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Category — Climate

Hurricane Sandy Swats at NYC Bees, but Climate Change Will Sting Deeper

honey jars in the sun

Big storms generally don’t faze honeybees. When temperatures drop or rise, when wind wails, or when rain falls in sheets, bees simply hunker down in their hives, huddle up, and self-regulate. And so during Hurricane Sandy, bees in New York City’s inland areas abided. The apiaries of East New York Farm survived (with extra weights set atop their hives), as did those of Crown Heights’ BK Farmyards. (Ed.: The bees atop NRDC’s Manhattan offices also did OK.)

But bees near the shore fared less well. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Added Value farm lost two hives when floodwaters swept across the property; coastal Staten Island beekeepers reportedly lost 10 hives, as did beekeepers in the Rockaways. But the biggest known loss so far occurred in the Navy Yard, where a 13-foot storm surge swept away a million bees from the Brooklyn Grange‘s 25 hives, which were stationed just eight feet from the water’s edge. The loss is especially tragic considering that New Yorkers had a week’s warning about the potential surge, which many beekeepers prudently heeded by moving hives to higher ground.

In the short term, Hurricane Sandy will have little impact on metropolitan bees and pollination. Long-term, however, climate change — which scientists agree added fuel to Sandy’s fire — will present some Apidaen challenges. Droughts will wither plants from which bees gather nectar and pollen. Warmer winters will prevent bees from tightly clustering for warmth and force them to continue foraging. But they’ll find scarcer resources, and for a creature that measures its lifespan in wing beats, searching for food that can’t be found is a death sentence. Instead, they’ll consume more of their honey stores.

When forage is inadequate, “beekeepers have to feed their bees and leave more honey in the hive,” says James Fischer, director of education for the nonprofit NYC Beekeeping. (Malnourished bees are, of course, more vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases.) Anticipating milder winters, Fischer is gleaning information from mid-Atlantic beekeepers, seeking advice he can apply in the Northeast. Climate change is also spurring plants across the country to flower earlier in the spring. “But bees that emerge early from winter clustering may not like the plants that are blooming then,” Fischer says. “They’ll hold back on colony production,” which will sting beekeepers’ wallets.

The good news in this bleak scenario is that Apis mellifera is a superb generalist: the same species survives from the equator to Alberta with only minor changes in its behavior. The bees of the future could very well adapt to phenological changes wrought by a climate in flux. For example, they could become more energetic foragers or work a patch of flowers in short, intense bursts. But strap them down in a flood zone while the waters swirl and rise, and all the evolutionary chops in the world — short of gills — won’t save them.

Image: Scott Barlow

This post first appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff

November 13, 2012   1 Comment

When Disaster Strikes, Local Food Alone Won’t Cut It

Five days after Hurricane Sandy, my local greenmarket in Brooklyn was in nearly full flower. Everywhere I went, citizens were asking food producers, or their hired hands, “Is your farm OK?” Largely, they were. (The fishmonger was absent, dealing with storm-related damage to his boats.) Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics, a small farm 90 miles north of the city, told me how strange it felt “to be here as if nothing happened when, to the south, there’s devastation. Last year it was me.” In the wake of Irene, the only thing Kinney was selling were pastel drawings of the vegetables that were underwater in her fields.

For years, locavores have maintained that food travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farm to plate — a compelling reason, they say, to encourage eating foods grown and raised closer to home. (The data to support this claim aren’t abundant or recent, however; and the original supposition measured U.S. food that was traveling to Chicago. Your own results may vary.) But certain climate events — Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the metro New York area last week; Hurricane Irene, which hit the Northeast in 2011; and the intense floods, droughts, and heat waves that have been occurring in the rest of the country over the last few years — raise some questions about the wisdom of clipping our supply lines too short.

