Climate change, neutrinos and river otters

Climate change challenges U.S. security

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

–The New York Times

 Draw-down in India’s groundwater mapped

Farming is a thirsty business on the Indian subcontinent. But how thirsty, exactly? For the first time, satellite remote sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh has put a solid number on how quickly the region is depleting its groundwater. The number “is big,” says hydrologist James Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine–big as in 54 cubic kilometers of groundwater lost per year from the world’s most intensively irrigated region hosting 600 million people. “I don’t think anybody knew how quickly it was being depleted over that large an area.”

The big picture of Indian groundwater comes from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission, launched in March 2002 as a joint effort by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the German Aerospace Center. Actually two satellites orbiting in tandem 220 kilometers apart, GRACE measures subtle variations in the pull of Earth’s gravity by using microwaves to precisely gauge the changing distance between the two spacecraft.


MPCA offers ‘Eco Scale Challenge’ at State Fair

There are plenty of scales at the Minnesota State Fair: for weighing produce, livestock and even midway-goers.  An exciting new interactive exhibit at this year’s state fair, the Eco Scale Challenge, allows Eco Experience visitors to see the effect their choices at home and on the road have on emissions of carbon dioxide.

 The fair runs Aug. 27-Sept. 7. 

 Home energy use and transportation for the average household are responsible for approximately 21 tons of carbon emissions a year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Even small changes can add up to big reductions.  For instance, if visitors move the transportation slider on the Eco Scale to carpool or bus just twice a week, the scale points to a yearly carbon savings of half a ton.  Energy-saving actions at home, like turning off unneeded electronics, washing clothes in cold water, and lowering the temperature of the water heater, cuts another half ton of carbon.

 The Eco Scale Challenge not only allows visitors to see how their actions lighten their impact on the environment, but allows them to see how tradeoffs in their decisions work.  Other categories on the scale include reducing/recycling, renewable energy, sustainable yard, saving energy, and eating local foods.

More information and schedules are at

–MPCA news release

 GM drops support for mercury removal

The new General Motors is dropping out of a program designed to prevent mercury pollution from scrapped cars. This comes just as hundreds of thousands of cars are being junked through the Cash for Clunkers program.

 The End of Life Vehicle Solutions program encourages junk yards to remove mercury switches from vehicles before they’re sent to the shredder. The switches are collected and recycled and it’s all paid for with contributions from the major automakers. These switches were used in trunk lights and anti-lock breaks in the 80s and 90s. But if they’re not removed, when the cars are melted down, toxic mercury is released into the air.

 GM was a major contributor. But since filing for bankruptcy, the automaker hasn’t paid its dues. The reasoning — bankruptcy gave GM a clean slate. As in, the “new GM” never made cars with mercury switches. The program’s director told the Associated Press the timing with Cash for Clunkers now in full force, is a real problem.


 River otter returns to Mississippi in Minneapolis

Trapping and pollution almost drove the river otter out of Minnesota.

 But now, the otter is back, and there’s even a report of river otter living in a once badly polluted stretch of the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis.

 EPA’s get-tough policy yields guilty plea

A man who was extradited to San Diego from Malta on water-pollution charges pleaded guilty Thursday to dumping pollutants into San Diego Bay while repairing a boat in 2006.

 Robert Fred Smith, 45, admitted in federal court that tiling concrete, paint and rust were dumped into the bay. Smith was brought back to San Diego under a new extradition treaty between the U.S. and Malta and a new get-tough attitude by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Smith faces a possible five years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 26. A co-defendant, Joseph Anthony O’Connor, remains in Malta, awaiting extradition. The pair allegedly fled there while under investigation in the United States.

–The Los Angeles Times

 Neutrinos rocket between Illinois and Minnesota

Scientists are playing an exotic game of pitch and catch between Illinois and Minnesota. Their catcher’s mitt is solid iron, weighs 5,500 tons, and is parked in northern Minnesota in an abandoned iron mine. With millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, construction crews are now building a second mitt near the Canadian border. It’s even heavier, some 15,000 tons, and is made of 385,000 liquid-filled cells of PVC plastic.

Five hundred miles to the south is the pitcher: Fermilab, a sprawling U.S. government laboratory west of Chicago where physicists do violent things with tiny particles.

The objects in flight are very strange particles called neutrinos. Fermilab scientists have figured out how to generate a beam of neutrinos and send it across Wisconsin to the big detectors in northern Minnesota.

