Drainage, percholate and climate change

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of regional, national and international articles and research about water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in the sources where they originally were published.

Drainage technique could cut farm runoff

A big contributor to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” is farmland runoff, but a new approach to farmland drainage may help reduce its size.

The problem starts when farm runoff, containing a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus, makes its way to the Mississippi River. When the water reaches the Gulf, the nutrients promote massive algae blooms that consume oxygen when they die.

 As a result, the water can no longer sustain life. A recent report by a team of researchers says the dead zone is about 3,000 square miles.

 One part of the solution to the dead zone could be a box-like structure found on the farm of Brian Hicks, near Tracy, in southwest Minnesota.

–Minnesota Public Radio

 EPA to review percholate contamination

Fulfilling a confirmation pledge, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa P. Jackson is revisiting the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate rocket fuel pollution in the nation’s drinking water.

Jackson’s move is being welcomed by the environmental community and children’s health advocates. Perchlorate, a major component of rocket and missile propellants and many explosives, is a potent thyroid toxin known to disrupt brain and neurological development. For that reason, scientists and medical experts strongly urge that fetal and neonatal exposures to the chemical be prevented.

 Defense and aerospace contractors are certain to fight any federal effort to order up perchlorate clean-ups, whose costs could run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. During the Cold War, tons of improperly stored rocket fuel seeped into ground waters around rocket and missile test sites and chemical manufacturing and storage facilities.

–Environmental Working Group

 Climate change dramatically shrinks glaciers

A report on long-term glacier measurements released by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar shows that glaciers are dramatically changing in mass, length and thickness as a result of climate change. Over the past 50 years, U.S. Geological Survey scientists have monitored the melting of Alaska’s Gulkana and Wolverine Glaciers and Washington’s South Cascade Glacier, yielding the longest such records in North America.

 “This report we are releasing today is great example of the science and data our Department has gathered over the past 50 years,” said Secretary Salazar.  “This information is helpful in tackling the effects of climate change and it is exactly the kind of science we need to invest in to measure and mitigate the dangerous impacts of climate change.”

 Glacier shrinkage has global impacts, including sea level rise that threatens low-lying and coastal communities. Smaller glaciers will also result in a decrease of water runoff, and impacts are especially important during the dry late summer when other water sources are limited.

 “There is no doubt that most mountain glaciers are shrinking worldwide in response to a warming climate. Measuring changes in glacier mass provides direct insight to the link between glaciers and climate, ultimately helping predict glacier response to anticipated climate conditions,” said USGS scientist Edward Josberger.

–USGS news release

Food-processing waste taints Michigan water

John Dekker feels like he’s camping out in his own home. He showers with bottled water and drags his laundry to a Laundromat. He can’t sell his house without disclosing its glaring flaw — his well is contaminated.

 Neighbor Kari Craton’s fingernails turned orange; her appliances were destroyed. Diana Bennett’s garden is useless.

 Some 50 families live near a plume of groundwater contaminated with metals that spread from the local Birds Eye processing plant. At a nearby Minute Maid juice plant, there’s another plume.

In rural west Michigan, food processors have sprayed so much wastewater onto fields that heavy metals seeped into groundwater, contaminating wells. State officials have known of the polluting for at least a decade but, residents complain, moved slowly.

The Detroit Free Press 

Duck resurgence yields 60-day season

With continental populations of many species of ducks again near record highs, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has established a 60-day duck season that opens Oct. 3 with a daily bag limit of six ducks.                  

Bag limits for most species will be the same as last season, except hunters will be able to harvest one canvasback and the scaup limit will be two for the entire 60-day season. This good news for diver duck hunters is based on increased numbers of canvasbacks and scaup in the continental breeding duck survey. 

Based on an increase in breeding waterfowl populations and pond numbers across Canada and the northern plains, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering states in the Mississippi Flyway, including Minnesota, a 60-day season that could include a six-duck limit with two hen mallards and three wood ducks. Minnesota will continue with a daily bag limit of one hen mallard that has been in place since 2005. Likewise, the DNR is maintaining a conservative approach to wood ducks by maintaining a two-bird limit.

–Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 

California studies 35-mile water tunnel

California officials are studying whether a 35-mile tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta might help solve some of the state’s water supply problems.

 Teresa Engstrom, chief of the delta engineering branch at the California Department of Water Resources, confirmed that the agency is conducting feasibility studies on an “all tunnel” option that would route water under the Bay Delta from rivers and reservoirs to the north of Sacramento to farms in the south.

 The idea to build a tunnel sprang from a handful of public workshops the department held recently on how to approach California’s long-running fight over water rights in the northern part of the state.

