Ducks, windfarms and bark beetles

Every week, the Freshwater Society posts a digest of some of the best regional, national and international articles and research abut water and the environment. Scan the entries here, then follow the links to read the article and research in their original sources.

Minnesota duck population drops

Minnesota’s breeding duck population declined 31 percent from last year — falling to an estimated 507,000 birds — and state officials aren’t sure why.

The decline continues a trend: The state’s breeding duck population has fallen in four of the past five years. It’s the third-lowest estimate in the past 26 years. There’s no easy explanation for this year’s decline, said Steve Cordts, Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist. Wetland conditions weren’t bad, he said, though it was dry in east-central and southern survey areas when the agency conducted its annual aerial waterfowl survey.

Duck numbers in those dry areas appeared low, he said, and “in other areas they were pretty good, but not good enough to offset the dry areas.”

The number of wetlands was 318,000, down 2 percent from last year but above the long-term average of 248,000.

–The Star Tribune

Wisconsin OKs huge wind farm in southern Minnesota

Wisconsin regulators gave a state utility permission to begin building a giant wind farm in southern Minnesota, opening the door for Wisconsin ratepayers to shell out millions of dollars in construction costs.

Wisconsin Power & Light Co. wants to build scores of turbines on 50 square miles just north of Albert Lea in Freeborn County. The project is expected to cost about $500 million.

The utility hopes to recover the costs through a $91.7 million rate increase for electricity and natural gas that it wants to impose next year. That breaks down to about $9 more per month for electricity and $2.40 more per month for gas for a typical residential customer. About a third of that increase would go toward the wind farm.

–The Associated Press

T. Boone Pickens scales back Texas wind plan

In a sign of the difficulties facing the development of wind energy, the legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is suspending plans to build the world’s largest wind farm.

Over the near term, Mr. Pickens instead plans to build three or four smaller wind farms, at a cost of some $2 billion. He said that he was unsure whether he would ever revive the giant wind project in the Texas Panhandle that has been on the drawing board for years.

Mr. Pickens cited several factors that caused him to alter his plans, including lack of transmission lines and a fall-off in the price of natural gas, with which wind competes as a power source. The project was also hurt by the financial turmoil that has stymied activity across the once-popular renewable energy industry. “Everything kind of slowed us down,” Mr. Pickens said.

–The New York Times 

Senate bill aims at invasive bighead carp

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin is moving to put the invasive bighead carp species of Asian carp on a list of creatures prohibited from importation into the U.S.

It may be too late, however, for some waters – seeing as how the species of Asian carp has spread from catfish farms in Louisiana in the 1970s, up the Mississippi River and is only being kept out of the Great Lakes by an electric dispersal barrier in a manmade canal bridging the two.

These bighead carp can grow to 6 feet, weighing as much as 110 pounds and are known for their voracious appetite.

By adding the species to the list of prohibited wildlife under the Lacey Act, which was originally passed by Congress 109 years ago, Levin and his cosponsors – including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow – hope to prevent any intentional introduction of the bighead carp to yet-untouched American waters.

–The Detroit Free Press 

California eyes desalination plants

Early next year, the Southern California town of Carlsbad will break ground on a plant that each day will turn 50 million gallons of seawater into fresh drinking water.

The $320 million project, which would be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, was held up in the planning stages for years. But a protracted drought helped propel the project to its approval in May — a sign of how worried local authorities are about water supplies.

Carlsbad Mayor Claude Lewis and other elected officials have dodged environmentalists’ objections to city plans to build a desalination plant.

“Water is going to be very short until you have a new source,” said Carlsbad Mayor Claude Lewis. “And the only new source is desalination, I don’t care what anybody says.”

The desalination plant would use water that flows by gravity from the ocean across a manmade lagoon and into the facility through 10 large pumps. The plant would then blast it through a filter, extracting fresh water and leaving behind highly pressurized salty water. The process would provide enough water for 300,000 people each day.

–The Wall Street Journal

Huge survey of Minnesota birds under way

Already an avid birder, Ken Perry views the experience a bit differently these days.

On outings with his wife, the middle school science teacher from the Brainerd, Minn., area used to concentrate solely on identifying as many bird species as possible.

But that was before he became involved with the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas. A six-year effort launched last spring, the survey is designed to document all of the breeding species in the state and where they’re nesting.

Here’s how it works: Think of the state as a collection of 3-square-mile blocks. Citizen volunteers select designated priority blocks to survey and then spend hours walking, riding or canoeing across them to identify the different types of birds trying to raise their young.

–The St. Paul Pioneer Press

U.S. Senate delays action on climate bill

As President Barack Obama encouraged world leaders meeting in Italy to intensify the fight against global warming, legislation to cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases suffered a delay in the Senate.

The leading Senate committee responsible for developing the climate change legislation has delayed by at least a month its crafting of a bill, leaving less time for Congress to fulfill Obama’s desire to enact a law this year.

“We’ll do it as soon as we get back” in September from a month-long break, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer announced.


California may ease gray water code

California may adopt a more lenient gray water code as early as August. Under the new code, a clothes washer or other single-fixture, residential gray water system, such as a shower, could be installed or altered without a construction permit. That’s a complete reversal of the present state requirement that homeowners installing systems to recycle the waste water from their sinks, showers, bathtubs and laundry machines conform to Appendix G of the California plumbing code, which requires that gray water systems not only be permitted by the appropriate administrative authority but installed underground with extensive filtering apparatus.

