Category Archives: environment

We are past the point of no return on climate change

In Rolling Stone, Eric Holthaus writes that as far as climate change is concerned, we are already past the point of no return. The things climate scientists have warned against are already beginning to happen…and faster than predicted.

Hansen’s new study also shows how complicated and unpredictable climate change can be. Even as global ocean temperatures rise to their highest levels in recorded history, some parts of the ocean, near where ice is melting exceptionally fast, are actually cooling, slowing ocean circulation currents and sending weather patterns into a frenzy. Sure enough, a persistently cold patch of ocean is starting to show up just south of Greenland, exactly where previous experimental predictions of a sudden surge of freshwater from melting ice expected it to be. Michael Mann, another prominent climate scientist, recently said of the unexpectedly sudden Atlantic slowdown, "This is yet another example of where observations suggest that climate model predictions may be too conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding."

Since storm systems and jet streams in the United States and Europe partially draw their energy from the difference in ocean temperatures, the implication of one patch of ocean cooling while the rest of the ocean warms is profound. Storms will get stronger, and sea-level rise will accelerate. Scientists like Hansen only expect extreme weather to get worse in the years to come, though Mann said it was still "unclear" whether recent severe winters on the East Coast are connected to the phenomenon.

With non-linear events like climate change, things happen slowly then suddenly.  We are now experiencing “suddenly”.

It’s odd that despite the rhetoric around climate change, none of the three parties are planning on doing much about it.  The NDP and Liberals are promising to do more then the Conservatives but none of the three parties are doing that much and in many ways the policy of the NDP and Liberals is shaped by the poor performance of what the Conservatives have done.  Being better then Stephen Harper isn’t enough.

Less than zero

So some states are double counting their water supplies which you now, leads to problems like they are having now.

Yet California and Arizona — the two states water experts say are facing the most severe water crises — continue to count and regulate groundwater and surface water as if they were entirely separate.

“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all,” said Stanley Leake, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a leading expert on properly accounting for the connection between ground and surface waters in the West. “In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”

Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this, at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.

If these states stopped effectively double-counting their resources, they would have to change laws, upend traditional water rights and likely force farmers and cities to accept even more dramatic cuts than they already face — a political third rail.

“The politics of water are more challenging than any other issue the state faces,” said Fran Pavley, a California state senator who helped draft a much-praised package of state laws passed last year regulating groundwater withdrawals for the first time.

Tucked into Pavley’s package was a little-noticed provision that explicitly prohibits California state regulators from addressing the interconnection between groundwater and surface water in local water plans until 2025, a compromise meant to give local water agencies a leisurely runway to adjust to a new way of counting.

Pavley said the prospect of more immediately acknowledging the overlap between ground and surface waters threatened to derail the legislation entirely, triggering fierce opposition from the Agricultural Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups.

So politics is getting in the way of science.  Basically by draining rivers, you drain aquifers.  By draining aquifers, you cause rivers to dry up.

The West has consumed these resources ravenously, as if they were bottomless. By 1965, scientists measured that parts of the aquifer beneath Las Vegas had dropped by more than 75 feet. Arizona officials estimated the state’s aquifers had dropped by as much as 500 feet by 1980. By 2004, USGS scientists estimated — based on modeling — that the region south of Denver had drawn down water levels by more than 900 vertical feet.

In some places, so much water has been drained from underground, the effects can be seen with the naked eye. A USGS scientist’s 1977 photograph near the town of Mendota in central California uses a telephone pole to show how the ground had effectively collapsed, sinking some 30 feet.

Anyone who recognized these telltale signs would worry that the West’s groundwater was approaching a state of crisis. But even as the drought began and then worsened, with surface water vanishing, the West dug in and doubled down — replacing dwindling reservoirs with new water pumped from underground.

Today, the Colorado River states consume more than 21 billion gallons of groundwater each day — adding up to 1 1/2 times the flow of the Colorado River itself each year.

In 2009, Jay Famiglietti, now a scientist researching underground water in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, set out to quantify just how much groundwater had been lost over time.

