Sunday, February 28, 2010

Commentary: Washington Post article should encourage re-thinking of ways to prevent nutrient growth in nation's waters

The Washington Post has published an insightful article discussing the huge increase in water pollution caused by livestock and poultry manure over the last few decades.

Yes, manure. About 2.7 trillion pounds of dung is generated by America's farm animals every year. That's about ten times the total amount of fecal material generated by all the humans in the country during a year.

The concentration of farming into gigantic, centralized operations has led to production of far more livestock and chicken dung than can easily or, in some cases, economically be used to fertilize crops. That waste is stored in piles or lagoons, from which it leaches into rivers and streams. According to a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that surplus accounts for 60 percent of all the nitrogen and 70 percent of all the phosphorus stored in the country's agricultural manure.

That nitrogen and phosphorus causes algal blooms and eutrophication in lakes and streams and is largely responsible for the creation of "dead" zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite changes to it in 2002 and 2005 intended to address the problem of stored animal waste, the Clean Water Act is not currently a reliable tool for preventing the toxic pollution that is often caused by these byproducts of modern large-scale agriculture.

It is fine, as far as it goes, to require those who operate "combined feeding operations" to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit under the Clean Water Act. The problem is that mandate is not enough to stop the continued concentration of livestock into living spaces that are too small. The solution must involve giving farmers and agriculture companies an incentive to "spread the animals out." With less accumulation of manure in few places it will be more realistic to expect that the water pollution impacts of animal waste can be effectively addressed.

Of course, agricultural manure production on an industrial scale does not only affect water quality. It also contributes significantly to air pollution and global warming, as stored waste emits a variety of gases. They include methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and, of course, carbon dioxide.

Therefore, this is an issue that must also be addressed in any effective greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

The public health dictates more attention to the problem, too. Livestock and poultry waste often contains zoonotic pathogens that are dangerous to humans, as well as pharmaceutical compounds such as hormones and antibiotics.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much focus on this problem in Congress. And EPA has not been enthusiastic even about making sure the public is aware of it. In 2008 the agency exempted animal waste air pollution discharges from reporting obligations under two federal environmental laws.

Perhaps, since "change" is a theme that apparently continues to resonate with the American public, it's time for leaders in Washington, D.C. to think hard about how to counteract this growing and serious environmental and public health threat.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feds want more time for sage grouse decision

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked a federal judge for some additional time to make a decision about whether to add the greater sage grouse to the list of endangered and threatened species.

The agency's request, which follows the death last weekend of its director, would allow it to hold off on a determination until March 5.

Ruling in a lawsuit filed by Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill reversed a 2007 decision by the administration of President George W. Bush not to grant the species protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Oil and gas extraction and livestock grazing are the major culprits in the species' decline.

The greater sage grouse (Centrocerus urophasianus), a brown, chicken-sized bird found in most of the Western states, depends on sagebrush for habitat.

The species is known for its unique mating habits, in which males gather in groups called "leks" and strut before gatherings of females. The females then choose partners.

Once common throughout the American west, greater sage grouse have been extirpated from Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court denies review in three closely-watched environmental law cases

The New York Times and Greenwire are reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined the chance to consider several lower court environmental law decisions that have been closely watched by both industry and environmentalists.

The biggest of the three cases involves the question whether farmers must obtain a permit under the federal Clean Water Act to use a pesticide even if they have already gained separate clearance under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled last year that the U.S. government is obliged to require farmers to obtain both authorizations.

Forty members of Congress had urged the Supreme Court to hear the dispute.

In another case, the Supreme Court denied a request that it consider a case challenging the a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate a wildlife refuge in an area of Texas sought by the city of Dallas for water development.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in March 2008 that the agency did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

Finally, the Court refused to hear a case in which an agricultural corporation sought compensation under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for revenue lost when federal officials forced it to destroy, or sell at low prices, eggs suspected of being contaminated with salmonella.

A lower court rejected the farming company's claim that a "regulatory taking" occurred.

A decision by the Supreme Court to decline to review a case, an action technically known as a "denial of certiorari," is not a statement by the Court about its view of the merits of the lower court's opinion.