Hurricane Sandy did wipe out many farms to the city’s southwest and east, but New York’s hyper-local upland farms — in the backyards of brownstones and on rooftops — fared slightly better (though some beekeepers lost their bees). Farms near the water’s edge, unsurprisingly, did worse. At Manhattan’s southern tip, the Battery Urban Farm was inundated with saltwater from upper New York Harbor, while Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Farm was flooded with up to four feet of water from Erie Basin and the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that also overwhelmed a fuel-oil depot down the street. Along with 30 other volunteers, I spent several hours on Saturday raking fouled wood chips and hay from the 2.5-acre garden and carting tons of sodden, polluted debris to the street corner, where sanitation workers would later collect it for landfill disposal. Rural farmers, I imagined, would kill to have all this free labor — a huge advantage, one supposes, of putting down roots in the social-media heartland.

Walking among the bounty of the farmer’s market, which doesn’t sell hyperlocal produce, and thinking about the storm’s winner and losers, I reviewed the benefits of a regional food network. It provides economic sustenance to nearby farmers who, in turn, preserve open space for ecosystem services and wildlife habitat. It increases the traceability of food. And it brings us produce that’s fresher, and might very well taste better, than food that has been hauled long distance. (At the very least, local food is grown to be eaten, not shipped.)

While I was speaking with farmers, Corbin Laedlein, the youth empowerment program coordinator for the Red Hook Community Farm, was giving voice to these ideas on the radio program Democracy Now. “[M]any people argue that local farms are the solution,” he said. “You know, our industrial agriculture system is based on using fossil fuels for pesticides, and natural gas. We ship food all across the country. And it just doesn’t make sense. We need to localize production to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Well … yes and no.

A hundred years ago, a superstorm could easily have wiped out regional agriculture and left residents eating storage crops until merchants could import other food. Today, storm-wracked metro-area residents can shop at supermarkets, which mostly buy their produce at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx. (I recently visited the market — the largest distributor of fruits and vegetables in the world — while reporting for the OnEarth cover story, “Fresh Food for All.”) Hunts Point buys from 55 countries and 49 states; but only four percent of its produce is grown in New York State, with another 14 percent coming from New Jersey. Thank goodness, I say, for a geographical diversity of producers, for long-haul refrigerated trucks, and for the fuel to keep them running. (Yes, the system depends on fossil fuel for now — but in the future, it could very well run on electric or other low-emissions vehicles.)

As global warming strengthens the intensity of storms and brings more unpredictable and extreme weather, diversifying our food sources and creating some redundancy will increase our stability. “We need to optimize the local and the regional, but integrate it with national and global trade,” says Michael Hamm, director of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. “First, we’ll need that food in times of crisis; second, cities as big as New York can’t grow enough locally to feed themselves; and third, if regional farms, which could be producing a lot more, optimize their capacity, they’ll be able to supply other areas in time of need — a sort of quid pro quo.”

Hamm lives in Michigan, where an early spring and a late frost wiped out 95 percent of this year’s cherry and apple harvest. “If we depended only on local supplies, local processing companies that make jams and pies would have gone out of business. Instead, those companies immediately contracted with Poland for fruit.” It takes a global village, indeed.

And here’s another reason local connections matter: last year, in the weeks following Hurricane Irene, visitors to New York City greenmarkets donated more than $100,000 to 25 upstate farmers in distress. This year, farmers and their customers at the market were donating apples, kale, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes for delivery to hard-hit coastal areas on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, and in Queens’ Rockaways.

“A regional food network is all about relationships with people,” Cheryl Huber, an assistant director at GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates the city’s green markets, told me. “This storm hit the city, and now upstate farmers are asking how they can help by donating food through City Harvest,” a hunger charity. Some upstate farmers even brought fuel into the city, Huber said, so that GrowNYC vans, which had trouble finding gasoline, could service the greenmarkets. “There are relationships here, between rural and urban, that do not exist in other parts of the nation. And these relationships help keep money in the community” instead of sending it off to a supermarket’s corporate headquarters in some distant state.

Clearly, the nation needs to increase its resilience to big storms — by shoring up infrastructure, for example, and by softening shorelines. Farmers can build buffers around fields and adopt such practices  as conservation tillage, mixed cropping, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, which tend to increase, rather than decrease, their soil’s ability to withstand weather extremes. Optimizing our regional farms will help provide more food security to more people in a less certain future. But we’re still going to need those connections to farms that lie farther afield.