NASA had a pair of satellites that gathered data on subtle changes in the Earth’s mass by measuring almost indiscernible shifts in gravitational forces during orbit. Famiglietti and his team of doctoral students at the University of California Irvine, where he also teaches, thought they could tease out which parts of those gravitational shifts were due to a changing volume of water inside the Earth’s crust.

The team determined that aquifers were shrinking at an astonishing rate in Asia, North Africa and across the globe. The western United States stood out.

“It was among the worst in the world,” Famiglietti said. “The rate of decline is much steeper than the rate of decline of the reservoirs. While everyone is looking at the surface water, no one is looking at the groundwater, and it’s disappearing at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his team determined that some 13 trillion gallons of water had been lost from underground reservoirs in the Colorado River basin since the NASA satellites began collecting data in late 2004. To put that figure in perspective, it’s nearly 1 1/2 times the total capacity of Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and the West’s most important — and as much water as the state of Arizona uses in six years.

The research suggested the seven-state Colorado River basin region was actually using about one-third more water each year than its river budget alone allowed. In separate research Famiglietti looked at California’s aquifers — which lay outside the Colorado River basin — and found that they had also been severely diminished, having dropped by about 7 trillion gallons since just 2011.

The U.S. is screwed.  Of course those aquifers also come into western Canada so it’s going to have an impact on all of us.

The Enemy of New York’s Sewers? The Wet Wipe

Maybe we shouldn’t be flushing these things

With its sewer system under siege, tallying millions of dollars in equipment damage across its underground maze, New York City is confronting a menace that has gummed the gears of plumbing networks around the world: the common wet wipe.

In recent years, the intersection of evolving hygienic sensibilities and aggressive industry marketing has fueled the product’s rise. Wet wipes, long used for baby care, have grown popular with adults.
Some of the products are branded as “flushable” — a characterization contested by wastewater officials and plaintiffs bringing class-action lawsuits against wipes manufacturers for upending their plumbing.

Often, the wipes combine with other materials, like congealed grease, to create a sort of superknot. “They’re really indestructible,” said Vincent Sapienza, a deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “I guess that’s the purpose.”

The city has spent more than $18 million in the past five years on wipe-related equipment problems, officials said. The volume of materials extracted from screening machines at the city’s wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled since 2008, an increase attributed largely to the wipes.

Pipelines are bad but this is okay?

Another dangerous crude oil spill in Illinois

A freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in northern Illinois on Thursday, bursting into flames and prompting officials to suggest that everyone with 1 mile evacuate, authorities said.

The BNSF Railway train derailed around 1:05 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand. A cause for the derailment hadn’t yet been determined. No injuries were reported.

Only a family of two agreed to leave their home, Galena City Administrator Mark Moran said at a news conference late Thursday, adding that the suggestion to evacuate was prompted by the presence of a propane tank near the derailment.

The derailment occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded and hilly area that is a major tourist attraction and the home of former President Ulysses S. Grant. The Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the train was transporting oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region.

Earlier in the day, Moran said 8 tankers had left the track. But Williams said at the news conference that only six cars derailed, two of which burst into flames and continued to burn into the night.

Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They attempted to fight a small fire at the scene but were unable to stop the flames.

Firefighters had to pull back for safety reasons and were allowing the fire to burn itself out, Conley said. In addition to Galena firefighters, emergency and hazardous material responders from Iowa and Wisconsin were at the scene.

The derailment comes amid increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.

Meanwhile Barack Obama continues to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

Where container ships go to kill other people

There aren’t too many places left in the world where the practice of ship breaking—scrapping old ships for metal—can still exist. These days, environmental and labor regulations in the developed world have displaced the practice to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where cargo carriers are salvaged for their steel.

The largest vessels wind up on the shores of the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh, where the industry has become a vital part of the country’s urbanization. It employs roughly 200,000 workers and supplies the country with 80 percent of its steel. Ship breakers beach and dismantle vessels daily wearing flip­-flops and T-shirts. It’s no easy task, considering ships are constructed to withstand the elements for the 30 years they spend operating on international waters.

Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’

Uh oh

At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.

