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This is a new Blog page for Two Rivers Coalition (TRC).  Kevin Haight, TRC Board Member, will be periodically posting on this page.  If you are interested in contributing a post, please send Kevin an email.

 

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by Kevin Haight
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
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At the August 12th meeting of the Board of Directors of Two Rivers Coalition, our organization officially endorsed the petition currently circulating to ban fracking in Michigan. As President of TRC, I want to take this opportunity to explain why your local water quality organization has taken this action. For those of you who don’t want to read to the end of this article, get ready for the spoiler: It’s all about water quality.

Anyone who has followed the national debate about fracking the last few years knows there is a lot of information (and misinformation) out there. There are lots of potential reasons to be concerned about fracking: it’s an unproven technology in its current high volume iteration, large amounts of ground water are required, “secret” chemicals (some of which are carcinogenic) are added to fracking fluid and pumped deep into the ground, regulation has lagged behind the technology, landowners have reported contamination of their wells, the necessary infrastructure negatively impacts natural areas, and surprisingly large amounts of greenhouse gases (such as methane) are released into the atmosphere by the fracking process. This list is by no means exhaustive and reasonable minds might be able to respectfully disagree on any particular point. But notice how many of the concerns with fracking deal with water.  And it occurred to us on the TRC Board that if most of the potential problems with fracking involved water, then this was an appropriate subject for a local water quality group to be concerned about.

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Now we can’t tell you that if fracking is allowed to continue in Michigan, your drinking water will catch on fire. But there is no doubt that this has happened to some landowners near fracking sites and seems to involve the migration of naturally occurring methane into well water, somehow triggered by the underground fracturing of the rock strata. We also can’t tell you that the “secret” carcinogenic chemicals in the fracking fluid will leak into your water supply. But exactly why was it necessary to exempt the fracking industry from the Clean Water Act standards and requirements that everyone else in America has to follow? And we can’t tell you that the huge volumes of water used by fracking will necessarily lead to a water shortage. But do you have a lot of confidence in the MDEQ to adequately monitor and regulate large volume water extractions? And where is this extraordinarily contaminated wastewater going to go? Take a look at photos of wastewater lagoons in the tar sands oil fields of Alberta, Canada if you want a hint of what the future might look like.

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Maybe it all comes down to risk; what are you willing to gamble? A person may think nothing of going down to the casino after payday and losing $100 playing Blackjack. But that same person might not be willing to put the mortgage payment in the kitty. And isn’t that what the fracking industry is asking us to do? “Trust us, we drink water too” they say and then get back into their drilling trucks and tankers leaking toxic waste water and head back to Texas, Oklahoma, and other places far away. Let’s face it: Nobody else in the world will protect Michigan’s groundwater from contamination besides the people who actually live here. Try to imagine a scenario where thousands of gallons of toxic fracking fluid finds a crack in the rock layer and migrates a mere 50 feet down or up into a freshwater aquifer. We don’t even have the technology to clean up a contaminated aquifer; the most likely “solution” would be to simply cap all local wells and bring in drinking water by tanker for the local population. Are a couple years of slightly cheaper gasoline really worth the risk to our water?  And do you want to tell your grandkids someday, “There was a beautiful spring fed trout stream here when I was your age but we traded all that for cheaper gas?”

It is because of the potential risk to our freshwater resources here in Michigan that Two Rivers Coalition has decided to support the effort to ban fracking in Michigan. If you agree that playing Russian roulette with our water is unacceptable, you have a few more days to sign the petition currently being circulated. November 11 is the last day to sign the petition and you can get more information at http://www.letsbanfracking.org/  

by Kevin Haight
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
I was marching for my grandson Liam.
I was marching for my grandson Liam.

Tipping points have been on my mind a lot lately. Merriam-Webster defines tipping point as follows: The critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first known use of the term occurred in 1959, about the same time scientists started measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

                              Arctic Sea Ice

400,000 strong.
400,000 strong.

 You know there was a reason we stole Panama from Colombia and spent millions of dollars and thousands of lives putting a canal through the hellish, mosquito infested swamps of Central America. It was because you couldn’t sail around the top of North America. Explorers searched in vain for centuries for the fabled Northwest Passage but it didn’t exist. Too much ice, end of story; except now, because in this new climate era some call the Anthropocene, ships can navigate through the Arctic Ocean in summer. This is because the sea ice is melting, as evidenced by the fact that the extent of summertime ice in the Arctic Ocean is currently 500,000 square miles less than its long term average. The melting of Arctic sea ice is not just bad for polar bears. There is something called the albedo effect, which causes a bright shiny surface like a polar icecap to reflect most of the sunlight that strikes it back into outer space. But when that ice is no longer present and the sunlight strikes a relatively dark surface like open water, much more radiant energy is absorbed. So the bottom line is that if we ever lose the protection of our shiny bright Arctic ice cap, the planet will suddenly start absorbing a lot more sunlight and the earth will get a lot hotter. Yes, there was still minimal ice cover on the Arctic Ocean this summer, but the ice is very thin. Scientists warn that we could be within a few years of ice free summers in the Arctic Ocean, and no one can predict the outcome if that tipping point occurs.

Scientists marched and had something to say.
Scientists marched and had something to say.

                              Methane Emissions

 It was interesting spending a month in Alaska this summer. Alaskans realize they are on the front lines of climate change and one reason they know this is the permafrost is melting. It is somewhat ironic that Homo sapiens have to be incredibly creative to build a pipeline over the melting permafrost but never stop to think that the oil being transported through the pipeline is contributing to the climate warming causing the permafrost to melt in the first place. But the real scary thing about the melting permafrost is that methane gas previously trapped in the frozen ground is now being released in large quantities. Methane is a greenhouse gas just like CO2, except it is 30 times more potent. This means that methane gas in our atmosphere will trap 30 times as much heat as CO2. Again, scientists are concerned that there is a point where so much methane is being released from thawing permafrost that global climate change will occur regardless of any Johnny-come-lately efforts humans takes. [As a quick aside, one of the dirty little secrets about fracking that no one ever talks about is methane gas emissions. Fracking wells vent methane directly into the atmosphere. Therefore, while we definitely need to be concerned about protecting our ground water, it is important to realize the other ways fracking threatens our environment.]

So why aren't we slowing down?
So why aren't we slowing down?

                            Ocean Acidification

Do you know where most of our oxygen comes from? I was surprised to find out that as much as 70% of our oxygen is produced by microscopic plankton in the ocean, phytoplankton to be exact. Unfortunately, this basic building block of the ocean food chain is threatened by rising carbon levels in our atmosphere. Hold on, the skeptics and climate deniers are saying, what does excess carbon in the atmosphere have to do with the ocean? Well, it’s called ocean acidification. Basically, this means that some of the carbon humans are pumping into the air is being absorbed by the ocean and that carbon is actually changing the chemistry of sea water. Ocean water is now 26% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution. And some species of phytoplankton are suffering from that increase in acidity. It doesn’t take a genius to understand what could happen to the ocean eco-system if a keystone species is eliminated from the base of the food chain.                                                 

A revolutionary concept?
A revolutionary concept?

                         Societal Tipping Point

All of which leads to how I spent last Saturday and Sunday nights. First, I was on a bus all night Saturday headed for New York City. Then, I got back on the same bus and spent all Sunday night riding back to Michigan. In between, I hope I helped push our society past a tipping point of its own. I am talking about the People’s Climate March in NYC on Sunday, September 21. Over 400,000 people marched for hours to protest global climate change that we all know is happening but few leaders are willing to confront. The immediate catalyst for the march was the U.N. Climate Summit of 125 world leaders which was beginning the next day in New York. A broad coalition of environmental organizations joined forces to show the world’s leaders that global climate change is a threat that ordinary people are not going to allow their leaders to ignore any more. The goal of the march was simple; create the broadest possible coalition and mobilize as many bodies as possible. This was a worldwide demonstration with over 2,600 events occurring in 162 countries. But the biggest event was targeted for New York because of the U.N. Climate Summit. All we were hoping for was an impressively large number of people. The reality was staggering: over 400,000 people showed up, waited for hours and hours, and then marched miles through the streets of the city.

"Resist Extinction!"

 My experience, I believe, was typical; I assembled at the back of the march on the west side of Central Park about one mile from the beginning point and 30 minutes before the scheduled 11:30 a.m. start time. I waited and waited and looked at all the groups around me carrying banners: people protesting mountaintop removal, fracking, the Keystone pipeline. I realized what all these groups had in common; they were all opposed to the headlong rush to squeeze the last hydro-carbons from the earth regardless of environmental or human cost. And those human and environmental costs are not just the obvious one like pipeline spills. All fossil fuels {coal, oil, natural gas} do double duty ravaging our environment, initially during the extraction and transportation and then, later, as a greenhouse gas.

The sign says it all.
The sign says it all.

After two hours, we still had not begun to move at the end of the parade because of the immense numbers of people in front of us. But it was impossible to get bored. There were small bands playing, people dancing, community organizers sharing ideas. Then, at 12:58 p.m., all up and down 8th Avenue everything stopped as people held up their hands and became quiet. It was a minute of silence to remember all the people in the front lines of climate change. People who have already suffered from extreme weather events, like the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and Pacific Islanders watching their homelands being slowly swallowed by the sea. And after that symbolic minute of solidarity came the LOUDEST NOISE I had ever heard: 400,000 people sounding the climate alarm with bells, whistles, drums and the power of their voices. Of course, our planet has been sounding its own climate alarm for years now, while most of us pretended not to hear. But the roar that erupted from 400,000 marchers that day may prove impossible to ignore.

Large crowds cheered.
Large crowds cheered.

Finally, at close to 2:00 p.m., our section at the rear of the march started moving. The people in my immediate vicinity had come from all over {California, Vermont, even Brazil} in order to participate in something they clearly hoped would be historic. The marchers near me were also impressively diverse: an artist from Brooklyn, a cleric from Petoskey, not to mention a retired lawyer, part-time environmentalist and full-time grandfather from Van Buren County. And there were so many witty banners and floats. Some of my favorite slogans: “Resist Extinction!”, “There is no Planet B”, and “Nature Bats Last”. We marched down 8th Avenue while helicopters zoomed overhead. We knew this had been promoted as a family friendly and completely peaceful march, so we were hoping the police helicopters were simply trying to accurately count the huge throngs of people protesting governmental inaction on this most important issue of our time. We marched past the headquarters of Fox News and gave it a figurative friendly finger salute in recognition of the role it has played in promoting misinformation about the impending climate crisis. In most places there were large crowds of New Yorkers watching and cheering us, even on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes marchers shouted at women coming out of the trendy stores, ”Stop shopping and join us!”

Finally moving...and not about to stop!
Finally moving...and not about to stop!

Apparently, there were celebrities at the march: people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, and Sting. But they were long gone {as were the food trucks} by the time the tail-end of the march staggered into the finish area at 11th Ave and 34th Street around 5:00 p.m. There were no speeches; the NYPD had refused permission for any large scale speechmaking. And from a logistical standpoint, I could almost understand: exactly where could 400,000 people have assembled at the same time to listen to anyone? In retrospect, the absence of speeches didn’t detract from the experience at all. After the march, I read an interview with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, who likely would have been a speaker. He said his message would have been simple and to the point: Climate change is a serious threat to humanity. It may soon be too late to do anything about it. Mass mobilization of people from around the world like the People’s Climate March is the first step in forcing our governments to take the actions we all know are necessary.

"I'm melting...."

And what are those actions to stave off climate disaster in the future? Well, that is the hard part. We have to use less fossil fuels; all of us. Remember, Americans on a per capita basis use three times as much carbon as the world average. The simplest way for our society to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels is to use the market economy we have in place. The problem is that we are all complicit in what economists call “negative environmental externalities”. This means the cost of the excess carbon accumulating in our atmosphere is not being paid by anyone currently. But if there is one thing Americans know, it’s that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH. If the government sends you a check, it is being funded by a taxpayer somewhere. If I dump toxic waste in the stream that runs through my land, my neighbor downstream will suffer. If we burn coal, gasoline, and natural gas, future generations of humans will pay a very high price in terms of climate chaos. So what is needed right now is to make everyone pay the full cost of the dirty energy that they use. One way to do that is to simply impose a carbon tax on industries that burn fossil fuels. Those industries will then pass that cost on to their customers. This will make alternative energy more competitive because wind and solar energy will now be on a more level playing field with coal and oil when the true costs of fossil fuels are taken into account. And the tax revenue collected by the government can be allocated to helping further develop clean energy {the same way we have subsidized dirty energy for decades through the tax code}. Also, it will be necessary to redistribute some of that fossil fuel tax revenue to ease the burden on the parts of our society least able to bear the additional, but true, cost of burning fossil fuels.

Truer words were never spoken.
Truer words were never spoken.

 Click here to read an interesting article listing some realistic ways Americans can reduce their carbon footprint by 20%.

Was the People’s Climate March a success? In the short term, the answer is clearly a resounding ”Yes!”. It was the biggest climate march ever anywhere on the planet. It also clearly had the attention of the dignitaries who were assembling in New York for the U.N. Summit. And I know President Obama was listening because here is what he said the next day at the U.N.:

” The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

The long term effect is much more difficult to gauge. Was this march a tipping point for our society? Will the people who marched through the streets of New York be willing to pressure their elected representatives to make the hard, unpopular choices sometimes required of leaders? Time will tell but one thing is certain, those other tipping points involving melting sea ice, methane emissions and ocean acidification will continue to get closer and closer.