Image: Alec Perkins/Flickr

This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff

November 10, 2012   No Comments

How I Got Arrested While Reporting on How to Improve NYC’s Food Supply

Hunts Point food market

OnEarth’s camera had a tough time getting into the Hunts Point food market. So do local farmers, who have to sell their produce at the nearby Wholesale Green-market instead. PHOTO: ROB HOWARD

By the time the sun had risen over the Bronx River, the crush of delivery trucks at the Hunts Point market — the largest wholesale produce market in the world (which you can read about in my latest OnEarth cover story) — had slowed to a tolerable roar. Walking the length of a loading dock a third of a mile long, I no longer had to duck and weave among the laborers hauling fruits and vegetables into the awaiting trucks of New York City metropolitan-area restaurants, supermarkets, bodegas, and pushcarts. I was just about to rendezvous with two Natural Resources Defense Council staffers who had accompanied me, plus a photographer, at the platform’s opposite end, when one of them texted me: Don’t come. We are being cited.

I had come to the Hunt’s Point market well before dawn to collect some color for my OnEarth story about ways to connect upstate farmers with downstate consumers; now, it seemed, my reporting trip was about to come to an abrupt end. I snapped my phone shut and slunk toward my car, darting behind parked trucks in an effort to elude security cameras. I didn’t understand why our group was being cited: after all, we had paid our $3 entrance fee at the security gate, and we weren’t doing anything illegal. Or so I thought.

Within moments of hiding my notebook under the driver’s seat of my car, a Hunts Point police officer pulled up: despite my best attempts to slink away, I had been found out. The officer herded all four of us around the market and upstairs into a dispiriting employee break room, where we would remain for the next two hours, very much unfree to leave.

The time passed slowly. “What would you do if I just walked out?” I asked the armed guard, after 90 minutes had gone by. No one had charged us with any type of crime.

“I would physically restrain you,” he said.

I knew from prior contact with the market’s media wrangler that Hunts Point was touchy about visitors, despite a video on its website that calls the market “New York’s Best Kept Secret,” as if it were a tourist attraction. The video’s ebullient host, TV and radio food reporter Tony Tantillo, even invites viewers to “Come! Join me! Visit!”

I tried, Tony, I really did. I wanted to witness first-hand this spectacle of abundance, wrapped up in a map of the world: blueberries from California, cucumbers from Georgia, apples from Chile, melons from the Dominican Republic, mangoes from Haiti. And for a short while, I did. I saw laborers stack boxed and bagged produce eight feet high; I watched as they trundled pallets and cardboard boxes from truck to platform, from platform to truck, in a steady stream of in and out. The scale of operations certainly impressed me — but I couldn’t help thinking that the ultimate end-consumers of this produce were unlikely to connect it with any particular grower. In fact, only 4 percent (by dollar value) of the food sold at Hunts Point is grown in New York State, with another 12 percent coming from neighboring New Jersey. Those percentages make it somewhat harder to “know your farmer, know your food,” as one USDA campaign exhorts us to do.

NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), along with many other organizations, is working to change this dynamic. But it’s been an uphill slog. The sellers inside Hunts Point don’t want competition from local growers selling food that’s far fresher than what’s currently on offer, who aren’t required to use union labor, and who may receive city subsidies to boot. Meanwhile, local farmers aren’t inclined to pay the 12 to 15 percent overhead that’s demanded by the Hunts Point cooperative, which leases this land from the city.

Nevertheless, there’s reason for hope. For more than a year now, the Hunts Point cooperative has been renegotiating its lease with the city. It recently received a $10 million federal grant to redevelop and modernize the space, so long as it agrees to stay in the Bronx. Local food advocates are trying to persuade the cooperative, as one part of its imminent restructuring, to allow regional farmers to sell their goods at the market — just inside the Hunts Point gate, but not on their high-rent loading docks.

