The War on New Mexico’s Water

Not so great news out of New Mexico:

Why, when global warming threatens to make scarce water resources even more elusive, would New Mexico’s regulatory agencies stand idly by and watch extractive industries maneuver to destroy our water? Maybe it’s because the oil and gas industry bought Governor Martinez the Governor’s mansion. Maybe it’s because boards and commissions charged with enacting the regulations governing industrial activities are now stacked with current and former industry employees or people closely associated with industry. Maybe it’s to advance a radical ideology where every person (including corporate persons) are free to pollute the commons in pursuit of a buck. Whatever the reasons, the result is that our Governor has declared war on our water. And with New Mexico regulatory agencies, boards and commissions becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of the industries they regulate, the future of New Mexico’s water looks grim.

Read the whole thing on The Range blog at High Country News. I’ll follow this one and let you know how things turn out.

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Enviro Quick Hits

Working on a number of long posts. In the meantime, enjoy these environmental news quick posts:

Environmental regulators at work (via Drudge Report): Business Gets $4,000 Fine for a Missing Trashcan Lid

Kicking our butts in the solar game: Germany’s Solar Power Use Jumps 50 Percent

Someone else wondering why we let sewage flow into our rivers: Fecal Matters

Paul Greenberg on our mistreatment of the American oyster: An Oyster in the Storm

An answer is only as good as the question: Pennsylvania Agency Didn’t Mention Water Pollution Near Fracking Site Because No One Asked

Hurricane Sandy Brings Toxic Sludge

Via Drudge Report, news that one of America’s most extensively contaminated water bodies is flooding. The New York Observer has a story short on information and long on photos. It’s not a pretty sight:

Flooding in the canal is troubling as its a superfund site that is home to extensive industrial activity and has a long, well-deserved reputation as a hotbed of toxic sludge and pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency describes the canal as “one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies.”

If this is the worst news to come out of Hurricane Sandy, we will be very fortunate indeed. I have no doubt that every significant storm leaves behind an environmental mess, mostly due to the flooding of sewage and waste treatment systems and generally the washing of all the detritus of human activity into the ocean.

Is Your Fish Toxic?

Asks Moldy Chum.

New data collected by Columbia Riverkeeper show shocking levels of toxic pollution in local fishermen’s catch in Oregon and Washington. A Portland, Oregon, fish, for example, contains PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) at levels 27,000 percent above what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe for unrestricted consumption.

Is it an omen that this isn’t news to me? Doesn’t shock or even surprise me? I didn’t even put my coffee down, or read the entire story. I’m only posting it in light of my earlier post on mercury contamination of fish in Lake Powell.

Here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to buy a camera, a nice camera, idiot-proof, so that I can take photos of nature – the stars and clouds and mountains and all the outdoors – so that I can provide some balance on this blog. It’s all bad news, doesn’t it seem? Overwhelmingly bad, horrible news. We need some positivity, beauty, inspiration. We need a little something to remind us what it’s all about, to make us smile and be optimistic and joyful and passionate and caring.

Pesticides in Our Waters

Ben Long from High Country News alerts us to possible shenanigans underway in Congress. It appears a coalition of agriculture and chemical company interests are lobbying Congress to allow farmers and others to apply pesticides near waterways without first obtaining EPA-Clean Water Act permits. The lobbying effort is part of the grossly over-funded reauthorization of the Farm Bill, the law that funds farm subsidy supports and food stamp programs.

Digging a little deeper, which unfortunately one always has to do with any HCN article, it appears that there was a lawsuit regarding the EPAs 30-year long practice of not requiring Clean Water Act (CWA) permits for application of pesticides near waterways. The EPA had long held that a CWA permit was not needed because pesticides and their use are already regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Someone sued the EPA, and a U.S. Court of Appeals decided with the plaintiffs, and against the EPA (par for the course with the EPA). Hence, the effort in the Farm Bill to reestablish the old status quo.

I don’t know what to make of the policy fight. Maybe the laws are duplicative, as EPA argues. Maybe not. In truth, I don’t care. Like a lot of our political fights, this one ignores the central point: why are we dumping pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers into our nation’s waterways? Why is there even a permit process for this activity? The fact that there is a permit process means that we don’t just tolerate this, but we approve of the degrading of our nation’s waterways with pesticides and other pollutants.

Look, nonpoint source pollution is the nation’s largest source of water quality problems. It is the reason why 40 percent (!) of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough for human uses like swimming and fishing. According to the EPA, agriculture is the leading contributor to water quality impairments, degrading 60 percent of the impaired river miles and half of the impaired lake acreage surveyed (municipalities are killing the estuaries). We’ve made tremendous strides cleaning up point source pollutants from our municipal wastewater treatment plants and our industrial facilities, but we have no controls in place over the majority of pollutants that enter our waterbodies from stormwater runoff, which carries with it all the fertilizers dumped on lawns to keep them green, all the motor oil and gasoline spilled onto parking lots and city streets, all the loose soils and other materials from construction sites, and all the chemicals dumped onto our agricultural lands.

