Mercury taints lakes; climate pact delayed

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

Fish in 49% of U.S. lakes tainted by mercury, EPA says
A new EPA study shows concentrations of toxic chemicals in fish tissue from lakes and reservoirs in nearly all 50 U.S. states. For the first time, EPA is able to estimate the percentage of lakes and reservoirs nationwide that have fish containing potentially harmful levels of chemicals such as mercury and PCBs.

The data showed mercury concentrations in game fish exceeding EPA’s recommended levels at 49 percent of lakes and reservoirs nationwide, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in game fish at levels of potential concern at 17 percent of lakes and reservoirs. These findings are based on a comprehensive national study using more data on levels of contamination in fish tissue than any previous study.

Burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, accounts for nearly half of mercury air emissions caused by human activity in the U.S., and those emissions are a significant contributor to mercury in water bodies. From 1990 through 2005, emissions of mercury into the air decreased by 58 percent. EPA is committed to developing a new rule to substantially reduce mercury emissions from power plants, and the Obama Administration is actively supporting a new international agreement that will reduce mercury emissions worldwide.
–EPA news release

Analysis: Obama climate change push delayed
President Obama came into office pledging to end eight years of American inaction on climate change under President George W. Bush, and all year he has promised that the United States would lead the way toward a global agreement in Copenhagen next month to address the warming planet. 

But this weekend in Singapore, Mr. Obama was forced to acknowledge that a comprehensive climate deal was beyond reach this year. Instead, he and other world leaders ageed that they would work toward a more modest interim agreement with a promise to renew work toward a binding treaty next year.
–The New York Times 

Duluth pharmaceutical disposal set
The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) will host a free collection event for unwanted or expired medications at its regional Household Hazardous Waste Facility in Duluth from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20.

“Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out Day” is a one-day event offering residents free disposal of unwanted medications in a safe, convenient and environmentally sound manner. This is the first medication collection event held in over a year. Due to U.S. drug laws, medication can only be accepted at these specially-staffed events. 

Residents may bring their own or a family member’s unwanted or expired medication to the event for disposal. Drop-off is free and confidential. Residents will use the drive-through area at the Household Hazardous Waste facility during this special event. The facility is located at 2626 Courtland Street in Duluth.
–Pine Journal 

EPA tries a new threat on Chesapeake pollution
Trying to impose new accountability measures in the failing effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the Obama administration is considering an odd-sounding threat.

 Stop missing deadlines for cleaning up polluted waterways, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would tell states in the bay watershed.

 Or we’ll . . . cut off funding for cleaning up polluted waterways.

 That idea, announced in a new “draft strategy” for the Chesapeake, might sound as if the EPA is threatening to shoot itself in the foot.

But it is at the heart of the Obama administration’s plans to overhaul the failed cleanup of the Chesapeake, where federal and state governments have repeatedly broken promises to reduce pollution.
–The Washington Post 

‘Stink bug’ eats kudzu – but soybeans, too
A kudzu-eating pest never before seen in the Western Hemisphere has arrived in northeast Georgia, but it’s not all good news.

 The bug feasts on soybean crops and releases a stinky chemical when threatened.

Researchers from UGA and Dow AgroSciences identified the bug, which is native to India and China, last month. It’s been spotted in Gwinnett, Hall, Walton, Barrow, Jackson, Greene, Clarke, Oconee and Oglethorpe counties.

 Commonly called the lablab bug or globular stink bug, it’s pea-sized and brownish with a wide posterior. The bug waddles when it walks but flies well.
–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Amazon rain forest: Less trendy; still in danger
We used to hear so much about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, but lately not a word. So what happened: Did we save it, or not? 