 

by Kevin Haight
Monday, September 8, 2014

It seems I only get inspired to write this blog, which is supposed to be about local water quality issues, when I am travelling somewhere far away. Such was the case on my recent trip to Alaska. One of the 1st things we did upon arriving in Alaska was visit the Anchorage Museum. I was expecting to learn about Eskimo life, maybe a little flora and fauna of Alaska. Instead, I saw a fascinating exhibit entitled,” Gyre: The Plastic  Ocean” all about, you guessed it, plastic in the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there is a giant circulating current called a gyre where huge masses of plastic accumulate. A disproportionate amount of this plastic garbage then washes up on the otherwise pristine coast of Alaska and this exhibit was a thought provoking amalgam of science, art and education about this problem. 

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Plastic is a recent invention only coming into wide spread usage since WW II. We absolutely love the stuff and use a ton of it: 280 million tons to be exact in 2011 alone. Guess what? Of the 1 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950’s, it is estimated that nearly all of it is still in the environment somewhere. This is because it doesn’t break-down, at least not in any time frame that is relevant to human beings. Where does all of this plastic go? Some of it will go into landfills where it will be a problem some day for our post WALL-E descendants. But often, plastic blows into a ditch, which runs into a stream, then into a river, and finally ends up in the ocean. As much as 10% of the plastic we use ends up in the ocean. According to the Ocean Conservancy, there are 46,000 pieces of floating plastic for every square mile of ocean.

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 Lots of things are made of plastic, but for shear enormity, it is hard to beat plain old plastic grocery bags. According to one statistic I saw, 1 trillion plastic bags are produced every year. In the U.S. alone, 100 billion a year are used. And do you know what a floating plastic bag looks like to a sea turtle? A tasty jelly-fish. So the sea turtles eat floating plastic bags which then get wrapped around their intestines and the turtles slowly, but eventually starve to death. All because you were too lazy to walk out to your car and get the re-usable cloth grocery bag that your kids gave you for Christmas. As an aside, I always like shopping at grocery stores in Europe which make you pay if you want to use plastic bags.

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 Here is another gruesome visual from the exhibit for you: a seal pup with its head stuck inside the plastic rings that a six-pack comes in. Apparently, it happens all the time to marine animals and birds. Speaking of birds, there was a photo of an autopsy of a sea bird showing the wide variety of plastic items found inside the bird’s stomach. When I got home and started writing this blog, I couldn’t find my notes about this, so I Googled it and eventually got to a Youtube video called “Albatross Necroscopy.” In amazement, I watched a young woman pull a never ending stream of junk out of a dead Laysan Albatross. The eventual total was 5 plastic bottle caps, 1 strip of canvas, 1 wire brush, 4 feet of monofilament fishing line, 1 pen cap, 1 plastic spacer used in the oyster industry and 2 handfuls of miscellaneous plastic. The wonder is not that the bird died but that it was able to fly at all with this flea-market of plastic in its gut. 

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The exhibit also included some very compelling video of visits to remote Alaskan beaches, places only accessible by multi-day boat excursion. And what did the researchers and artists find as they scrambled from their landing craft onto these wilderness beaches that may go years without any human footprints? Large quantities of plastic garbage washed ashore. On a single 4 mile stretch of beach in Katmai N.P., four tons of plastic were collected and hauled aboard the boat. Of course the purpose of the expedition was not to single handedly clean up every stretch of coastline in Alaska. Rather, by transporting artists to these remote places, they were able to see for themselves how a pristine wilderness can be violated by the garbage of our consumer society no matter how many thousands of miles of ocean lie in between. The artists were inspired in different ways by this incongruity: some visually depicting the trash in various media, others using the plastic flotsam and jetsam in their creations.

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Although you may be growing weary, I am not quite done with plastic yet, because, believe me, it is not done with us. Most of us have heard news reports of the problems associated with chemicals leaching out of plastic. One bad one was biphenyl A, which is why my backpacking water bottles are now BPA free. But chemicals are not the only health threat from plastic. Turns out that while plastic never bio-degrades completely, it does get smaller. So, after some number of years or decades, it is reduced in size to small beads called micro-plastics. These are about the size of fish eggs and are readily gobbled up by tiny animals which eat tiny things. Since the micro- plastics will not break down any further until the coming of the Apocalypse {I am told this should be capitalized}, the stuff builds up in the system of the tiny animal, and then in the system of the slightly larger animal that eats the tiny animal, and then in the slightly larger animal that eats…O.K. you probably get the point. A substance that has only been in existence for some 60 years and that we do not completely understand is working its way up the food chain.  And while we are discussing micro-plastics, did you know that they are now in many consumer cosmetic products, INCLUDING TOOTHPASTE!

A rant about plastic is never complete without a mention of the most idiotic- yet ubiquitous- plastic product of all. I am talking about single use disposable water bottles. Fifty billion bottles of water are sold around the world every year, and of this total an amazing 30 billion per year are sold in the U.S. I find this extraordinary when you consider that our municipal water systems in this country are the envy of most of the world. The fact that almost every American can get the exact same quality water for free from his/her own tap does not deter us from paying over one dollar per bottle for mere convenience. Is it really that much harder to fill up a reusable water bottle at your tap than drive to a giant box store, buy a carton of 36, and store them on top of your dryer? You could just laugh this off as a silly American foible if there wasn’t such an enormous carbon footprint. The production of plastic requires oil; one statistic I saw said 5% of worldwide oil production goes straight into the manufacture of plastic. But it doesn’t end there, because after these plastic bottles are manufactured and filled with water {ironically, sometimes tap water}, they are then transported hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. Even further for a bottled water called, ”Fiji Water.” Could anything be more ludicrous then using fossil fuels to make plastic bottles filled with tap water and then transport them half-way around the planet?

 Let me leave you with one final visual image, courtesy of Mr. Norm Schriever of the Huffington Post. Hold up that disposable plastic water bottle and take a good look. Now imagine that bottle one quarter filled with oil… that is how much fossil fuel is required to manufacture and distribute it. Bon Appetit!

by Kevin Haight
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Anhinga
Anhinga

The most basic axiom of environmentalism is that it is a lot easier to preserve an ecosystem than try to fix it after it is broken. The ultimate example of this is the Everglades, where the U.S. government and State of Florida are well into the second decade of a well-intentioned, astronomically expensive, and possibly doomed restoration project. I recently spent some time in Everglades National Park and was then inspired to read an awesome book by Michael Grunwald entitled, “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.” I think this should be required reading for anyone who is interested in ecology, environmentalism, politics, history, or Florida in general. What I learned during my trip to the Everglades and from reading this book will be the subject of this blog (much like my trip to the arid Southwest last year inspired me to write the “Watersheds” blogs).

River of Grass
River of Grass

The first thing I learned about the Everglades is that it is unique in the world. It is not just another wetland; there is nothing else like it anywhere on the planet. This is why it is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. The second thing I learned was that you can’t appreciate it from your car or even the boardwalks that give you amazing views of wading birds and alligators. You have to put on old tennis shoes and long pants and follow a ranger out into the sawgrass. When you look down through the ankle deep water, you immediately notice how clear it is; not what you expect in a “swamp”. What’s more, this water is not stagnant; it has an almost imperceptible  current. These characteristics of clean, clear water moving ever so slowly across a shallow plain of sawgrass are the foundations for the unique ecosystem.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron

Hydrology is the key to the whole Everglades region which encompasses most of South Florida. The watershed begins in Central Florida at the southern edge of Orlando where a chain of lakes and interconnected marshes give rise to the Kissimmee River. Historically, the Kissimmee snaked back and forth for 103 miles across a 2 mile wide floodplain before emptying into Lake Okeechobee. There was no outlet from the lake during the dry season. But every year when the rains fell in the summer and fall, Lake Okeechobee would rise until it overran its southern marsh boundary. Then its water would slowly make its way down what has been famously called, ”The River of Grass” until it reached the sea at Florida Bay. This seasonal watercourse was 40 miles wide, 80 miles long and sometimes not more than a few inches deep as it flowed over limestone bedrock and marl muck soils. Life in the Everglades adapted to the annual wet-dry cycle. Most tourists visit the park in winter during the dry season when animal life conveniently congregates in deeper pools as the shallower parts of the sawgrass prairie dry up. Alligators sometimes help out by digging holes where the deeper water attracts fish and birds. And oh my, the birds! A short walk along Anhinga Trail allows the amateur photogragher amazing opportunities for photos of everything from Wood Storks to White Ibis to Purple Gallinule. [The combined value of the oversized telephoto lenses lugged by tourists from all over the world would probably service the national debt of the average 3rd world country].

Alligator
Alligator

So how did we screw up this ecological jewel? The answer is easy, too many people and too much “progress”.  People always wanted to drain the swamp but their efforts were pretty ineffectual until the Army Corps of Engineers became involved. First, the Corps straightened and channelized the Kissimmee River, changing a 103 mile long natural paradise into a 53 mile ditch. Then, the Corps built a massive dike all the way around Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. Earlier attempts to dike the lake to facilitate farming the rich muck lands south of the lake were fatally insufficient . Hurricanes roared thru central Florida in 1926 and 1928 and destroyed the first flimsy levees, unleashing devastating floods downstream. As many as 2500 people perished in the floods caused by the 1928 hurricane, leading to the involvement of the Corps. Of course, once you bottle up Lake Okeechobee, all that water from the newly straightened and channelized Kissimmee River had to go somewhere. The Corps “solved” this problem in typical engineering fashion by building an elaborate series of canals for flood control and water supply purposes.

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 South Florida is a thirsty place. There are 10 million permanent residents and a whopping 40 million annual tourists, all of whom combine for the nation’s highest per capita water usage.  And, of course, that enormous water demand is during the dry season. During the summer and fall nobody visits South Florida, even though that is when 55 inches of rain is falling. So much rain falls then that it threatens to flood the new subdivisions that were built on reclaimed Everglades’ marshland. The solution to this potential flooding crisis every year is to dump the swelling waters of Lake Okeechobee down huge canals that drain into the St. Lucie estuary on the Atlantic and Caloosahatchee estuary on the Gulf. Formerly, these were some of the most productive sport fishing estuaries in the world. Now, they are virtual wastelands. What happened? It turns out that estuary ecosystems require just the right mix of saltwater and freshwater. So when the Corps flushes millions of gallons of freshwater out of swollen Lake Okeechobee every summer (and more often when a hurricane threatens), the influx of fresh (not to mention polluted) water is toxic to the entire chain of sea life in these formerly productive estuaries. Toxic red tides are now a regular phenomenon along the coasts which brings not only environmental harm but also economic costs to the fishing and tourism industries.

Camping in the Everglades in a wedding present from 1980: same wife, same tent
Camping in the Everglades in a wedding present from 1980: same wife, same tent

Meanwhile, Everglades National Park is starved for water. Historically, the State of Florida has managed water flows to benefit its thirsty, sprawling cities and farms with little left over for the park. Sometimes it gets so dry that wildfires burn through habitats that are not able to withstand fire like hardwood hammocks. And the water that does trickle into the Everglades is no longer pristine, it is so loaded with nutrients because of the intensive agriculture around Lake Okeechobee that cattails are rapidly replacing sawgrass in the marsh.  

Recognition of these problems spurred development of a diverse coalition to try to save the Everglades in the 1990’s. The Clinton Administration spearheaded an effort that sought to bring together all the players in South Florida (environmentalists, developers, State of Florida water control managers, and the Corps). The goal was a regional restoration plan that everyone could live with. Somewhat amazingly, consensus was achieved sufficient for Congress to pass the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000. CERP purported to balance the water needs of the thirsty Miami metropolitan area with the flooding concerns of farmers and developers in reclaimed marsh areas, all the while taking into account the need for the Everglades to get a consistent supply of clean water. CERP was always long on promises and quiet on the details of implementation. The initial price tag was estimated at 8 billion dollars and the time frame for completion of the 64 separate projects was over 40 years.

 It has now been 14 years, the price tag is up to 10 billion dollars and very little has been done that has provided any environmental benefits. Part of the reason for the lack of palpable environmental benefits was that they were never the top priority. The first decades of the plan were heavily skewed toward providing water supply and flood control benefits.  Another problem is that for any water to ever get through the massive levee and floodgate system and start to trickle down to Everglades National Park, some bureaucrat employed by the State of Florida has to actually open a gate somewhere, thereby depriving a developer or farmer or state taxpayer of water. Another problem is that the Corps has always been better at destroying ecosystems with its massive dam and flood control projects than nursing them back to health. It remains to be seen whether the Corps will develop any institutional ethos for environmental restoration. Of course, the final problem is that billions of dollars doesn’t grow on trees (even in Washington) and funding by Congress has been sporadic in the relatively lean years of the 21st century.

So what is the take away lesson here? Don’t break it if you don’t know how to fix it. All the engineering expertise in the world cannot replicate the sheet flow of shallow water that used to gently spill over the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee and slowly flow south in a 40 mile wide river. Even if we get the amounts of water right that the Everglades need, get the timing of the distribution right, and make sure the water is clean--we still cannot reproduce that sheet flow. There will always be a disconnect in the hydrology system with canals, levees, and floodgates ineffectually replacing the marshes that once linked the Kissimmee River/Lake Okeechobee upper system with the Everglades sawgrass prairie lower system.