–The Washington Post

 FTC attacks claims for bamboo clothing

 The textiles go by names such as “ecoKashmere,” “Bamboo Comfort,” and “Pure Bamboo.” Products made with them – baby clothes, women’s leggings, sweaters – tout a variety of environmental benefits, such as that they are nonpolluting, biodegradable, and retain some of bamboo’s natural antimicrobial properties.

 But the Federal Trade Commission said that at least four companies’ versions of bamboo clothing have been marketed with claims made out of, well, whole cloth. It said the material is nothing more than rayon – a fiber made from cellulose in a process that involves harsh chemicals and releases hazardous pollutants.

 The federal agency announced settlements with three of the companies, including Sami Designs L.L.C. of Wexford, Pa., near Pittsburgh. None acknowledged any wrongdoing, though all agreed to drop key marketing claims – including that their products are made of bamboo or bamboo fiber or are produced via environmentally friendly processes – unless they can substantiate them.

–The Philadelphia Inquirer

 Wisconsin pushes groundwater rules

Scores of Wisconsin communities that don’t disinfect their water supplies would have to install systems to screen out bacteria and viruses under rules proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

 The new regulations are being driven by Wisconsin’s new groundwater protection law, and by a growing body of research showing viruses from human waste seep into the ground and contaminate public water systems.

The Natural Resources Board, meeting in Hayward this week, voted 7-0 to hold public hearings this fall on the new controls.

–The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 Army plans Mojave solar farm

The U.S. Army has selected two energy firms to build an industrial-sized solar farm in California’s high Mojave Desert.

The move capitalizes on two resources the military has in abundance. “Not only do we have the land … we also have the demand,” said Kevin Geiss, energy security program director at the Army’s installations and environment office.

 Both are necessities for building big, expensive renewable projects.

–The New York Times

 Kraft Foods claims 21% cut in water use

Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s second-largest foodmaker, said it cut water use worldwide by 21 percent, joining Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc. in efforts to minimize their impact on the environment.

 The company needed a total of 3 billion fewer gallons of water for manufacturing over the past three years, spokesman Richard Buino said in an Aug. 5 telephone interview. Plants are recycling water and fixing leaks, while water frozen in basement pools cools the Northfield, Illinois, headquarters.

 Kraft set environmental goals in 2005, including the elimination of 150 million pounds of packaging by 2011, said Buino. Wal-Mart has decreased the amount of trash it sends to landfills and is investing in solar and wind energy. Whole Foods composts food waste and is installing solar panels in stores.


Take Mom’s advice: Don’t eat the beach

By washing your hands after digging in beach sand, you could greatly reduce your risk of ingesting bacteria that could make you sick. In new research, scientists have determined that, although beach sand is a potential source of bacteria and viruses, hand rinsing may effectively reduce exposure to microbes that cause gastrointestinal illnesses. 

“Our mothers were right! Cleaning our hands before eating really works, especially after handling sand at the beach,” said Dr. Richard Whitman, the lead author of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. “Simply rinsing hands may help reduce risk, but a good scrubbing is the best way to avoid illness.” 

For this study, scientists measured how many E. coli bacteria could be transferred to people’s hands when they dug in sand. They analyzed sand from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Using past findings on illness rates, scientists found that if individuals were to ingest all of the sand and the associated biological community retained on their fingertip, 11 individuals in 1000 would develop symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.  Ingestion of all material on the entire hand would result in 33 of 1000 individuals developing gastrointestinal illness.

–USGS news release

 Tribe invests in algae-based bio-fuel

An unusual experiment featuring equal parts science, environmental optimism and Native American capitalist ambition is unfolding here on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado.

 With the twin goals of making fuel from algae and reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases, a start-up company co-founded by a Colorado State University professor recently introduced a strain of algae that loves carbon dioxide into a water tank next to a natural gas processing plant. The water is already green-tinged with life.

 The Southern Utes, one of the nation’s wealthiest American Indian communities thanks to its energy and real-estate investments, is a major investor in the professor’s company. It hopes to gain a toehold in what tribal leaders believe could be the next billion-dollar energy boom.

–The New York Times

 World Water Week celebrated in Stockholm

This week, Aug. 16-22, is being observed as World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, by the Stockholm International Water Institute. A series of seminars and events held during the week brings together experts, practitioners, decision makers and leaders from around the globe to exchange ideas, foster new thinking and develop solutions. The  theme for 2009 is Responding to Global Changes: Accessing Water for the Common Good.

–World Water Week

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Climate change, ‘ugly’ species and catching rain

Every week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of the best regional, national and interntional news articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to their original sources.