We didn’t save it, but we haven’t stopped trying. Environmentalists fret over the fate of the Amazon for good reason: It contains more than half of the planet’s remaining tropical rain forest, one-fifth of our global freshwater and as much as one-third of the world’s biodiversity. Saving all this was once a rallying cry for green activists, and a few early triumphs made that goal seem likely. But attention soon shifted away from the rain forest to such issues as climate change and organic agriculture, and now the Amazon is disappearing at about the same rate it was in the 1980s.
–The Washington Post 

Wisconsin firm penalized for water pollution
The manager of a Trempealeau County manufacturing plant will pay $5,000 in fines and fees for pumping “acutely toxic” wastewater into the Buffalo River in 2006, and his employer will pay nearly $19,000 in a civil action related to the discharge, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced.

Thomas A. Callaghan, 53, of Eau Claire, Wis., agreed to pay the sum as part of a plea agreement after pleading no contest to discharging pollutants into state waters without a permit, according to the department. Callaghan is plant manager for Tremplo Manufacturing in Osseo, Wis., which fabricates metal parts for industrial mixers. 

The company will also pay $18,907 in forfeitures and costs for the discharge.

On Sept. 20, 2006, Callaghan ordered Tremplo employees to pump wastewater from the plant’s water table, which collects metal dust and shavings from the cutting process, to a storm sewer manhole outside the facility because of its foul odor, according to a criminal complaint. The storm sewer ran directly to the Buffalo River.
–The Winona Daily News 

California aquifers finally to be measured
California for the first time will require water users to disclose ground-water levels as a result of legislation recently approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers.

 Ground-water monitoring has long been sought by Democrats and environmentalists, but opposed by Republicans and farm groups, who fear an invasion of property. But the parties last week struck a compromise as part of a larger water deal, which includes new conservation rules and an $11 billion water bond voters will consider in a year to pay for dams and other projects.
–The Fresno Bee 

U.S. agencies ordered to cut water use by 2 percent per year
Water conservation has long been the “stepchild” of energy management programs, says William Lintner, a U.S. Energy Department official who coordinates federal water management policy.

Green government advocates focus far more on buying electronics and constructing buildings that are energy efficient, driving alternative-fuel vehicles and erecting solar panels. 

That’s about to change. 

Last month, President Barack Obama significantly extended and expanded mandates on agencies to cut their water use and better manage their waste water. 

Since 2007, agencies have been required by an executive order to cut potable water consumption by 2 percent annually through fiscal 2015, compared with 2007 baselines.  Obama extended that mandate through 2020 and added a new requirement to cut consumption of nonpotable water — such as that used for landscaping, industrial and agricultural purposes — by 2 percent annually through 2020, compared with a 2010 baseline.
–Federal Times

Bisphenol A implicated in sexual maladies
A paper in the journal Human Reproduction adds weight to a long-held (by some) suspicion that the plasticising chemical bisphenol A (BPA) does bad things to the body’s hormone balance.

 In this study, male workers in Chinese factories handling BPA were compared to a control group of Chinese factory workers who weren’t exposed to BPA over five years. 

The results showed that the workers in the factories handling BPA had four times the risk of erectile dysfunction, and seven times more risk of ejaculation difficulty.

Brown Pelican removed from endangered list
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the brown pelican from its list of endangered species. 

The recovery of the brown pelican is proof that the often criticized Endangered Species Act is effective, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call with reporters . 

“For all the criticism that the Endangered Species Act takes, we need to celebrate now in 2009 that we have a bald eagle, we have a peregrine falcon, we have the brown pelican,” Mr. Salazar said.
–The Wall Street Journal 

Artificial glaciers save water in Himalayas
Faced with a dwindling supply of water for agriculture as northern India’s glaciers recede, a retired civil engineer has come up with an innovative adaptation to the pressures of climate change: artificial glaciers. 

By diverting unneeded winter glacial runoff into shaded mountain depressions, and using a basic system of metal pipes to spur freezing, he has created three new ‘glaciers’ designed to provide a stable supply of irrigation water. 

The technique improves on what locals say is an ancient method of preserving snow and runoff in shady areas of the Himalayan foothills.

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Widespread pollution, intersex and kudzu

Each week, the Freshwater Society posts a digest of some of the best regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to where they originally were published.

500,000 pollution violations in five years

Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.