No one’s arguing that pesticides aren’t important. They are vitally important for a number of reasons dealing with food security and agricultural productivity. Note: pesticides are not justifiable toward the maintenance of that nice, lush carpet of green grass our fertilizer companies are selling to every homeowner. But we have allowed the use and application of agricultural chemicals too near waterways for too long, and they are polluting a significant public Commons, the nation’s waters. What we need is some new thinking, some new understanding that the waters belong to all of us, not just the agricultural interests; we need a new set of laws to protect our nation’s waters, not a new permitting process to allow the same old practices to continue.

Dear Seattle: Please Stop Peeing in the Pacific

National Geographic is reporting  the discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon Coast, although pollution may be the wrong word:

The Pacific Northwest may be the epicenter of U.S. coffee culture, and now a new study shows the region’s elevated caffeine levels don’t stop at the shoreline.

The discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean off Oregon is further evidence that contaminants in human waste are entering natural water systems, with unknown consequences for wildlife and humans alike, experts say.

I’ve spent some time on the Oregon coast, and I’m a man known to enjoy more than one cup of coffee in the morning, so feel free to direct your ire toward me. Don’t direct it toward Seattle, though. (And yes, I know Seattle is in Washington). It appears that the caffeine is originating from the many rural septic systems located up and down the coast, rather than from the population centers where waste water is treated. But before you lobby your congressman to outlaw coffee, or pee, consider the following from one of the insightful commentors to this story:

45 nanograms per liter is equivalent to a 45 parts per quadrillion or 4.5 x 10^-11. That’s 2.2 grams of caffein (sic)  in ten million tons of water. I agree we should keep track of pollution, but will any creatures get a caffeine high at that level? I am amazed at the incredible sensitivity of our analytical techniques even though I helped develop some of them. Perhaps, though, we should worry more about the really serious contamination which poses a clearly demonstrable hazard.

Now I haven’t double checked this guy’s math, because math is hard. But I do know that we have the ability to detect the most minute levels of pollutants in our waters. I once wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the editor was getting really worked up about a level of pollution that amounted to ‘3 drops in an olympic sized swimming pool.’ That doesn’t excuse the pollution, or mean that we should not track it or be concerned about it. I think what is important is understanding the effect of pollutants on natural systems, understanding the source of these pollutants, and understanding the cycle that allows pollutants to enter the system, move through the system, and either get deposited long-term or flushed from the system. The NatGeo article does state that the impact on natural systems from caffeine in the environment is largely unknown (although it may impact mollusks), and is a problem that has been observed elsewhere.

As to the term ‘pollutant’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary unhelpfully defines pollutant as ‘something that pollutes.’ Digging unnecessarily further into Merriam-Webster, we find that ‘to pollute’ may be defined as “to make physically impure or unclean: befoul, dirty” or “to contanimate (an environment) especially with man-made waste.” By these definitions, maybe caffeine does pollute the Pacific Ocean, even if it ends up having no real harmful effects to natural systems.

NRDC Says Beware the Water at Nation’s Beaches

Just in time for your summer beach vacation, the Natural Resources Defense Council releases its annual report on water quality at the nation’s beaches. Here are a few bites from the NRDC apple:

“America’s beaches are plagued by a sobering legacy of water pollution, including bacteria-laden human and animal waste,” said NRDC Water Program Director Steve Fleischli.

“So when people dive into the ocean, it can make them sick with a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pink eye, ear nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems.”

The NRDC identifies polluted stormwater discharge as the culprit behind most beach closings.

“When it rains, the water carries trash, chemicals, oil, animal waste — you name it — off the paved streets of our communities into sewers and ultimately to our beach.”

The NRDC, of course, has an agenda. But it’s absolutely true that non-treated stormwater discharge is a huge problem. Although we have made great improvements in protecting the nation’s waters, we obviously have a long way to go.

A few weeks back I blogged about water quality issues in Kansas. Incidentally, I received a reply from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to my questions about the source of pollutants, and possible solutions. In short, the department said that it’s a mix of influences that affect water quality. These influences include agriculture, urban stormwater runoff, discharge from municipal wastewater treatment plants, and nutrients from many sources including all that fertilizer some people dump on their lawns, just to name a few. As for remedies, the simplest fix is to buffer streams with riparian areas, filter strips, stream setbacks, and so on.

Like many environmental issues, protecting our streams and lakes and oceans is a matter of commitment, a commitment of time and money and a commitment to change behavior and practices (such as agricultural practices). Unfortunately, there is little emphasis, or incentive, or momentum right now to change anything. It’s a sour note to end a beach post on, but I firmly believe that to fix a problem, one must first recognize the problem, and the problem, very clearly, is that environmental considerations rank very, very low on our to-do list in this country.