Wild rice, Asian carp, corn and cotton

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

Wild rice is new focus in mining debate
In the fight over proposed mining projects in northern Minnesota, a new player with a surprising amount of clout has emerged — wild rice.

This month, a routine state review of a water quality standard that has lain largely dormant for three decades erupted into an intensely emotional debate about how to protect the state’s most iconic plant.

On one side are environmentalists and tribal governments who want to keep the rule — created specifically to protect wild rice from sulfates — and are insisting that the state enforce its own standard.

On the other are mining and business interests who question the science, and who say that industry should not be required to pay millions of dollars in environmental costs that might be pointless.

Hanging in the balance are thousands of potential jobs on the Iron Range, the cultural heritage of the Chippewa — and the graceful sway of wild rice in Minnesota waters.

All the players say they want science to prevail in the upcoming two-year review. The decision by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) could ultimately help make or break the proposed Polymet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, as well as million-dollar expansions of existing taconite mines.
–The Star Tribune

Judge again refuses to close Chicago locks to Asian carp 
A federal judge has blocked a third and perhaps final attempt to close Chicago-area shipping locks, saying Asian carp do not appear to be an imminent threat and closing the locks might not keep them from reaching Lake Michigan anyway.

In a long-awaited ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow said that “the bottom line is that even giving every benefit of doubt … plaintiffs cannot establish a showing of irreparable harm.”

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who spearheaded the unsuccessful lock-closing effort in federal court and twice last year in the U.S. Supreme Court, said he will fight on.

“Our legal fight against Asian carp will continue, but President (Barack) Obama could stop the spread of Asian carp with the flick of a switch,” Cox said. “Obama’s persistent failure to stop Asian carp is a slap in the face to Great Lakes citizens genuinely concerned about preserving their livelihood.”
–The Chicago Tribune

USGS: Biofuels soak up Mississippi Delta groundwater
Growing corn for biofuels production is having unintended effects on water quality and quantity in northwestern Mississippi.

 More water is required to produce corn than to produce cotton in the Mississippi Delta requiring increased withdrawals of groundwater from the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer for irrigation.

This is contributing to already declining water levels in the aquifer.  In addition, increased use of nitrogen fertilizer for corn in comparison to cotton could contribute to low dissolved oxygen conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.

These are some of the key findings from a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey to assess water quality and quantity in the Mississippi Delta, in relationship to biofuels production.

“Because corn uses 80 percent more water for irrigation than cotton, exchanging corn for cotton will decrease water-levels,” according to Heather Welch, USGS Hydrologist and author of this USGS Report.
–USGS News Release

Chronic polluters reap stimulus payments 
In the name of job creation and clean energy, the Obama administration has doled out about $2 billion in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters while granting them exemptions from a basic form of environmental oversight, a Center for Public Inegrity. 

 The administration has awarded more than 179,000 “categorical exclusions” to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing the projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Officials said they did not consider companies’ pollution records in deciding whether to grant the waivers. They said that creating jobs quickly was an important part of the stimulus plan, and that past environmental violations should not disqualify a company from pursuing federal contracts for unrelated projects.
–The Washington Post

 Pavement sealants a big source of pollution
Coal-tar-based pavement sealant is the largest source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in 40 urban lakes studied by the U.S. Geological Survey.

PAHs are an environmental health concern because several are probable human carcinogens, they are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and their concentrations have been increasing in urban lakes in recent decades. 

Coal-tar-based pavement sealant is the black, shiny substance sprayed or painted on many parking lots, driveways, and playgrounds. USGS scientists evaluated the contribution of PAHs from many different sources to lakes in cities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Orlando, Fla. The full report can be found in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

 USGS scientists collected sediment cores from 40 lakes, analyzed the cores for PAHs, and determined the contribution of PAHs from many different sources using a chemical mass-balance model. On average, coal-tar-based sealcoat accounted for one-half of all PAHs in the lakes, while vehicle-related sources accounted for about one-quarter.
 –USGS News Release 

 EPA seeks agency-wide sustainability focus
Aiming to reform its policies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enlisted one of the biggest guns in the federal arsenal to help: The National Academy of Sciences.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone launched an effort to develop the so-called Green Book, a project to ensure all EPA policies are driven by sustainability.

The effort is reminiscent of the 1983 Red Book, written by the National Research Council to develop a strategy of risk assessment to guide the agency’s policies. That project triggered a dramatic shift in how the EPA developed regulations, focusing for the first time on scientifically evaluating risks to human health and the environment. 

The National Research Council project was announced as part of EPA’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
–Environmental Health News

Wyoming farmers sell groundwater to oil drillers
BURNS, Wyo. — Kenneth King climbed into his Ford pickup and slowly drove through a muddy alfalfa field as his dog Molly easily kept pace. He pointed to a spot in the field to the right and said, “What I’m hoping to do here is — see I’ve got this low spot here?” 