Follow the New York Times link to look up pollution in Minnesota and other states.

— The New York Times

USGS study finds widespread intersex in fish

Intersex in smallmouth and largemouth bass is widespread in numerous river basins throughout the United States is the major finding of the most comprehensive and large-scale evaluation of the condition, according to U.S. Geological Survey research published online in Aquatic Toxicology.

Of the 16 fish species researchers examined from 1995 to 2004, the condition was most common by far in smallmouth and largemouth bass: a third of all male smallmouth bass and a fifth of all male largemouth bass were intersex. This condition is primarily revealed in male fish that have immature female egg cells in their testes, but occasionally female fish will have male characteristics as well.

“Although the USGS has already documented the severity of intersex in individual basins such as the Potomac, this study reveals the prevalence of intersex is more widespread than anyone anticipated, said Sue Haseltine, associate director for biology at the U.S. Geological Survey. “This research sends the clear message that we need to learn more about the hormonal and environmental factors that cause this condition in fish, as well as the number of fish afflicted with this condition.”

The study, said Hinck, presents the observed occurrence of intersex in a variety of freshwater fish species, but not potential causes. “This study adds a lot to our knowledge of this phenomena, but we still don’t know why certain species seem more prone to this condition or exactly what is causing it. In fact, the causes for intersex may vary by location, and we suspect it will be unlikely that a single human activity or kind of contaminant will explain intersex in all species or regions,” she said.

–USGS News Release

Texas speculators invest in water

In a scorching cow pasture silent save the lowing of cattle, Terry Gilmore picks up a stick and draws in the sand a simple map: divots in the ground for a handful of water wells, then a long scratch for a pipeline to deliver water to Austin’s eastern flank.

About 2,000 feet below him sits an underground reservoir, known as the Simsboro formation, that he and others hope will fuel development everywhere from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Gilmore, 60, the chief investor in a water development company called Sustainable Water Resources, has spent millions of dollars to try to make his lines in the sand a brick-and-mortar reality.

–The Austin American-Statesman

New York braces for higher seas

When major ice sheets thaw, they release enough fresh water to disrupt ocean currents world-wide and make the planet wobble with the uneven weight of so much meltwater on the move. Studying these effects more closely, scientists are discovering local variations in rising sea levels — and some signs pointing to higher seas around metropolitan New York.

Sea level may rise faster near New York than at most other densely populated ports due to local effects of gravity, water density and ocean currents, according to four new forecasts of melting ice sheets. The forecasts are the work of international research teams that included the University of Toronto, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., Florida State University and the University of Bristol in the U.K., among others.

Scientists are laboring to make their predictions more reliable. While they do, New York has become an urban experiment in the ways that seaboard cities can adapt to climate change over the next century.

–The Wall Street Journal

Satellites measure water use

Water management is serious business in the American West, where precipitation is scarce, irrigated agriculture is a major industry, new housing subdivisions spread across arid landscapes.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” water officials are fond of saying.

But measurement — trying to determine how much water is diverted from rivers and how much is pumped from hundreds of thousands of wells — has been an inexact and expensive science.

Now a tool developed by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the University of Idaho is changing the face of water management and conservation by efficiently offering specific measurements of the water consumed across a large region or single field.

–The Washington Post

EPA seeks to ban lead tire weights

It’s no secret that cars pollute the environment, but not all of that pollution comes out of the tailpipe.

The Environmental Protection Agency says 2,000 tons of lead tire weights —used in wheel balancing — are “lost from vehicles and ultimately end up in the environment each year.” Exposure to lead, the E.P.A. said, has a variety of health effects, including brain and nervous system disorders, high blood pressure, reproductive problems and hypertension.

Recently, the E.P.A. reversed previous decisions and agreed to follow Europe’s lead and seek to ban the manufacture and sale of  lead tire weights.

–The New York Times

Water managers eye  Mexican wetland

The Southwest drought has reached the point where even drain water is coveted.

Beginning nearly 40 years ago, the briny runoff from the “salad bowl” of southern Arizona, some of the most productive farmland in the nation, has been channeled into an arid plain of the Sonoran desert in Mexico.

