Biodiversity, groundwater and crop insurance

Research affirms biodiversity’s value 
Vegetation, such as a patch of prairie or a forest stand, is more productive in the long run when more plant species are present, a new University of Minnesota study shows.

The unprecedented long-term study of plant biodiversity found that each species plays a role in maintaining a productive ecosystem, especially when a long time horizon is considered. The study found that every additional species in a plot contributed to a gradual increase in both soil fertility and biomass production over a 14-year period.

The research paper, published in the May 4 edition of the journal Science, highlights the importance of managing for diversity in prairies, forests and crops, according to Peter Reich, a professor in the university’s forest resources department and the study’s lead author.

Reich and his colleagues examined how the effect of diversity on productivity of plants changed over the long term in two large field experiments at the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in central Minnesota. These are the longest-running biodiversity experiments in the world, and contain plots with one, four, nine or 16 different species of plants.

“Prior shorter-term studies, most about two years long, found that diversity increased productivity, but that having more than six or eight species in a plot gave no additional benefit,” Reich said. “But we found that over a 14-year time span, all 16 species in our most diverse plots contributed more and more each year to higher soil fertility and biomass production. The take-home message is that when we reduce diversity in the landscape–think of a cornfield or a pine plantation or a suburban lawn–we are failing to capitalize on the valuable natural services that biodiversity provides.”
–University of Minnesota News Release

USGS evaluates nitrates, chloride in groundwater 
There was no change in concentrations of chloride, dissolved solids, or nitrate in groundwater for more than 50 percent of well networks sampled in a new analysis by the USGS that compared samples from 1988-2000 to samples from 2001-2010. For those networks that did have a change, seven times more networks saw increases as opposed to decreases.

Read the full report. Check out a map showing nitrate concentrations in Minnesota groundwater during the two study periods. Check out data on Minnesota chloride levels.

“By providing a nation-wide, long-term, uniformly consistent analysis of trends in groundwater quality, communities can see whether they belong in the group of more than 50 percent which are maintaining their water quality, or within the group of more than 40 percent for which water quality is back sliding,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt.

High levels of chloride and dissolved solids in water don’t present a risk to human health, but are considered nuisance chemicals that can cause the water to become unusable without treatment because of taste or hardness. Excessive nitrate concentrations in groundwater have the potential to affect its suitability for drinking water. Also, when nitrate-laden water is discharged from groundwater to streams, the nitrate can end up in downstream water bodies, such as the Gulf of Mexico, and cause algal blooms.
–USGS News Release

Crop insurance and conservation in the 2012 Farm Bill
Read a blog about the debate in Congress over proposals to restore a requirement that farmers meet minimum conservation standards to be eligible for subsidized crop insurance coverage. Read a Congressional Research Service report on the issue. Read an op-ed in the Sioux City Journal on the subject. Read a Des Moines Register editorial on it.

Filing beginning for Minnesota SWCDs
Minnesota citizens interested in influencing natural resources issues at the local level are encouraged to run for supervisor of their local Soil and Water Conservation District. SWCD supervisor positions are filled through general elections on Nov. 6.

Individuals who wish to be on the ballot in 2012 must file for the election between May 22 and June 5.

SWCDs are local units of government that manage and direct natural resource management programs at the local level.  Minnesota’s 90 SWCDs cover the entire state and generally follow county lines.  Districts work with landowners in both rural and urban settings to carry out programs for the conservation, use, and development of soil, water, and related resources.

Interested citizens should file a Minnesota Affidavit of Candidacy (available from the county auditor), along with a $20 filing fee.  More information on the filing process can be obtained at the Minnesota Secretary of State web site. Persons interested in finding out what nominating district they live in and which supervisor positions are open for election should contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District office.  Consult a directory of SWCDs and a list of SWCD web sites.
–Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts News Release

2011 drinking water report issued
The Minnesota Department of Health has released its 2011 report on the health and purity of water in public drinking water systems. Check it out.

PolyMet mine debate explored 
It would have been a good-sized congregation on a Sunday morning, but the 250 who gathered at Concordia Lutheran Church on a Wednesday evening weren’t there for a sermon.

They came seeking the word of experts on all sides of the debate about the proposed PolyMet copper mine north of Hoyt Lakes.

Some may have come with their minds firmly made up, one way or the other, about the wisdom of allowing the first-ever copper mine in Minnesota. Others may have come with open minds, eager to hear divergent views and draw their own conclusions.

Whatever, it was an earnest crowd at the event sponsored by the Izaak Walton League of Duluth.
–The Duluth News Tribune

Minnehaha creek report card
The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District has released its 2011 report card on the health of district lakes.  Water quality in the lakes held steady compared to previous years with most lakes getting grades of A or B.  Read the watershed district’s news release.  Link to a PDF that lists lake-by-lake grades assigned to the water bodies since 2001.