Even here in Michigan we know a little about destroying ecosystems on a landscape scale. The White Pine forests that once covered much of Michigan were completely clear cut, leaving a legacy of problems that we are still dealing with over a century later. Massive forest fires followed the clear cutting. Rain and snow run-off then stripped the denuded land of its best soil and filled creeks and rivers with sediment. Farmers in the northern parts of the state struggled valiantly for a generation or two to make a living off the ravaged land but to no avail. The vast amounts of land that reverted to the state because of unpaid taxes eventually provided the basis for much of our state and national forests (which have grown back with more Red Oak then White Pine). As we now grapple with new issues such as fracking and tar sands pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac, you have to wonder if we are imperiling yet more ecosystems that we don’t know how to fix if the unthinkable happens.

In closing, I would like to quote from Grunwald’s final paragraph of his book: “Before the war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell invoked the ‘Pottery Barn rule’ for invading sovereign nations: You break it, you own it. The same rule should apply to ecosystems. We broke the Everglades, so we ought to fix it. ‘The Everglades is a test,’ the environmentalists say. ‘If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.’ It is a test of our scientific knowledge, our engineering prowess, and our political will. It is a test of the concept of sustainable development. But most of all, the Everglades is a moral test. It will be a test of our willingness to restrain ourselves, to share the earth’s resources with the other living things that moveth upon it, to live in harmony with nature. If we pass, we may deserve to keep the planet.” P.369-370.

 

by Kevin Haight
Friday, January 24, 2014

media/pages/15_page_015.jpgAfter my last blog, I promised myself that I would not write anything else about climate change for a while [the whole beating-a-dead-horse thing]. But then I went and did something silly; I attended TRC’s 5th Annual Meeting where Peter Sinclair was the featured speaker. He has now spoken twice at TRC events and, for my money he is one of the most persuasive speakers out there on the subject of climate change. Contrary to the headline that The Paw Paw Courier-Leader ran, he is NOT a climate skeptic. In fact, his main claim to fame is his website called “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” at climatecrocks.com. Sinclair makes it his business to consult with scientists in various fields and then uses their research to refute unscientific assertions that there is no such thing as human influenced global climate change. One of the things I really like about Sinclair’s approach is that he readily admits that he has no expertise in climate science and that he relies on experts in the fields of climatology, physics, oceanography, meteorology, glaciology, etc. for his information. What Sinclair is really good at is taking complex scientific information and presenting that data in a format that even a lay person like me can understand. Watching his presentation is a little like watching the film, “An Inconvenient Truth” without the slick Hollywood feel [and Al Gore baggage].

Sinclair spent part of last summer in Greenland with scientists attempting to assess and measure the loss of ice on the world’s second biggest ice sheet. He presented video footage shot from an airplane showing the surface of the Greenland ice sheet riddled with melt-water streams that appear to be slowly eroding the core of the mile thick ice sheet. Even more riveting were his maps showing the extent of the thinning of permanent sea ice on the Arctic Ocean over the last 30 years. Basically, most of the old, thick ice at the North Pole is gone and only a thin remnant remains. It seems inevitable that in the next few years there will be an open water summer in the Arctic. This will likely have a disproportionate effect on global temperatures because ice reflects more sunlight [and heat] while open water reflects less sunlight and absorbs much more heat. Already a tremendous amount of energy is being trapped by greenhouse gases [primarily carbon dioxide] and reflected back to the surface of the planet. The quantity is staggering: the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima size nuclear explosions every day. And 93% of this increased energy is being absorbed by our oceans. Combine this with the increased acidity of the oceans due to CO2 uptake and it is no wonder that coral reefs are dying all around the world.

Now if you are like me, you probably assume that climate change is something that is going to happen to somebody else…somebody who wasn’t so lucky as to have ancestors who settled near the shores of the greatest freshwater system in the world [and far away from rising oceans]. Unfortunately for my peace of mind, TRC had asked Sinclair to speak specifically about potential effects of climate change here in Michigan and one of his graphs was unforgettable. media/pages/mi_climate_shift_by_2100.jpgTo illustrate the point that climate change will make Michigan both hotter and drier in the future, he gradually moved an image of Michigan south and west superimposed on a map of the U.S. If we immediately start making significant changes in the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, Michigan shifts down to somewhere between Illinois and Indiana by mid-century and  further south to Missouri by the end of the 21st century. That is best case scenario. If we continue the business-as-usual model with no efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Michigan is between Missouri and Arkansas by mid-century and ends up in North Texas by century end. The room full of people became very silent as everyone contemplated a summer where every day was in the 90’s with high humidity. I was remembering the heat wave that greeted me in July 2012 when I returned home after a year in China and tried to wrap my head around weather like that as the norm.

But then Sinclair said something that really grabbed my attention. He started talking about the failure of the fruit crop here in Michigan in 2012. He began by asking us old-timers if we could remember warm days in March when the breeze came out of the South, there was the first hint of spring in the air, girls would go outside wearing shorts and halter-tops, and boys would follow them appreciatively. Then he reminded us what always happened next: after a warm day or two, the wind would shift around and come out of the North, it would get damn cold, and girls would put their thick sweaters and long pants back on. But in March of 2012 something extraordinary happened in Michigan. It didn’t warm up a little for a day or two; it got hot and stayed that way for a couple weeks. Of course we know the rest of the story: the fruit trees were tricked into blooming early and then, finally, the weather changed and there was a killing frost of record proportions in terms of the loss of cherries, apples, peaches, grapes, you name it. However, what he said next was news to me; at the same time Michigan was setting all-time highs for March temperatures, Arizona and New Mexico were setting records for low temperatures and high amounts of snowfall. Are these just perverse anomalies or is there a link to global climate change? Sinclair persuasively makes the case for the link and its name is the jet stream.

media/pages/tn_jet_stream_r92_1.jpgWe all think we know something about the jet stream: it blows from west to east very high in the atmosphere and is the reason you can fly from L.A. to New York quicker than you can make the return trip. More importantly, the jet stream is why most of our weather patterns on the North American continent move from west to east. What powers the jet stream is the huge temperature difference between the cold air mass over the frigid Arctic and the warm air mass over the equatorial region. So what happens when the Arctic air mass isn’t quite as cold as usual? There is less of a temperature differential between the north and south and the jet stream weakens. Instead of blowing fast and relatively straight through the upper atmosphere, it slows down and starts to make huge sweeping turns north and south through the continent. Sinclair showed some maps of the jet stream in 2012 and it resembled a map of the Paw Paw River with huge meanders. These snaking bends or “kinks” can cause weather systems to become trapped in place and remain virtually stationary for weeks at a time. So in March 2012, the northern bend of the jet stream stalled over Michigan allowing a mass of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico to sit here for weeks dooming our fruit crop. At the same time, the southern bend was over Arizona allowing an Arctic air mass to stall there dumping snow for weeks.

Was this a mere statistical outlier, a one-time phenomenon never to be repeated? Sinclair says these kinks in the jet stream causing extreme weather systems to stall and remain stationary appear to be happening more often. He showed pictures of Pakistan in August 2010 when the worst monsoon season ever caused flooding so severe that 25% of the population was homeless at one time. At the same time, Russia was having its worst heat wave ever. Listening to Sinclair, I thought back to the horrible heat wave and drought in the summer of 2012 when it seemed as if the weather was never going to change. Maybe stalled weather systems caused by a weakened jet stream are the new normal. And how much worse may it get if the Arctic becomes ice free in the summer?

http://www.tworiverscoalition.org/media/pages/tn_change_in_earths_heat_content.jpgSinclair’s message couldn’t be clearer: global climate change isn’t just happening to unlucky people living at sea level on the Maldive Islands. And it’s not just something that our grandkids will have to deal with in a few decades; its effects are already present and will certainly become even more pronounced in our lifetimes.

Post Script: I wrote this blog back in December, before the Great Blizzard of January 2014. Since I was snowed in for days at the end of my quarter mile driveway, I had a lot of time to contemplate the two feet of snow, howling winds, and below zero temperatures. At first I thought it was just a blizzard, the kind that I remembered from childhood. For instance, I remember back in 1967 my dad pulled me on a toboggan through the drifts from married housing at W.M.U. to the grocery store and back. In 1978, I was a student at Kalamazoo College and we couldn’t even get out of the dorm to the cafeteria for a day. Back to the present, all the weather forecasters were talking about the polar vortex. What they meant was that a great circulating mass of frigid polar air had left the Arctic region and headed south into Canada and the U.S. Normally, this mass of frigid air stays at the North Pole trapped there by fierce jet stream winds. But in January 2014, those winds were weak enough for the polar air mass to break out. In fact, the polar air mass split into two pieces, heading into North America and Eurasia respectively. According to the magazine “New Scientist”, our polar vortex blizzard was a result of weakened jet stream winds. Perhaps you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this weather event was directly caused by global warming, but it sure seems plausible.

Plant Hardiness Zones 1990 and 2006
Plant Hardiness Zones 1990 and 2006

Meanwhile, California is having its worst drought in over 100 years. Only a scant amount of precipitation has fallen [as either rain or snow] over the last 14 months. The meteorologists all agree that the reason for this is an unusual high pressure system over the Pacific Ocean that is blocking the normal track of winter storms which usually bring rain to the coast and huge amounts of snow to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This high pressure system has stalled over the Pacific for so long that some fear it may be become a semi-permanent feature. Some California farmers are already letting their fields lay fallow this year, while fruit and nut farmers are desperately trying to pump more water out of the aquifers. Stay tuned as this climate crisis unfolds.

Bottom line: The new normal seems to be the possibility of extreme weather [heat, cold, wind, rain, snow] and stalled weather systems at any time and any place.

http://www.tworiverscoalition.org/media/pages/tn_lake_superior_4_degrees_since_1980.jpgPost Post Script: Recently I attended lectures by environmental activists Bill McKibben of 350.org and Winona LaDuke of HonorEarth.org. They both mentioned the three numbers that every thinking person should know. The first number is 2 degrees C. This is the most widely accepted figure for the absolute maximum rise in global temperature that is possible without triggering complete climate chaos. The average global temperature has already risen .8 degrees C. over the last century. More significantly, there is already enough excess heat in the oceans to raise the temperature another .8 degrees C. In other words, we have already used up 1.6 degrees of our potential 2 degree budget. 

The second number is 565 gigatons. This is the amount of carbon [oil, coal, natural gas] that, if burned, will raise the global temperature past the threshold increase of 2 degrees C. Turns out that we will burn this much carbon in approximately 15 years at the current rate.

The third number is 2795 gigatons. This is the amount of carbon in already discovered and proven reserves owned by the big energy companies and certain oil states [like Venezuela]. Not only are these reserves owned, they are also on the books as assets in the sense that the reserves are factored into the share price of stock in the big energy companies. I don’t know about you, but I find it truly frightening that we are planning to burn 5 times more carbon than what it will take to push the human race into oblivion. Have a nice day!    

 

 

by Kevin Haight
Friday, November 22, 2013
Restored Abbey on Iona
Restored Abbey on Iona

First, let’s get all the caveats and disclaimers out of the way. I am not a Christian. I am not a believer in any religion of any sort. Contrary to what my family thinks, I do not even worship trees. But I am an environmentalist, which to me, means that I believe in the importance of understanding and appreciating the natural world we live in and doing my best to protect that world from unnecessary degradation caused by our species.

Medieval Cross
Medieval Cross

Next, let’s establish the background and setting. My wife and I were travelling for a month in Scotland and eventually wound up on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. Iona is famous as the location of a medieval abbey established by St. Columba in 563 A.D. Columba is widely credited with bringing Christianity to the Picts of the Scottish Highlands and Iona was an important center of the Christian world for a time. A church was built there and, later, a grand cathedral. Pilgrims journeyed to Iona from all corners of Christendom. Scores of Scottish kings were buried there. But time took its toll. Viking raids sacked the abbey numerous times and the cathedral was partially destroyed during the Reformation. For hundreds of years, the wider world forgot all about little Iona. But then Victorian tourists with romantic notions of a Celtic Revival re-discovered Iona and its ruined abbey. The abbey church was restored and tourists and pilgrims once again flock to Iona. Which is how I came to find myself sitting in this ancient Christian site listening to an extraordinary sermon.

Mouth of Sea Cave on Staffa Island
Mouth of Sea Cave on Staffa Island

The text for the sermon was the Gospel of Mark, specifically the parable about whether a rich man can get into Heaven. To paraphrase Mark, a wealthy devotee of Jesus wanted to know if he could enter the Kingdom of God. The young man told Jesus that he followed all the commandments and wanted Jesus to assure him that was enough. Jesus’ famous reply, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven”. This shocked and disappointed the wealthy young man [and several of the disciples as well]. Giving away all ones worldly possessions was, apparently, too steep a price to pay to gain God’s Kingdom. So far there was nothing very shocking about this sermon and it sounded like pretty standard stuff to my untrained ears, so I let myself get distracted by the magnificent architecture. Just as I was trying to figure out what was original and what was rebuilt in the 19th century, I heard the phrase,” climate change”. So I immediately refocused on the minister or priest or whatever the person was who was speaking. She said that 21st century Western civilization, by ignoring what it is doing to the environment, is cutting itself off from the spiritual aspect of the Kingdom of God.