These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

The researchers focused on nine separate planetary boundaries first identified by scientists in a 2009 paper. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment, and include ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

Beyond each planetary boundary is a “zone of uncertainty.” This zone is meant to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in the calculations, and to offer decision-makers a bit of a buffer, so that they can potentially take action before it’s too late to make a difference. Beyond that zone of uncertainty is the unknown — planetary conditions unfamiliar to us.

“The boundary is not like the edge of the cliff,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, an expert on Earth systems at the University of Chicago. “They’re a little bit more like danger warnings, like high-temperature gauges on your car.”

Why scientists are (almost) certain that climate change is man-made

From the Economist

ON NOVEMBER 2ND the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents mainstream scientific opinion, said that it was extremely likely that climate change is the product of human activity. Extremely likely in IPCC speak means having a probability of over 95%. The claim forms part of its fifth assessment on the state of the global climate. In its first assessment, in 1990, the IPCC had said that “the observed increase [in air temperatures] could be largely due to natural variability.” Why have climate scientists become so much more certain that climate change is man-made, not natural?

Many factors influence the climate but perhaps the single most important is carbon dioxide (CO₂). CO₂ absorbs infra-red heat at a constant rate and at a higher rate than nitrogen and oxygen—the main constituent parts of the atmosphere—so the more CO₂ in the air, the more the atmosphere will tend to warm up. Scientists attribute climate change to human activity mainly because people have been responsible for large increases in CO₂. At the start of the industrial revolution, in about 1800, there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO₂ in the atmosphere. That had been the level for most of human history. This year, however, concentrations exceeded 400 ppm, the first time it had reached that level for a million years.

Most of the increase has been caused by people burning fossil fuels. In the United States, for example, 38% of the COâ‚‚ produced in 2012 came from generating electricity and 32% came from vehicle emissions (the rest came from industrial processes, buildings and other smaller COâ‚‚ production). People also produce COâ‚‚ when they cut down forests for farmland and pasture

Effects of climate change ‘irreversible,’ U.N. panel warns in report

More bad news on climate change from the United Nations

The Earth is locked on an “irreversible” course of climatic disruption from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the impacts will only worsen unless nations agree to dramatic cuts in pollution, an international panel of climate scientists warned Sunday.

The planet faces a future of extreme weather, rising sea levels and melting polar ice from soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, the U.N. panel said. Only an unprecedented global effort to slash emissions within a relatively short time period will prevent temperatures from crossing a threshold that scientists say could trigger far more dangerous disruptions, the panel warned.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,” concluded the report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws on contributions from thousands of scientists from around the world.

The report said some impacts of climate change will “continue for centuries,” even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop. The question facing governments is whether they can act to slow warming to a pace at which humans and natural ecosystems can adapt, or risk “abrupt and irreversible changes” as the atmosphere and oceans absorb ever-greater amounts of thermal energy within a blanket of heat-trapping gases, according to scientists who contributed to the report.

Meanwhile in Canada, we don’t care about climate change, only our own economy.

Canada’s hopes of securing an outlet for its landlocked oil wealth and pulling an end run around the eternally deadlocked Keystone XL project took a big step forward Thursday with the release of formal plans to build a U.S. $11 billion pipeline to the Atlantic.

TransCanada, the biggest Canadian pipeline company, submitted its application to Canadian energy regulators for a nearly 3,000-mile-long, million-barrel-a-day pipe running from oil-rich western Canada to refineries and shipping terminals in the east. The so-called Energy East Pipeline Project, which TransCanada officials hope could be in operation as soon as 2018, would provide an export outlet for huge volumes of current and future oil production that right now has no easy way to get to market.
The project wouldn’t replace the Keystone XL pipeline — Canada’s other high-profile, multibillion-dollar oil-transport project, which has been awaiting U.S. approval for years — but it could give Republican critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration fresh fodder ahead of the midterm elections. Republicans have long argued that the White House’s refusal to sign off on the Keystone project would cost the United States tens of thousands of jobs. The Obama administration has finished reviewing the environmental merits of Keystone, but pushed back any decision until later this year or early 2015.

If the new Canadian route gets approved in 2016 by Canada’s National Energy Board, as TransCanada expects, it would give the eastern provinces a source of domestic oil — removing the need for some 700,000 barrels a day of oil imports — and would give producers in Alberta and Saskatchewan a direct route to big refineries that could turn the sludgy tar sands into valuable products such as diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel.

