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RIVER LIFE

In Recognition of World Water Day, A Year of News

World Water Day was Saturday, March 22.  In recognition of the day, Circle of Blue, the online water news source, posted a series of tweets highlighting significant water news from the year just passed.  A sampling of this sample:

Water infrastructure rates a “D” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  Those of us who are old enough may remember the old commercial tagline, “You can pay me now, …or you can pay me later.”  Investment in infrastructure seems a given, right?  But we aren’t, and we can hope the bill won’t be too high when it comes due.

Floods in Central Europe reached levels not seen in 500 years.  Questions are raised about disaster management and response, whether the floods and their scale could have been anticipated, and what should be done to try to avoid repeats of these disasters.

Oil pipelines connected to Canada’s tar sands boom raise concerns about groundwater in the Great Lakes region.  Twin pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan and Ontario raise questions about a rupture that could contaminate the Great Lakes themselves.

Under the terms of a 2007 agreement, the US Bureau of Reclamation makes biennial estimates of flow in the Colorado River.  The 2013 study points to continued decline, which is likely to affect 40 million people.

California’s drought may have been the most visible water story in the United States, although the full impact, including food price hikes, may not be known for some time.

The Great Lakes made the news again, this time with reference to a toxic algae problem that caused at least one public water utility to have to close and flush its system.

Closing on a good note, Circle of Blue reports that its data dashboard has been featured as part of the White House climate change initiative.

None of these stories is about the Mississippi River or the Mississippi River basin, which, as these things go, is probably ok.  But all of these stories speak to issues that are quite readily possible somewhere in the basin or along the main stem in the easily foreseeable future.

 

 

A Big Week for Water News in Minnesota

Maybe our recent cold and snow has kept report writers chained to their desks.  Whatever the cause, something has happened, because this week has seen a spate of potentially important news about water in Minnesota.  A sampling:

Results of several studies on the impacts of sulfates in water on wild rice have been released.  The state Pollution Control Agency is set to announce shortly (was originally going to be Thursday 2/27, but has been postponed) whether the science indicates that new sulfate standards from mines need to be adopted.

The back story, as explained in an article by Stephanie Hemphill for Minnpost.com, is that we have known for a long time that high levels of sulfates damage wild rice.  The new studies show that the level at which damage occurs is lower than had been previously understood.  Wild rice is an iconic plant in Minnesota, and carries a variety of spiritual and cultural meanings for the state’s indigenous Ojibwe population.  Protection of wild rice would seem a “given,” except that mining companies are chafing at the existing restrictions, not to mention the potential for new, higher water quality standards.  Stay tuned: this could well end up in the state legislature and in the courts.

Speaking of the Legislature, the spring session began this week, which means that nothing is safe, or beyond comprehension.  In a very informative article, Elizabeth Dunbar from Minnesota Public Radio rounds up and summarizes a number of bills, mostly having to do with the emerging awareness that the state needs to manage its groundwater better.  Some of these, such as the appointment of a state hydrologist, are clearly good ideas.  Others, like the provision of bonding money to refill White Bear Lake near St. Paul, don’t appear to have been thought through very clearly.  Still, anything is possible.

And finally, it seems distinctly possible that Minnesota could become the first state in the country to ban triclosan, a key ingredient in many anti-bacterial products as well as common household items such as toothpaste, shampoos, and the like.  Research shows that triclosan can interact with chlorine and sunlight to form harmful dioxins in water.  Since water treatment plants commonly use chlorine and sunlight in their processes, this is a big problem.

Another article from MPR’s Dunbar points out that many big household product companies are already phasing triclosan out of their products, while others are dragging their feet.  State action would thus seem to be warranted.  The article has good quotations from Trevor Russell from the local organization Friends of the Mississippi (FMR).  FMR and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area combined forces to produce a State of the River report in late 2012.  That report, which concentrates on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul, covers triclosan and 12 other key indicators of river health.  Well worth a look.

One more note:  readers wanting to keep up to date on the groundwater issue in Minnesota should bookmark the MPR project Ground Level: Beneath the Surface, which has ongoing analyses and news coverage.

Lots to chew on here, but there are plenty of good journalists covering the issues and advocacy organizations keeping tabs on progress.

Pretty Big Trouble in a Pretty Small Place

Most of us here in the Midwest don’t think a lot about West Virginia.  It’s over there in the east somewhere, kind of hilly, got lots of coal, right?  I used to have a friend from West Virginia who regaled us with the challenge to “Name five Famous West Virginians.” (As I recall, Jerry West, Mary Lou Retton, Don Knotts, and Soupy Sales made the list.  I forget who else.)

