Dayton signs permitting speed-up

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.

Dayton signs permitting speed-up bill
Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill designed to streamline the state’s environmental review processes. Environmental groups say it’s a sign that natural resource protections are being unraveled in the state.

 House File 1 and Senate File 1 were the top priorities for the new Republican-controlled legislature. They sped through the House and Senate, before Dayton signed them into law.

Dayton said Minnesota needs to improve the permitting process, because “too many possible business expansions have been delayed in recent years.”

The measure sets goals that state agencies should issue or deny all environmental permits within 150 days of submission.

It also moves disputes over agency decisions directly to the Appeals Court, skipping the District Courts, which are physically closer to citizens affected by many projects.

The chief author in the House, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said in the long run the bill will create jobs.

Environmental groups say they’re disappointed with Dayton’s decision. They say the streamlining measure is one of several advancing in the legislature that “threaten to unravel Minnesota’s foundation of environmental protections.”
–Minnesota Public Radio

Audit: Environmental review often delayed
Minnesota’s process for environmental review of business projects is too often burdened by delays, uncertainty and duplication of effort, according to a report released by the state’s legislative auditor.

Analysts found that “the environmental review process has not always fully met its objectives and that previous reform efforts have achieved only limited results,” read an introduction to the report written by Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles.

The audit found that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources were at times guilty of inconsistencies in expertise and experience in undertaking the two main methods of state environmental oversight: environmental assessments and the more in-depth environmental impact statements. It also said the agencies lacked the data to measure and monitor the timeliness of their permitting processes and identify improvements.

The auditor’s report found that overall, the MPCA responded to 83 percent of environmental permit applications within 150 days.
–The Associated Press

GOP chairs demand environmental spending changes
A joint legislative-citizens advisory group on environmental spending agreed to drop 25 projects from its list of recommendations headed to the Legislature. The action came after two key lawmakers warned the group the projects would never pass.

The Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources — the LCCMR — advises the Legislature on how to invest proceeds from the state lottery, some of which is dedicated to the environment.

 After a year of study that led to a list of more than 100 recommended projects around the state, two new members told the group that the Legislature would reject some of those projects. 

“I’m sorry folks, the rules changed on Nov. 2 last fall,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, the new chairman of the House Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Committee. “The group that compiled this list is not in control anymore. They don’t have the majority in the Legislature.

“When you see a TV commercial about the lottery, they talk about a loon, and money getting on the ground and being spent on projects, and not going to studies and research.” 

McNamara teamed up with Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, to comb through the list of recommended projects. They presented a list of 25 projects they said wouldn’t fly with the new Republican majority, and another dozen they wanted more information about.
–Minnesota Public Radio

  Scientists urge broader review of chemicals
Groups representing 40,000 researchers and clinicians are urging federal agencies responsible for the safety of chemicals to examine the subtle impact a chemical might have on the human body rather than simply ask whether it is toxic.

 In an open letter to the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency published in the journal Science, the scientists say the regulatory agencies need to tap into genetics, developmental biology, endocrinology and other disciplines when they analyze the safety of chemicals used in everyday products.

“Although chemical testing and risk assessment have long been the domain of toxicologists, it is clear that the development of improved testing guidelines and better methods of assessing risks posed by common chemicals to which all Americans are exposed requires the expertise of a broad range of scientific and clinical disciplines,” said the letter, which was signed by eight scientific societies. 

Broader analysis is particularly needed for chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system, said Patricia Hunt, a molecular biologist at Washington State University who helped write the letter.
–The Washington Post

 It’s National Ground Water Awareness Week
Learn to value and protect the groundwater that is the source of drinking water for most Minnesotans. This week, March 6-12, has been declared National Ground Water Awareness Week by the National Ground Water Association.
–National Ground Water Association

Hunting, fishing fee increases going nowhere
A proposal to raise Minnesota’s hunting and fishing license fees for the first time in a decade looks to be dead on arrival at the State Capitol.

It appears unlikely that Republicans, who control the Legislature, will OK an increase proposed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Dayton administration. 

“I don’t think it’s going to happen this year,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the key Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
–The Star Tribune

GOP likes some of what the EPA does
Republicans have spent a lot of time this year criticizing the EPA, so one would think that President Barack Obama’s proposal to cut $1.3 billion from its budget would be well-received.

 For all their talk about the “job-killing” EPA, Republicans have a dirty little secret: They actually like many of the agency’s efforts, particularly bread-and-butter programs aimed at cleaning up drinking water and air pollution in their districts.