“If we could create a permanent wholesale market for regional farmers, we could get that food into supermarket chains and bodegas that already shop at Hunts Point, and to health-care facilities and the Food Bank of New York,” Mark Izeman, the director of NRDC’s New York Urban Program, told me. “To move the needle of locally sourced food, you’ve got to sell it wholesale.”

With a convenient, centralized wholesale outlet for their produce, New York farmers would, in theory, lease and plant more upstate acres. (Not every upstate farmer wants to spend the time commuting to, and staffing a booth at, a retail farmers’ market in the city.) They would aggregate food with their fellow farmers, package it for transport, contract with shipping companies to deliver it to the Bronx, drop their prices, and turn a profit on the volume.

But before any of these things can ever take place, the farmers need the city to craft policies mandating that institutional buyers — schools, shelters, hospitals, prisons — preferentially purchase regionally grown food, whenever the prices between the locally-sourced and distantly-sourced versions are more or less the same. Currently, city agencies are merely encouraged to buy local. (Of course, New York State produce is seasonal, and many crops will never grow here — which means that brokers, who visit farms and cut deals for buyers, will need to be flexible and creative in their sourcing.) Will it happen? A lot of people hope so. But a lot of political and bureaucratic hurdles still stand in the way.

* * *

The big cop watched me pace the small room. Finally, a senior officer appeared, bearing citations for trespass: we had an official date scheduled for an appearance before the Bronx Criminal Court. Asked why, our armed babysitter said it was a matter of food security. “We supply millions of people with produce; we can’t let just anyone in.” It didn’t seem like they were doing such a great job of that, if anyone with three dollars could waltz through the gate. Either security should be tighter, I thought, or media access should be loosened.

Two months later, the “Hunts Point 4” appeared in court — represented by none other than NRDC’s director of litigation, Mitch Bernard. Sending Bernard to help us fight our trespassing charge in the Bronx was a little like sending in the Navy SEALs to rescue a cat up a tree; indeed, our attorney admitted that he had to bone up on criminal-trespassing law and make some calls to a few friends who knew about the borough’s courtrooms, in order to learn what he could expect. He was far more familiar with the folkways of the federal court system, where he has successfully litigated some of the biggest environmental cases of the last 20 years.

In less than an hour, we were free to leave, though we were all warned to stay out of trouble for the next six months. Next time we decide to take up Tony Tantillo’s offer to check out the wonders of New York’s food-distribution system (and, in the process, explore some of the structural barriers confronted by local farmers), I’ll make sure to dress down, hide my notebook and camera, and pretend that I’m anyone other than a journalist doing her job.

This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff

November 10, 2012   No Comments

Federally funded, people–powered pollution solution

Last Friday was National Bike to Work Day, which may help explain why you saw more bicycles on the road that morning than you normally do. It’s a good opportunity for evangelization by urban cycling advocates, who often make the case that the addition of more bicycle lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure cuts air pollution by getting commuters and other residents out of their cars.

I’ve often wondered how this could be accurately measured. I’m a long-time New York City bike rider, and I would certainly love to see more bike-friendly infrastructure, but not one of my bike trips has ever replaced a car trip. (I’m guilty of owning a car, but I almost never use it in the city: it’s just too frustrating to drive and park here.) For me, and I suspect most New York City dwellers, bike trips replace subway or bus trips or walking, so there’s no real change in our emissions. (Quibblers will say bikers end up consuming more carbon-backed calories to replenish their energy, but … whatever.)

Now, the final results of a three-year federal study called the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program are in. And those results show that the roughly $25 million spent on bike and pedestrian infrastructure in and around Minneapolis has paid off — big time.

The program funded 75 miles of new bike lanes and trails, a bike sharing program, and a “bike library” that lends cycles to low-income people for six months at a stretch. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; Marin County, California; and Columbia, Missouri, also received $25 million, each, for similar projects. In Minneapolis, the number of bikers increased 33 percent, and the number of pedestrians increased by 17 percent. And here’s the really good part: over the study period, there were 7,700 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emitted, 1.2 million fewer gallons of gas burned, and $6.9 million in health-care savings. All that, and downtown shopping districts were invigorated, too. (One more good thing, if you can stand it: while bicycling in each of the four communities went up dramatically, the number of fatal bicycle and pedestrian crashes held steady or decreased.)