Over in Germany

On any given day, Johannes van Bergen, director of the municipal utility Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall in southwestern Germany, conducts his team’s array of gas, heat, and electricity sources to meet the energy needs of at least several hundred thousand Swabians in the region, as well as about more than 90,000 customers elsewhere in Germany. And every day — in fact, every hour — that energy mix is constantly in flux.

Technicians at the town’s smart-grid center monitor and manage the utility’s roughly 3,000 regional energy suppliers: several thousand solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, two wind parks, one gas-and-steam power station, six small hydro-electric works, three biomass (wood pellet), sixbiogas plants, and 48 combined heat and power plants, as well as other conventional and renewable energy suppliers outside the municipality.

The population that this ballet of coordinated energy sources serves is admittedly modest, but it’s here that the future of Germany’s energy industry is being tested in full — and proven.

Which of course is a model that we could use here but for whatever reason, the province and the country isn’t willing to experiment.

Their output, and increasingly that of the conventional, too, is distributed through a tightly knit, cross-border smart grid. The composition of supply changes from minute to minute depending on weather, demand, and other factors from one corner of the country to the other. Increasingly electricity is generated in and traded from locality to locality, and even across the country (or countries) via intelligent networks much like that in Schwäbisch Hall and other places in Germany.

No one predicted this scale of locally driven, citizen-led energy boom when the Energiewende began. Even just four years ago, just about everybody involved in the Energiewende thought that big-ticket projects like enormous offshore wind farms planned for Germany’s northern seas and Desertec, the mega-project to import solar energy across the Mediterranean from sprawling concentrated solar power arrays in the Middle East and Northern Africa, would be integral to Germany going renewable.

These projects, however, have flopped spectacularly.

Offshore wind has proven extremely pricey and technologically much trickier than originally assumed, which has led to billons in cost overruns and years-long delays. Germany’s seven operational offshore parks constitute a tiny fraction — just 0.6 percent — of the country’s renewably generated electricity, compared to onshore wind’s 34 percent. The offshore industry claims there’s smooth sailing for offshore wind just around the corner, but it’s been saying that for years.

Why Greenland’s black ice should terrify you

From Slate

There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming.

Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.

This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”

Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.

Box ran these numbers exclusively for Slate, and what he found shocked him. Since comprehensive satellite measurements began in 2000, never before have Arctic wildfires been as powerful as this year. In fact, over the last two or three years, Box calculated that Arctic fires have been burning at a rate that’s double that of just a decade ago. Box felt this finding was so important that he didn’t want to wait for peer review, and instead decided to publish first on Slate. He’s planning on submitting these and other recent findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.

From the CBC

Could the southwest of the U.S. be in for a megadrought?

From Mother Jones

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers, looked at the deep-historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on mid-summer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decade-long drought are “at least 80 percent.” The chances of a “mega-drought,” one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an “unprecedented 50-year megadrought”—one “worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years”­—checks in at a non-trivial 5 percent to 10 percent.

It gets worse

his (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth’s mass and found that the region’s aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region’s farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads, drained off in just nine years, a rate the study’s lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls “alarming.”

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it’s probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there’s little prospect that they’ll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming mega-drought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a state-wide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Where the Wild Things Die

From Foreign Policy

South Africa is home to roughly 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos, which number about 20,405 white rhinos and 5,055 black rhinos, according to conservation group Save the Rhino. But that population is in danger of imminent collapse due to a recent, dramatic increase in poaching. This is fueled by Asia’s reinvigorated appetite for the animal’s horn, prized for its alleged curative properties and mark of wealth; rampant corruption in South Africa; and soaring international prices on the black market. As a result, there is a multimillion-dollar global conservation war that stretches across southern Africa. And de Rosner is a mere foot soldier in the battle against these nighttime killers. “We do something — they adapt. They do something — we adapt,” he says, squinting in the midday heat. “They’re watching us as much as we’re watching them.”

