Conservation and sustainability

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.

Report calls for irrigation conservation

California farmers could save enough water each year to fill Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir 16 times by using more efficient irrigation techniques, according to a study that is bound to be highly controversial among the state’s powerful agriculture interests.

The report, released by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water policy group, also recommends that the state rethink its historic water rights system and boost water prices. Both measures, in theory, would spur agricultural users to use less water at a time when climate change, urban growth and ecological restoration are expected to further cramp water supplies.

“If we want to have a healthy agriculture economy, the only real option is to figure out how to produce more food with less water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and co-author of “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.”

Farmers agree water supplies are stretched, but they disagree on the cause. During recent “fish vs. farm” rallies in the Central Valley, protesters decried environmental rules that have cut water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect endangered fish species.

–The San Francisco Chronicle

Federal grant program to encourage new conservation methods

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $18.4 million in Conservation Innovation Grants to fund 55 projects to develop and refine cutting-edge technologies and approaches to help farmers and ranchers conserve and sustain natural resources. Vilsack made the announcement in a speech at the Soil and Water Conservation Society annual meeting in Dearborn, Mich.

“New technology can play an important role in addressing environmental problems, and the Obama Administration is committed to developing innovative solutions to natural resource management and conservation issues facing farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said. “These Conservation Innovation Grants will benefit both agriculture and the environment by getting 21st century ideas in the hands of our producers across the country.”

The Conservation Innovation Grant program is designed to speed the transfer and enhance use of technologies and methods that show promise in solving the nation’s top natural resource problems by targeting innovative, on-the-ground conservation. Approved projects address issues such as water quantity and quality, grazing lands, soil and forest health, and air quality.

–United States Department of Agriculture

DNR to increase lake permit fees

Thousands of Minnesotans get permits every year to clear aquatic vegetation from their beach front property, but next year, the cost of those permits could triple.

The DNR says it has no choice but to raise the fees, but some lake property owners say the change will encourage more people to ignore state law.

Most Minnesotans prefer a smooth sandy beach in front of their lake home, and a clean swimming area with no plants. You can clear a small area without a permit, but thousands of people pay the $35 fee for a permit to clear larger areas.

–Minnesota Public Radio

Los Angeles requires conservation devices

In an effort to save 1 billion gallons of water a year, all new construction and renovation projects will be required to have high-efficiency water devices under a measure approved by the Los Angeles City Council.

Beginning Dec. 1, new and upgraded residential, commercial and industrial projects will have to install fixtures that use less water — from showers and faucets to dishwashers and toilets.

For residents, the biggest impact will come with the installation of new dishwashers and toilets. New dishwashers use roughly half the water of older models, while ultra-low-flush toilets use 1.3 gallons per flush compared with the current low-flush rate of 1.6 gallons.

–The Los Angeles Daily News

Researchers take a step forward with water desalinization system

Concern over access to clean water is no longer just an issue for the developing world, as California faces its worst drought in recorded history. According to state’s Department of Water Resources, supplies in major reservoirs and many groundwater basins are well below average.

Court-ordered restrictions on water deliveries have reduced supplies from the two largest water systems, and an outdated statewide water system can’t keep up with population growth.

With these critical issues looming large, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science are working hard to help alleviate the state’s water deficit with their new mini-mobile-modular (M3) “smart” water desalination and filtration system.

In designing and constructing new desalination plants, creating and testing pilot facilities is one of the most expensive and time-consuming steps. Traditionally, small yet very expensive stationary pilot plants are constructed to determine the feasibility of using available water as a source for a large-scale desalination plant. The M3 system helps cut both costs and time.

–Imperial Valley News

Education efforts stepped up to stop zebra mussels

After a successful morning of walleye fishing, Don Pendergrass pulled his boat from Lake Mille Lacs before inspecting it for an invader – zebra mussels – that threatens the lake he loves. He removed a few weeds clinging to his trailer and drained lake water from his live well as conservation officers Luke Croatt and Scott Fitzgerald looked on.

The officers’ presence this sunny day is part of the state’s beefed-up enforcement and education effort to try to prevent the further spread of zebra mussels and other invasive species that threaten to permanently alter the ecosystems of Minnesota’s treasured 12,000 lakes — and possibly undercut its $4.7 billion sports fishing industry and the 1.4 million anglers who treasure it.

But some critics say a much tougher approach is needed. The stakes are too high, they argue, and the unfettered movement of boats among Minnesota lakes may have to stop. They point to California, where boats must be inspected before they are allowed on Lake Tahoe, and to Michigan, where programs similar to Minnesota’s have failed to stop the spread of zebra mussels.

–The Star Tribune

Grant to create sustainability center at University of Maine

The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine a $20 million dollar grant to create a so-called Center for Sustainability Solutions.  The program, which will be based at UMaine in Orono, will create research projects and academic courses focused on how to transition to a more sustainable society, according to UMaine’s Website.

The project is expected to create as many as 300 jobs for researchers and others, and will launch a variety of education initiatives at all grade levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

–The Maine Public Broadcasting Network

U.S. and China to develop clean energy research center

The United States and China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, announced plans for a joint clean energy research center Wednesday, raising hopes of better cooperation in what is becoming an increasingly competitive industry.

With initial financing of $15 million and headquarters in both countries, the center will focus on clean coal, building efficiency, and clean vehicles, said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. As a research clearinghouse for scientists, it can also highlight potential U.S.-Chinese cooperation in an industry that Washington says could create thousands of jobs.

–The Associated Press

$3.3 million storage tank cleanup under way in South Carolina

South Carolina will use $3.3 million in federal stimulus money to assess and clean up 66 of its approximately 3,000 confirmed underground petroleum storage tank leaks that threaten groundwater and could threaten drinking water.

Underground storage tanks are a leading polluter of groundwater, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The most common contaminant in such tanks is benzene, a cancer-causing component of petroleum, according to Bill Truman of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

They are generally located at current or former gas stations but can be found at trucking facilities and manufacturing sites, any place that stores petroleum products, Truman said.

–Greenville Online

Wal-Mart to begin green labeling on products

Shoppers expect the tags on Wal-Mart items to have rock-bottom prices. In the future they may also have information about the product’s carbon footprint, the gallons of water used to create it, and the air pollution left in its wake.

As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores is on a mission to determine the social and environmental impact of every item it puts on its shelves. And it has recruited scholars, suppliers, and environmental groups to help it create an electronic indexing system to do that.

The idea is to create a universal rating system that scores products based on how environmentally and socially sustainable they are over the course of their lives. Consider it the green equivalent to nutrition labels.

–The New York Times

Exxon to invest in creating fuel from algae

The oil giant Exxon Mobile whose chief executive once mocked alternative energy by referring to ethanol as “moonshine,” is about to venture into biofuels.

Exxon planned to announce an investment of $600 million in producing liquid transportation fuels from algae — organisms in water that range from pond scum to seaweed. The biofuel effort involves a partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a biotechnology company founded by the genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

The agreement could plug a major gap in the strategy of Exxon, the world’s largest and richest publicly traded oil company, which has been criticized by environmental groups for dismissing concerns about global warming in the past and its reluctance to develop renewable fuels.

–The New York Times