U.S. House passes cap-and-trade


The House passed legislation intended to address global warming and transform the way the nation produces and uses energy. 

The vote was the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change. The legislation, which passed despite deep divisions among Democrats, could lead to profound changes in many sectors of the economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.

 The bill’s passage, by 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it, also established a marker for the United States when international negotiations on a new climate change treaty begin later this year.

 At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves.

–The New York Times

Savings species moves past beauty contests

Are we ready to start saving ugly species?

 When it began compiling lists of threatened and endangered animals and plants more than 35 years ago, the U.S. government gave itself the same mandate as Noah’s Ark: Save everything.

 But in practice, the effort has often worked more like a velvet-rope nightclub: Glamour rules.

 The furry, the feathered, the famous and the edible have dominated government funding for protected species, to the point that one subpopulation of threatened salmon gets more money than 956 other plants and animals combined.

–The Washington Post 

Colorado legalizes catching the rain

For the first time since territorial days, rain will be free for the catching here, as more and more thirsty states part ways with one of the most entrenched codes of the West.

Precipitation, every last drop or flake, was assigned ownership from the moment it fell in many Western states, making scofflaws of people who scooped rainfall from their own gutters. In some instances, the rights to that water were assigned a century or more ago. 

Now two new laws in Colorado will allow many people to collect rainwater legally. The laws are the latest crack in the rainwater edifice, as other states, driven by population growth, drought, or declining groundwater in their aquifers, have already opened the skies or begun actively encouraging people to collect.

–The New York Times

 Marines expand ‘gray water’ use

Camp Pendleton officials formally dedicated an upgraded water treatment system that includes one of Southern California’s most ambitious uses of recycled water.

 As part of a $48.8-million upgrade, treated wastewater will now be used on landscaping, horse pastures and the base golf course. Plans are to expand the water use to carwashes and to toilet facilities in enlisted quarters.

 The goal is to decrease the amount of fresh water used on the sprawling base and the amount of so-called gray water pumped into the Pacific Ocean.

 The base uses 6,000 to 7,000 acre-feet of water each year, most of it from wells and the San Luis Rey River. An acre-foot of water is enough for two families for a year.

The facilities unveiled have a capacity to provide 1,700 acre-feet a year of treated wastewater to sites throughout the base.

–The Los Angeles Times .

Sewage flows to L. Superior to end by 2016

Untreated sewage in Lake Superior should become a thing of the past in the Duluth area, but not for another seven years.

The city and Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) have committed to end sewage overflows by the end of 2016, and to pay $400,000 in fines to state and federal pollution authorities for past violations.

 The overflows typically are caused by backups during heavy rain.

–The Star Tribune

Winona County dairy fined for pollution

Diamond K Dairy in Winona County has agreed to pay a $15,000 penalty to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for violating state standards for odors and for allowing manure to discharge to a farm pond.  The dairy has taken some correction action with further plans to reduce odors and better control manure.

 The dairy, located in Mount Vernon Township near Altura, consists of six total confinement barns housing up to 1,066 dairy cows and 30 dairy calves.  The facility has three manure-storage basins, a manure solids stacking area, a dead animal composting area, and two feed-storage areas.  Owned by Al Kreidermacher and family members, the facility operates under the names of Diamond K Dairy, Inc. and Diamond K Feeds LLP.

Using continuous air-monitoring equipment, MPCA staff found that the facility violated state levels for hydrogen sulfide several times during 2008.  Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that is partially responsible for foul odors. 

 Also in 2008, the dairy allowed two spills of liquid manure to flow overland to a farm pond on the property.  The pond, classified as a water of the state, connects via a spillway to a trout stream less than a mile away, though none of the spilled manure reached the stream.

 The MPCA posts its enforcement actions at

–MPCA news release

 Art sought for exhibit on women and water rights

The University of Minnesota Department of Art and other sponsors are inviting artists to submit work – including postcard-size, mailed-in works – for an exhibit focused on women and the issue of water as a universal human right.

 The exhibit, titled “Women and Water Rights,” will be held Feb. 23 to March 25 at the university’s Regis Center for Art. It will include:

  • A worldwide mail art exhibit on the theme of water and related programs.
  • A juried exhibition of artwork investigating water rights as subject and material. Artists will be women or women/men collaborations from states that form the basin of the Upper Mississippi River — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Lectures.
  • Panel discussions, video screenings and interactive activities.

