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Lake Erie – so is it Ohio’s fault?

22 Aug 2014

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mThe recent shutdown of Toledo’s water system due to an algal toxin in the water caught everyone’s attention.  Our friends at Dragun note that the Toledo water problem was triggered by some odd weather, but the algal source problem remains out there.   The MDEQ announced this month a five point plan to protect the lake: (more…)

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

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.

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!

Save the Bees

2 May 2013

Since 2006, discussions and speculations about honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder have been rampant. Reportedly, the disorder has wiped out roughly half of the commercial hives used to pollinate farmer fields.  This is an environmental problem with huge commercial ramifications.  There are many species of fruits and nuts that cannot easily reproduce without the honeybee.  Speculation as to what is causing the disorder has included high fructose corn syrup fed to bees, newer pesticides, and other causes.

On Thursday, the USDA and EPA released a report summarizing the “state of the art” knowledge of the situation and ultimately concludes that this disorder results from a confluence of causes.  Key findings include:

  • A parasitic Varroa mite is a major factor – while beekeepers treat for this, there are resistant mites;
  • Genetic diversity and variation is needed to improve bee thermoregulation and disease and mite resistance;
  • Nutritional opportunities need to be improved – like anyone else, weaker bees are more susceptible to harm from disease and parasites;
  • The report recommends improving forage and a variety of plants to support colony health – even to the point of encouraging innovative land management techniques to maximize available nutritional forage to promote and enhance bee health;
  • Most interestingly, the report recognizes Best Management Practices for bees and pesticide use exist, but notes that they are not widely or systematically followed – this needs to be improved;
  • The report concludes that additional research is needed to determine risks from pesticides.

Hopefully, this is a solid step toward minimizing this disorder.  One thing the report says we can do is plant a variety of flowers to give the surviving bees a healthy environment to feed.

Sequestration and the EPA

4 Feb 2013

Paul Ryan and many other members of Congress are beginning to talk about calling the President’s bluff and allowing the budget sequestration to occur.  If budget sequestration takes effect on March 1, 2013, according to a September 14, 2012 report from the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), the EPA will face a $716 million budget cut.

The OMB projected that the  following programs would face cuts of 8.2%:

  • Superfund (approximately $121 Million)
  • State and tribal assistance grants (approximately $293 Million)
  • EPA’s program and management account (approximately $220 Million)

Other programs facing similar percentage cuts, but in lesser amounts include: EPA’s science and technology fund; office of the inspector general; leaking underground storage tank trust fund and inland oil spill programs account .

The OMB report stated that these cuts would degrade the EPA’s “ability to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe” and urged Congress to prevent these cuts.  Reportedly, the EPA is developing its 2014 fiscal year budget due out shortly without taking these cuts into account.  February is going to be a very interesting month.