But West Virginia made plenty of water news earlier this month when it was discovered that a chemical used to clean coal had spilled into the Elk River, near the largest water treatment plant in the state.  Tap water was cut off for nearly a week to some 300,000 people.  No drinking water, no water for cleaning, for bathing, for cooking.  No water. Period.  Except for bottled water and water trucked in from elsewhere.  Although the national news attention has mostly died down (short attention span as we know), the stories that are continuing indicate that life is far from back to normal.

It shouldn’t take a major spill and crisis to remind us of the importance of rivers, as sources of drinking water as well as all the other benefits they bring.  It’s probably not surprising that it does, though.  West Virginia is in the Mississippi River watershed, so nominally this story is “our business,” but it’s not a story that is central to understanding the state of waters and the Mississippi River right here where we live in Minnesota.  So, given that this crisis occurred while school was out for the semester break, and in the spirit of ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), here are some links to online sources you should track to learn more.  And in the spirit of our mission of teaching and learning, I’ll give you an idea of where we picked up the link.

A story from Mother Jones published shortly after the spill was discovered highlights the connections between this incident and a lax system of state and federal laws governing some dangerous chemicals.  @AmericanRivers was our source for this particular piece.

@highlyanne (Anne Jefferson) tweeted a link to a New York Times article addressing the same basic theme: lax regulations governing dangerous chemicals.

Finally, Mark Gorman (@NEMWIUpperMiss) a policy analyst for the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington DC posted a link to this story in the Washington Post about West Virginians’ reluctance when told they could finally use their water again.

My point with this post is not to offer exhaustive or complete coverage, but to indicate some sources, in addition to careful Google searches and the like, where additional information on a complex national story like this can be found.  We’ll post coverage like this from time to time, especially on issues where we don’t have particular expertise but can link readers to additional sources.

 

Uh Oh, Asian Carp in Great Lakes Watershed What Does This Mean?

October 29, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiver Issues,  | Asian CarpComments Off

Yesterday’s news that a reproducing population of Asian carp had been identified in the Great Lakes watershed was greeted with dismay across a wide variety of news platforms.

The four fish, caught in the Sandusky River in Ohio, all contained biological indicators that they had spent their entire lives in that river, and had not come from a fish farm or originated elsewhere and been accidentally transported to the Sandusky.

What does this discovery mean?  Turns out, it can be seen to have several meanings.

As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, US Geological Survey specialist Duane Chapman says the discovery makes the job of controlling the invasive fish more difficult, but not impossible.

Several sources have noted that grass carp such as the ones identified this week aren’t as big a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem as silver and bighead carp.  Silver carp, the “jumpers” that are so famous via YouTube, and bighead carp outcompete native species for food, causing vast disruptions to aquatic food chains.  Grass carp, while damaging, are primarily of concern because they damage underwater vegetation.

Nevertheless, as Prairie Rivers Network argues, the presence of a reproducing population of any of the Asian carps anywhere in the Great Lakes watershed means that it’s time to accelerate action to block the others from gaining such a foothold.

 

Carp Expert: They’re Probably Coming, But We Don’t Know What That Means

Leaping Silver CarpA week ago, the Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota sponsored the most recent lecture in the Moos Family Lecture Series, highlighting challenges to water issues in the region.  Dr. Duane Chapman spoke on “The Biology and Management of Asian Carps:  Lessons for Minnesota.”

Not surprisingly, the lessons were mixed, although the news coverage in MinnPost.com and other online sources led with optimism, “Asian carp can be controlled,” for example.  That much is certainly true; Chapman made the point very clearly that the carps are not an unstoppable force of Armageddon inexorably moving north and threatening to undo decades of work making our rivers attractive and accessible.

Which is by no means to say that we should stop our vigilance against the invasive fish.  Wherever populations have become established, very substantial changes to the aquatic ecology have followed.  The changes have been different in rivers from lakes, and vary by species of carp and the part of the previous ecosystem that has been most affected.  But make no mistake: the carps that are coming are trouble, and we need to continue policy efforts, research agendas, and communication campaigns to prepare for their coming.

