Wisconsin research targets farm runoff

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of some of the best regional, national and international articles on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to the original sources.

Research prioritizes Wisconsin clean-ups
Spring in Wisconsin heralds a new growing season. But the warming temperatures also bring heavier runoff from farm fields, carrying pollution and contaminants into the state’s lakes and streams.

Wisconsin’s waters have long been known to be negatively impacted by agricultural runoff, including phosphorus, nitrogen and sediments. To date, however, attempts to mitigate the resulting damage and improve water quality have been hampered by the problem’s complexity — Wisconsin has a lot of water and a lot of farm fields, and not all interactions between the two are equal. 

“It’s such a challenging issue because it’s diffuse — little bits here and there, and it all adds up to make a huge problem. Those are the hardest ones to solve,” says UW–Madison limnologist Jake Vander Zanden. 

Previous conservation proposals typically have not accounted for differences across the landscape, relying instead on voluntary participation or mandated statewide standards. Many such approaches are too expensive to be feasible or don’t reach the most troubled areas, Vander Zanden says.“By identifying and targeting the high-priority areas, we expect to have a higher positive impact on water quality and a more efficient program.” 

In a recent series of three papers published in the journal Environmental Management, he and other researchers from the Center for Limnology tackled the complexity head on, treating the statewide variability as an advantage rather than a drawback. Their approach: Find the areas with the greatest potential for improvements, and start there.
–UW-Madison News

California edges toward groundwater rules
For the third year in a row, Mark Watte plans to rely on the aquifer beneath his family farm for three-quarters of the water he needs to keep his cotton, corn and alfalfa growing, his young pistachio trees healthy and his 900 dairy cows cool.

 That is 50 percent more than he used to take, because the water that once flowed to the farm from snow in the Sierra Nevada has been reduced by a long dry spell and diversions to benefit endangered fish.

Since 2006 the surface of the aquifer, in the Kaweah subbasin of the San Joaquin basin, has dropped 50 feet as farmers pumped deeper, Mr. Watte says. Some of his pumps no longer reach far enough to bring any water to the surface. 

If he lived in almost any other state in the arid Southwest, Mr. Watte could be required to report his withdrawals of groundwater or even reduce them. But to California’s farmers and developers, that is anathema.
–The New York Times

 $475 million tentatively set for Great Lakes cleanup
Cleaning up the Great Lakes and tributaries and keeping them healthy — and navigable — will take a lot of money. President Barack Obama, building on blueprints authorized by then-President George W. Bush in 2004 and completed in 2005, has shown a commitment to the plan known as the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. 

Obama has pledged more money to the strategy, $475 million for the coming fiscal year, than any White House predecessor. 

Now it is up to Congress to OK the spending, much of which will be distributed to state and local governments, federal agencies, tribes and nonprofit groups.
–The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Dust storms in Rockies speed snow melt
Dust storms accelerated by a warming climate have covered the Rocky Mountains with dirt whose heat-trapping properties have caused snowpacks to melt weeks earlier than normal, worrying officials in Colorado about drastic water shortages by late summer. 

Snowpacks from the San Juan Mountains to the Front Range have either completely melted or will be gone within the next two weeks, said Tom Painter, director of the Snow Optics Laboratory at the University of Utah and a leading expert on snowmelt. 

The rapid melting is linked to a spate of intense dust storms that kick up dirt and sand that in turn are deposited on snow-topped mountains.
–The New York Times 

Research shows prevalence of PFOA in water
A new study finds evidence that people may be exposed through drinking water to a persistent nonstick chemical at levels approaching those that trigger adverse effects in laboratory animals. 

The fluorine-based nonstick chemical, PFOA or perfluorooctanoic acid, was developed by DuPont more than 50 years ago and used to launch the company’s Teflon line of nonstick products. Ironically, earlier studies have shown that the nonstick agent itself sticks around a very, very long time — potentially forever. 

The chemical appeared in roughly two-thirds of some 30 public water systems sampled by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection between 2006 and 2008, researchers report online and in an upcoming issue of Environmental Science & Technology

In five of the New Jersey water systems sampled, PFOA concentrations exceeded a safety limit developed by the researchers — sometimes by a factor of two or three. In each of those instances, says toxicologist Keith Cooper of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the affected water came from groundwater or from well water. However, he adds, where contaminated water entered a water-treatment plant, “[PFOA] concentrations in the intake water and the output water were basically the same.” So it looks like the treatment plants didn’t remove the pollutant.
–U.S. News & World Report  

12% of world’s bird species at risk, report says
A record number of bird species are now listed as threatened with extinction, a global assessment has revealed.