Lake Mead Is Drying Up

This is bad and reminds me of what Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap when he was shocked that no one in Las Vegas was calculating projected droughts (which have arrived)

Lake mead nevada all time low fe

The water level at Lake Mead dropped to a new record low this week, but it hasn’t hit rock bottom—yet.

As of Tuesday, Lake Mead was at about 39 percent of its capacity. The drought has taken a toll on water resources, resulting in precautionary actions such as a decreased flow allowance into Hoover Dam to protect current distribution policies. 

The projected lake level is at about 1,082 feet above sea level, and officials say they can meet water obligations at least through next year without a key shortage declaration. But if the water level drops below the 1,075-foot trigger point, Arizona and Nevada will face water delivery cuts, according to the Washington Times.

The lake is currently storing 10.2 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell, the reservoir managed in conjuction with Lake Mead and located farther up the Colorado River, is holding 12.7 million acre-feet of water—or 52 percent of its capacity.

A quarter of India’s land is turning into desert

India is in serious trouble

About a quarter of India’s land is turning to desert and degradation of agricultural areas is becoming a severe problem, the environment minister said, potentially threatening food security in the world’s second most populous country.

India occupies just 2 percent of the world’s territory but is home to 17 percent of its population, leading to over-use of land and excessive grazing. Along with changing rainfall patterns, these are the main causes of desertification.

“Land is becoming barren, degradation is happening,” said Prakash Javadekar, minister for environment, forests and climate change. “A lot of areas are on the verge of becoming deserts but it can be stopped.”

Land degradation – largely defined as loss of productivity – is estimated at 105 million hectares, constituting 32 percent of the total land.

According to the Indian Space Research Organisation that prepared a report on desertification in 2007, about 69 percent of land in the country is dry, making it vulnerable to water and wind erosion, salinization and water logging.

Before you jump to conclusions about global warming (although that is playing a factor), Indian farmers way over farm their plots.  As family plots are passed down, they are divided and then divided again to support families.  Eventually they become unsustainable and things like irrigation and fertilizer do more damage to the land then help it.

That is where much of the land is at right now.

Saving Lions By Appointing Masai Warriors As Their Protectors

It’s hard to scale but I love this idea of protecting endangered predators.

In Kenya, Masai pastoralists often spear or poison lions to retaliate after predators have killed their livestock. The Guardians pays the Masai warriors, who are called limurran, about $100 per month to warn herders about nearby lions, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing, and stop lion-hunting parties. The tribesmen are taught to read, write, and communicate in Swahili, and monitor lion movements through a mix of traditional knowledge and modern radio-tracking.

The Lion Guardians program is now expanding. It has 52 Lion Guardians employed in East Africa protecting more than 1,700 square miles of vital habitat with growing lion populations. And at a cost of $41 per square kilometer per year, it’s about half the expense of its most common alternative, compensation programs for livestock killed by predators.

Why Are 20 Far-Away States Trying To Block The Cleanup Of The Chesapeake Bay?

So while the states surrounding Chesapeake Bay want it cleaned up, 21 other states are fighting it.

Over the years, the Chesapeake Bay has been known for many things: bountiful seafood, such as clams, oysters and the bay’s iconic blue crabs; its boating, fishing and water sports industry; its curly-haired duck-hunting dogs.

Now, however, the bay has become famous for something else: its pollution.

For more than 30 years, states in the region have tried to restore the bay, the largest estuary in the U.S. and a body of water which has effectively served as a dumping ground for agricultural pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from urban runoff and industrial sources for decades. In the last few years — and after numerous failed attempts — they’ve inched closer to succeeding, thanks to an Environmental Protection Agency-led plan that puts limits on the amount of agricultural nutrients entering the bay, pollution that has spawned numerous oxygen-free, marine life-killing “dead zones” in the bay and its tributaries. The plan was created at the request of the six Chesapeake Bay states and the District of Columbia, and according to Claudia Friedetzky of the Maryland Sierra Club, is “the best chance that we have ever had to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.”

But to a group of 21 Attorneys General from states almost exclusively outside the Chesapeake Bay region, the plan means only one thing: EPA overreach.