Chapman’s lecture, and the panel discussion that followed, were both well worth hearing, and if you missed the event last week, you’re in luck because the Freshwater Society has a video of the talk and slides available on its web site.  Some of my key takeaways, which should by no means be understood as a complete sense of the argument, included:

  • we need to know a lot more about the biology of these fish, the physical environment (water temperature, speed, bed surfaces) they live in, and the ecology around them (what eats them? what do they eat?);
  • these subjects aren’t rocket science; they’re much harder, because there are so many moving parts, all of which adjust as other conditions adjust;
  • some of the four carps species can probably arrive in the Twin Cities river environments (which include the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers), and can probably survive, but the capacity to reproduce and establish a reproducing population is quite unknown at this time;
  • the carps seem to require floodplain lakes as habitats where the juveniles grow the most.  These lakes would thus seem to be good places to target anti-carps measures;
  • we don’t know if areas of the Minnesota River upstream of the Twin Cities might be more susceptible to them than the Twin Cities itself.  In other words, the Mississippi River in Pool 2 (St. Paul to Hastings) might not be a good place for them to get established, but they may be able to pass through Pool 2 and establish damaging populations in the Minnesota River, which comes into the Mississippi near the MSP airport;
  • south of here, in the Illinois River where carp infestations have become legendary on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of fish are removed every day by commercial fishermen.  This effort seems to be having some results, as the average size of the fish being taken has gotten smaller.
  • We have some time in Minnesota to be working on this, and now is the time to be working.  If we wait until they’re a problem, then the damage is done. (My emphasis).

A good place to learn what individuals can do in the Asian carps struggle is the web site of the Stop Carp Coalition, The federal government, which has a number of agencies working on various aspects of the problem has a web site clearinghouse of information, but that site is unfortunately unavailable right now because of the government shutdown.

 

 

Farmers As Water Conservationists

October 1, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiver IssuesComments Off

Dennis Anderson is the outdoors writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and therefore has a pretty big pulpit from which to convey his views.  After all, Minnesota is a state that voted extra taxes on itself in 2008 in part to preserve and enhance the legacies of clean water, fishing and hunting, parks and the arts.  Lots of people read Anderson’s work, and the “hook and bullet” audience is not always exactly coinciding in its views with urban environmentalists.  But that’s a whole other story.

Last Sunday, Anderson’s column profiled a farmer in southeastern Minnesota who has made water quality one of his primary concerns in farm management decisions.  The article is interesting in no small part because of the insight it sheds on the details of decision-making by someone who actually owns land and has to make decisions about how to balance the competing urgencies he faces.

Too often, the debates about water quality on the Mississippi are reduced to caricature: “farmers have to be made to comply with clean water rules because they won’t do it voluntarily” or “urban environmentalists have no idea what it takes to feed the world.”  The truth, as usual, lies uncomfortably somewhere between these easy positions.

Anderson says his piece is part of an ongoing effort to document the work of conservation-minded farmers.  I would like to second his call:  let me know of farmers or programs that are working to help farmers improve water quality.  Either send me an email or, better yet, write a comment to this post.  We’ll work to get the word out because clear thinking about concrete specific examples is one important way to get past the abstraction and generality of “farmer vs. environmentalist” where clean water is concerned.

More on Asian Carp–article has complexity and depth

Central RiverfrontLast week I posted about the need for better, more nuanced, thinking on the issue of whether or not to close navigation locks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to guard against the spread of Asian carp.  Well, I’m quite sure that the editors at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune weren’t listening to me, but they did publish a story last week that gave considerable breadth and complexity to the issue.

Some points of particular note:

  • Congresswoman Betty McCollum of St. Paul is lukewarm in her support of Minneapolis lock closure as the primary response to the threat from carp.  If the response to the threat is just closing Minneapolis locks, that strategy essentially concedes St. Paul’s stretch of the river to the invasive fish.  McCollum’s preferred plan, also in a proposed bill, would undertake a more comprehensive research and policy analysis that would attempt to thwart carp as far downstream as possible,
  • The potential for lock closure in Minneapolis is being watched closely by people monitoring the advance of Asian carp up the Illinois River toward Chicago and the Great Lakes.  There, a pitched battle is being fought in courts, in industry and Congressional offices, and in the “court of public opinion” about the question of “re-reversing” the Chicago River and establishing a permanent physical barrier to the carp.  The Minneapolis bill attempts to sidestep the controversial proposal to close locks on the basis of threats from carp by tying lock closure to traffic counts.  If the traffic through St. Anthony Falls locks drops below a certain volume, then the process to close the locks would start.  These locks are at the head of the system, so while there would be some impact on jobs and on transportation alternatives (more trucks on the region’s highways, for example) that impact would be much lighter than closing locks farther downstream
  • There’s an urban design and community development angle to the issue as well.  One of the industries upstream of St. Anthony Falls that uses the locks is the city’s Upper Harbor Terminal.  For a number of years now city staff have been studying the terminal site, and believe that redevelopment of the site would be more in line with the city’s economic and community development strategies

Complexities abound, and this dispute is a long way from being over.  Still, the step reported last week–inclusion of lock closure provisions in a federal water resource development bill–represents the strongest effort yet to fight the carp battle by creating a permanent physical barrier on the Mississippi River.

