Cows, carp, salamanders, muskies and more

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.

House bill would curb EPA’s water regulation
The Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to set clean-water standards would be limited under legislation passed by the Republican-led U.S. House over threats of a veto by the Obama administration.

 The bill blocks the EPA from tightening water pollutant limits without a state’s consent if the agency previously approved the state standard. The measure, which passed 239-184, is part of an effort to rein in what Republicans say is an agency’s regulatory overreach threatening the economy. Sixteen Democrats joined Republicans to support the measure.

Supporters said limits on the EPA would give farmers, coal companies and other businesses that discharge pollutants into waterways greater certainty that standards won’t be changed.

 The EPA is engaged in an “unprecedented regulatory grab” during a “difficult time in our economy,” Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during debate.

The bill is the “single-worst assault on clean-water protections in a generation,” Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

 Asian carp: How big an impact in Great Lakes?
The question of how deadly an Asian carp invasion would be to the Great Lakes has led to a fierce debate among researchers, environmental groups and governments, who disagree on the answer.

 The issue has become urgent as researchers have found that, while much of the public’s attention has been focused on the Chicago canal where an electric fence so far is keeping the fish away from Lake Michigan, there are at least 13 other lesser-known pathways for the fish to get into the lakes. Most allow carp to breach wetlands during floods, dumping them into rivers leading to the lakes.

 In Indiana’s Wabash River, spawning carp actually are closer to Lake Erie than spawning populations near Chicago are to Lake Michigan.

 If they do get in, Duane Chapman, a leading Asian carp expert, said the fish probably could survive in all the Great Lakes, including cold Superior, because they feed in the top layers of water, where the temperatures are warmer. But spawning might not happen in all of them.

 Not all scientists agree; some say fears of the fish devastating the lakes are severely exaggerated.
–The Detroit Free Press

Study documents herbicides entering the atmosphere
When soil moisture levels increase, pesticide losses to the atmosphere through volatilization also rise. In one long-term field study, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists found that herbicide volatilization consistently resulted in herbicide losses that exceed losses from field runoff.

 Agricultural Research Service (ARS) soil scientist Timothy Gish and ARS micrometeorologist John Prueger led the investigation, which looked at the field dynamics of atrazine and metolachlor, two herbicides commonly used in corn production. Both herbicides are known to contaminate surface and ground water, which was primarily thought to occur through surface runoff.

Gish works at the ARS Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., and Prueger works at the agency’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.

Prueger and Gish observed that when air temperatures increased, soil moisture levels had a tremendous impact on how readily atrazine and metolachlor volatilized into the air, a key factor that had not been included in previous models of pesticide volatilization. When soils were dry and air temperatures increased, there was no increase in herbicide volatilization, but herbicide volatilization increased significantly when temperatures rose and soils were wet.

Most surprising was that throughout the study, herbicide volatilization losses were significantly larger than surface runoff. When averaged over the two herbicides, loss by volatilization was about 25 times larger than losses from surface runoff.
–USDA News Release

 Endangered salamander sparks San Antonio conservation
Who would believe that a translucent sightless amphibian that dwells only in dark underground caves could force a big Texas city to not only slash its water use but make water waste illegal? But the rare, four-inch Texas blind salamander has done pretty much just that – and spawned an unusual water story in San Antonio, where impressive conservation efforts are now being tested by one of the worst droughts in memory.

 While most Americans can’t even name the source of their drinking water, many San Antonians know not just their water source – an underground limestone formation called the Edwards Aquifer– but its height above sea level. That’s because that level, which is posted every day on the city water authority’s website, determines whether they can sprinkle their lawns — and whether the water police are likely to be out in full force.  Recently the Edwards level has measured between 640 and 650 feet, which means that residents can irrigate only once a week. If the aquifer’s level drops below 640 feet, the city will declare Stage 3 Drought and allow landscape watering only every other week.

 So what’s all the fuss about the level of the Edwards Aquifer?  Enter the Texas blind salamander.
–The National Geographic Daily News

Have some sympathy for the reviled invasives
Maybe weeds and invasive species aren’t such bad things. Listen to National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” host Ira Flato interview two experts who suggest we all might want to revise our opinions on invasives.
–National Public Radio

Chinese farm feeds on pollutants
China has some of the world’s worst water pollution. And the country’s farms are responsible for a big part of that problem. So there is a certain irony in visiting a farm here that purports to actually help reduce pollution from other sources. But that’s the claim of a 100-acre hydroponic farm in China’s southwest.

 The farm on the edge of Dianchi lake grows some 30 types of vegetables, including long green rows of lettuce and spinach that sway in the wind and float on platforms with their roots in the water.