By conducting surveys, project administrators were able to surmise that by biking or walking, people in the four pilot communities avoided driving at least 32 million miles over the three-year study period. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an NRDC clean transportation ally that lent management support to the pilot, is beside itself with joy at the study results. Multiply the data from these four communities on a national scale, the group says, “and the results are simply astounding.”

Image: Claudio Olivares Medina/Flickr

This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff

May 21, 2012   No Comments

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?

 

Recently, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission announced that it was temporarily suspending 19 separate water withdrawal permits due to reduced stream flow levels throughout the Susquehanna basin (which covers land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Most of these withdrawals were linked with natural gas extraction: drilling and fracking can consume up to 7 million gallons of water per well, and wells can be fracked multiple times.

Three weeks ago the U.S. Geological Survey pronounced 61 percent of the lower 48 “abnormally dry.” In the East, where I live, we had a nearly snowless winter, and rainfall levels this spring are, so far, well below normal. I’m sorry it’s so dry, but I’m glad the SRBC has the power to quickly halt large withdrawals. In recent years in the southeast, during abnormally dry or even drought conditions, major water users like Coke and Pepsi were not asked (nor did they volunteer) to cut back on water pumping, even while residents were mandated to restrict their use.

The energy companies affected by the SRBC will scale back operations or they will find water elsewhere, as thirsty people and populations with enough money always do. Already, natural gas companies are buying water from utilities and from private landowners, hauling it away from its home watershed, polluting it with chemicals and compounds, including radioactive material that used to be underground, and then hauling it away to be “recycled” or injected back into the earth. In other words, it’s lost to the hydrological cycle forever.

Individually, these withdrawals for fracking may be small, but they could have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and local hydrology. Nationwide, oil and gas companies are fracking 25,000 wells a year. People who live in shale areas need water for residential and commercial use, of course — but that water is also needed to grow crops, and to support wildlife, wetlands and streams that feed larger rivers.

Communities with abundant fresh water — in watersheds that have been protected using millions of taxpayer and private dollars — are feeling the pressure from both oil and gas companies and, perversely, from bottling companies, who recognize that demand for their product will only rise as industrial activity contaminates drinking water. In upstate New York (where there’s currently a moratorium on high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), the villages of Painted Post and Bath are considering selling municipal water to a Pennsylvania fracking company, while the town of Ephratah is weighing whether to sell land to the California-based Crystal Geyser water company, which would build a bottling plant and tap into the local aquifer.

In Wyoming, some ranchers are making more money selling their water to fracking companies than they can make raising cattle. In Colorado, ranchers are competing with frackers to buy rights to surface water, and the price per acre-foot is rising substantially. In Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, the public water company Aqua America recently evicted 32 families from a mobile-home court in order to build a water withdrawal facility that will provide 3 million gallons a day to the fracking industry.

These water transfers — moving water away from local residents to corporate interests — have me thinking about issues of local control, private property rights, the public trust, local economies, and the future of agriculture. (Where will we get our food if this land continues to move out of agricultural production? In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that 25 percent of dairy farmers with gas wells have abandoned farming.) I hate to prognosticate, but it’s fairly obvious: frictions in these areas will only grow more acute as the population, and its energy and water demand, grows.

Image: Nicholas_T/Flickr

May 1, 2012   1 Comment

Vended water or soda? How about neither?

In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.

Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)

But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)

Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.

If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26, 2012   3 Comments

The Third R: An Answer to All Our Problems?

Just before the holidays, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson went on the Dr. Oz show to talk about drinking-water safety. She concluded with her one wish for a cleaner, greener earth. To my surprise, she wished for more recycling.

Not that again, I groaned. Does anyone really listen to pro-recycling arguments these days? The subject is so 20th century, so fraught with disappointment and misunderstanding.