It is an engineered solution to the vexing problem of keeping the nearby Colorado River free of agricultural wastewater too heavy in salt compounds for drinking water and other uses. An accidental result south of the border has been a thriving man-made wetland, the largest in the river’s delta, a key stopover for migratory birds and home to a bounty of endangered and threatened species.

But now the protracted drought in the Southwest has led water managers to rethink the possibilities for the wastewater, placing the preservation of the wetland, the Ciénega de Santa Clara, at the center of a delicate balancing act between the growing thirst of California, Nevada and Arizona and the delta’s ecology.

–The New York Times

Jordan-Israel embark on massive water project

An acute water shortage has prompted Jordan and Israel to embark on water-supply projects that supporters say will prevent an impending regional crisis but environmentalists have criticized as ill-advised attempts to rewire nature.

The efforts include a pipeline to Amman from the Dissi Reservoir in Jordan’s southern desert and an extensive network of desalination plants Israel is building along the Mediterranean coast. The Dissi is an ancient, nonrenewable, underground pool of water that, once tapped, will run dry in an estimated 50 years.

Most controversially, the two countries are pushing for action on the long-standing idea of cutting a 110-mile path north from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water — about half a trillion gallons — would be sent through a network of pipelines or tunnels each year, with some of it desalinated en route and some used to reverse decades of decline in the Dead Sea’s water level.

–The Washington Post

Eden Prairie seeks erosion advice

Eden Prairie has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to diagnose a severe riverbank erosion problem on the city’s southern limits along the Minnesota River — one that could eventually threaten homes along the bluff above if not corrected, officials say.

Since 1937, the river has cut 300 feet into a point on its north bank in Eden Prairie, forming a sharp bend in the river and even washing away a chunk of old Riverview Road, a historic gravel road now used for hiking along the riverbanks. The erosion is occurring about a mile and a half west of Hwy. 169 at the base of a tall bluff lined by about a dozen homes overlooking the river valley.

–The Star Tribune

Dams drive California water debate

The stalemate over water reform in California these days swirls around a single word that for decades has ignited conflict among ideological opposites: dams.

Conservatives, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insist on building new dams, believing that pooling water in a canyon will end California’s thirst.

Liberals first want legal assurances that California will make better use of the water it has – a plea for more regulation that seems pointless to the thirsty.

–The Sacramento Bee

Devastating drought parches Kenya

The sun somehow feels closer here, more intense, more personal. As Philip Lolua waits under a tree for a scoop of food, heat waves dance up from the desert floor, blurring the dead animal carcasses sprawled in front of him.

So much of his green pasture land has turned to dust. His once mighty herd of goats, sheep and camels have died of thirst. He says his 3-year-old son recently died of hunger.

A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.

–The New York Times

Mexico suffers drought, too

In the parched Mexican countryside, the corn is wilting, the wheat stunted. And here in this vast and thirsty capital, officials are rationing water and threatening worse cuts as Mexico endures one of the driest spells in more than half a century.

A months-long drought has affected broad swaths of the country, from the U.S. border to the Yucatan Peninsula, leaving crop fields parched and many reservoirs low. The need for rain is so dire that water officials have been rooting openly for a hurricane or two to provide a good drenching.

–The Los Angeles Times

Finally, a kind word for invasive kudzu

Kudzu, the wild vine that has overtaken almost 10 million acres in the southeastern U.S., may be more nutrient than nuisance. Previous studies have suggested a chemical in kudzu may help alcoholics curb addiction. Now a study shows it can help regulate blood pressure, glucose metabolism and cholesterol levels.

Kudzu root contains polyphenols, and is already available in health food stores as a dietary supplement. In the new study, researchers gave half of a rat population kudzu root extract and compared them with rats that didn’t receive the extract. The findings, the authors wrote, “suggest that polyphenols in kudzu root may provide a nonpharmacological complement to traditional approaches for treating hypertension.” The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

–The Baltimore Sun

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