Appendix G went into effect in 1992 at the end of a five-year drought. Its update was required by Senate Bill 1258, which passed last summer, requiring the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to revise the code in an effort “to conserve water by facilitating greater reuse of gray water in California.” The code’s revision was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2011, but last week, in response to the state’s continuing drought, representatives from Housing and Community Development submitted the new code to the state’s Building Standards Commission for emergency adoption. If approved, as expected, the new code would take effect Aug. 4.

–The Los Angeles Times

San Francisco plans to store water in aquifer

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is pursuing a plan to store water underground that can be pumped out in time to supply customers in a drought, given the uncertainty of California’s water future.

Officials say the natural groundwater aquifer that sits under north San Mateo County will someday be full enough to send 7.2 million gallons per day to SFPUC customers in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda counties and much of Santa Clara County for a period of seven and a half years, longer than the last historic drought period in California.

Global warming, and the resulting anticipated loss of Sierra snowpack that feeds the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, have played a part in the SFPUC’s long-term planning for water security in the Bay Area, said Ellen Levin, deputy manager of San Francisco’s regional water system.

–The Contra Costa Times

MPCA seeks comment on storm water permitting

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is seeking public comment on the agency’s draft industrial storm water permit.

The agency is proposing issuing a “multi-sector industrial storm water” general permit to protect water quality by preventing or reducing storm water contact with industrial activities and materials. Many industrial materials contain hazardous metals, fuel, oil, grease and salts that could contaminate storm water and ultimately a local surface-water or groundwater resource.

The draft permit would affect public and private facilities with industrial activities that fall under 10 categories, including manufacturing, petroleum refining, transportation, used motor vehicle parts, scrap and waste materials, mining, landfills, steam electric power generation, domestic wastewater treatment and hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal.

Written comments on the draft permit must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. Aug. 5. Copies of the permit and a technical fact sheet are available at the MPCA’s St. Paul office, 520 Lafayette Road N., or at its Duluth office, 525 Lake Ave. S.; by calling Kristin Kirchoff, (651) 757-2089; or online at

–St. Paul Legal Ledger

Some see destructive bark beetle filling ecological niche

When Ken Salazar —  then a senator from Colorado, now secretary of the interior —  called the attack on millions of acres of pine forests by the bark beetle the Katrina of the West, he was expressing the common view of the explosive growth of the beetles as an unmitigated disaster.

But not everybody sees it that way. Some environmentalists and scientists support the beetles. While they acknowledge the severity of the problems the beetles are causing, they argue that the insects, which kill only mature trees larger than five inches in diameter, are a natural phenomenon, like forest fires, and play a vital ecological role.

–The New York Times

Greenpeace rates supermarket chains on sustainability

Last week, Greenpeace released its semiannual seafood sustainability scorecard, which ranks US supermarket chains based on the impacts their practices have on marine life and how well they communicate these practices to the shopper.

The grades are dispiriting. While the environmental advocacy group noted progress among some stores, the top scorer, Wegmans, received only 6 out of 10. Even though the East Coast chain has worked with scientists and conservationists to develop seafood sourcing standards and has removed from its stores a number of species because of sustainability concerns, Greenpeace found that Wegmans continues to sell 15 species – including grouper, monkfish, and Atlantic salmon – that appear on Greenpeace’s Red List of fish that are unavailable from sustainable sources.

Other stores fared much worse on Greenpeace’s report card.

–The Christian Science Monitor

Butterfly revival proposed

A team of researchers is proposing reintroducing a vanished butterfly to the hills above Stanford University, a biological experiment with both promise and peril.

If the experiment succeeds, it would return Bay checkerspot butterflies to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and offer important lessons to the fledgling science of species reintroduction, which aims to save thousands of plants and animals from extinction. However, if the experiment fails, some precious insects — sacrificed from the last surviving population — will have gone to waste.

“No one really knows the best way to reintroduce organisms. Or whether it is a smart idea,” said butterfly expert Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, who has watched Bay checkerspot populations collapse over five decades and strongly supports the proposed Stanford experiment to replenish them.

–The San Jose Mercury News

Decade-long bottled water fight settled

The makers of Ice Mountain bottled water and a group of environmentalists who waged a decade-long fight to block or cap the company’s withdrawal of groundwater in northwest lower Michigan announced a final legal agreement.

Under the agreement Nestle Waters North America can pump an average of 218 gallons per minute (about 313,000 gallons a day), with restrictions on spring and summer withdrawals deemed most threatening to the Dead Stream and Thompson Lake near Mecosta.

It was reached on the eve of what was expected to be a weeklong court hearing on requested modifications of an earlier, temporary agreement.

Terry Swier, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, called the resolution a “major victory” for defenders of the resource, affirming limits first placed on Nestle by a Mecosta County judge in 2003.

–The Detroit Free Press

Missouri R. re-opened to barges, but barges are gone

Too late to save the commercial barging industry in the Missouri River, water flows have rebounded from a lengthy drought.

For the first time in 10 years, the federally regulated river and its reservoirs will have enough water to enable barge navigation until Nov. 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

But the full-length barging season will do little to help an industry that has dwindled away at the mercy of shortened seasons and low water levels, Midwest Terminal Warehouse CEO Joe LaMothe said.

In 2007, the company closed its bulk terminal on the river in Kansas City, a few years after two companies that formerly operated tow boats for barges also quit working the stretch through Kansas City, LaMothe said.

–Kansas City Business Journal