St. Columba's Beach on Iona
St. Columba's Beach on Iona

She compared our culture of mass consumption and over-exploitation of limited world resources to the wealthy young man in the parable. He knew that to achieve salvation he needed to devote his life and wealth to helping the needy, but found it too onerous to contemplate. Similarly, we all know in our brains and our hearts that the amazing quality of life we have in the West is both unsustainable and out of proportion to the destitution that hundreds of millions of people around the globe face. Worse, the high carbon footprint of our lifestyle is directly affecting the climate and insuring that generations of humans in the future will pay dearly for our Hummers and three car garages and conspicuous consumption. The minister put it bluntly : in a world of finite resources, we in the West are using more than our fair share. Our overconsumption is making the climate worse for everyone, but especially for the poor of the world who can least cope with heat waves, killer storms, droughts, etc. The minister said it is not easy to gain the spiritual aspect of God’s Kingdom while we are on this earth. How can there be love and brotherhood [or even understanding] among people [and between different peoples] if the very way we live in the West is gradually, but inexorably, impoverishing the rest of the world and even threatening its future.

Ancient Standing Stone on Island of Mull
Ancient Standing Stone on Island of Mull

Pretty powerful stuff, especially to me who hadn’t been to a church service since 1976 when I was trying to make time with a nice Baptist girl. The minister then finished her sermon by inviting everyone to engage in a minute of silent meditation/prayer to consider what each of us would be willing to give up to attain love and brotherhood with all the peoples of the world right now and here on earth. Fully hooked by now, I quickly reviewed in my mind various energy saving strategems I was employing at home: I drive a hybrid, most of my electrical devices are plugged into powerstrips which I turn off when not in use, I burn wood to lower my LP gas usage in winter. But I was feeling a little guilty [carbon footprint-wise], and as I glanced around the church full of pilgrims and tourists, I could see others looking a little uncomfortable as well. For you see, practically everybody there had flown by commercial airlines from somewhere around the world in giant metal machines greedily sucking jet fuel and spewing exhaust.

Iona View
Iona View

Aye, there’s the rub. Even when we Westerners are out innocently having fun cavorting in the Scottish Highlands, walking rocky beaches, and eating blood pudding, we still have a heavy carbon footprint just getting there. Although I know there are ways online to calculate the carbon cost and then make a donation to assuage one’s conscience, that voluntary individual approach does not resonate with me [maybe because it seems symbolic only and not a practical solution]. On the other hand, I am more than willing to pay a carbon tax, fairly and equally applied to everyone, as part of the true cost of my Scottish vacation. Which leads to what may initially appear to be a slight digression: the cost of petrol in the United Kingdom.  After converting liters to gallons and pounds to dollars, I was paying eight bucks a gallon for gas. More than twice what I had been paying at home in Michigan. Interestingly,  instead of feeling outrage the way most Americans do whenever the price creeps up toward four dollars per gallon, I found myself hoping  that the high price was due to the U.K. government  imposing huge taxes on petrol and thereby funding the vast arrays of wind turbines visible around Scotland.  Yes, I thought , that is a sacrifice I would be willing to make: pay a lot more for gas… IF the extra money would go to development of sustainable energy sources [as opposed to bonuses for CEO’s and corporate contributions to politicians].

Interestingly enough, a few weeks later I was sitting in a packed Miller Auditorium at W.M.U. listening to a talk by Bill McKibben who co-founded the climate change awareness group 350.org. He suggested that the simplest, fairest and most effective change to our national energy policy would be massive taxation of oil companies. This would lead to large increases in the price of gas as the oil companies recouped their tax payments. A large increase in the price of gas would cause people to drive less, thereby using less fuel. More importantly, people would tend to buy more fuel efficient vehicles. [To paraphrase McKibben : does our quality of life in the U.S.A. really require  a quasi-military  assault vehicle to run to the grocery store?] The final part of this new energy policy would involve investment of the increased tax revenue in alternative energy R&D and tax rebates to the segment of the population most hard-hit by the higher gas prices.

Looking Towards Atlantic Ocean
Looking Towards Atlantic Ocean

Stop the digression, I want to get off [and back to the Iona Abbey church]. After the meditation/prayer, I let my mind wander a wee bit as choir music echoed off the centuries old walls. Somewhat surprisingly, I had learned some things during this brief Christian encounter. Some Christians care deeply about the environment and even see it as part of their religious duty to be a good steward of the world. Some see curbing their energy usage as a moral imperative, now that it is painfully obvious that our current high standard of living has a cost to people around the world increasingly at the mercy of catastrophic weather events.

I had also learned some things about myself. While not a Christian, I do believe in the Golden Rule which seems to be at the heart of most ethical systems. Therefore, if I wouldn’t like Chinese or Indian people using up all the earth’s resources and simultaneously fueling global warming, then I should not do that to them. I also realized that I am willing to cut back energy usage, to curb my consumption, and to pay a premium for the luxuries I don’t want to live without [like foreign travel]. In a word, I am willing to make some sacrifices to make the world a better place, now and in the future. What I need are some visionary leaders in Washington willing to trust me not to penalize them at election time if they have the guts to enact the energy policies we all know we desperately need. So, in closing, I would ask each of you to ponder what you are willing to sacrifice the next time you are praying or meditating or simply walking through the woods [where all my best thinking is done]… and consider that camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

 

by Kevin Haight
Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where is the fun in blogging if you are constantly required to have a consistent theme? I hereby declare myself free from the artificial constraints of thematic consistency for the remainder of this post. Let the randomness begin!

 

Black River
Black River

Before we get to the doom and gloom, let’s celebrate some good news involving our friends at the Bangor South Haven Heritage Water Trail Association [Oh my god, what a mouthful, try saying that 10 times fast …which is why they go by their acronym, B/SH HWTA]. They have been working patiently for many years trying to clear a paddle trail through the most difficult section of the Black River downstream from C.R. 687 to C.R. 380, which they affectionately refer to as the “Wilderness section”.

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Well, earlier this month, they were finally successful and it is now possible to paddle all the way from Bangor to South Haven [but not in one day for normal people]. Last week I paddled the newly opened stretch of the Black and had a blast. My group put in at the access on C.R. 687 and floated down to the bridge at 66th Street which took us about four hours. I was very impressed with the quality of the floodplain forest which formed a canopy overhead almost the entire trip. There is no better way to really appreciate our fresh water treasure than to go out and paddle through a pristine area.

While we are congratulating people, let’s not forget TRC’s own, Dave Foerster. Dave was this year’s recipient of the Van Buren County Conservationist of the Year. This award is given annually by the Van Buren Conservation District and I personally think it is better than the Nobel Prize [OK, maybe I am a little biased since I am a former winner]. Dave’s environmental achievements include being a founder and longtime President of TRC, helping get the phosphate ban in Van Buren County and permanently preserving over 350 acres of his property on the upper Paw Paw with a conservation easement. Way to go, Dave!

Now the bad news. Those of you who have been following Michigan’s flirtation with fracking [perhaps it is more like date rape] will find this interesting [or horrifying]. You will recall that the DNR leased thousands of acres in both Allegan and Barry State Game Areas. The DNR assured a worried public that these pristine natural areas would not be turned into huge oil drilling fields because the leases were “non-development leases” which specifically prohibit drilling rigs. Those of us who are cynics smelled a rat but we assumed the energy industry would use the loophole in non-development leases that allows for ancillary infrastructure like pipelines, storage tanks, maintenance roads, etc. to ravage our public lands. It turns out their strategy is much simpler. The energy companies holding the non-development leases can simply apply to the DNR for the lease to be amended to a development lease. As a result of the lawsuit brought by MLAWD against the DNR, we now have learned the dirty truth about this shell game. For example, the energy company, Encana, has applied to the DNR for an amendment of non-development leases 125 times. The DNR granted the amendment 119 times. So make no mistake about it, leasing our state lands will result in oil and gas drilling in our natural areas regardless of the type of lease.

Michigan Fracking Facts - Click to Enlarge
Michigan Fracking Facts - Click to Enlarge

One more comment about fracking. I was at a public meeting recently when a gentleman raised his hand to say something. He remarked that all the debate about fracking focused on issues like water quality, overuse of water resources, health effects from the fracking fluid, and potential pollution to our natural areas. He pointed out that completely missing from the debate was any discussion or recognition of the enormous carbon footprint of fracking. To put it more bluntly, fracking fluid may or may not harm us, but global climate change certainly will. This was a sobering thought for me. Currently, Homo sapiens are using their enormous talent and ingenuity to figure out ways to extract the last remaining fossil fuels from the earth, despite the overwhelming evidence that mankind’s burning of fossil fuels has altered the atmosphere and is contributing to global climate change. Just imagine if we were paying these brilliant engineers to work this hard on developing renewable energy sources?  

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Then there are the pipelines, which seem to be in the news everywhere. Enbridge wants to start bringing Canadian tar sands oil through its pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Yep, you heard me right. The company that spilled a million gallons of dilbit [diluted bitumen] into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 wants to increase its usage of a 60 year old pipeline through the heart of the world’s greatest fresh water resource. Oh, I almost forgot, Enbridge also wants to increase the pressure inside this 60 year old pipeline by 20%. Does this seem like a good idea to you? [It is kind of like asking my 1997 Dodge Caravan with 220,000 miles on it to pull an Airstream over the Rocky Mountains. Yes, technically it is within its limits, but is it a good idea?] When do you think the last time Enbridge engineers walked along this underwater pipeline beneath the Straits testing for weak spots? If they couldn’t adequately monitor a pipeline above ground near Marshall, do we really trust them to get it right hundreds of feet under water? And can you imagine the consequences of a large spill? Upper Lake Michigan and Lake Huron can have notoriously bad weather which would make any clean-up operation dangerous and likely ineffective. Is it worth risking our most precious resource just to bring Canadian tar sands oil to Gulf coast refineries?

pipeline.jpg

Which brings me to the Keystone pipeline. Did you know this proposed pipeline will not reduce the price of gasoline in the U.S. at all?  I only mention the price of gas because it seems to be the only thing Americans care about when it comes to any discussion of energy policy. Right now, oil from the Alberta oil fields is refined and sold in the upper Midwest. If the Keystone pipeline is built, the oil will go to the Gulf coast and then go abroad to be sold on the world spot market. This is good for oil companies which can get a higher price on the spot market. But it is bad for consumers in the Upper Midwest who will see their gas prices go up as oil from Alberta makes its way across America through the Keystone pipeline [and ultimately goes abroad].

Did you know that the Keystone pipeline was not the oil companies’ 1st choice for a pipeline? It turns out that the Province of Alberta wanted to build a pipeline to a port on the Pacific Ocean to get its oil to the world market. Alberta proposed building a pipeline through its sister province of British Columbia. British Columbia said,” No thanks, the potential benefit is not worth the risk”. That is what it always comes down to, an intelligent assessment of costs and benefits. Is it worth building a pipeline across fragile natural areas to increase the profits to Canadian oil companies as they sell their fossil fuels to the world? 

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One last comment if you are not yet sufficiently scared, depressed, or just plain pissed off. A couple weeks ago I attended a presentation by a group called Michigan Safe Energy Future which is concerned with the safety and environmental effects of nuclear power plants in Michigan. They showed a documentary film called, “Knocking on the Devil’s Door: Our Deadly Nuclear Legacy”. The film by Gary Null traced the history of the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima and went on to discuss the current attempts to build more nuclear plants in the U.S. without any plan for dealing with the fundamental problems of nuclear energy. Those problems include: 1] large scale catastrophes are possible and, perhaps, inevitable; 2] the health risks of cumulative low level radiation exposure; 3] the inability to come up with a long term solution for the problem of nuclear waste storage.  Did you know that some Russian physicians have published estimates that the true death total from Chernobyl is one million people?

palisades_small.jpg

How many of you are aware that there is no place to put the radioactive spent fuel so it is just piling up in our nuclear plants? That’s right folks, “temporary” casks containing highly radioactive nuclear waste are just sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan at the Palisades facility near Covert. And let’s not forget that Entergy, the company that bought Palisades a few years back, appears incapable of stopping the series of leaks of radioactive coolant that has plagued Palisades over the last year. I say, if Entergy can’t make Palisades safe, then shut it down. Need I point out the obvious? No one has ever died from solar or wind energy pollution.

by Kevin Haight
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Is This You?
Is This You?