The deadline for submission of art for the juried exhibit is Nov. 2. The deadline for the mailed art is Jan. 15. Entry guidelines are available at

MPCA warns of toxic blue-green algae

When the summer sun shines and temperatures climb, conditions are ripe for Minnesota lakes to produce harmful algal blooms. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is again reminding people that some blue-green algae can harm pets, livestock and even people.

 Algae are microscopic aquatic plants and are a natural part of any aquatic ecosystem. Under the right conditions, some forms of algae can become harmful. Blue-green (cyanobacterial) algal blooms contain toxins or other noxious chemicals that can pose harmful health risks. People or animals may become sick if exposed to these blooms. In extreme cases, dogs and other animals have died after exposure to lake water containing these toxins.

 There is no visual way to predict the toxicity of an algal bloom and distinguishing blue-green algae from other types may be difficult for non-experts. But harmful blooms are sometimes said to look like pea soup, green paint or floating mats of scum.

They often smell bad as well. “You don’t have to be an expert to recognize water that might have a harmful algae bloom,” said Steve Heiskary, an MPCA lakes expert. “If it looks bad and smells bad, it’s probably best not to take chances with it.”

–MPCA news release

 Law requires conservation pricing in Twin Cities

When you brush your teeth, do you keep the water running? What about when you shave or do the dishes? That’s the kind of question homeowners may start asking themselves when their water bills arrive.

By the end of this year, all metro water utilities have to start charging for water in a way that encourages conservation. It’s part of a law passed in 2008.

Compared to a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk, water is cheap. In St. Louis Park, it costs less than a fraction of a penny per gallon. That may be why some people use it so freely.



Researcher questions mercury health risk

Researchers at the University of North Dakota say there’s new evidence that mercury levels in fish are not as dangerous as previously thought.

 Researchers at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks say the trace mineral selenium is just as important as the amount of mercury in fish.

 Research Scientist Nick Ralston said brain damage from mercury poisoning happens when mercury depletes selenium in the body. He said if fish contain more selenium than mercury, they are safe to eat.

He wants to see a new standard for fish consumption advisories.

 Minnesota’s fish consumption advisory coordinator is not convinced. Patricia McCann said the new research is not definitive and will not affect how Minnesota establishes fish consumption advisories.

–Minnesota Public Radio

Cuyahoga: A river, and a symbol, reborn

The first time Gene Roberts fell into the Cuyahoga River, he worried he might die. The year was 1963, and the river was still an open sewer for industrial waste. Walking home, Mr. Roberts smelled so bad that his friends ran to stay upwind of him.

Recently, Mr. Roberts returned to the river carrying his fly-fishing rod. In 20 minutes, he caught six smallmouth bass. “It’s a miracle,” said Mr. Roberts, 58. “The river has come back to life.”

June 20 was the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, when oil-soaked debris floating on the river’s surface was ignited, most likely by sparks from a passing train.

–The New York Times

Chicago skyscraper to go green

Wind turbines, roof gardens and solar panels will join the pair of antennas atop the Sears Tower’s staggered rooftops, said building officials who announced that the skyscraper would undergo a $350 million green renovation.

The 5-year project would reduce the tower’s electricity use by 80 percent and save 24 million gallons of water a year, building owners and architects said. Separately, a 50-story, 500-room privately funded luxury hotel with its own green components would be built next to the skyscraper in 3 1/2 to 5 years.

The green project includes the installation of solar panels on the tower’s 90th floor roof to heat water used in the building. Different types of wind turbines will be positioned on the tower’s tiered roofs and tested for efficiency. And between 30,000 and 35,000 square feet of roof gardens will be planted.

–The Chicago Tribune

 Device may protect sea turtles from nets

Fishery managers trying to protect rare sea turtles from dying in fishing nets have chosen a Cape Cod company to build a device that they think can help balance turtle protection with profitable fishing.

 The device is a 7-inch silver cylinder that attaches to fishing nets and records how long they stay underwater. Time is crucial if the nets, dragged behind trawlers, snare a turtle. Federal research indicates that the vast majority of sea turtles survive entanglement, but only if the net is pulled up in less than 50 minutes.

–The New York Times

 Water a key issue in Mideast negotiations

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel must address the vital issue of water in the West Bank if meaningful peace talks are to take place.

 Israel’s leaders said nothing, but Abbas had touched on one of the most sensitive issues in the seemingly endless negotiations, which have been in abeyance for the last few years, and one on which any expectation of a comprehensive settlement will probably ultimately rest.

Israel’s unilateral control over rivers and aquifers meant scarce water resources were not being shared equitably “as required by international law,” he declared.

–United Press International

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