Earlier this year, a group of 21 Attorneys General from states as far away from the Chesapeake Bay as Alaska and Wyoming submitted an amicus brief that aims to strike down the EPA’s Chesapeake cleanup plan. The AGs argue that the cleanup plan raises serious concerns about states’ rights, and they worry that if the plan is left to stand, the EPA could enact similar pollution limits on watersheds such as the Mississippi.

Oh yeah, it’s backed by big agriculture lobbyists.

To understand why the 21 state AGs care about a cleanup plan that is, for the most part, outside of their boundaries, you first have to understand why outside groups are suing to strike down the cleanup plan in the first place. That comes down to the interests of one powerful entity: the U.S. agriculture industry.

When the EPA enacted its latest cleanup plan, the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, in December 2010, major agriculture groups were quick to sue, arguing the agency didn’t have the power to restrict the amount of pollutants that enter the bay. Their response came as no surprise, considering agriculture is the largest contributor of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, accounting for 42 percent of the nitrogen, 58 percent of the phosphorous and 58 percent of the sediment that entered the bay in 2012. The EPA’s new cleanup plan established a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can enter the bay each year, potentially cutting pollution by 20-25 percent.

Those pollution limits, Baker said, are exactly what the bay needs to recover and “absolutely consistent with what science says is needed to address the Chesapeake Bay.” Successfully reducing nutrient runoff could mean shrinking the dangerous “dead zones” — oxygen-free areas that kill clams and worms, key food sources for blue crabs — and deadly algal blooms that have plagued the bay for decades. The pollution diet, as it’s written, also allows states “maximum flexibility” in determining how to meet the limits set forth by the EPA, Terri White, press officer at the EPA, told ThinkProgress.

The American Farm Bureau, a powerful agricultural interest group which has sued the EPA on behalf of farmers multiple times before, has led the charge against the EPA, claiming they’re concerned the agency’s actions in the Chesapeake Bay region could lead to similar plans in the Mississippi River watershed. The Mississippi runs through the heart of agricultural country in the U.S. and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, a water body that’s been plagued by massive dead zones for years.

So yeah, this is about agriculture companies selling farmers fertilizer.  Weird thing is that good farming practices (which we don’t enforce in Saskatchewan) would eliminate most of the pollution going into the water (there and here).

But Cleo Braver, who runs the organic Cottingham Farm in Easton, Maryland, said she thinks a pollution diet is exactly what the bay needs. A dirty bay has implications for the community’s environment and health, and she said farmers should step up to improve their practices.

“Farmers can be a part of changing [the bay] for the better, and I think we have a long, long way to go to clean up our farming,” she said.

Braver said she’s been looking for ways to reduce nutrient pollution since she started her farm. She uses buffer strips — things like grass and vegetative barriers which can remove up to half of the nutrients and pesticides and 75 percent of the sediment from farm runoff, something Hutchison has on his farm, as well. Braver has also used cover crops, which cut down on the need for fertilizers, for the past seven or so years. She said other farmers should be encouraged to do more of the same if they want to do their part in improving the bay.
While many of the farmers who own their land in Maryland have implemented these pollution-reduction measures, Braver said the farmers who don’t — often those who are paid to farm land that doesn’t belong to them — aren’t pushing for the landowners to plant things like buffer strips on their farms. Farmers can get financial help to install pollution control measures through Maryland’s EQIP initiative, which provides incentives for conservation on farms.

There are differing opinions on how much progress has been made in constructing buffers in the bay region. In December, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said farmers in bay states were falling behind in planting buffer trees around their farmland, an effort that’s part of a pledge by the bay states to plant 185,000 acres of trees on farmland by 2025 to help reduce pollution. The Farm Bureau, however, maintains that farmers have done enough to help the bay recover. The group states that farmers in the bay watershed have implemented pollution-reducing measures in 96 percent of the cropland acres in production in the region, which has resulted in nutrient runoff reductions.

For the record, we do maintain these strips in the logging industry.

So here is my question.  If the agriculture lobby is so powerful down in the United States, how big of an influence it on Saskatchewan and our own rather lax environmental regulations.  While the legislation has passed that require lobbyists to register, the registry and protocols are still months away.  I think it is naive to think that the multi-national companies that are trying to block improved environmental legislation in the United States are not aggressively lobbying against environmental legislation here in Canada.