     After my last blog on fracking, my editorial board called me in for a meeting. “Kevin, we are concerned that your blog is too mild-mannered, too milk-toast. We need you to elevate the rhetoric and be more controversial in order to drive up the readership numbers. ” Well, I can take a hint. Obviously, the solution is simply to offend a larger percentage of my readers. As I drove around Van Buren County [in my environmentally friendly hybrid] I was thinking: “What shibboleths do my readers hold most dear? True love? One man one vote? The existence of God?” Then, as I drove past endless plots of rectangular green grass, it hit me. What Americans cherish most is their obsession with their lawns. Now I had a target in my sights. Hold on Gentle Reader, it is going to be a wild ride…

Although I am going to concentrate on the environmental absurdity of lawns, that is not to say there aren’t other legitimate grounds to condemn them. For instance, aesthetics. Lawns are ugly and boring. Monochromatic green rectangles, one after another after another.  Usually the only variation you see is the number of yellow dandelions temporarily flourishing between chemical treatments. Despite the existence of thousands of species of plants that could grow in a temperate climate, we choose to plant only one [usually some cultivar of Kentucky Bluegrass]. Imagine if Rembrandt himself came up to your door and offered to paint a landscape scene for you to hang on your living room wall. Would you say, “Thanks, I would like a nice blank white canvas hanging right here above my sofa, just like my neighbor.”? Well, that is what a green square of Kentucky Bluegrass looks like in front of your house. It constantly amazes me that people will not hesitate to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a house in a subdivision even though every single house there has the exact same green rectangle in front. Frankly, I don’t think people necessarily like the boring sameness of their lawns. I think it is more likely they never even stop to wonder if a lawn has any redeeming aesthetic value. We simply take it for granted without any conscious thought [after all, everyone else in the subdivision is doing it, so it has to be all right, doesn’t it?]                                                              

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Did you know a desert could be a deep shade of green? Yep, that is what is growing in front of your house, a desert. Nothing but a monoculture of lawn grass that supports virtually no life. There is more biomass [not to mention biodiversity] in a square meter of Sonoran desert than in your lawn. That is partly because typical lawn grass has a shallow root system that is only a few inches deep. Not much of a habitat for any living thing. Also, lawn is completely ineffective at managing rain water. Although it might seem as if your lawn is constantly sucking up water while you are standing there with your hose on a scorching August afternoon, the shallow root system of lawn grass means it cannot absorb and retain large amounts of water. So when there is a heavy rain, your lawn is quickly saturated and most of the rain runs off immediately. Where does that excess water go? Onto your driveway, then down to the road, then to a ditch connected to a storm sewer and finally into your local river, thereby contributing mightily to the pollution of our waterways. Ah hah! [You were wondering how I was going to tie this into water quality on the Paw Paw and Black Rivers.] 

But is the poor water retention the only environmental drawback of our lawn obsession? Absolutely not. There is a frighteningly large carbon footprint to that boring and lifeless patch of green in front of your house. Remember, the only thing Kentucky Bluegrass does well is absorb sunlight and translate that energy into rapid upward growth of its stalk. Since lawn grass seems to lose its aesthetic appeal for most people when it gets more than an inch or two high, there is an endless cycle of grass mowing going on throughout the growing season. How much gas do we use to cut our lawns? According to the University of Vermont, as a nation we use 2.2 billion gallons of fuel every year on lawn care. It turns out that the carbon footprint of our lawns is not just the mowing. It takes lots of fuel to process the fertilizer we apply every spring, as well as run the string-trimmers, leaf blowers, edgers, etc. Americans use to manicure their lawns. And these small engines are dirty: one hour of mowing produces the same amount of smog- forming hydrocarbons as driving a car between 100 and 200 miles. It is estimated that the 20,000,000 small engines sold in the U.S. every year contribute one tenth of the total U.S. mobile emissions and are the largest single source of non-road emissions. 

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Then there are the chemicals and fertilizers. This Spring as I drove around the suburbs of greater Chicago making plant deliveries for my friends’ small business, I was surprised at the number of trucks such as TrueGreen, Chemlawn, etc. Apparently it is big business convincing suburbanites that their lawn won’t flourish without the right chemical additives. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where all that fertilizer ends up as soon as there is a heavy rain. It washes into the storm sewers, then into the rivers and eventually [for the western Chicago suburbs] into the Gulf of Mexico where it supplies the nutrients for algae blooms that rob the ocean of oxygen and cause extensive dead zones. Now come on, is your desire for a lush looking green lawn really worth contributing to the death of our oceans and Great Lakes?

The View From My Front Porch
The View From My Front Porch

Is there an alternative? Of course!  I haven’t mowed my yard in 17 years. I also haven’t watered it or added any fertilizer. You too can [and should] grow native plants in your yard instead of Kentucky Bluegrass. Native bunch grasses and prairie flowers have deep root systems that are much better at absorbing and retaining excess water from heavy rain events. Once established, their deep tap roots allow native plants to rely just on rainfall and not require supplemental watering to survive. Contrast that with your traditional Kentucky Bluegrass lawn that starts to turn brown in even a minor drought. A prairie planting of bunch grasses [Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, etc.] never requires mowing but will benefit from either burning or mowing once every year or two in the late Fall or early Spring to return nutrients to the soil and prevent tree seedlings from coming up. Native plants don’t need fertilizer or chemical treatments because they evolved here and fit into the ecosystem without the help of the petrochemical industry. And a well established prairie does not even need significant weeding. All told, I probably spend a couple hours throughout the entire summer pulling potentially invasive weeds [like Spotted Knapweed] or yanking out small tree seedlings from my multiple prairie plots. 

Goat's Rue in My Prairie
Goat's Rue in My Prairie

Aesthetically, the variety of colors and shapes in even a small prairie planting is wondrous to behold. I am not just talking about the varied palette of the 30 plus wildflower species that begins with the blooming of the Lupine in early May and finally culminates with New England Aster in October. The bunch grasses themselves provide color, form and texture throughout the year. I have spent many a dreary February day gazing out the window at the reddish brown hummocks of the bunch grasses superimposed on the backdrop of white snow. Sometimes I watch winter birds eating the seeds of the grasses or taking cover in the hummocks and I think how boring and mundane the vista would be if it was simply a flat, white, and lifeless rectangle of snow covered lawn.

Sphinx Moth on Swamp Milkweed by My Pond
Sphinx Moth on Swamp Milkweed by My Pond

But most importantly, there are also positive benefits to your local wildlife by switching from a traditional lawn to native grasses, flowers and shrubs. The woodland, grassland, and wetland ecosystems which were present in Michigan at the time of first European settlement two hundred years ago have virtually disappeared. We can’t even begin to understand the intricate connections that existed between various insect, animal, and plant species [and probably never will for those species now extinct]. We do know that while some insect pollinators are generalists and can pollinate multiple different plant species, other are very species specific. This means some types of plants rely on a single insect species for pollination. If that insect species declines in numbers or goes extinct, the plant species will also decline or die out entirely. An extreme example is the Brighamia plant [a succulent] that grows high on sea cliffs in Hawaii. Each year it must be hand-pollinated by rock climbers suspended from ropes because its insect pollinator has become extinct. Insects are also essential to birds. Ninety percent of all bird species eat insects at some time in their life cycle; fewer insects mean fewer birds. Growing a wide variety of native plants contributes to biodiversity by providing food and habitat for the insect species that our native plants and birds [and Homo sapiens] ultimately depend on.

Beautiful Insects Love My Native Plants
Beautiful Insects Love My Native Plants

Then there are the butterflies. Everyone knows butterflies need nectar and get it from flower blossoms. But most butterflies also require a specific host plant on which to lay their eggs. The most famous example is the Monarch butterfly which feeds on multiple different flowering plants but which will only lay its eggs on plants in the Milkweed family. In researching for this blog, I also learned that the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly uses the Paw Paw tree [which grows abundantly in my woods] for its larval host.  By growing native plants which are good for insects [nectar or host for larvae] we can help make up for the loss of habitat as more and more woods, wetlands, and savannas get developed into big box stores [so you can buy more things that you don’t really need].

Does Your Lawn Ever Look Like This?
Does Your Lawn Ever Look Like This?

I can already hear you whining: “Where will the kids play if I turn part of my 5 acres of lawn into native plants and grasses?” Frankly, your kids or grandkids probably don’t run around your yard anyway. They are too lazy to get exercise playing kickball or tag or the kinds of games we played as kids. They simply stay inside playing high tech games on huge flat screens. If you did have the gumption to send them outside to play, the little brats would just whip out their smart phones and still refuse to run around your ridiculous looking desert of Kentucky Bluegrass. But maybe, just maybe, if you sent them outside and they saw lots of different kinds of butterflies, sphinx moths, and hummingbirds going crazy over your smorgasbord of native plants, your kids might actually be interested and engaged in Nature [and start to want to go outside]. But if you absolutely love lawn and hate Nature, there is still something you can do to lessen your carbon guilt. Switch from fast growing Bluegrass to a slow growing mix of fescue grasses. My wife insisted on having a little buffer of “civilization” between our house and the woods,  prairie,  and pond. She started a small yard by spreading a mix of fescue grasses [called “No Mow Grass”] which she cuts about twice a summer using an electric string trimmer. No one would ever confuse this lawn with a putting green but it functions just like a Bluegrass lawn without requiring constant mowing and watering.

This Was Just an Old Field Overrun with Weeds a Few Years Ago
This Was Just an Old Field Overrun with Weeds a Few Years Ago

OK, this is the part where I get angry and even more offensive. If you think of yourself as an environmentalist, there is no excuse for continuing to mow large lawns. The modest cost of switching to native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs will be quickly offset by the savings on lawn mowing, fertilizing, etc. And you can start small if you are feeling a little trepidation. Choose an out-of-the way corner of your back yard, analyze your soil type, moisture and sunlight conditions and convert it. See the resource list below for help. Plant a variety of bunch grasses and wildflowers that will bloom throughout the growing season. Include a small tree [Redbud, Flowering Dogwood] or native shrub [Spicebush] or two. Be patient and give it a year or two to get established. And when there is an explosion of beauty and birds and butterflies in your back yard, you can make your tiny patch of Nature a little bigger each year…and maybe even creep into your front yard as well! Come on, what do you have to lose …besides your region’s biodiversity and your self-respect?

Resources:

Wild Ones Native Plant Landscapers. Information on Kalamazoo area chapter at: www.kalamazoowildones.org

Noah’s Garden. Book by Sara Stein.

Planting Noah’s Garden. Book by Sara Stein.

Bringing Nature Home. Book by Douglass W. Tallamy.

Hidden Savanna Nursery. Local [Oshtemo] grower of native plants: www.hiddensavanna.com

Native Connections. Local [Three Rivers] producer of seed mixes: www.nativeconnections.net

Michigan Native Plant Producers Association. Information on Michigan native plant growers at: www.mnppa.org/members

 

There are 3 Comments (Add Your Comments):
G David Cripe wrote:

Bravo!  One of America's strange nonsensical obsessions the lawn, but a little no-mow fescue is nice for backyard picnics.  Has TRC looked at negotiating property maintenance requirements at the local level?  Most local codes restrict the height of lawn and grass to under 6-8 inches to avoid so-called "weedy" appearance.  I found that the covenants and codes of my own neighborhood are even more restrictive and sadly we have a bunch of retired people that call themselves neighborhood volunteers and spend all their time measuring peoples yards and sending them citations.

Also, native plant maintenance.  Due to the excessive amount of non-native/invasive plant seed used by the Road Commission and sold at regional nurseries, these invaders can make it difficult to maintain native patches.  Anything TRC could do to make these practices illegal will go a long way toward making these objectives even easier to accomplish.  Thanks, great rant

11:46 AM, Friday, August 16, 2013
tomspringer wrote:

Thanks, Kevin, for another great post. I think you're working on a book's worth of these!

And you're right: my lawn does suck. I mow it every three weeks and have never, in 19 years watered or applied fertilizer. So it looks like what G. Cripe wants his lawn to look like if only the old guys with their grass-check yardsticks would quit turning him into the Turf Police.

The trick, I believe, would be to get some Lawn Ranger (of the sort pictured in your post) to plant half or even a third of their lawn in prairie. Focus on purple coneflowers, black eyed susans and butterfly weed -- something colorful. Then, host a dinner party (McMansions are made for those) and show off the new "butterfly garden." Let people see that this is something legitimate, a feasible and socially acceptable option to their ChemLawn addiction. Have a wild landscaper on hand to share samples and site plans. Maybe this type of upscale peer group pressure could start to turn things around. 

4:51 PM, Friday, August 16, 2013
Bette wrote:

Another great post, Kevin!  I've started, but this is going to be my next great project and now I know that you are an experienced info resource.  Thanks again for all that you do! 

10:51 AM, Wednesday, September 04, 2013
by Kevin Haight
Saturday, July 6, 2013

According to the American humorist Samuel Clemens [aka Mark Twain], there are three kinds of falsehoods: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics. All three were in evidence at the so-called “Facts on Fracking“ forum hosted last month by TRC. First of all, I have to say that I am very proud of TRC for putting together such a good program withmogpef_auctioned_lands.jpg three very different perspectives. I am also impressed that well over 100 people came out to hear the speakers on a night where massive thunderstorms and winds were predicted [and occurred…but let’s stick to the topic of fracking and not mention climate change and variability]. Perhaps most startling was the press coverage we received. The Kalamazoo Gazette ran a front page story full of facts and figures that is now available elsewhere on this website. This was good news for me because I was struggling with the idea of having to write an unbiased [boring] factual account of the 3 hour plus program. Now I feel free to simply write about some of my impressions as I listened to the three perspectives: energy, environment, and regulatory.