 It’s in those areas where Obama has suggested the most budget pain, putting Republicans in the position of defending EPA and accusing the White House of playing politics.

 Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Washington’s top climate skeptic and most vocal opponent of EPA regulations, took issue with the proposal to slash nearly $1 billion from state revolving loan funds — cash that gets doled out to local drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects. 

“You can bet these cuts will be restored, because many of my colleagues believe these are worthwhile programs,” Inhofe told EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at a hearing.

 Who owns Texas groundwater?
It sounds simple: Who owns the groundwater in Texas? But this issue, like others in the hot-button area of aquifer planning, is embroiled in an ongoing policy battle.

 At a crowded hearing, members of the state Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill introduced by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay and the committee’s chairman, that would declare that landowners have a “vested ownership interest” in the water beneath their land. A less-discussed second  bill, filed by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, recognizes both landowner rights and the “compelling public interest” of effective groundwater management.

Both bills are part of a vigorous debate over the best way to manage the declining aquifers in this fast-growing state, where irrigated agriculture is a powerful political force. The conflict pits existing water users against prospective new users, and conservation-minded officials against businesses seeking to sell water.
–The Texas Tribune

Fine levied for Asian carp smuggling
Most of the recent Asian carp panic in Michigan and the upper Midwest has been directed at the threat posed by fish escaping the Chicago River into Lake Michigan.

But the recent seizure of a truckload of live fish at the Detroit-Windsor border — 4,000 pounds of prohibited bighead and grass carp apparently bound for consumer markets in Toronto — demonstrates how complex the threat can be.

 Feng Yang, 52, the owner of a fish import company, pleaded guilty this week in Windsor to violating the federal Fisheries Act, and was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine. He was stopped Nov. 4 after crossing the Ambassador Bridge into Canada.

 Yang paid a $40,000 fine in 2006 for a similar offense.

 Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Officer Bill Ingham said officials believe Yang obtained the fish in the South, where they are legally raised and sold, and then drove them through Michigan into Ontario, where possession of live Asian carp is prohibited.
–The Detroit Free Press

 Recycling no panacea  for ‘fracking’ pollution
As drilling for natural gas started to climb sharply about 10 years ago, energy companies faced mounting criticism over an extraction process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground for each well and can leave significant amounts of hazardous contaminants in the water that comes back to the surface.

 So, in a move hailed by industry as a major turning point, drilling companies started reusing and recycling the wastewater. 

“Water recycling is a win-win,” one drilling company, Range Resources, says on its Web site. “It reduces fresh water demand and eliminates the need to dispose of the water.”

But the win-win comes with significant asterisks. 

In Pennsylvania, for example, natural-gas companies recycled less than half of the wastewater they produced during the 18 months that ended in December, according to state records.   

Nor has recycling eliminated environmental and health risks. Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways.

 (Read other articles from the New York Times’ Drilling Down series on natural gas drilling and water quality.)
–The New York Times

 Research on drilling allegedly withheld
When Congress considered whether to regulate more closely the handling of wastes from oil and gas drilling in the 1980s, it turned to the Environmental Protection Agency  to research the matter. E.P.A. researchers concluded that some of the drillers’ waste was hazardous and should be tightly controlled.

 But that is not what Congress heard. Some of the recommendations concerning oil and gas waste were eliminated in the final report handed to lawmakers in 1987.

“It was like the science didn’t matter,” Carla Greathouse, the author of the study, said in a recent interview. “The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way.”

 E.P.A. officials told her, she said, that her findings were altered because of pressure from the Office of Legal Counsel of the White House under Ronald Reagan. A spokesman for the E.P.A. declined to comment.

 (Read other articles from the New York Times’ Drilling Down series on natural gas drilling and water quality.)
–The New York Times

 Toxic or not? Scientists take precautions
Dr. Ana Soto won’t use plastic in the microwave.

 R. Thomas Zoeller uses an iPhone application that flags products with potentially dangerous chemicals to help him make wise choices at the grocery store.

 Dr. Perry E. Sheffield washes her hands often — as much to get rid of potentially dangerous chemicals as germs.

 It’s nearly impossible to prove scientifically that certain diseases are caused by household chemicals, such as bisphenol-A, phthalates, and flame retardants, which are found in everything from kitchen cleaners to baby creams, carpeting to tin cans.

But as research accumulates about their potential dangers, and rates of diseases that are plausibly caused by these chemicals rise, these three scientists are anxious enough to make changes in their own homes.
–The Boston Globe

 MPCA seeks comment on Bald Eagle Lake plan
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency invites public comments on a water quality improvement report for Bald Eagle Lake, located on the Ramsey-Washington county line. 