Obama administration says Sonoran Desert bald eagles don't merit Endangered Species Act protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove a population of bald eagles native to the deserts of Arizona, a small part of southern California, and the Mexican state of Sonora from the nation's list of endangered and threatened wildlife species.

In an announcement Wednesday the agency said that the Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles is not a "distinct population segment" eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act and that it will therefore remove the protection of the law currently in place for it.

“We conclude that the best information available does not indicate that persistence in the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert Area is important to the species as a whole,” the agency said.

The Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles was previously listed as both an endangered and threatened species, along with all other populations of the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the United States.

That status existed until July 9, 2007, when the administration of President George W. Bush removed the bird known around the world as the nation's symbol from the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to a court order, continued the Sonoran Desert population's status as a threatened species.

On May 1, 2008 the agency classified the Sonoran Desert population as a distinct population segment and then, later that month, said it would commence a status review for it.

A federal district court in Arizona later gave the Service until Feb. 19, 2010 to complete it.

Environmentalists attacked the agency's proposed move.

"The population is reproductively, geographically, biologically, and behaviorally distinct from all other bald eagle populations, since no other bald eagle population occupies habitat so hot and dry – an adaptation that’s critically important as global warming becomes increasingly problematic for species survival," a statement issued by the Center for Biological Diversity said. "No other population of bald eagles will move in if this population disappears, and that will result in a significant gap in the overall bald-eagle range."

The agency's decision, once finalized, will likely be the subject of a renewed challenge in federal court.

Whether or not the Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles remains listed as a threatened species, it, like all other populations of the bird, remains protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Those federal laws prohibit killing or harming the eagles, their nests, or their eggs.

Fishers march on D.C., demand lenient catch limits

Fishers and their supporters staged a march on the Capitol Wednesday, demanding less stringent catch limits.

The caps, authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, can be imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an effort to meet the law's goal of ending over-fishing.

The regulatory power to limit fishing was added to the nation's primary fishery conservation law in Jan. 2007, when former President George W. Bush signed a bill enacted by a Republican-led Congress.

NOAA, through regional fishery management councils, must establish the science-based "annual catch limits" for species subject to over-harvesting this year.

NOAA recently closed several recreational fisheries under the terms of the law, including the black sea bass fishery in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.

Many participants in the "United We Fish" rally complained that their ability to earn a living on the sea will be unnecessarily restricted, with some arguing that fish populations subject to quotas are plentiful and able to withstand higher take levels.

In addition to expressing opposition to catch limits and fishery closures, protesters also urged enactment of an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would ease the 10-year deadline for NOAA to rebuild over-fished stocks.

The current law allows NOAA to extend the deadline in particular cases for biological and other reasons.

NOAA's chief fishery administrator defended the agency's recent actions and the country's principal fishery conservation law, arguing that a continued focus on rebuilding depleted fisheries will enhance fishing opportunities and strengthen local fishery-based economies.

"Ending overfishing is the first step to allowing a fish stock population to rebuild to a level where the stock can be fished sustainably for the long term," Eric Schwaab said in a statement.

Vermont senate votes to force closure of nuclear plant

The Vermont senate voted today to deny the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant the clearance necessary to obtain a license renewal.

Approval of the bill, which came on a 26-4 vote, could lead to the closure of the power plant in 2012.

The Vermont Yankee facility, which became operational in 1972, has since Jan. 7 been experiencing a leak of tritium into nearby groundwater.

Vermont legislators also indicated, during debate on the measure, that they believe officials of Louisiana-based Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, misled them during testimony about whether the pipes under the facility could lead tritium.

It is not clear whether the chamber's decision will be either permanent or of significance to the licensing decision, which is committed by federal law to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

When Entergy bought Vermont Yankee from a group of local utilities in 2004 it signed an agreement with Vermont requiring the state to issue a new "certificate of public good" before its federal license could be renewed.

The state senate's action Wednesday was to deny that new certificate.

It is possible, given that Vermont legislators stand for election this autumn, that a new senate majority more favorably disposed to Vermont Yankee could be installed and reverse today's action.

The NRC appears to be on the verge of granting Entergy a new 20-year operating license for Vermont Yankee. The agency recently granted such a renewal to owners of a plant of similar design located in New Jersey.