LIES

The oil and gas industry was represented by Luke Miller of Miller Energy who was quick to assert that this was just a friendly little family oil company which had been operating in Michigan for decades. Heck, he was the fourth generation to work in the company, he drawled in his South Carolina accent. Although he was pretty good at pushing the button to advance the slides in his slick power point presentation [produced by MOGPEF which is the propaganda arm of the industry], he didn’t really know anything. He is not a geologist or a petroleum engineer and ended up deferring on almost every question to Bill Mitchell, a geologist working for DEQ. Miller’s basic point was that hydraulic fracturing was old technology [60 years old], that it had been used extensively in Michigan [12,000 wells], and that there had never been any significant environmental incidents. All of which brings us back to Mark Twain. It is a lie [or at least a knowing inaccuracy] to claim this technology is 60 years old and has a long track record of safety. The mineral extraction mechanism being proposed for Michigan is of a new type called high volume hydraulic fracturing. High volume meaning literally millions of gallons of water turned into fracking fluid by the addition of tens of thousands of gallons of extremely toxic chemicals [like Benzene, a known carcinogen]. This fracking fluid is then pumped deep underground and injected into shale formations where it fractures the rock and allows the capture of natural gas and oil. A recent well in Kalkaska took 21.5 million gallons [in fact, the well exhausted its private source of water and had to buy municipal water]. And there aren’t 12,000 of these kind of high volume wells operating in Michigan. Steve Losher, representing environmentalists, estimated that maybe 15 of these wells are currently up and running in Michigan and nobody contradicted him. The truth is that we are at the very beginning of high volume fracking in Michigan and, as a state, we are feeling our way forward [and need to be careful not to stumble].

DAMNED LIES

Miller said one other thing that actually caused many in the crowd to hoot in derision. With a straight face, Miller said that the water being used in the fracking process isn’t really being lost. This is because when the natural gas is eventually burned, the chemical process of combustion produces water molecules. I am sure that the people who live in Kalkaska can take a lot of comfort in the fact that the 21.5 million gallons of water recently used for a single fracking operation will eventually turn back into water vapor somewhere in the sky over New York, Atlanta, etc. 

One thing that really gets the oil and gas industry riled up [and sadly, the DEQ too] is to ask them about the documentary movie about fracking called ”Gasland”. There are several famous scenes in Gasland where various homeowners across the country turn on their water faucets and light them on fire with pocket lighters. The homeowners all insist that there was nothing wrong with their water until fracking wells were drilled nearby. Bill Mitchell of the DEQ scornfully rejected the notion that there was any causal relationship between drilling and flaming water faucets. He said the flammable gas coming out of these taps is naturally occurring thermogenic methane and has nothing to do with fracking. I remember sitting there thinking, “Well, are all those homeowners lying? Or is it just a coincidence that after oil wells were drilled nearby, their water wells then went bad?” It took me all of two minutes on the internet to get some answers [of which, apparently, the DEQ is unaware]. Researchers from Duke University have recently published a peer reviewed scientific paper analyzing the contaminated water wells of homeowners in Pennsylvania. There is a significant statistical correlation between contaminated water wells and proximity to oil and gas drilling operations. But it is not contaminated fracking fluid that is leaking into their wells; somehow the drilling and fracking operation is allowing naturally occurring methane gas to migrate into the aquifers that feed the water wells. The bottom line is that a clear causal relationship exists between the drilling/fracking  process and contaminated drinking water.

danger_hydrogen_sulfide.jpgIt is easy to summarize Steve Losher’s position as head of the non-profit group Michigan Land Air Water Defense. As a state, Michigan should proceed cautiously and prudently with regard to fracking. Traditional drilling for oil and gas is an inherently risky and dirty business with the potential for polluting the surface [and poisoning workers and nearby residents] where drilling operations are taking place. But high volume fracking ups the ante considerably. Millions of gallons of water are being taken out of the hydrologic cycle and being polluted forever with carcinogenic chemicals. Perhaps someday there will be scientific studies that prove that this is a safe technology. If it is ultimately determined to be safe to inject millions of gallons of toxic wastewater from the fracking process into injection wells for storage beneath our freshwater aquifers, then we should strictly regulate and monitor the entire process like any other hazardous industrial process. But that is not going to happen. As a result of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, fracking is already exempt from key parts of the environmental regulatory framework, such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, CERCLA [Superfund], and perhaps most important, the Safe Drinking Water Act [not surprisingly it is called the Halliburton Loophole].  It is kind of amazing when you think about it. As a state and a nation we are leaping blindly ahead with an untried new technology that has the potential for contaminating our freshwater aquifers forever [that is a long time]. And we are going to make this leap of faith after first giving a free pass to the oil and gas industry from most of the environmental regulations which make us the envy of much of the world [I should know having lived for a year in China where I couldn’t drink the water or breathe the air].

STATISTICS

Now let’s talk about that most useful of falsehoods: statistics. The oil and gas industry argues that because there haven’t been any major fracking disasters so far, we can just all relax and stop worrying about the future. Bill Michell from the DEQ seemed to agree with the industry claim that there haven’t been any significant incidents in Michigan… yet. [So we should just trust them…but did you know that one drilling company in Michigan was disposing of its toxic fracking fluid by spreading it over the county roads as a dust control measure?] And if we don’t trust the oil and gas industry, then trust the regulatory arm of the DEQ to monitor the industry…. So, why doesn’t this make me feel warm and cozy? For several reasons. With the industry exempt from most federal regulations, we only have state regulations to potentially enforce. Bill Mitchell acknowledged that these regulations could be better. But as he pointed out, don’t blame the DEQ. Blame your state legislators who made the weak and inadequate rules that the DEQ has to try to enforce. The bottom line is that money talks , in Lansing as elsewhere, and the big talking is being done by well financed lobbyists for the oil and gas industry.

But even if we had strong state regulations, there is no way the DEQ has the budget or manpower to adequately monitor and enforce them. Remember a few years ago when the DEQ did some preliminary testing on Pine and Mill Creeks right here in Van Buren County and found high E. coli levels? The general public assumed the State of Michigan would do the right thing and do follow up testing to get to the bottom of the mystery and then fix the problem. Guess what? It never happened because the DEQ couldn’t even find the money to do the necessary follow- up testing. In case you have missed my point here, let me summarize: it is foolish to believe that there is currently adequate protection in place given the exemptions from federal law, inadequate state regulation and budgetary restraints on state agencies.

It is also worth considering how good of a job we do monitoring even a highly regulated industry such as nuclear energy. Two months ago, the Palisades nuclear power plant near Covert had a leak into Lake Michigan. For the 2nd year in a row! Plant officials were quick to point out that the 79 gallons of contaminated water that leaked out were only “slightly radioactive”. But if this kind of incident can happen in a well-established and highly regulated industry, do we really want to give a free pass to a brand new industry like high volume fracking?

But really, what could go wrong? All those millions of gallons of water polluted forever with carcinogenic chemicals will just be safely contained in open lagoons and then injected deep underground. michigan_basis_geology.jpgOut of sight, out of mind. If you listen closely, you can almost hear them saying: “Trust us, we are engineers, we have a plan here. We even ran computer modeling.” Well, petroleum engineers designed and operated the Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Michigan that catastrophically failed in 2010. Over one million gallons of oil [actually, diluted bitumen from tar sand fields in Canada] spilled from the pipeline directly into the Kalamazoo River. This was the largest pipeline spill ever in the United States [but, ironically, the least well known or remembered]. We were promised that oil pipeline technology was safe and reliable and maybe it is, but it is not foolproof. Mistakes happen, accidents occur and sometimes you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Despite a billion dollars in clean-up costs so far, we are not even close to having the Kalamazoo River back to its pre-spill status. Remember the devastation to our Gulf of Mexico coast caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster? Or the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska in 1989? What happens to our freshwater here in Michigan if there is a disaster of this magnitude underneath us? What is the contingency plan, the exit strategy, if the millions of gallons of contaminated fracking fluid get into our drinking water aquifers? Oh, that can’t happen, the highly paid experts and lobbyists for the industry assure us. We are protected by our impregnable bedrock geology here in Michigan. But the recent study in Pennsylvania by Duke University showed that naturally occurring brine water from thousands of feet below the surface was somehow communicating through faults in the bedrock with surface water. This means that it is possible for the forever contaminated fracking fluid to eventually find its way back up to the surface as well.

WTF?  [What the Frack?]

Why are we taking this risk? Our fresh water resource is the one thing that separates Michigan from most other places; in terms of long term economics we have an ace for a hole card in a future that is most assuredly going to be hotter and drier. So exactly why would we run even a small risk of going from the “Great Lake State” to the “Fracking Fluid State”?  This is the question that people really don’t want to talk about. Turns out it is the usual suspects: greed, laziness and fear.  Billions of dollars of profits may be realized by energy companies with a slight trickle down effect to lobbyists, politicians and oil lease sellers. More importantly, most of us in the deepest, darkest recesses of our souls really want cheap energy and don’t want to hear about the true cost of that energy in terms of pollution, climate change, health effects, etc. It is just so damn inconvenient to even contemplate a modest scaling back of our conspicuous consumption economic model based on subsidized hydrocarbon extraction.

Then there is the American flag that the oil and gas industry is now hiding behind. Fracking is now hailed as the great patriotic way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Certainly, it would be preferable if United States foreign policy in the Middle East was never influenced by concern over oil supplies. But, personally, I am more afraid of groundwater pollution right here in Michigan than Middle Eastern dictators.  And let’s examine the cost of fracking in terms of loss of freedoms right here at home. I was very surprised to learn that you can be forced to lease your mineral rights to a drilling company that wants to frack your land. I am not talking about the situation where you own the land but someone else owns the mineral rights. Even when you own your mineral rights, you can be forced to let a drilling company frack the oil and natural gas under your land through a legal mechanism called compulsory pooling. Basically, your elected representatives in Lansing have given the power of eminent domain to private energy companies. It doesn’t matter if you are philosophically opposed to extracting hydrocarbons from the earth. Or if you are worried about the integrity of the aquifer below your house. It does not even matter if you are a shrewd capitalist who wants to sit on his hydrocarbon resources for 10 or 20 years and get a far better price in the future. Compulsory pooling means you can be forced to let your property be fracked and then get paid whatever a DEQ bureaucrat decides is the fair market price. Your elected representatives have decided that your constitutional right to own and control your own property is less important than making things nice and easy [and profitable] for drilling companies. All in the name of fracking and cheap energy.

BE SCARED, BE VERY SCARED

michigan_quick_facts_1.jpgThe most frightening aspect of the whole evening may have been missed by some people. Right there on page 6 of Miller Energy’s power point presentation was the following text, “Michigan has the largest underground storage capacity of any state in the nation”. This means the oil and gas industry thinks Michigan is the best place in the entire U.S.A. to store used, contaminated fracking fluid. In theory, apparently something about our bedrock geology makes us the best potential site for injection wells to pump the whole nation’s excess toxic fracking fluid underground and store it forever. Right below our freshwater aquifers.  Get ready Michigan, you are about to be FRACKED!      

There are 4 Comments (Add Your Comments):
Susan Hendricks wrote:

Thank you, Kevin, for your report to the members of the TRC who could not attend the meeting that night.  (I had fully intended to come but was caught in those incredibly destructive storms that hit NW Van Buren Co.)   It is important to keep TRC members and all Michiganders aware of and educated about the dangers of this newer high-tech fracking to our groundwater resources.  It seems like we've been here before with PBBs in the 70's, groundwater extraction by the bottled water industry in the 90's, and now fracking in the new century, to say nothing of the leaking of radioactive water to our Lake Michigan surface water.  We, as advocates of environmental protection, need to remain objective, factual, and forever vigilant in reminding our politicians in Lansing that our water resources are our future; and the DEQ needs to be reminded constantly of why it exists...to protect the  resources of this state.  Best regards.

3:33 AM, Sunday, July 07, 2013
Sheila wrote:

I wonder...is this an opportunity to support wind and solar power?  Because the whole supposed impetus for doing fracking is internalizing energy supplies to this country.  If the people/politicians are truly concerned about finding relief from out-sourced international oil supplies (eg excuses for war), wouldn't we be choosing ALL the options for energy?  Is this "need" for tar sand/fracking another lie, or a damned lie?  Or is it a carrot and stick trick to keep us arguing as if there were no other choices? No other options for clean safe free energy?  Hmmm, lies are one thing and subterfuge another.  Which is this?

 

As for the Forum.   YEAH!  The more information that shows up, in the media and elsewhere, the better.  Great job to everyone involved. No illusions here about the fact that the reps of the industry are in it for the money.  They'd tell you anything and lie about anything, and cya about everything.  Most informative part  of Kevin's article is the information that not only will the DEQ not protect the land...It CANNOT protect it as it has no funding, manpower, or mandate to do so. 

 

Who does that leave to do this caring work?  Here's to choosing for the planet! 

1:24 PM, Sunday, July 07, 2013
Terry wrote:

Kevin, your response was so refreshing to read, as if done by a professional journalist/researcher. The corporate schill media copy boys & girls couldn't pose an unscripted thought anywhere close to answering the Who, What, When Where, Why, & How required for basic reporting on every story.

