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Studies shows mixed Great Lakes wetlands data

10 Feb 2014

bogA recently reported study by the National Fish and Wildlife Service of coastal wetlands from 2004-2009, showed an increase in wetland
area of an estimated 13,610 acres, while the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific coastal regions experienced net wetland losses of 111,960 acres, 257,150 acres and 5,220 acres, respectively.  In fact, the report noted that re-establishment projects had helped with this increase. One such project is the Erie Marsh project, which is part of the  Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, established in 2001 as North America’s first International Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge includes islands, coastal wetlands, inland marshes, shoals, and riverfront lands along 48 miles of the Detroit River and western Lake Erie.  This video describes the early positive impacts of the Erie Marsh project

A companion FWS report paints a less rosy picture.  That report studied overall wetland gains and losses and concluded that there was a slight decline across the entire continental US including:

  •  a decline in saltwater wetlands by an estimated 84,100 acres, which reflected an accelerating  rate of loss of intertidal emergent wetland with some gains in beach/shore wetlands
  • a slowing decline in freshwater wetlands;
  • and large losses in forested wetlands with an estimated 392,600 acres of forested wetland area lost to upland land use types or deepwater between 2004 and 2009.

A map showing regions with the highest rate of freshwater wetland loss to upland between 2004 and 2009 included the southeastern US and the western Great Lakes and the Dakotas.  In short, while Great Lakes coastal wetlands are growing,  overall regional wetlands might actually be declining in acreage, if not quality.  What the EPA will make of that, given its current review of Michigan’s program is anyone’s guess.

Of polar vortices and Great Lakes

30 Jan 2014

Photo courtesy of Space Science And Engineering Center- University of Wisconsin - Madison

Provided courtesy of Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison

A recent report tells us that evaporation isn’t well understood and that we may see more of it in the fall and early winter than in the summer.  According to the report, the relative humidity plays a bigger role than the temperature and as we know, it’s awfully dry in the winter. One quote from that report is staggering – “a 1-day loss of 0.5 inches of water from the total surface area of the Great Lakes represents a volumetric flow rate of 820 billion gallons per day – nearly 20 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.”

The repeated polar vortices we have been experiencing have provided greater ice cover and, thus, there should be a later start to the evaporation season this year.  The Great Lakes are reportedly 62% covered in ice, which already ranks this winter as 17th most coverage in the last 40 years. 1979 had the highest ice cover at 94.7 percent.

Weatherwise, this high ice cover may mean less lake effect snow, colder days, less runoff when the snow melt comes (although it’s been a very snowy January) but again, less evaporation.

It’s certainly better (waterwise) to be here than, say, California, where Governor Brown declared a drought emergency which likely will have significant impacts on farming and the foods eaten across the United States.  This could be good for Michigan farmers.  2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for water and the Great Lakes.

Conservation, the Circle of Life and my Backyard

6 Dec 2013

This week’s Time Magazine had an interesting article regarding the “rebound” of animal populations, positing that increased hunting was necessary to prevent disease, starvation and problems between man and beast.

Clear cutting and development between 1850 and 1950 dramatically reduced animal populations.  More pro-conservation practices since 1950 have helped to foster a dramatic restoration of animal species, only now they’re living in our backyards – in some cases, literally (I took the photo of this deer in my backyard, this week – there were actually two, I just wasn’t fast enough to get them both in the photo).  Wetland and woodland preservation, inclusion of natural areas in development, poor garbage control and use of fruit trees (we have a cherry tree and crabapple trees) have fostered a symbiotic relationship leading to a suburban wildlife population.  This summer, we saw a redtailed hawk catch a squirrel and land right in front of our neighbor’s house.  These sightings and the problems that come with them were unknown in the inner-ring suburbs of the 1960’s.

While I won’t repeat all the statistics here, a Penn State Study noted that in 1900, the entire US whitetail deer population was estimated at 500,000.  It is now over 15 million!

According to the MDNR, in 1914, it was estimated that there were only 45,000 deer in Michigan and so regulations were changed to allow hunting of only antlered deer.  As a result, the deer herd began to rebound.

The State’s deer herd peaked at about 1.5 million deer in the late 1940s.  The State developed a Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP) and a goal of 1 million deer. A combination of factors resulted in the population shooting past that goal to 2 million deer in 1989.

Crop damage, herd distress and deer-vehicle accidents increased (a point of the Time article) and the State has worked toward a population of roughly 1.3 million deer in the fall herd. As anyone who has lived in Michigan for some time knows, there is a significant culture of hunting that helps to maintain the deer population size. The Time article notes that other states across the country are starting to get the idea to allow hunts for bears and other animals whose populations have begun to explode to levels unseen in the last 100 years and are living in closer proximity to humans than ever before.

EPA schedules Wetlands hearing – remain calm

14 Nov 2013

Michigan is one of only two states to have been delegated authority to administer the federal wetland regulations within their borders (Michigan was the first, earning this designation in 1984).  As Heather blogged this summer,  the Michigan Legislature enacted Public Act 98 into law, amending multiple parts of the Michigan environmental code regarding wetlands.  Some of the changes stemmed from a 2008 audit by the USEPA of the Michigan wetland program. Last month, EPA announced it was holding a hearing on December 11 in Lansing and a few people read it as a likely withdrawal or revocation of the delegation.