Vermont's Republican governor, Jim Douglas, had suggested earlier in the month that his state's legislature should not attempt to intervene in the licensing process. critical of the senate vote.

"We’re not anywhere near where there is concern of that magnitude,” Douglas said at a news conference.

The NRC also told Vermont legislators on Feb. 12 that it does not believe the tritium leak at the plant justifies a closure.

Several senators tried to get the body to send the measure back to committee in order to secure additional study of the economic results of closing Vermont Yankee, but that effort failed.

The plant employs 650 people.

Vermont is the only state in the union that has reserved a right to weigh in on licensure of nuclear power plants.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NYT article highlights significance of military bases for wildlife habitat

The New York Times has published an excellent story about the importance of the 30 million Department of Defense-owned acres in the U.S. for wildlife. It's worth your time to give it a read.

It is amazing that, not even a decade ago, the Pentagon was seeking exemptions from the reach of the Endangered Species Act. Now, the military is "gung ho" about this aspect of their mission to the tune of spending about $300 million per year on it.

And the armed forces' commitment, while not without controversy or challenges to its primary mission of national security, has also benefited, in many cases, entire ecosystems.

It will be quite interesting to see how the importance of federal military installations for wildlife is continues to be reflected in DoD efforts as more and more of the nation's wildlife becomes stressed due to human economic activities and climate change.

Klamath River pact aims for biggest dam removal project ever

An agreement to resolve long-standing arguments about water in the Klamath River basin of southern Oregon and northern California could lead to the removal of four dams.

The deal, which is spread across two separate legal agreements and which was entered into by about 30 organizations representing fishers, farmers, environmentalists and native Americans, aims to protect the basin's struggling wild salmon populations while assuring a reliable supply of irrigation water and hydropower to farmers.

It was announced at a news conference at the Oregon state capitol in Salem. California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Interior secretary Ken Salazar joined Oregon's Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski for the unveiling.

The Klamath River was dammed more than 100 years ago, mostly to provide hydroelectricity to the rural region. The water backed up in the reservoirs created by the four dams, now owned by PacificCorp, has been diverted for irrigation use by farmers.

If the dams are removed, which under the plan could happen no earlier than 2020, then salmon would have access once again to upstream spawning grounds.

Their disappearance would also reduce pollution in the basin's waters. The stagnant water in the reservoirs created by the dams is toxic as a result of the propensity of algae to breed there.

Before the dams, which include J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Irongate, can be removed, the Interior department will have to certify that restoration of the river to its natural state would restore wild salmon runs and is in the public interest. The secretary of the Interior must make that determination by March 31, 2012.

Additionally, Congress will have to appropriate the funds needed for the project.

The total cost to implement the plan, about $1.5 billion, would be shared among PacificCorp ratepayers, the states of Oregon and California, and the federal government.

The agreement would continue to permit farmers to draw water from the Klamath River. It would also keep the door open for filling of wetlands in the watershed, a provision that some environmentalists argue undermines the agreement's entire goal of salmon recovery and permit continued harm to the basin's famous migratory bird population.

Nor would the pact require farmers or government to reduce the non-point source water pollution entering the river from the large number of farms in the area. Such agricultural pollution is not regulated by the nation's principal water quality protection law.

That polluted water, which contains large amounts of pesticides and nitrates, can kill salmon as far as 100 miles downstream.

The battles over water in the Klamath River basin led, most recently, to controversy in the early years of this decade when federal water managers first reduced irrigation deliveries to farmers and then, after President George W. Bush took office, opened the floodgates to them. That in turn caused one of the largest fish kills in the history of the region.

Historically, the Klamath River basin was the third-most productive breeding area for Pacific salmon. In recent years the stocks of chinook and coho salmon native to the basin have declined precipitously and some of the coho runs have been listed by the U.S. government as endangered species.

Klamath River basin map courtesy U.S. government.

Obama administration says it will try again on salmon plan

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says it will take another look at a proposed plan aimed at saving endangered Pacific salmon species of the Columbia River basin.

The announcement, which came Friday, follows a statement by a federal judge hearing a challenge to the plan that it won't likely pass muster under the Endangered Species Act unless provisions allowing for adaptive management are added.