–The New York Times

 Pollution comes cheap in China

In addition to its cheap labor costs, China has another comparative advantage as the world’s factory: Companies often pay almost nothing to pollute China’s air, water and soil and to poison its people.

Need pliant workers to handle toxic chemicals? Wages are just $2.60 a day. What if the chemicals contaminate a town? Compensating a family of five costs just $732. Local water supply contamination makes 4,000 people vomit? That’s just $7 per household. Cost of bribing local Chinese officials to look the other way rather than adhering to safety standards? Well, that’s unknown, but given the frequency of China’s pollution atrocities, apparently it is cost-effective.


 UM researcher Tillman writes on biofuels

“Done right,” biofuels can be produced in large quantities and have multiple benefits, but only if they come from feedstocks produced with low life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, as well as minimal competition with food production. This consensus emerges in a new journal article by researchers from the University of Minnesota, Princeton, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.  

“The world needs to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but recent findings have thrown the emerging biofuels industry into a quandary. We met to seek solutions,” said the U of M’s David Tilman, a noted ecologist and lead author of the paper. “We found that the next generation of biofuels can be highly beneficial if produced properly.”  

The article, “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy and Environment Trilemma,” appears in the July 17 issue of Science. Tilman, a resident fellow of the U of M’s Institute on the Environment, said the paper resulted from a year of conversations and debate among some of the nation’s leading biofuel experts.

–University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment 

Wild rice harvest opens Aug. 15

People who have purchased a wild rice license can begin harvesting on Saturday, Aug. 15.

 “Harvesters need to carefully check wild rice stands for ripeness prior to attempting harvest,” said Ray Norrgard, who oversees wild rice management for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources .It is illegal to harvest wild rice that is not ripe.

 This year’s ricing season opens 30 days later than previous years, but the change is expected to have little effect on actual harvesting, which tends to occur after Aug. 15.

Several popular wild rice harvesting waters will be closed to harvest until posted open. Approximately 48 hours before harvest opens on any of these water bodies, the opening date will be posted near access points listed on the DNR Web site and available from the DNR Information Center at 651-296-6157 or 1-888-MINNDNR (646-6367).

–Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

 California prepares for climate change

Along with California’s efforts to crack down on its own greenhouse gas emissions, state officials have begun preparing for the worst: heat waves, a rising sea level, flooding, wildlife die-offs and other expected consequences from what scientists predict will be a dramatic temperature increase by the end of this century.

California’s Natural Resources Agency on Monday issued the nation’s first statewide plan to “adapt” to climate change.

 It offers strategies to cope with threats in seven sectors from firefighting to public health and water conservation. Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman called the plan an effort to acknowledge the problem and suggested that Californians “recognize their role in solving that problem and alter their behavior so that the change lasts.”

–The Los Angeles Times 

Fertility decline reverses

For decades, the rate at which women were having babies in many of the world’s most highly developed countries slowly declined. 

While the trend cheered some environmentalists worried about overpopulation, it stoked increasing concern among policymakers, demographers and social scientists about the long-term impact on societies as their populations aged and sometimes began to shrink. 

Now, however, new research has produced the first glimmer of hope that economic prosperity may not be linked to an inexorable decline in fertility. The new analysis has found that in many countries, once a nation achieves an especially high level of development, women appear to start having more babies again.

–The Washington Post 

Washington County wildlife sanctuary OK’d

A rare slice of metro area wilderness will be saved and opened to the public through a state land trust program.

The Washington County Board granted the Trust for Public Land and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approval to acquire 120 acres of Denmark Township property southwest of Afton at its July 28 meeting. The property will be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary and become part of a growing network of public open space in southern Washington County.

Peggy Booth, a unit supervisor for the DNR Scientific and Natural Areas Department, told the board the land will be designated for passive recreation and observation. It is one of four scientific and natural areas in Washington County.

“It will be protected by state law because of its rare resources,” she said.

The area is located in bedrock bluff prairie west of St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park and south of 90th Street. It is home to unique plant species and a wide range of birds, including the endangered Henslow sparrow.

The property will connect to the existing 200-acre Lost Valley Scientific and Natural Area.

–The Forest Lake Press

 Some golf courses lead the way to conservation

Six years ago, when Georgia’s state government rewrote its rules for water use during droughts, it cut no slack for an obvious culprit: golf courses.

 With emerald fairways that glistened even in the most blistering conditions, they were a tempting target.

 Yet golf course managers were indignant. They argued that they were reining in water use in dozens of ways, like planting native grasses and auditing sprinkler spray patterns. Instead of being penalized, they said, they should be emulated.

It took a while, but from the South to the arid West, their wish is coming true. Mindful that global warming could provoke more and longer dry spells, state governments are increasingly consulting golf courses on water strategies.

–The New York Times