But what Jackson said was actually quite bold, and it certainly needed saying:

If we could increase our recycling rate from about 39 percent to 80 or 90 percent, Jackson said, “we would do a bunch of things. Certainly, we would have a cleaner environment. We would save a tremendous amount of water and energy. We would create millions of jobs, because recycling, in and of itself, would become a supply chain in our country—a very domestic one. . . . Think of [recycling] as a homegrown jobs program and an environmental program and an energy program and a water program all in one.”

It sounds like magical thinking, but groups like the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been talking about the jobs angle for decades, and groups such as NRDC have harped on the energy and water benefits for even longer. (See “More Jobs, Less Pollution” — a report released last November by NRDC along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, Recycling Works! and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — for data that support Jackson’s claims.)

All we need to do is expand access to recycling programs for residents and businesses, to increase the number of recycling bins in public places, to broaden the range of materials accepted by processors (think textiles, electronics, construction and demolition debris, and agricultural and industrial waste), to limit the use of packaging and other materials that can’t be recycled or composted, to shorten the supply lines between generators of scrap materials and their end users, to develop composting programs that handle food as well as yard and garden waste, and to educate everyone about all these changes. (Oh yeah, and end subsidies that encourage burying and burning waste.)

Jackson’s comment reminded me of a Simpsons episode called “Lisa the Vegetarian.”

Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Ham?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Pork chops?
Lisa:        Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer:  [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Could recycling be that wonderful, magical animal (and pay for itself, too)? One can always dream.

Image: Simpsons Wiki

January 27, 2012   3 Comments

Some things don’t go better with Coke

Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.

Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.

For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.

I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)

The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Change.org. Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.

Image: Sebastian Toncu/Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2011   No Comments

Let us now praise prescient people

Kaweah range panorama

Visiting the eastern side of California’s San Joaquin Valley recently, I burned a lot of fossil fuel getting the lay of the land. The Valley: flat, semi-arid, and planted wall-to-wall with fruit trees, nut trees, cotton, corn, and alfalfa. Ditches — some of them offshoots of the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal — paralleled roadways and fields, delivering relatively pristine surface water to farms, ranches, and giant dairies. Pumps pulled groundwater for domestic (and sometimes agricultural) use. To the east: the glorious golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada. High above them: the great water factory of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, from whence the Kings, Kern, Tule, and Kaweah Rivers flow west, through the foothills and into the ditches and drains of the valley, where they’re fought over tooth and nail.

discussing water rights in the west

I drove east and uphill early one morning to marvel at the sequoias, pay my respects to the General Sherman Tree, and ponder the mindset that, 70 years ago, decreed the nearly half million acres of Kings Canyon off limits to development and exploitation. (Thank you, Harold Ickes, who as Secretary of the Interior hired Ansel Adams to photograph the forests and canyons and sway public opinion.) Sequoia National Park, slightly smaller and to the south, had been established in 1890. Having done little upland research before this trip, I was astounded to see how few roads traversed these tracts. In fact, Kings Canyon is the second largest roadless area in the lower 48, and an astonishing 84 percent of the park is accessible only on foot. The longer I drove — and the more jaw-dropping the views of the John Muir Wilderness and the alpine peaks of the Great Western Divide — the more I marveled at the foresight of political leaders who could leave so much alone. Only around 4,000 people a year, out of 2 million park visitors, venture into the vast mountain fortress of the backcountry, with its granite canyons, subalpine meadows, and glacially scoured lakes — the classic High Sierra landscape immortalized by Adams and countless nature-themed calendars. Despite the low visitation, the protections hold. At a time when states are finding it difficult to finance the repair of such basic infrastructure as bridges and water mains, how would we ever find the political will today, to say nothing of the money, to set aside wilderness for its own sake?