Redden gave NOAA the option of voluntarily agreeing to reconsider the plan before he ruled on the legal challenges to it.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco took that offer, but signaled that her agency will not make any significant changes to the plan despite arguments from a number of environmental organizations that it is not likely to bring back the Pacific Northwest's signature species from the brink of extinction.

"The court noted that we do not need to start over from scratch, develop a new jeopardy framework or put at risk the progress made through the regional collaborative process," Lubchenco said in a statement.

The plan before Redden, who sits on the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., does not contemplate any significant changes to the dams clustered along the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The dams are widely thought to be the most important contributor to the generally consistent declines in wild salmon stocks native to the watershed during recent decades.

NOAA's plan, which essentially proposes to more closely watch salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake river basins and then implement management strategies to cope with any continued stress facing them, is part of a biological opinion required under the ESA to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration to continue to operate the Federal Columbia River Hydropower System.

Redden rejected earlier versions of the biological opinion issued during the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration commenced a review of the 2008 version shortly after taking office last year.

The American Fisheries Society released last week a report concluding that a focus on adaptive management is not likely to bring about the recovery of threatened and endangered Columbia River basin salmon species.

Environmentalists, along with several Pacific Northwest states and some fishing organizations, have pushed the federal government to consider removal or breaching of four dams along the Snake River as a means to assure that goal is reached.

Photo of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) courtesy of NOAA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director dies

Samuel Hamilton, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, died Saturday.

Hamilton, 54, was appointed to lead the agency last September. He led the southeast regional office of the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 13 years before secretary of the interior Ken Salazar made him chief.

AP: Obama administration to announce Great Lakes restoration plan Sunday

The Obama administration plans to announce Sunday a multi-pronged, $2.2 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The goals of the plan include "zero tolerance" for invasive species, cleanup of polluted industrial areas within the watershed of the lakes, wetlands restoration, and protection of water quality in shallow areas of the watershed.

The program will also include provisions aimed at ensuring that progress is monitored.

The Great Lakes region is currently in the midst of an intense political and legal battle over the prospect that Asian carp, which are dangerous to native fish and destructive to water quality, will enter Lake Michigan.

Obama's plan would allocate $58 million to fight the carp invasion this year.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Environmental Groups Want Supreme Court to Intervene in Fish Case

Three environmental groups have asked the U.S. Supreme Court hear a case that aims to blockade non-native fish from Lake Michigan.

The request aims to secure an injunction that would prevent the dangerous Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes through a system of artificial locks and canals.

“We’re asking the court to intervene in an unprecedented crisis that, left unchecked, will impact the livelihoods of all who depend on a healthy Great Lakes,” Lyman Welch, an attorney and manager for the Alliance Water Quality Program, said.

Built to divert wastewater away from Lake Michigan and into the Illinois River, the city of Chicago's system of rivers and canals creates an aquatic superhighway for the Asian carp and other invasive aquatic species to travel between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi watersheds.

The environmental groups want the two watersheds physically separated and insist that returning them to an approximation of their native status is the only way to protect their ecological health.

"Failure to shut down this invasive species superhighway poses a threat to all U.S. waters," Marc Smith, policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation, said. "If nothing but the short-term half-measures that have been proposed by federal agencies are taken, economic and ecological devastation would only be a matter of time, and time is short."

The request supports Michigan's effort to convince the high court to reopen an eight decade-old case that authorized Chicago to divert water from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. In that case Illinois' neighboring states objected to the plan.

On Jan. 19 the Supreme Court rejected Michigan’s request for an injunction that would require two locks and waterways leading into Lake Michigan to be blocked.

Asian carp have already populated the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and their DNA has been found in the Chicago Waterway System and in Lake Michigan’s Calumet Harbor, which is located just outside Chicago.

The body of a single individual of the species was found about 20 miles south of the lake in December.

The fish, which can grow to a length of more than 4 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds, can knock boaters into the water. Each day they consume enough algae to equal 40 percent of their body weight, which causes the food supply for native fish to be placed under severe pressure.

That probable impact has led Michigan and neighboring states to be concerned that invasion of the Great Lakes by Asian carp would gravely harm the region's fishing industry and cause severe damage to water quality.