We need to expose the energy/technology terrorists for the Luciferians that they are! Boiling water with radioactive materials for steam turbines is stupid! Doing it above ground is even dumber! Doing it next to the world's largest fresh water supply is contrary to all life on this planet. Lucifer loves it that his Illuminati followers convince us to spread poisons around the surface of the Earth; Depleted uranium is dusted in every soldier's face, many blown-up buildings, and in armored vehicle wreckage, Fukishima has curently ongoing 3 complete runaway nuclear meltdowns burning their way thru groundwater aquafirs, raining down on the world & especially the US as the 1st country downwind. How long can the Pacific ocean take a highly-radioactive plume before it's concentrated currents contaminate forever the trillions of gallons? How long before the concentration of radioactivity on the surface water that's absorbed by plant life, then eaten by successive bigger animal life, until the Alaskan fisheries is totally destroyed? All for an industry that if it wasn't for "free energy", they couldn't cost-justifiably exist anyway. Are we paying double if we taxpayers paid for their mined "free energy" then again for the simple steam turbines they run? Any home energy needs could be run off solar easy as the cost of super capacitors come down and the the capacity goes up. (Batteries are too expensive for their short lifespan)

 

Same energy enslavement with natural gas and oil. I grew up in Battle Creek and remember in the early '70s when a natural gas pocket was found that contained enough to supply the world for the next 200 years. I thought it was so wonderful that now grandma could afford her gas bill in the winter and the US didn't have to buy years ahead from Africa. Well her bill never went down. As Pastor Lindsey Williams stated in his book "Energy Non-Crisis" how 48 jet-engines are running turbines to pump the excess natural gas coming out of the largest Alaskan oil find back into the ground, they are not about to give us a break on money for energy. That's why GM allowed Exxon to shred it's electric cars, that's why our cars get mileage in the 'teens, and why the Bakken oil fields in ND are selling their oil to China and Russia under sweet government deals at less than a quarter of our costs for oil. The Bakken fields could supply the US & Canada for as long as the 21st century needed oil at little over production costs. Libyia was supplying it's citizens with $.17/gal gasoline, so that isn't much. After all it is our oil. If we have to pay "hidden royalty fees" to equal $5/gal, then we citizens should get a royalty subsidy check.

 

Oil is generated by the great heat and pressures occurring to basic elements, one of the few known processes that combine molecules, instead of breaking them down. There have been great high-technology civilizations in Earth's past, but none ever considered bringing up a toxic poison and spreading it around the surface, in the air, in our food chain, wrapping our food and our bodies in it, capsulating it and calling it medicine, fertilizers, condemning natural alternatives and promoting a lifestyle that glorifies it! Energy is everywhere, just because you can't see it makes no diff. Figure out how the pyramids attune to it and we would be ready for the 21st century, leaving the oil legacy behind like blood-letting. Tesla did in 1930's. Figure out how how these Luciferians took over our country, then back them out, and we might have a future. Else, Lucifer will continue mocking God, The Creator, with our alliegiance to his confining and condemning  technologies and enslaving usery. Amazing how the Rothschilds can accumulate more money than all the world's GDP combined and they have no national or humanitarian expenses, unless you count Isreal, their brainchild, the City of London their "Financial Heart of the Beast", or Washington, DC, their "International Muscle" and sucker taxpool. Maybe a DNA test for all Khazarian/Gomer/Cain lineage to stop them from their ruthless and all encompassing NWO rule and keep these self-appointed blue-blood royalties from ruling countries banks, courts, religions, and humanity. The Christian slaughter is self-evident when you ask what religious book was in the homes of the slaughtered. Long live the real children of Abraham - mostly Christian Palestinians by now.

 

Fracking is simply about fracturing high-pressure gas and oil fields to contaminate aquafirs so the rural areas will have to be abandoned. Lucifer wants to destroy all God's natural support for life for humans. Thru Monsanto, he's replacing our food with poisonous proteins that never existed on earth before - unsustainable to human life. Animals know this, so are we so dumbed-down that we are dumber than a squirrel?

6:25 PM, Sunday, July 07, 2013
David Wendling wrote:

Another very important point here is that as all this gas is burned thereby releasing all this "water" it is also releasing CO2.  We should be putting our money and recourses in truly clean energy like solar and wind.  The window of opportunity to mitigate climate disruption is closing fast.  Ask yourself if it is safe to continue putting recourses in gas, oil, and coal with this knowledge.

10:41 PM, Monday, July 08, 2013
by Kevin Haight
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
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Somewhere in SW New Mexico, I crossed from the Rio Grande watershed into the Colorado River watershed. Unlike the Rio Grande, the Colorado is a river well known to most Americans because of iconic images of the Grand Canyon. No one ever leaves the Grand Canyon without a sense of awe for the power of the mighty river that carved this mile deep chasm in the earth. But where does all that water go? Simple question but the answer is complex. The Colorado is supposed to flow from its headwaters on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California into Mexico.  [Its other major tributary, the Green River, rises in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming]. Until recent times, the Colorado emptied into the Sea of Cortez which is part of the Pacific Ocean bordering Baja California. However, the river rarely ever makes it to the sea anymore because the water all gets used up before it reaches the now bone dry mangrove swamps on the sea. Where has all the water gone and how did this happen? Obviously this is a huge subject on which many books have been written and to which I cannot do justice in this blog. But the question was constantly on my mind throughout the remainder of my travels through Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

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At the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, I learned that humans have used the water from the Colorado and its tributaries, such as the Gila River, for as long as there has been agriculture. What was fascinating, however, was that Native Americans in the Gila River watershed adapted their agriculture in the 19th century to the new market economy created by the expansion of the United States into the Southwest. These farming villages of the Tohona O’odham people [formerly called Papago] started growing wheat on their land along the Gila to supply the demand of the U.S. Army and thousands of settlers flooding into the region. The Native American farmers were becoming wealthy and capitalist interests from back East were locked out of the prime land along the Gila where the Native Americans had lived for centuries. Did this situation continue? Did the Tohono O’odham become the wealthy aristocracy of the new Arizona Territory? Of course not. The Anglo money interests simply went upstream on the Gila River and built a dam diverting the river water to the desert land they had bought cheap. You know the rest of the story: the desert bloomed, Anglo speculators became rich and the Tohono O’odham were reduced to destitution and government dependence in one generation.

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The dominant hydrologic feature of central Arizona is no longer the Gila River and its tributaries such as the San Pedro, the Salt, and the Verde. The complex system of dams and canals known as the Central Arizona Project [CAP] now defines the region. I started to realize this the day my wife and I decided to paddle a section of the Salt River near Phoenix. We put in at the base of a dam which stores the water of the Salt in a large reservoir. It was spring and the snow in the mountains was melting so we assumed there would be an adequate amount of water released into the river. Wrong! Because of the previous dry years, the reservoir was so low that the CAP was still filling it long after it normally would release a more consistent flow below the dam. Nevertheless, we paddled through very shallow pools of water for a couple of hours primarily to experience the beauty of the Sonoran desert from the river. Imagine floating quietly past 40 foot Saguaro cactus! Fun, but pretty tame.

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The next day I suggested to my wife that we try floating down a wilderness section of the Verde River which I had heard had a better flow. I called a National Forest Service ranger to make sure this was a good idea and he said water flow on the Verde was “optimal” because water was now being released into the river from a dam upstream. Within 5 minutes we knew we had made a big mistake; apparently the ranger had meant optimal for white water kayakers, not intermediate level paddlers who like to float along and look at the birds. A roaring sound up ahead made me look up and notice that the horizon abruptly ended as the river went over a waterfall. My wife and I each went over the 3 foot waterfall without capsizing. At the base of the falls was a large standing wave that we were able to power paddle through without swamping our kayaks. But then the strong current generated by the waterfall swept us against a fallen tree. Now we both capsized. At this point the river was moving so fast that we could not swim to shore. All we could do was hang onto our kayaks and paddles and float downstream until the current lessened. Eventually, we were able to make our way to shore and pull our kayaks up the rocky bank. It took my wife 30 minutes to stop shivering as I emptied the water out of the kayaks. Because we were floating through a wilderness area with no bridges, houses or roads, we had no alternative but to get back on the river and head downstream 4 more hours to where our car was waiting. Thus, we learned the Jekyll-and- Hyde nature of desert rivers below dams. Caveat: Don’t try this with your spouse unless the relationship has already weathered over 30 years of storms. 

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I was surprised to learn that all that water flowing down the Verde River that made our paddle trip such an adventure never reaches the Colorado River. The CAP sucks every drop out of the Gila and its tributaries before it reaches the Colorado at Yuma in extreme SW Arizona at the border with California. More alarming, though, are the dams on the Colorado near Yuma that divert vast quantities of water into Southern California where the water ends up in reservoirs supplying Los Angeles and San Diego. This is called an inter-basin transfer because the water is being removed from its original watershed and being taken to an entirely different watershed. This certainly raises an interesting moral issue: if your desert community is using more water than exists in your watershed, should your community be able to take the water it wants from a different area entirely? Should it matter if the water is being used for drinking or agriculture or watering lawns? Regardless, the cumulative effect of 36 million straws in a desert river is that most years now the Colorado River is completely dry long before it reaches its former mouth on the Sea of Cortez. It is easy to imagine the catastrophic effects on the downstream eco-systems: dried up mangrove swamps, devastated rookeries, hyper-salinity changing the composition of fish species in the estuary.

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My wife and I were now headed home travelling through NE Arizona and SE Utah. We visited and hiked in beautiful places like Canyon DeChelly and Arches National Park. We realized that we had lost a little confidence as a result of our misadventure on the Verde and we were determined to regain our paddling mojo, so to speak. The solution: an easy day trip on the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. We had a blast paddling 12 miles on a fast but rapids-free stretch of the river [well above its confluence with the Green River where it becomes one of the premier white-water destinations in the world]. We floated through slickrock canyons and past cliff faces covered with Native American petroglyphs. We watched eagles, pelicans, cranes, etc. We felt one with the river [which is a feeling I often experience right here at home after a day on the Paw Paw].

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I kept a friendly eye on the Colorado as we drove east following I-80 further and further up the valley that leads to the Rockies and the headwaters. Surprisingly, there wasn’t as much water in the river as I was expecting, given the fact of spring snow melt. In previous years, I had watched whitewater rafters as I drove along the highway, but now the upper part of the river just seemed low to me. I couldn’t understand why because we were far above the dams and reservoirs that supply Las Vegas with water. What was happening to the water that should be rushing down the upper Colorado? Turns out there is another inter-basin transfer occurring way up in the mountains on the Western Slope. Water is being diverted to a canal that crosses the Continental Divide and delivers it to Denver on the eastern side of the Rockies. Denver is located in the arid foothills and plains of central Colorado and is part of the Platte-Missouri-Mississippi watershed. Like Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas, it cannot supply its own water needs without taking it from the Colorado. I was still ruminating on this phenomenon of the disappearing river when we got home to Michigan. When I logged on to Facebook, I learned from a group called American Rivers that the Colorado had just been declared the most endangered river in the U.S.  Here is a link to their site, including a beautiful and poignant video about the Colorado: www.AmericanRivers.org/Colorado.

Anybody who has persevered to read all this should have a question at this point: What does this have to do with our local watersheds, the Black and Paw Paw Rivers?  Personally, I believe there is a lesson here even for those of us lucky enough to live in a region with high quality fresh water resources. WE SHOULDN’T TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED!  There are problems we have to solve and threats to be aware of right here at home. The biggest pollutant in our rivers is sediment from agricultural run-off. Inappropriate and uncontrolled development [with excessive impervious surfaces such as parking lots] lead to storm-water flowing directly into our rivers carrying oils and chemicals. Invasive species threaten biodiversity and the quality of habitat in the wetlands and floodplain forests. And there are certainly threats from industry of which we need to be vigilant. We should never forget the pipeline leak on the Kalamazoo River that contaminated miles of the river and closed a section of it to recreational use for years. And only last month there was a leak of “mildly radioactive” water into Lake Michigan at the Palisades nuclear plant near Covert in Van Buren County. It turns out that this was the 2nd leak of radioactive coolant in two years at this facility.

All of this raises a question: If well established technologies such as pipelines and nuclear plants can still catastrophically fail, what about untested new technology like fracking? The North Branch of the Black River drains southern Allegan County. The DNR has now opened state land there for the purpose of extracting oil and natural gas using the technique of hydraulic fracturing [fracking]. Is this safe? Reliable? Worth the risk to our ground water?  Good questions. Two Rivers Coalition is sponsoring a forum on fracking at the Van Buren  Conference Center in Lawrence on Wednesday, June 12 at 6:30 p.m. There will be 3 speakers representing  industry, environmental and regulatory perspectives making presentations and taking questions. It behooves all of us who bemoan the fate of other watersheds to attend this forum and learn more about an important issue confronting our own watershed. It is worth remembering what John Wesley Powell said about watersheds, a place where “all living things are inextricably linked”.  

There are 2 Comments (Add Your Comments):
Sam wrote:

Good points Kevin and glad to hear you were able to weather 30 years of storms prior to being dumped in the Verde.  Seriously, glad you are OK.

Something else to note, it was illegal to collect rainwater off of your roof in Colorado (maybe in a few other western states also) since all the precipitation once it hits the ground became part of a watershed where the water rights are restricted for certain uses but after a study in 2007 in Douglas County (south Denver) found that 97% of the precipitation didn't reach a stream since most was taken up by plants or evaporated, the state legislature changed the law (2009) and now have a few pilot projects going on.  

We are lucky here to currently have an abundance of fresh water.  Lets hope it stays that way.

10:34 AM, Monday, June 10, 2013
Sharon Schmuhl wrote:

How about we let "corn" be an alternative to the purchase of foreign gas and oil and any other product that can be derived from crops grown in the USA?

