solid shot in the arm with the removal of a dam there. The link says water circulation and fish runs will improve as a result.
Here's another recent dam removal in New Hampshire's Black Brook. The Black Brook is a tributary of the Merrimack River which feeds into the Great Marsh, the largest salt marsh ecosystem in New England. The folks that pulled the dam also say the project will restore all manner of fish habitat.
Heck, just take a look at this website. It's a 38-page list of dam removal projects across the country. That's some 550 dams in the process of getting yanked. Oh yeah, there's 75,000 dams in this country. Still, dams are coming out every where. This is great news for fish runs. It's also great news for flushing contaminated sediments out of these rivers. But it's not all good. Removing these dams could mean less groundwater for surrounding communities to tap into. Also, people who owned homes on dam ponds may not be thrilled to find themselves living by a stream after water levels drop. There are a lot of details to work out. But clearly, the fish, birds, grasses and overall ecosystems will benefit.
Dams Stop More Than Water 01.14.10
The feds have granted Atlantic salmon in three southern Maine rivers endangered species protection, which means you can't “harass, harm, pursue, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect,” them. This protection means, in large part, that myriad bureaucratic gears start grinding should you seek permission to do any of the above. What this federal protection doesn't address are other things humans do to these fish. First there are the dams which keep salmon from reaching upstream spawning grounds. There are fish ladders and lifts put in place to help the salmon make this journey, but they don't work. That's one big reason why dams are being ripped out across New England, which has over 7,000 of the things. (Another big reason the dams are getting pulled out is dam maintenance is getting too costly. This is particularly true where the dams are privately owned.) That said there are 50,000 dams—yes 50,000—still standing in this country’s rivers and streams. They have made a mess out of fish migrations of every ilk. This image here is the Penobscot River’s Milford Dam. The Penobscot salmon is now an endangered species. Here is a great link for more local news on that.
But just tearing out dams isn’t as easy as it may sound. In some cases these dams provide a lot of electricity. Not just the obvious dams, like Niagara falls. The Great Stone Dam on the Merrimack River in Lawrence powers some 15,000 homes without using a drop of oil. However, the dam is also the reason only 57 Atlantic salmon made it upstream of Lawrence this year. Hobson's choice, wouldn't you say? There's another big, man-made problem the Atlantic salmon are facing. Fish farming. The bulk of the farmed salmon eaten in this country come from the Gulf of Maine. These three rivers singled out in the release above, run straight into the gulf of Maine. The salmon running into these rivers must first swim past the fish farms, and like all farms, fish farms have all kinds of problems controlling disease.
Things like sea lice are ravaging wild salmon populations on both coasts. Caution! Personal anecdote approaching. When I did this story on an off-shore electrical generator that uses wave energy to power off-shore fish farms, one person involved got very upset because I mentioned the pollution problems with fish farming. The reason they wanted to design the offshore facility was to protect the inshore fish, like the salmon from the farm operation pollution problems. Click the link, it's a cool story. Great art. But again we have a Hobson's choice. Fish farming makes it so less wild salmon are needed to fill markets, but the fish farms are killing off the wild salmon. Look at our story in Good News today for news about national policy on fish farms. Apparently, the feds are moving on this front.
Barrier Beach Blues 01.04.10
This press release was pulled this morning from the two-steps-forward-three-steps-back file. Ocean Lakes Family Campground In Myrtle Beach, S.C. announced its iCare program to reduce guest impact on the environment. The program provides plastic bags for campers to clean up after their pets and themselves. The bags are designed for markedly different contents but the message is the same: clean up after yourselves. While Ocean Lakes is quick to congratulate themselves on iCare, take a look at this aerial photo
Ocean Lakes obliterated a serious section of sensitive barrier beach ecosystem. The Jackson Companies which owns Ocean Lakes specializes in outdoor recreational facilities like campgrounds and golf courses. Weighing the iCare program against the plants and animals The Jackson Companies has killed to cash in on outdoor recreation is an unpleasant equation. This is what Ocean Lakes would look like without the Jackson Companies.
Road Runoff the Silent Killer 11.07.09
Plucking statistics out of thin air is perhaps a dicey practice for a website dedicated to simplifying science, but what the heck, I'm the editor here. Lets say about half of the people who like to swim in lakes and oceans know anything about the biology of the water they swim in. Lets further speculate that maybe a tenth of those understand the role seagrasses play in that biology. That means this Associated Press
Seagrasses are to our coastal environments what trees are to our forests. They provide shelter to creatures that can't live without it. To steal a term from college biology, they are vertical substrate.