Shift in Wisconsin enforcement philosophy 
Read a Wisconsin State Journal article about a changing philosophy in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on how to bring businesses and developers into compliance with environmental regulations. The department’s number of permit violation notices hit a 12-year low in 2011, the newspaper reported.

EPA gave Wyoming time to dispute fracking report
Wyoming’s governor persuaded the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to postpone an announcement linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination, giving state officials — whom the EPA had privately briefed on the study — time to attempt to debunk the finding before it rocked the oil and gas industry more than a month later, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

During the delay, state officials raised dozens of questions about the finding that the controversial procedure that has become essential to unlocking oil and gas deposits in Wyoming and beyond may have tainted groundwater near the gas patch community of Pavillion.
–The Associated Press

CDC to study fracking and health The Institute of Medicine will examine whether the process of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from rock “poses potential health challenges,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said.

Health concerns related to fracking, in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water are forced underground to break up rock and free gas, include the potential for water contamination and air pollution, Christopher Portier, director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, said at a workshop in Washington.

Fracking has enabled energy companies to access fuel trapped in previously impenetrable shale rock, reversing a decline in U.S. gas production. Environmentalists have claimed the chemicals used contribute to water contamination and airborne toxins.

“As public health officials, we are committed to ensuring that development happens responsibly,” Portier said in introductory remarks. Portier, who also directs the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said that agency has received complaints from people in communities with gas wells.

AIS decal law changed; fines doubled
A slate of new laws designed to curb the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species was approved in a recent bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

A program requiring watercraft owners to place an AIS rules sticker on their boats is being discontinued and replaced with an online education program. Watercraft owners will no longer be required to place on their boats the rectangular, silver and black decals, which include a summary of the state’s AIS laws.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources  began distributing the decals earlier this year and will continue to give them to interested boat owners for informational purposes only.

A new law, which goes into effect 2015, will require anyone who transports watercraft or water-related equipment with a trailer to complete an online education course. After completing the course, the person will receive a decal that must be placed on their trailer.
–DNR News Release

U.S. releases 10-year strategic research plan 
The Obama Administration released a 10-year strategic plan for research related to global change, identifying priorities that will help state and local governments, businesses, and communities prepare for anticipated changes in the global environment, including climate change, in the decades ahead.

The plan—released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which for more than 20 years has coordinated Federal global change research— was developed collaboratively by more than 100 Federal scientists. It reflects extensive inputs from stakeholders and the general public, as well as a detailed review by the National Research Council, chartered by Congress to provide independent expert advice to the Nation.
–U.S. Geological Survey News Release

Aasen leaves MPCA post
The state’s chief pollution regulator has left the job after he was nominated for a key position in Minneapolis city government. Paul Aasen, who was Gov. Mark Dayton’s commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was nominated by Mayor R.T. Rybak to become city coordinator. Aasen was one of two Dayton-appointed commissioners on a Republican “watch list,” suggesting their confirmation was in question in the Legislature.
–The Star Tribune

‘Last Call’ film documents water crisis 
If you thought only Third World countries have water crises, a new documentary asks you to think again. Increasingly, problems are rising to the surface in the United States.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu harnesses the celebrity power of actor Jack Black and environmental activist Erin Brockovich — immortalized by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie about Brockovich’s work — to  give the looming U.S. water crisis a thorough ringing out in “Last Call at the Oasis.”

Climate-change skeptics bank on clouds 
For decades, a small group of scientific dissenters has been trying to shoot holes in the prevailing science of climate change, offering one reason after another why the outlook simply must be wrong.

Over time, nearly every one of their arguments has been knocked down by accumulating evidence, and polls say 97 percent of working climate scientists now see global warming as a serious risk.

Yet in recent years, the climate change skeptics have seized on one last argument that cannot be so readily dismissed. Their theory is that clouds will save us.

They acknowledge that the human release of greenhouse gases will cause the planet to warm. But they assert that clouds — which can either warm or cool the earth, depending on the type and location — will shift in such a way as to counter much of the expected temperature rise and preserve the equable climate on which civilization depends.
–The New York Times

EPA official resigns over ‘crucify’ remark 
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Dallas has resigned over comments he made in 2010 that became the focus of political condemnation last week.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that she accepted a letter of resignation from Al Armendariz.

“I respect the difficult decision he made and his wish to avoid distracting from the important work of the agency,” Jackson said in a written statement. In the letter, Armendariz said he regrets his comments, adding that they did not reflect on his work or the work of the EPA. The controversy eruptedwhen a video surfaced showing Armendariz saying in 2010 that his methods for dealing with non-compliant oil and gas companies were “like when the Romans conquered the villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into little villages in Turkish towns and they’d find the first five guys they saw and crucify them.”