A species of Asian carp called Cyprinus carpio was first imported to the United States in the nineteenth century. Since then additional species have been introduced in the Mississippi River basin as a means to control algae in catfish farms and domestic aquaculture ponds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Chicago's artificial water diversion system, has opposed efforts to impose an ecological separation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River watershed.

The federal agency and the state of Illinois have argued that closing the locks would result in too much economic loss.

A study released Thursday says that imposing a barricade to Asian carp migration would cost about $70 million per year. The Corps of Engineers previously estimated the annual cost at $190 million.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. David Camp have introduced legislation that would force closure of Chicago's system of locks.

President Barack Obama held a meeting on Feb. 8 to discuss the problem with federal environmental policy leaders and Great Lakes state governors. The White House then released a proposal that essentially put off deciding whether to close the locks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Have wolves returned to Colorado?

This story from the Feb. 5, 2010 issue of High Country News says they may have.

And the Denver Post says that biologists are looking for them.

Gray wolves were extirpated from Colorado in the first half of the 20th century and the last confirmed sighting of an individual in the state was in 1943.

However, since reintroduction of the species to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s populations of the animal have begun to pop around the Rocky Mountain region.

The gray wolf was listed as an endangered species for more than three decades before the administration of President George W. Bush removed it from the list of those species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar re-affirmed that decision in spring 2009.

Environmentalists have challenged it but, in September 2009, a federal judge ruled that hunting of the species in the northern Rockies could continue.

China releases new water pollution data; annual loads to waterways are four times safe limits

China has released a new report detailing the amount of pollution discharged to its waters, and the results indicate that the country is overwhelming its rivers, lakes and streams with toxins.

According to a report published in today's New York Times, the first-ever Chinese national pollution census shows that, in 2007, the world's most populated country emitted more than 30 million tons of organic pollutants into its waters.

The Times article, quoting a Chinese environmental group leader, says that the annual limit for the country's lakes, rivers and streams is about 7.4 million tons of the organic pollutants that measure chemical oxygen demand.

Nearly half of the pollutants in China's freshwater chemical oxygen demand originate in agricultural operations, the report says.

The new report by the Chinese government also says that water pollution from soot and ammonia nitrogen have increased from previous, less-detailed examinations of the nation's pollution problem and that heavy metal contamination of water, including from mercury and lead, persists.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost 100,000 people in China die each year from water pollution-related causes and that 75 percent of disease in the country results from water quality problems.

A 2007 investigative report by the New York Times indicated that about 500 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Oil, trucking industry interests sue to block California low-carbon fuel regulations

California's innovative low-carbon fuel regulations, enacted last year in an effort to lower the state's contribution to greenhouse gas pollution of the atmosphere, are the subject of a lawsuit by oil and trucking interests.

The regulations, which were finalized by the state's Air Resources Board last month, require fuel manufacturers to reduce the carbon intensity of their product by 10 percent by 2020.

They require producers to account for indirect use of carbon in fuels, including during the manufacturing or refining processes. That mandate is controversial because, among other impacts, it may force corn farmers producing ethanol to account for the loss of land otherwise available to grow food and for wildlife habitat.

California Air Resources Board chairperson Mary Nichols condemned the litigation, arguing that the regulations will save consumers money, lower fossil fuel use and reduce air pollution.

"Their actions are shameful," Nichols said in a statement. "Instead of fighting us in court, they should be working with us to provide consumers in California and the rest of the nation with the next generation of cleaner fuels."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, American Truckers Association, Center for North American Energy Security, and Consumer Energy Alliance.

A spokesperson for the American Truckers Association told the New York Times that the regulations would raise the cost of fuel and equipment too much.

The litigation is pending in the U.S. District Court in Fresno.

A similar lawsuit was filed in December by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, California Dairy Campaign, Renewable Fuels Association and other groups, and a private ethanol company has challenged the regulations in California state court.

The complaint filed by the refiners and truckers interests is here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

AP: USFWS denies ESA listing for pika

The Fish and Wildlife Service has refused to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps), a small diurnal herbivore that is found in Western mountains, on the nation's endangered species list.

The Obama administration's decision comes despite ample evidence that the tiny mammal's habitat is disappearing rapidly due to global warming.

The story is here.