  Bald Eagle Lake has contained excess phosphorus since at least the mid-1970s.  Too much phosphorus can produce frequent summer algae blooms, which interfere with recreation on the lake.

The report explains that some phosphorus enters Bald Eagle Lake through runoff from the watershed, but a larger portion comes from internal sources such as lake sediment and decaying vegetation.  In order to achieve the necessary phosphorus reduction of 58 percent, the report recommends strategies to limit phosphorus release from sediment and manage invasive plant species in the lake.  Local initiatives to improve stormwater management and better enforce existing runoff rules will also reduce the flow of phosphorus into the lake.

The draft report, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load  report, may be viewed online at  For more information or to submit comments, contact Chris Zadak  at  651-757-2837. Comments must be received in writing at the MPCA office by March 30, 2011, and must include an explanation of the commenter’s interest in the TMDL report, a clear statement of any recommended changes and specific reasons for any suggested changes.
–MPCA News Release

 Eastern cougar is extinct. Or is it?
Seven decades after the last reported sighting of the eastern cougar, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service declared it extinct and recommended that it be removed from the nation’s endangered species list.

 There’s one wrinkle, though: it may not be extinct, exactly.

 Scientists are moving toward the conclusion that the eastern cougar was erroneously classified as a separate subspecies in the first place. As a result of a genetic study conducted in 2000, most biologists now believe there is no real difference between the western and eastern branches of the cougar family.

 Either way, the “eastern” cougar as such is no longer with us. Any recent sightings in the cougar’s historic range, which stretched from eastern Ontario and Michigan eastward to Maine and southward to Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri, were actually sightings of its relatives, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
–The New York Times

Iowa State research disputes myth on invasives
Invasive plant species, although widespread, are no more abundant in their new homes than in their native area, a U.S. researcher says.

 “There is this assumption that when plants invade a new area that they become much more abundant in the new area than they were in the native areas,” Iowa State University ecology Professor Stan Harpole said in an ISU release. “It turns out that, on average, they aren’t any more abundant away from home than they are at home.”

Previous assumption held that problematic invasive species often spread widely in their new habitats because they don’t encounter predators or diseases that help keep them in check in their home ranges.

U.S. approves deep water oil permit
The federal government approved the first permit to drill the kind of deepwater oil well that was banned after last year’s BP disaster, but it’s yet to be seen whether the move will open the gates to the type of aggressive and lucrative exploration the industry has been clamoring for.

Top offshore regulator Michael Bromwich, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said the approval for Houston-based Noble Energy is a milestone, even though it’s to pick up work on a well southeast of Venice that Noble had already drilled to more than 13,000 feet.

The work at Noble’s Santiago well, less than 20 miles from where the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling BP’s ill-fated Macondo project, stopped when President Barack Obama imposed a moratorium blocking most drilling in deepwater from May 30 through Oct. 12. Since then, the only permits approved have been for technical work, such as water-infusion wells that are not intended to tap into oil reservoirs.
–The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Satellites show California groundwater decline
We all know the dangers of not balancing our check books: we could withdraw from our bank accounts more than we’ve deposited, and get fined-or worse-for overdrawing.

You’d think we’d manage our groundwater accounts at least as carefully as our bank accounts, especially given that the food security of this and future generations depends on them. But we don’t. Rarely is groundwater use monitored, measured or regulated. This is true for most of the world, as well as for California’s Central Valley-the fruit and vegetable bowl of the United States. Farmers in the 52,000 square-kilometer valley produce 250 different kinds of crops that together account for 8 percent of the nation’s agricultural value.

 But thanks to the National Atmospheric and Space Administration’s (NASA) satellite mission called GRACE (the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), we’re getting some excellent assessments of what’s happening to water underground-and the picture is sobering. GRACE monitors changes in Earth’s gravity field that result from changes in water storage, and the technology can give a fairly accurate picture of what’s happening to groundwater supplies.

Jay Famiglietti of the Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine, and eight colleagues used data from the GRACE mission to estimate that California’s Central Valley lost 20.3 cubic kilometers (16.4 million acre feet) of water between October 2003 and March 2010–a volume equal to 63 percent of the capacity of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. Most of that depletion occurred between April 2006 and March 2010, a period of drought when farmers pumped more groundwater to compensate for less rainfall and cutbacks in surface water deliveries to irrigators. Famiglietti’s team published their findings this month in Geophysical Research Letters.
–Sandra L. Postel in a National Geographic blog