This landscape could have been carved into vacation homes, grazing allotments, timber yards, mines, or ski resorts (Disney tried the latter in the late 1970s, at the southern end of the park). But cooler heads and grander visions prevailed. Today’s visitors surely appreciate the spiritual and aesthetic values of these wildlands, but its managers don’t stress, in their communications with the general public, the topography’s intimate connection with the regional economy. Careening downhill from an elevation of 8,000 feet back to 300, one can’t help noting that the Sierra’s prodigious cascades, streams, and rivers — with the help of dams, ditches and canals — have combined and conspired to make the Valley one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. (And yes, this water is ultimately tainted by agricultural inputs, but that’s a story for another day.)

Top photo: Kaweah Peaks of the Sierra Nevada from Wikimedia Commons. Water rights postcard: Paul Stanton, Duckboy Cards

September 30, 2011   No Comments

How many things are wrong with this picture?

 

I haven’t written much here about fracking for natural gas because others have been covering it longer and better than I, but this story in yesterday’s  Pittsburg Tribune-Review, by Richard Gazarik, raised my hackles. I’ll paraphrase:

Gas companies in southwestern Pennsylvania are leasing portions of streams from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission to build a 16.5-mile pipeline to move locally drilled gas to larger markets. Why is an agency that promotes sport fishing making it easier for gas companies to operate in and around waterways used for fishing? Because it’s $36 million short on cash to repair dams in danger of collapse (the dams are classified as high risk because they’re incapable of holding 50 percent of the maximum precipitation that a region could receive). The Fish Commission also plans to sell water to the gas companies for use in drilling operations. (Wait: aren’t surface waters in the public trust—owned by the people? Maybe they’re selling groundwater – the story is unclear.) So far, about one-third of the commission’s waterways—some 14,000 acres–are potential drilling sites.

Environmentalists, including a group already engaged in cleaning up streams polluted by abandoned coalmines, are “concerned.” The pipeline will cross wetlands 71 times and streams 41 times. Kelly Swan, a spokesperson for Williams Production Appalachia, which is pursing a permit to drill under Donegal Lake, a popular trout-fishing spot in Donegal Township, among other sites, minimizes the potential for environmental damage: “Company inspectors will be stationed along the pipeline daily to ensure that construction adheres to state DEP requirements.” Very reassuring: the company guards itself, under requirements set by a notoriously drill-friendly agency. (We’ve seen how well this worked with BP in the Gulf, ExxonMobil in Yellowstone, and so on.)

Drill-site construction fragments forests and disrupts wildlife, including fish and the invertebrates they feed on (yes, the Fish Commission stocks Donegal Lake; it also limits boating to craft powered by electric motors and human power. In other words: no gasoline engines.) Wells can impact water quality and quantity. Fracked wells require many millions of gallons of fresh water that, after being contaminated with a  variety of potentially toxic chemicals, is hauled away to be treated before it’s discharged (rules vary by state: in some places, fracking water is spread on roads to control dust; in other states, it’s discharged untreated into creeks or held in containment lagoons until it evaporates).  But wastewater treatment plants, which make money off this deal, often don’t know the exact makeup of the water they’re treating, nor do they have the capacity to remove all contaminants. Some plant operators are concerned with fracking water’s high levels of salts, including bromide, which can interact with chlorine (used to deactivate bacteria in drinking water as well as wastewater) to form disinfection byproducts, which the EPA regulates because they’re harmful to humans (if consumed over a long period of time). Surely, they harm aquatic creatures at far lower levels.

This plan—to abet gas drilling around wetlands and fish habitat that provides recreation and a funding source for an agency charged with protecting a natural resource; in an area with dams unable to hold back current floods, let alone the 100-year floods we seem to keep getting (engineers believe it was flooding and scouring that exposed and then ruptured the pipeline under the Yellowstone River earlier this month) — seems so egregiously wrong-headed to me–an ever-tightening spiral of adverse consequences–that I can’t imagine it going forward. And then I remember that all fracking operations take place in similarly vulnerable contexts: in or near forests, near wetlands, streams, scenic areas, plant habitat, animal habitat, farmland, ranchland, watersheds, people habitat—in short, on any economically feasible and geologically propitious piece of our one and only planet Earth.

July 11, 2011   No Comments