Will this hearing mean the end of wetland regulation in Michigan as we know it? I highly doubt it.

The notice does not use the word “withdraw” which would be required by the law to take such an action. 33 USC 1344(i). There is a lengthy process for such withdrawal.  Instead, the notice focuses on PA 98’s:

(1) changes to the definition of contiguous wetlands regulated by Michigan’s Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Section 404 program;

(2) the addition of new exemptions from permitting; and

(3) changes to the requirements for mitigating the effects of filling wetlands and other waters of the United States.

EPA stated that substantial changes to state CWA Section 404 programs do not take effect until program revisions are approved by EPA and it wants to consider these issues.

While there are a number of places where contiguity is defined – I suspect EPA is focusing on a definition which appears to track the Scalia (but not the Kennedy) definition from the Rapanos case.  I’m sure EPA finds that very problematic as it  has been arguing for a “both” approach for some time (and often winning that argument in the courts).  EPA also complained about an amendment making excavations adjoining a surface water body by definition “not contiguous.”

The permit exemptions largely related to work in agricultural and other drains. EPA also took issue with statutory language that called for new rules in one year, allowing agricultural mitigation by means of some sort of conservation easement on the impacted property, and which seems to allow mitigation by means of a payment of a fee which doesn’t meet federal standards for an in-lieu-fee mitigation program.

If EPA actually revoked Michigan’s delegation under CWA Section 404, applicants for dredge and fill/wetland permits would have to seek their permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps would also take over enforcement of Section 404 in Michigan.  Most, including me, view this as very undesireable.  Most interesting, is the “poison pill” that the Legislature included in PA 98 which provides that if EPA revokes Michigan’s 404 authority that the entirety of Part 303 authorizing Michigan regulation of wetlands would also be automatically repealed 160 days later.

This could mean:  no permits would be required for non-federal waters (although what that means is open to debate these days) in Michigan except where there are local ordinances; overloading federal regulators who currently are not staffed to regulate or permit in Michigan; more draconian approaches as the federal government is likely to be less flexible than State regulators; and no State involvement at all (other states have some preliminary process before a permit application is referred to the Corps).

However, given that this has been part of an ongoing dialogue since 2008, will this hearing mean the end of wetland regulation in Michigan as we know it? I highly doubt it.

Manure Digestion/Energy Generation

14 Aug 2013

Tuesday, I traveled to Michigan State University (MSU) for the start up of MSU’s South Campus Anaerobic Digester (SCAD). Reportedly, this is the largest such digester in the United States that is owned by a university.

Anaerobic digestion converts organic materials (feedstocks) without oxygen into biogas.

Once fully operational, MSU’s digester will use roughly 17,000 tons of organic waste from MSU and elsewhere nearby to produce biogas that will generate over 2.8 million kWh of electricity per year.

Most of the system’s feedstock will be dairy manure from the MSU Dairy Teaching and Research Center, with some food waste from campus dining halls, fruit and vegetable waste from a nearby Meijer Distribution Center, and fats, oil and grease from local restaurants.

Biogas produced will power a 450 kW combined heat and power system. The electricity generated will power buildings on the south side of campus.  Hot water generated will maintain the digester temperature at 100 degrees F and to help heat other nearby buildings.

The solids and liquid remaining after digestion (digestate) will be pumped to a solid-liquid separator; solids will be composted; the liquid will be stored in the larger tank in the photo and will be applied to the land as carbon-rich fertilizer.

While the technology is proven, MSU will test this digester to see how this can be implemented in a cost-effective manner. The payback at this point is projected to be between 7 and 12 years. There may be many opportunities for these to be located near large farm “hubs” and even as part of municipal wastewater treatment – if they can be operated economically.

Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul 2013

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800’s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.

Got Bugs?

16 May 2013

It’s what’s for dinner?

The United Nations recently released a report recommending the farming of insects for food.  The report notes that insects are highly nutritious and healthy with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and minerals.   With concerns about animal diseases like “mad cow,” genetically modified foods, overuse of antibiotics, cruelty to animals, lack of space for farming, management of animal waste, etc., the UN thinks insects may be part of the answer.

“Insect farming” isn’t new – think of bees, silkworms and crickets you can find at the local pet store for lizard food.  However, the concept of large scale farming insects for food is relatively new.

High soy prices and increasing aquaculture is pushing research into developing insect protein for aquaculture and poultry – if not directly for human consumption.

In many countries, including the US, the lack of a legal framework on insects as food and feed may be a major barrier to investment and development.  The UN report noted concerns regarding:

  • Unclear regulations and legislation on farming and selling insects for human consumption;
  • Difficulty in understanding information regarding processing and quality;
  • Little networking among producers;
  • A lack of awareness among consumers and buyers about existing markets leading to low demand; and
  • It is difficult to market insects for human consumption because they are perceived to be unsanitary. (Or as we call it in my family, the “ick” factor).

Would you eat a tofu made from bugs?  It makes me think of the old movie “Soylent Green”  – it’s bugs!