 Where other farms would need fertilizer to provide nutrients for their crops, the vegetables here get their nutrients from sewage that’s been dumped in the water by the city of Kunming and its environs. Sales representative Cao Jiangrui said that’s all the fertilizer they need. She said government inspections to prove the vegetables are safe to eat, and that by putting the nutrients to use, the pilot project helps, in a small way, to clean up Dianchi lake.
–Public Radio International

 Research: Dairy cows pollute less on pasture
Computer simulation studies by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that a dairy cow living year-round in the great outdoors may leave a markedly smaller ecological hoofprint than its more sheltered sisters.

 Agricultural Research Service (ARS) agricultural engineer Al Rotz led a team that evaluated how different management systems on a typical 250-acre Pennsylvania dairy farm would affect the environment. ARS is USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency.  Rotz works at the ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit in University Park, Pa.

 For this study, Rotz and his team used the Integrated Farm System Model, a computer program that simulates the major biological and physical processes and interactions of a crop, beef or dairy farm. The scientists collected a range of field data on grazing systems, manure management and their effects on nutrient loss to the environment. Then they used their farm model, supported by the field data, to evaluate the environmental dynamics of four different dairy farms in all types of weather over 25 years.

 The model generated estimates for ammonia emissions from manure, soil denitrification rates, nitrate leaching losses, soil erosion and phosphorus losses from field runoff. Estimates for emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide from both primary production and the secondary production of pesticides, fuels, electricity and other resources were also considered.

 Compared to high confinement systems, keeping dairy cows outdoors all year lowered levels of ammonia emission by about 30 percent. The model results also indicated that the total emissions for the greenhouse gases methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide were 8 percent lower in a year-round outdoor production system than in a high-production confinement system.
–Science Daily

Study finds benefits in switchgrass production
The Midwest could produce more food, more fuel, less nitrogen runoff and lower greenhouse gas emissions if farmers switched some corn plantings to dedicated energy crops, according to a new study.

 A move from corn to next-generation ethanol feedstocks miscanthus and switchgrass could switch the Corn Belt from a net greenhouse gas source to a sink, according to the research, published in this month’s edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The paper, written by researchers with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Colorado State University, the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service and the Energy Biosciences Institute, focuses not on the conversion of non-agricultural land to biofuels production but on how changed planting patterns could affect agricultural outputs and the environment.

Pointing out that 30 percent of the 2009 corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, the authors argue that redirecting the land on which that corn was planted could have a significant impact on domestic land use without triggering major food and feed market changes.
–The New York Times

 State shutdown may affect muskie record
Put an asterisk next to Art Lyons and his 54-pound, 56-inch muskellunge that has held the mantle of Minnesota state record since 1957.

 An Arizona angler caught a bigger one, he and his family say, but with the state Department of Natural Resources largely shut down with the rest of Minnesota’s government, they stumbled in their attempts to get the fish in the record books.

 And with the 57.5-inch, 54.5- to 55-pound bruiser now lying in pieces in a taxidermist’s studio, we’ll likely never know for sure.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press

Wisconsin court affirms DNR role in groundwater
A unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court decision upholds the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ authority to protect all waters in the state, including groundwater.

 At stake in Lake Beulah v. DNR was whether the DNR had authority to consider the impact pumping groundwater has on lakes, rivers and streams. In a 7-0 decision, the Court found that the DNR has both the authority and the duty to consider the environmental impact of pumping large quantities of groundwater.

 “We conclude that… the DNR has the authority and general duty to consider whether a proposed high capacity well may harm waters of the state,” reads the decision written by Justice Patrick Crooks. “We further hold that to comply with this general duty, the DNR must consider the environmental impact of a proposed high capacity well when presented with sufficient concrete, scientific evidence of potential harm to waters of the state.”
–The Ashland Current

 2009-10 West Coast beach erosion was severe
Knowing that the U.S. west coast was battered during the winter before last by a climatic pattern expected more often in the future, scientists have now pieced together a San Diego-to-Seattle assessment of the damage wrought by that winter’s extreme waves and higher-than-usual water levels. Getting a better understanding of how the 2009-10 conditions tore away and reshaped shorelines will help coastal experts better predict future changes that may be in store for the Pacific coast, the researchers say.

“The stormy conditions of the 2009-10 El Niño winter eroded the beaches to often unprecedented levels at sites throughout California and vulnerable sites in the Pacific Northwest,” said Patrick Barnard, USGS coastal geologist. In California, for example, winter wave energy was 20 percent above average for the years dating back to 1997, resulting in shoreline erosion that exceeded the average by 36 percent, he and his colleagues found.

Among the most severe erosion was at Ocean Beach in San Francisco where the winter shoreline retreated 184 ft., 75 percent more than in a typical winter. The erosion resulted in the collapse of one lane of a major roadway and led to a $5 million emergency remediation project. In the Pacific Northwest, the regional impacts were moderate, but the southerly shift in storm tracks, typical of El Niño winters, resulted in severe local wave impacts to the north-of-harbor mouths and tidal inlets. For example, north of the entrance to Willapa Bay along the Washington coast, 345 ft. of shoreline erosion during the winter of 2009-10 destroyed a road.
–USGS News Release