Archive | Agriculture RSS feed for this section

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

Why not a regional water system?

10 Feb 2014

1280px-Detroit_GM_headquartersThere have been a flurry of recent articles about Oakland and Macomb Counties refusing to sign on to Mr. Orr’s plan for a regional water authority.  Mr. Patterson has been quoted as saying no deal is better than a bad deal and how can one disagree with that?  However, a regional authority is clearly the right move and every single one of the players at the table should know it.  It was the right move for the Zoo, Cobo Center, the DIA and now for the water and sewer systems that we all use in southeast Michigan.

What’s infuriating is that we all know this, but it seems less than clear that such a system will be implemented.  The current system needs infrastructure upgrades which are likely to be very expensive.  These costs need to be paid so that wastewater can be treated and safe drinking water provided.  The current DWSD also has legacy costs relating to its employees.  Mr. Orr’s plans (the public hasn’t seen them yet) reportedly have the region paying more for service to fund operations and upgrades and paying to lease the system – as if the system was some sort of corporate asset.  This seems a bit peculiar when you consider that the system is undercapitalized, under siege from newly forming competition and barely able to stay in compliance with its permits and various legal requirements.  If it needs a reported $2-$4 Billion in upgrades, it’s no longer an asset and is going to need every penny it collects just to operate. It will not be a cash source for the City and I am not certain that it should be.  The City’s initial investments are long sunk and its failure to keep the system up for the last 40+ years means that its value as an asset is minimal.

Oakland and Macomb want more information and I can’t blame them; but, given what we know about the recent history of Detroit, I wonder if that information exists.  If the City isn’t providing it, I suspect the Bankruptcy Court would be willing to help shake that information loose if it exists.

As for the legacy employee costs, I wonder if the City can pursue the same strategy that GM used and create a voluntary employees’ beneficiary association (VEBA) of some sort to fund employee benefits.

The time to establish a regional water authority is now. Will it happen?  As I have said before, both the economic and environmental health of this region depend on clean water and our water-rich position (unique to Detroit except for Chicago, Milwaukee and Toronto) make it imperative that we get this right and soon.

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.

Water, water everywhere.

29 Jan 2014

Picture006Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it?  I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point, likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that treatment of wastewater has an impact on drinking water quality and the public health.

We’ve recently learned that the DWSD and the local counties have been trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System – thus far – to no avail.  Also, just this week, rumors have surfaced that the DWSD may be cutting 40% of its staff – a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble.  There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit Emergency Manager might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties – which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

This is a big deal because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40% of the state’s population.  The system is one of the Country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830’s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. As we reported earlier, because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other *ahem* end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and that failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it! A draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.  While the City’s drinking water meets federal and State standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water.  We’ve come along way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long long way to go.

As far as drinking water, one hopes that the treatment deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. With a need for infrastructure upgrading and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.

What will be the top green stories of 2014?

8 Jan 2014

greatlakesAs this new year kicks off, we thought we’d look ahead at what we think may be the big stories of 2014 at MichiganGreenLaw.com, in no particular order:

Wetlands – Will EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalize guidance regarding the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act? Or will there be new rules or even new legislation?  There are members of Congress on  both sides of this issue and it is unclear which way this issue will go, although the federal trend is to try and govern as many bodies of water no matter what. This fall, EPA published a draft connectivity analysis which many view as a prelude to new regulations attempting to vest the federal government with broad jurisdictional over virtually every drop of water in the country. It will be interesting if the federal government tries to delete the “significant” portion of the Rapanos “significant nexus” test.

• Hydraulic Fracturing –  this continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.  At the end of 2013, the Associated Press reported on both alleged and confirmed environmental problems in 4 states including Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Michigan looks to beef up its oversight of, and its communications regarding, fracking proposals and operations.  The University of Michigan continues to study the technical issues.  The focus on this issue seems to be shifting toward the volumes of water used in fracturing and monitoring withdrawals used for oil and gas production. It appears that the 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands remain draft – will they ever be finalized?

• MDEQ Brownfield Process Streamlining.  MDEQ has promised to convene a short-term task force to work on harmonizing, improving and streamlining the various funding mechanisms currently used to incentivize brownfield redevelopment. This can only be a plus.

• MDEQ Cleanup Rules – as required by the Legislature, MDEQ proposed adopting its previously informal standards as formal cleanup rules late in 2013.  The MDEQ will continue to work on improving and in some cases broadening its cleanup rules and criteria – we expect more work on the assumptions of exposure underpinning the standards, more work on vapor intrusion standards and more work on standards and processes applicable to groundwater venting into surface waters.  MDEQ also continues to discuss more rules and standards defining what constitutes “due care” which is an issue for property owners who are not liable pursuant to a BEA and for other reasons.

• Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress continue to be locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it and lately the pundits have argued that pipelines are safer than transporting shale oil by truck and train.

• Energy Policy In Michigan – at the end of the year, and after a year of “listening” sessions and collecting information, Governor Snyder indicated that he intends to seek legislation improving Michigan’s energy policies, focusing on lowering costs, improving reliability and minimizing environmental impacts.  This will be interesting.

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.