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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rock Snot - Coming to a River Near You

Have you been concerned about didymo (a.k.a. "rock snot"), the algae that seems to be slowly taking over waterways throughout the northeast? A study from the University of New Brunswick, recently published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, offers both good news and bad news about didymo’s spread.

Didymosphenia geminata (www.mdinvasivesp.org)
Didymo is an algae (technically, a diatom) that forms a dense mat on the bottom of swiftly flowing freshwater rivers and streams. As its nickname implies, it looks a bit like a thick, gooey layer of mucous covering the bottom of streams and rivers. It can smother other aquatic vegetation, reducing habitat for the aquatic macroinvertebrates that fish feed on. In the past two decades it has been identified in the waters of the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Europe.

First, the good news. Especially for anglers and boaters. Up until now, the conventional wisdom was that didymo was an exotic invasive algae species that was hitchhiking between watersheds on anglers’ gear, especially felt-soled wading boots, and on boats. State environmental agencies have launched intensive educational campaigns urging anglers and boaters to wash their gear and let it dry thoroughly to prevent further spread of didymo. Washing gear with a bleach solution was recommended. But according to the University of New Brunswick study, anglers and boaters are not spreading anything that was not already in their local ecosystems. So if anglers and boaters are not to blame for the ooze of algae popping up in more and more watersheds, what is going on? Sit tight for the bad news.

The didymo study looked at archival samples of lake sediment from several regions in Canada, and they found that didymo has been in these ecosystems for quite some time. Evidence of didymo can be found in the sediment record back to the beginning of the 20th century and possibly even the last decade of the 19th century. The researchers found that even in ecosystems which did not necessarily have evidence of didymo, there were increases in other algae species at approximately the same rate that didymo was increasing in lakes where it was present. The researchers found that increases in didymo and other algaes appeared to correlate with the warming climate. The study leader, Michelle Lavery, said, "We can't make any solid claims as to what the mechanism is that is favoring didymo, but we strongly suspect it has to do with climate." So although anglers and boaters seem to be off the hook for spreading didymo, the awakening of dormant didymo in bodies of water potentially throughout North America by a gradually warming mean global temperature would mean that we have little hope of preventing didymo from appearing in a river near you. That’s the bad news.

So does this new view of didymo mean that anglers and boaters don’t need to sweat about washing down their gear between destinations? No. There are other aquatic nuisance species that are much better understood than didymo that can hitchhike on our gear. Zebra mussels are one prominent example. So keep scrubbing down between trips.

I think the take-away message from this study is that didymo is still going to be a concern for those of us who rely on healthy and diverse waterways for our outdoor recreational fix. Although the indication is that anglers and boaters are not spreading it, this new study suggests that didymo may continue to appear throughout the waterways of the traditionally cooler regions of North America as long as the mean global temperature continues to inch up. I suspect that these findings mean that researchers can now focus their future didymo studies looking for ways to minimize inevitable didymo blooms under the assumption that it is already present but dormant in most aquatic ecosystems. And for anglers who will have to adapt to wading through dense patches of slippery rock snot? Maybe it’s time to invest in a wading staff.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Climate Change From a Fish-eye View

For those of us who acknowledge that climate change is real and is already happening, we have the advantage of planning ahead to identify actions that we can take on a local scale to alleviate some of the effects we expect to see throughout the rest of our lifetimes. The U.S. Congress and global diplomats certainly have the ability to take much bigger strides to try to mitigate a climatic tailspin by taking action to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. But let’s consider something each of us can do to mitigate some of the CO2 already in the atmosphere. Plant trees.

A shade tree is capable of absorbing and storing as much as 48 pounds of CO2 in one year. In 40 years, a tree can sequester one ton of CO2 (http://www.ncsu.edu/project/treesofstrength/treefact.htm). That’s pretty substantial, especially considering that most large shade trees (non-ornamentals) can live decades beyond 40 years.

I have a feeling that not very many climate deniers are going to be reading this post. But just in case, for their benefit, I’ll point out another important benefit of planting more trees in our communities. Stormwater control. Trees can manage some of the stormwater heading for waterways in two ways. First, they intercept rainfall before it hits the ground. The result is a delay in the rain hitting the ground as it hangs out on the vast surface area of the leaves and bark. Think about how often you’ve walked under a tree after a rain shower and had raindrops fall from the leaves onto your head and shoulders. And more significantly, trees consume huge amounts of stormwater after it hits the ground. A mature oak can consume up to 40,000 gallons per year. Decreased stormwater runoff means less severe flooding. It’s estimated that for every five percent increase in tree cover in a community, the stormwater runoff is decreased by approximately two percent (https://www.americanforests.org). A two percent decrease might not sound like much, but for municipalities trying to meet the requirements of their EPA stormwater discharge permit (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or MS4, permit), every gallon that doesn’t go into the local creek is a welcome reduction. Trees also absorb some of the pollutants picked up by stormwater, keeping them from washing into waterways as well. See, trees have something to offer everyone regardless of their climate beliefs.