The IUCN Red List evaluation considered 1,227, or 12%, of all known bird species to be at risk, with 192 species described as Critically Endangered.

 The main threats affecting bird numbers continued to be agriculture, logging and invasive species, the report said.

 However, it added that where conservation measures had been put in place, bird populations had recovered.

–BBC News

San Diego desalination plant a test case
The vast $320 million desalination plant approved by San Diego’s regional water authorities is likely to serve as a test case for whether such a large project can meet its goals while safeguarding its Pacific environment.

 he plant, to be built near Carlsbad, north of San Diego, will be the first large-scale desalination operation on the West Coast and the largest in the hemisphere. “If they build it well and it operates well and the price is right, we will see more,” said Peter Gleick, the cofounder and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.

“I think there’s going to be some hesitancy to really expand desalination until this plant is up and running,” he added.
–The New York Times

Maryland considers eradicating invasive swans
Maryland’s majestic white mute swans have dwindled in number from 4,000 to just a few hundred, and a sharply divided state panel recommended yesterday that the invasive species be eliminated to preserve wetlands and endangered native birds.

 The mute swan is an environmental hazard to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem,” according to recommendations sent to John R. Griffin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. “The mute swan is one of the world’s most aggressive species of waterfowl.” 

The report, from an advisory committee appointed by Griffin, said that the mute swans pose a “formidable threat” to native wildlife species and “feed aggressively” on fragile submerged grasses and that efforts to kill the remaining swans, estimated to number 500, should continue.
–The Washington Post

Economics impedes California water transfers
As another summer of drought approaches, hundreds of thousands of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland are expected to be fallowed, and much of urban California faces 20 percent water cutbacks.

But in the Sacramento Valley, rice farmers have been busy for weeks spreading water 6 inches deep over a half-million acres. Many experts expect a larger crop than last year’s.

It’s not that no one saw it coming. The state of California devised a program to move some of that water to thirsty cities and fields south of the Delta. The plan made sense on paper, perhaps, but so far it has been hobbled by everything from high rice prices to environmental concerns.
–The Sacramento Bee

Maryland announces push against fertilizers
Announcing new goals to help clean the Chesapeake Bay, Gov. Martin O’Malley said the state will seek to cut the kind of pollution produced by fertilizers.

 Aiming to reduce nitrogen pollution by two and a half times, the state plans to encourage planting cover crops to diminish agricultural runoff. Cover crops such as barley, canola and kale absorb nitrogen from the soil. The state also plans to create more forested stream buffers.

 Speaking to reporters aboard the University of Maryland’s research vessel Rachel Carson on the Bush River, O’Malley also said the state will set new two-year goals, instead of setting deadlines far into the future when state and local leaders can no longer be held accountable.
–The Associated Press

 Climate change raises Alaskan coastline
Global warming conjures images of rising seas that threaten coastal areas. But in Juneau, as almost nowhere else in the world, climate change is having the opposite effect: As the glaciers here melt, the land is rising, causing the sea to retreat. 

 Morgan DeBoer, a property owner, opened a nine-hole golf course at the mouth of Glacier Bay in 1998, on land that was underwater when his family first settled here 50 years ago. 

“The highest tides of the year would come into what is now my driving range area,” Mr. DeBoer said.
–The New York Times

Estimate of Antarctic melting revised
A new study has found that one of the worst-case scenarios for sea-level rise — the melting of an Antarctic ice sheet that is as vast as Texas and as thick as 1.8 miles — would not be as bad as previously thought.

That is still not good news. 

The research examined the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, one of the most worrisome chunks of ice in the world. It sits partly on ground that slopes downward or is far below sea level. That means that, if the floating ice that locks it in place ever disappeared because of global warming, much of the sheet could float out to sea and melt.

 Previous research had estimated that the result might be a catastrophic 16-to-20-foot rise in global sea levels.

But recently, a group led by Jonathan Bamber, a professor at the University of Bristol in England, used new data about the underlying terrain to reassess that prediction that was published in the journal Science. Group members were not studying climate change itself but, instead, how the ice sheet would react to it.

 Their conclusion: Not all of the sheet would slide off and melt, but two-thirds might. That would be enough to raise sea levels by about 11 feet over a few centuries.
–The Washington Post