 

Editorial Page Battle Picks Up, Clear Thinking Does Not

A week ago, the editorial board of the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a remarkably focused argument that the locks at St. Anthony Falls near downtown should be closed, lest invasive Asian carp get through, endangering the state’s lucrative and important tourism and recreational fishing industries.  Most observers of the carp battle were pleased with this development.

But not all.  This week, the paper published an op-ed commentary from the deputy for programs and project management at the St. Paul District, Army Corps of Engineers.  She asserted–argued would be too strong a word–that Asian carp would not be a threat to the northern waters of the state because there are a couple of other dams above St. Anthony, and besides, the state’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness isn’t even in the watershed.  Calling for “relevant facts and good science,” she argued that essentially we all need to work together.

Indeed we do.  But we have to have better ways to make points and engage in discussions of important matters of public policy than just saying “I have additional facts, so your argument is wrong.”  In fact, the science has not yet told us the likelihood of carp surmounting some dams, and the northern Minnesota watersheds are so complex that boundaries should be considered extremely porous to aquatic invasive species.

Fortunately, clearer thinking (necessary but not sufficient for answers to complex questions) is at hand.  The Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota are holding a public lecture on the carp problem in early October.

Duane Chapman, a research biologist who is an expert on Asian carp, will give a free public lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in St. Paul.

His lecture, titled “The Biology and Management of Asian Carp: Lessons for Minnesota,” is sponsored by the Freshwater Society, the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences, the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, and the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

The lecture will be at 7 p.m. in the Student Center theater on the university’s St. Paul campus.

Learn more and register to attend at www.freshwater.org.

We Ought To Be Able To Do Better Than This

Suppose for a minute that you knew there was a mortal threat to your livelihood, if not your life, encroaching street by street, block by block, coming inexorably toward you.  You don’t know where the threat is right now, but you know it’s out there somewhere.

Options:

  1. Work with neighbors to create a deterrent fence or some other protective structure on your block.
  2. Put up your deterrent structure on your property, because, after all, the neighbors aren’t that easy to work with and some of them don’t think this is much of a threat anyway.
  3. Reinforce your front door, but leave your front yard unguarded, because, really, your yard is a pretty cool place, but the real safety and value is in your house.
  4. Don’t worry about your yard or house, but reinforce your bedroom door, figuring that any money spent defending yourself prior to your “last stand” is money wasted.
Leaping Silver Carp.  Flickr:  UWiscSeaGrant

Leaping Silver Carp. Flickr: UWiscSeaGrant

If the mortal threat in this little scenario is the Asian carps that are coming up the Mississippi River, voraciously outcompeting local native fish (like walleyes) for food and wrecking the ecosystem, to say nothing of their You Tube-documented habit of jumping into the air when alarmed, then it appears the State of Minnesota may have chosen Option 4 above.  Sure, the DNR is putting money into studies of the state’s “front yard” waters, and thinking about drawing the line against carp in the Twin Cities.  But as this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune makes clear, the money actually being spent on deterrance is north of the city, at the Coon Rapids Dam.  The Coon Rapids Dam may be the “last defense” against the invasive fish before they get upstream into northern Minnesota, potentially threatening a state fishery and tourism industry that has been estimated at between $7 and $11 billion in annual value.

So why are we only reinforcing the last line of defense?  Long time observers of the Coon Rapids Dam controversy might argue that this whole thing started years ago, when local agencies debated who would pay to upgrade and maintain the deteriorating century-old structure.  Local park districts didn’t want to invest in it.  Why not take the dam down and let the river run free?  Well, a couple of hundred homeowners who have property stretching a few miles upriver would then have mud flats for their front yard, instead of an impounded, lake-like Mississippi River, provided for them by taxpayers across the state of Minnesota.

So we have $16 million being invested in the 100 year old dam, with Asian carps used as the rationale for preserving the dam and the amenity of the lake.

We ought to be able to do better than this.

Minnesota DNR faces complex, wicked problems; are better stories (part of) the answer?

An article by Doug Smith in Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune discusses the increasing complexity of some of the problems that concern the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  It’s not enough any more just to try to figure out of to provide enough walleyes for all the fishermen in the state.  Instead, land use change and habitat loss, overuse of water resources (see Josephine Marcotty’s fine article sounding the alarm on diminished water in the state), pending climate change, all are issues that require new, more complex thinking and awareness of the state’s interconnected resource systems. Read more →

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