King hit the brakes and pointed in another direction. “And that’s my irrigation well? And I’m hoping to just pump water that will run into the pond and let trucks come in and suck it out.” 

Ranching and farming in far southeast Wyoming is an unassuming affair, dependent on the sparse amount of rainfall in the region and whatever volume of water an electric pump can coax from the shallow aquifers below. 

Three Groundwater Control Areas have been in place for many years, established by the state due to rapidly declining groundwater levels. Irrigators reflexively object when anyone proposes drilling a new water well in the region because most everyone agrees that freshwater aquifers here are overappropriated. 

Yet instead of using the family’s adjudicated water right to irrigate his fields nine miles north of Burns next year, King plans to sell a good portion of the water to oil companies.
–The Billings Gazette

Climate change imperils coastal wetlands 
 Many coastal wetlands worldwide, including some on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, are at risk of disappearing by the end of this century, scientists say.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists say coastal wetlands may be more sensitive than previously thought to climate change and sea-level rise projected for the 21st century, a U.S. Interior Department release reported.

 Even in a slow sea-level rise projection, wetlands with low sediment availability and low tidal ranges are vulnerable and may drown, researchers say.
–United Press International

Georgia considers pollution credit trading
The group in charge of planning the future of water in North Georgia has proposed a system of credits and debits based on water pollution that the council hopes will translate going green into greenbacks for industries in the region.

 The Coosa-North Georgia Water Planning Council included a system of “water quality credit trading” in the first draft of its water plan, initially presented in Blue Ridge. The system, as explained by council members and state consultants, would allow utilities and industries that discharge below maximum levels of nutrients or other pollutants into area streams to sell credits to dischargers who are above the limit.

The credits would represent the gap between the low-discharge operations and the threshold, giving dischargers an incentive to cut their levels of discharge, according to officials.

Similar systems of credits for output levels have been common with air pollution for years.
–Chattanooga Times Free Press

Pollution threatens Taj Mahal
A new Indian government survey has revealed that the Taj Mahal, the nation’s best-known monument, is again facing a major threat from pollution.

The report, compiled by India’s National Environment Engineering Research Institute, shows that measures taken after previous scares that the 17th-century tomb was being irreparably damaged by air and water pollution are failing.

The survey, commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, found that pollution levels in the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, had risen significantly over recent years as a result of growth in industry, traffic and population.
–The Guardian

 Close-to-home invasives are the biggest problem
Invasive pests moving from state to state within the United States are a greater danger than similar pests coming from outside the country, researchers say.

 That’s because state lines in the United States are open and for the most part unregulated, as opposed to intrastate precautions taken by other countries, a release from Penn State says. 

For example, travelers in Australia moving from one state to another may encounter a quarantine stop and be required to forfeit recently purchased fruits and vegetables. 

“Our findings have significant implications for biosecurity policy and the need to consider security measures beyond established national borders,” Matthew Thomas, a Penn State professor of entomology, said. 

Invasive species cost the U.S. economy $120 billion annually.
–United Press International

Water Footprint a complex concept
A water-use report issued in September by Coca-Cola with the Nature Conservancy found that 518 liters of freshwater are required to produce just one liter of its Minute Maid orange juice, and 35 liters are needed to produce a half liter of Coca-Cola.

A growing awareness of just how much water it takes to produce everyday consumer goods is inspiring a rising interest in “water footprinting” — akin to carbon footprinting — as a tool to analyze and guide the development of new technologies, water infrastructure investment and policies aimed at coping with the world’s rising water demand.

Conceptually, the water footprint is similar to that of carbon — an impact indicator based on the total volume of direct and indirect freshwater used in producing a good or service. There is a difference, however. Unlike carbon in the atmosphere, fresh water resources are localized, not global.

“Water is not carbon,” said Jason Morrison, program director at the Pacific Institute, a research organization in Oakland, California, that studies resource sustainability issues. “Whatever you might say about the validity of carbon credits, it will be extremely hard to have that amount of success in the water area because, volumetrically, one volume of water has a different meaning in one part of the world versus another.”
–The New York Times

Abbotsford, Wis., firm settles pollution case
Abbyland Foods Inc. has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle air pollution and storm water management violations that date back to 2000.

 The settlement approved by Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Brady involved the Abbotsford meat processor’s alleged failure to obtain air pollution permits and pay annual emission fees after it expanded plant operations several years ago, said Paul Hess, company controller. 

“We hired an environmental consultant who performed an audit, which showed we were required to have air emissions permits. … When it was discovered, we notified the (Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Since that time, we’ve been working to comply with regulations,” Hess said.
–Wausau Daily Herald