Is it reasonable to assume the same is happening in 58 percent of the world's seagrass. Might as well throw this
article in. Kelp beds are also disappearing. These truly are underwater forests. I've only spent a few hours diving in these magnificent environments. I can't speak to what is living there. But the prospect they are disappearing too, makes me want to head back out to California's Channel Islands before it's too late.
What's perhaps less understood by the swimming pool set, is the number of different creatures dependent on this shelter. Caution, long personal anecdote approaching! I was snorkling along New York's Peconic Bay shore this weekend. I know this shoreline well. We used to spear eels there as kids. We caught blowfish, by hand. We tiptoed around poisonous toadfish, played with the pipefish, and marveled at the legions of baby winter flounder. Even an occasional seahorse, a relative of the pipefish, would turn up in the minnow nets we'd pull along the seagrass bed that formed a 30-foot-wide belt of shelter for all of the above throughout the Peconics. All the above were no where to be found in the time I spent in the water this weekend.
Finally, we have to ask what is the ultimate cost of losing the seagrasses. Wiser minds than mine are working hard on the answer right now. President Obama has
Time to cloud the issue a little. In fresh water the reverse seems to be happening. Algae, and plants called invasives, are clogging ponds, lakes, rivers and streams. So much so, they are becoming more like swamps than ponds and lakes. Enormous effort and money is being spent to tear them out. In short, we're struggling to pull the plants out of fresh water and put them back into the salt water. This is so confusing because environments are ecosystems, emphasis on the word system. There are many parts working together. When one goes the effects are felt everywhere.
There is one common denominator here: pollution. Not the stuff spewing out of smoke stacks or pouring out of pipes. Subtle stuff call non-point source
pollution. Also known as run-off. It comes from the hardening of our shorelines, fresh and salt. Read the links and see what you can do to help control this form of pollution. As the name implies, it's coming from everywhere and nowhere in particular. The landscape at right looks beautiful, but much more beautiful for the environment would be trees and leaves which soak up the water and filter it through the ground before discharging it into the bay.
Everglades Get Going-0ver 06.01.09
Linda Friar, a wonderful PR person with the National Parks Service sent over this release regarding the Everglades. (sorry about the odd link it's the first one I found) This sort of work is vital if the putrifying tide of non-point source pollution is to ever be rolled back. The NPS release is a pedestrian sort of appeal for public input on federal plans to enlarge some bridges, culverts and such that will increase water flow into the Everglades. The same sort of expansions are taking place in the marshes of New England.
Marshes are the lungs of marine ecosystems. The nutrients and life they respire into open waters are the life blood of the planet's coastal environments. These infrastructure expansion efforts to improve salt marsh circulation are no less important to our marine environments than medicine to asthmatics. Dollars to donuts, 75 percent of this country has no idea what non-point source pollution is. A finsky gets you frosting that the same percentage of marine scientists will tell you nonpoint source pollution is the single greatest threat to our marine environments after global warming. (FYI, rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps will completely neuter all the world's salt marshes.) Improving salt water flow throughout marshes helps counter non-pointsource pollution
Fly over the Everglades or drive the bayside of New Jersey's Long Beach Island. Spend some times boating around Long Island's Great South Bay in New York. Or just look at the image on the right You'll see mile after mile of bulk heading has allowed construction of millions of homes that are now dumping lawn fertilizers and road run-off in place of the marsh marine life that has historically feed the world's bays and oceans.
(Mandatory coffee-fueled tangential digression here: I flew over the Florida pan handle returning from Disney World recently. Talk about perverting an ecosystem, Disney's Wild Safari as converted 160 acres of Florida marsh into African Savannah so people can get a better appreciation of nature! Folks if you want an appreciation of nature go to the NPS's Everglades National Park.
Back to the point. Thousands of square miles of once-fertile marsh has been diked, dammed and bulkheaded to accommodate all manner of man-made enterprise along our coastlines. And people ponder Florida's disappearing coral reefs. Let's hope the NPS carries through with their Everglades plans and that the rest of the world follows suit.
Back to the point. Thousands of square miles of once-fertile marsh has been diked, dammed and bulkheaded to accommodate all manner of man-made enterprise along our coastlines. And people ponder Florida's disappearing coral reefs. Let's hope the NPS carries through with their Everglades plans and that the rest of the world follows suit.