12:17 PM, Monday, July 08, 2013
by Kevin Haight
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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I recently returned from an extended camping trip to the Southwest: 50 days, 7700 miles, 13 states, 10 National Parks/Monuments, 9 museums, etc. You get the idea and, no, we are never doing so much so fast again. But the most interesting statistic is this: 4 watersheds. A watershed is a clear concept but a little hard to define eloquently. Here is one definition by the EPA: A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. Much better is what the famous American scientist/explorer John Wesley Powell said about watersheds: that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community. Hmmm, inextricably linked, eh? We will get back to that later. But watershed can also mean a divide or a turning point; for example,” It was a watershed moment in the history of the environmental movement”.

Obviously I started in my home watershed, the Paw Paw-St. Joseph-Great Lakes-St. Lawrence route to the Atlantic Ocean. However, within the 1st hour of the trip, I was in the Mississippi-Gulf of Mexico watershed. In fact I spent most of the 1st week following the Wabash, then the Ohio, and finally the Mississippi rivers on their southward course. But you can’t follow these rivers without starting to think about two things: topsoil and floods. Especially in the spring, these rivers are a muddy chocolate brown carrying tons of topsoil from the Midwest and Great Plains down to the Gulf. Every time a farmer plows or tills a field anywhere from Montana to Minnesota to Ohio to Alabama, a small amount of topsoil ends up running off his field into a ditch-stream- river and ,ultimately, down the Mississippi into the Gulf.

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The flooding issue is also readily apparent: you drive alongside huge dikes thru the Mississippi delta for hundreds of miles. And these are the least obvious of the engineering attempts by the Army Corp of Engineers. Huge dams on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers have turned those formerly fast, free flowing rivers into reservoirs. You will note that I refuse to use the term “lake” to describe a body of stagnant water behind a dam [and my apologies to all TRC members residing on Maple Lake in Paw Paw]. And then there is the ultimate in engineering hubris: the destruction of the mangrove swamps and bayous along the Gulf Coast in the name of development and progress. But we know from Hurricane Katrina that no manmade system of levees, canals, dikes or floodgates can manage the tidal surges of a major hurricane as well as the natural system of barrier island, mangrove swamp, and bayou.

Definitely a watershed with problems; big ones.

Luckily, I was soon distracted by another major watershed: the Rio Grande River. This was the highlight of my trip, a 4 day solo kayak trip down the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. I had a blast paddling down this designated Wild and Scenic River and it was a true wilderness experience. But the water level in the river was agonizingly low. Enough for me in my kayak but fully loaded canoes constantly scrape bottom. And white water rafting? Forget it. Normally the canyons along the Rio Grande thru Big Bend are a major destination for adrenaline junkie rafters. But not lately; there simply is not enough water to create the rapids and strong current necessary for rafting. In fact, the adventure outfitters in Big Bend are having to scramble to adapt to this brave, new and very dry world  and some are now primarily offering mountain biking.

 So how can this be? I was backpacking last Fall in the mountains near Santa Fe N.M. and crossed numerous clear cold and full trout streams that all flow into the Rio Grande. And anyone who has ever seen the snow pack in the Southern Colorado Rockies or the Sangre de Cristo Range knows there is a lot of water from snowmelt that should be flowing from Southern Colorado into New Mexico and down to Texas. Well, as I mentioned in my last blog post, hardly any of this water even gets to Big Bend anymore. It is almost all diverted for agricultural and other human use before the Rio Grande even becomes the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The only reason there is any water at Big Bend at all is because of the Rio Concho which comes out of Northern Mexico and flows into the Rio Grande just upstream. I saw this 1st hand a few days later when I went a few hundred miles upstream and crossed the Rio Grande at Las Cruces, New Mexico. There was nothing but sand in the actual river bed. However on both sides of the floodplain were large irrigation ditches called acequias flowing with river water. Unbidden, it brought to mind the verses of the old song “A Horse with No Name” by  “America”:

I was looking at a river bed. And the story it told of a river that flowed made me sad to think it was dead.

 End of Part One

by Kevin Haight
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Michigan Water-Winter Wonderland
Michigan Water-Winter Wonderland

   When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, “Water Winter Wonderland” was the slogan for our state. This was long before “Pure Michigan”. Before “Say Yes to Michigan”.  Even before “Say Yah to da U.P. too, eh”. I always liked “Water Winter Wonderland” because it seemed to encapsulate what was special about Michigan. We had the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater resource in the world. Lots of beautiful rivers flowed into those Great Lakes which made for great paddling. And we had lots of snow in the winter so you could go outside and experience nature while engaging in recreational activities like cross country skiing.  [Last week, as I was skiing my favorite trail at Allegan State Game Area, I realized I had been skiing this same path for 38 years!] But today I am sitting at my desk contemplating things like water and snow and wondering whether these will even be defining characteristics of Michigan in the future.

    Surprisingly, my bad humor began as I was preparing for a 7 week camping/kayaking/back packing trip to the Southwest. The highlight of my journey is supposed to be a solo wilderness kayak trip thru Big Bend National Park on the Wild and Scenic Rio Grande River. But water levels are so low on the river right now that some portions of the river may be too low to paddle. This is partially a consequence of the severe, multi-year drought in the Southwest. But it is also directly related to our society’s voracious appetite for water.

    Drive through the suburbs of any large city in the Southwest and you will see exactly what you see here in the Midwest, lush green lawns greedily sucking up water. I have a friend in Albuquerque who drilled not one, but two wells to provide the water necessary to recreate a Michigan lawn and garden landscape in a desert climate. It turns out we use so much of the water in the Rio Grande, that 80% of the water that does flow thru Big Bend N.P. comes from a Mexican tributary, the Rio Conchas. This is a staggering thought to me; that all that snowmelt from the southern Colorado Rockies and Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico gets used up before the Rio Grande even gets to southern Texas.

    So what does this have to do with Michigan? Our freshwater resource is inexhaustible. Droughts only occur in arid places like the Southwest, right?  That killer heat wave and drought we experienced in June and July last year was a once in a lifetime event, never to be repeated… A few weeks ago, a local newspaper ran a story about the river harbor at St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. In spots, the harbor is only 2 feet deep with obvious, severe implications for both commercial shipping and recreational boating. The shallow harbor depth is because of the extremely low water level of Lake Michigan. But it turns out that Lake Michigan’s low level is a direct result of Lake Superior’s low level. Basic Geography 101: water from Lake Superior flows into the Lake Michigan/ Lake Huron basin before then flowing into Lake Erie and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.

    Lake Superior has a vast watershed extending beyond Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota far into Canada. But last year there was virtually no snowpack in that huge watershed. Reduced snowpack led to diminished spring run-off which led to low lake levels. Not just in Lake Superior, but even many hundreds of miles away in Southwest Michigan.  Yep, that is the problem with being part of a watershed, stuff that happens [or snow that doesn’t fall] way upstream still affects us. It would be so nice [dare I use the word “convenient”] to believe that this is just a fluke, a statistical outlier. I visited my son in the western U.P. last week, just in time for their 1st significant snowfall of the season. In February… Unfortunately, computer models of global climate change predict that extreme variations such as last year’s lack of snowpack will occur much more often in the future. 

   All of which ranting leads me to urge people to attend an upcoming event on February 27 that is being co-sponsored by Two Rivers Coalition: “Adapting and Planning for Climate Change”. This event should be interesting for everyone, even those who disagree with the vast majority of the world’s scientists who think human beings are contributing to increased carbon dioxide levels thereby causing global climate changes. Even climate deniers agree that extreme weather events seem to be occurring more often and causing more destruction than in the past. This community forum will discuss ways to be pro-active, to anticipate and plan for extreme weather and climate events. It seems eminently sensible to discuss strategies for dealing with future droughts, heat waves, lowered lake levels, etc. But it is also sad to think the snow I see outside my window today may be a rarity in the not so distant future; a future where people will wonder why Michigan ever called itself the “Water Winter Wonderland”.

For more information on Climate Change visit http://www.swmpc.org/climatechange.asp.

by Kevin Haight
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Two Rivers Coalition 4th Annual Meeting
Two Rivers Coalition 4th Annual Meeting

Another large crowd attended the Two Rivers Coalition 4th Annual Meeting last month. I always love the energy and sense of possibility at the TRC annual meetings. As usual, it began with people milling about looking at poster exhibits and slides, eating dessert, and talking. A little casual eavesdropping revealed that all the seemingly disparate conversations had a common thread: protection of our precious freshwater resource.

 

Marcy Colclough [our "Queen of Green"] started the meeting off by listing the various activities and accomplishments of TRC in 2012. I was impressed not only by the large number of activities that TRC sponsored, either on its own or with our partners such as Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, Van Buren Conservation District [VBCD], Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy [SWMLC], Van Buren Drain Commission, etc. but by the wide variety, as well. For example, TRC hosted paddle events [a big thanks to Kenneth "Kayak" Nesbitt] on both the Black and Paw Paw Rivers designed to get people out on the water to appreciate up close and personal the beauty of these streams. TRC helped sponsor programs featuring speakers on interesting and timely topics such as climate change and coastal invasive species. TRC volunteers helped with a pilot project to monitor E. coli on both rivers and to then do DNA testing to try to determine the source [stay tuned for results in a few months]. Of course, we were out there on both rivers participating in River Rescue Day in August removing huge amounts of trash. And these cool projects are only a small fraction of the activities by TRC and its volunteer members with a lot more planned for 2013.

Matt Meersman
Matt Meersman

Matt Meersman then spoke and made a startling admission: He is CRAZY about wetlands. He described the vital functions of wetlands [filtering, flood control, sediment trapping, and habitat] and explained a project that VBCD is working on to map and assess local wetlands with a focus on their functionality. For example, they have learned that our area has lost 56% of its original flood storage capacity. When you combine this with the fact that so much rain now falls on hard surfaces [such as paved parking lots and roads] which permit no absorption and channel every drop of water to ditch, drain and, ultimately, the river, you have a recipe for flooding.

Not surprisingly, the single biggest pollutant in our rivers is sediment. A whopping 44,000 cubic yards of sediment is deposited annually in the harbor at St. Joseph and 25% of that comes from the Paw Paw. What if some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that is spent each year on dredging the St. Joe harbor were instead to be used upstream to promote best practices that reduced soil run-off? Matt described an exciting project on the Paw Paw River where grant money is being used to permanently protect from development some of the most important remaining wetlands in the Paw Paw watershed. Earlier this year, TRC President Dave Foerster placed a conservation easement on a 350 plus acre parcel of high quality floodplain forest that he owns in Waverly Township. A conservation easement guarantees permanent protection from subdivision and development while still leaving the property in private ownership. This means that some of the highest quality wetlands in the entire Paw Paw watershed will continue to do their job of filtering, absorbing and providing habitat IN PERPETUITY.

Tom Springer
Tom Springer

The final speaker was Tom Springer, a local author ["Looking for Hickories"]. He shifted the focus from graphs, charts and tons of sediment to the intangible qualities of wetlands. He compared them to deserts in the sense that, initially, they may seem uninviting and inaccessible landscapes. But, if we take the time to study them and learn their secrets, we will be rewarded with wonder, awe, and appreciation. In an often frenzied and stressful world, there is a real value in the quiet contemplation one gets in walking through a sedge meadow, looking at dragonflies and listening to frogs. Tom encouraged TRC to help people access and experience wetlands by building low impact boardwalks that get people out into the middle of marshes and swamps. [As an aside, SWMLC has a boardwalk through its Jeptha Lake Fen in Van Buren County and Sarett Nature Center has miles of boardwalk and trails through the marshes of the Lower Paw Paw River.]

Tom also excitedly discussed a TRC project called "Waterfront Wisdom" which encourages riparian landowners to leave buffer strips of native vegetation at water’s edge. These strips help filter run-off before entering the watercourse, in addition to providing crucial habitat. Tom emphasized the importance of breaking the "lawn to lake syndrome" which makes the shores of many of our local lakes look more like one continuous putting green. As Tom puts it, "We have to make protecting wetlands part of the culture". People often want to do the right thing, especially in their own backyard which is always the piece of land we love most dearly. Tom encouraged TRC to find these "early adopters" of good management practices and promote them as good examples to their neighbors.

Tom’s remark about local people who are doing the right thing with their land got me to thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to meet and talk to some of these people: farmers experimenting with no-till agriculture, home owners putting in rain gardens, local businesses using porous pavement? So my plan this next year is to track down and interview these folks and write some articles to appear here on the TRC website.

Even when Tom finished speaking, people didn’t want to go home. Many stayed to talk and continue munching on desserts. One group led by Frank Jurenka was discussing TRC’s plan to put up road signs alerting people that they were entering a watershed [Black River or Paw Paw as the case might be] and reminding them that all water eventually flows to the river. Sam Ewbank was discussing the next TRC fundraiser [TRC sells beer and wine at music events at Foundry Hall in South Haven]. John Mitchell was explaining the Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water Trail Association’s plans for clearing more miles of the Black River for paddling. Joe Parman, our county drain commissioner, was explaining how to receive reductions in assessments in exchange for putting in buffer strips around drains. And, of course, Kenneth Nesbitt was recruiting for the next TRC paddle trip [a "polar bear paddle" in March]. All in all, it was another great annual meeting!

Kevin Haight

TRC Board Member