So, speaking of trees, my local Trout Unlimited chapter (the Little Lehigh Chapter) last week was awarded a 2014 Coldwater Conservation Implementation Grant from the Coldwater Heritage Partnership. The Coldwater Heritage Partnership’s mission is to provide leadership, coordination, technical assistance, and funding support for the evaluation, conservation and protection of Pennsylvania's coldwater streams. The partners are Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. The chapter will use this $5,172 grant to purchase and plant 76 appropriate shade trees throughout five selected areas along the Little Lehigh Creek in Lower Macungie Township that have significant gaps in the streamside riparian buffer tree canopy. As they mature, these shade trees will help to maintain the naturally cool water temperature in the spring-fed Little Lehigh to help prevent heat stress on the native trout during the summer months.
Little Lehigh Creek at Willow Lane in East Texas, PA. 

But this grant award is a win for more than the Little Lehigh’s native trout. As the trees grow, they will be sucking up stormwater runoff heading for the creek along with some of the road salt, fertilizer, oil and grease typical in suburban stormwater runoff. And, by 2054, these 76 trees will have absorbed approximately 76 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Friday, January 31, 2014

No Party Owns the Message

My friend Ron Beitler recently announced on his FaceBook page that he has become a contributor to the website, www.smartgrowthforconservatives.com. Some of the other contributors are heavyweight Smart Growth advocates like Charles Marohn (www.strongtowns.org), Jim Bacon (Bacon's Rebellion) and Joe Minicozzi (Planetizen). In Ron’s words, Smart Growth for Conservatives provides center-right perspectives on transportation and land use issues in the United States as well as analysis of these issues from a center-right perspective with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism and market-based solutions.

I'm more center-left, but I fully embrace Smart Growth principles. So I commented on his post, kiddingly asking him whether there aren’t any liberal Smart Growth websites. Ron’s reply nailed an important distinction about Smart Growth that would probably make the concept more tangible if more people viewed it from this perspective.

Ron said, “No party owns the message! Problem is we (Republicans) have to work harder to get our base to understand that, at its core, Smart Growth is about fiscal sustainability, and that's a message conservatives of all people should flock to. Liberals don't own environmental issues either.”

Then one of Ron’s FB friends commented on Ron’s statement that liberals don't own environmental issues. Ron’s friend said, “The free market left undistorted will value clean water, air, healthy forests, proper developments, etc., and an asset that is valued, is an asset that is well taken care of.” A free-market solution to the world’s problems is certainly a traditional conservative plank.

I don’t buy the argument for a free-market solution to environmental problems. Thirty years ago I would have completely agreed that the free market could take care of the environment, but I was a na├»ve college student then. While many small businesses in the 21st century have been built on a model of public responsibility, some of the biggest players pull every string available, legal or otherwise, to maximize their profits at the expense of public health. Don’t even get me started on Monsanto and their GMOs.

Freedom Industries tank farm on Elk River in Charleston. This was the
source of the chemical spill into the Elk River on January 9,2014.
(photo: AP/Steve Helber)
A very recent example of the failure of the free market to protect the environment is the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) in early January into the Elk River in West Virginia. The storage tank that leaked had not been inspected by West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection since 1991. West Virginia regulators are claiming that there was insufficient toxicological data on MCHM to require it to classified as a hazardous substance, which would required regular inspections of its storage tanks. Unfortunately, this chemical leaked into the Elk River just a mile upstream from the inlet for the public water supply for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties. All of those who did not have a private well were forced to rely on bottled water for two weeks. Restaurants and hotels in Charleston reportedly were losing $1,000,000 in revenue per day until the public water supply was declared safe to use again. All of this disruption was the result of MCHM seemingly falling through the regulatory cracks. The free market did not protect Charleston’s businesses or its drinking water.

No one party owns this message:  Regardless of whether people lean to the right or the left, we need to strive for clean air and clean water now for the sake of our children and our children's children. As a civilized society, we have to proactively make decisions based on what is best for future generations rather than passively letting the free market decide whether our wellbeing will be adequately protected. That should be an imperative that transcends political party affiliations. Whether we are deciding if a certain chemical should be classified as a hazardous substance, thereby having tighter standards for bulk storage, or whether we are making land use decisions that could make open spaces more or less attractive to develop, there are some decisions that a properly functioning government must take the lead on for the best interests of its constituency. After the ground rules have been laid to ensure that we all have access to safe air, water and food, the free market then should be free to function without backroom deals or sweetheart regulatory intervention.