Drought, shade balls, lawsuits and honeybees

A California farmer on his farm land where he usually grows melons and wheat.  Source: NYTIMES, http://nyti.ms/Pls1Ax)A California farmer on his farm land where he usually grows melons and wheat.  Source: NYTIMES, http://nyti.ms/Pls1Ax)
A California farmer on his farm land where he usually grows melons and wheat. Source: NYTIMES, http://nyti.ms/Pls1Ax).

It’s been a busy summer here at the Kellogg Biological Station: I’ve mentored my first undergraduate summer intern (paying it forward for all the mentorship I’ve received); learned how to measure carbonate content and phosphorus fractions in soils; collected several hundred soil porewater samples; and, hey, our softball team even won a few games.  Today I thought I’d update you with a few news stories I have my eye on.

  1. The drought in California: My undergraduate assistant mentioned how lucky we (Michiganders) are that we have so much water, “not like what’s happening in California.”  The drought in California seems to have reached the national consciousness, which could help start conversations about water stewardship and conservation in watersheds across the country.  In fact, this is one of the top priorities a groundwater use stakeholders group recommended to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  Many take for granted that this is a “water-rich state,” do not apply a water stewardship ethic to their own water use, and were unprepared for the drought of 2012.  A story from NPR called “In Search Of A Drought Strategy, California Looks Down Under“, explains that Californians still don’t value water enough to make drastic policy changes.   It notes similarities between California’s current water policies and Australia’s former water policies, where land owners/water users (irrigators accounting for the largest water use) have the right to a certain, static amount of water, regardless of climate.  In 1994 Australia overhauled its old water rights system, separating the water rights from property rights, and created a water rights market.  The government sets a cap on the amount of water that can be used (this cap is adjusted during wet and dry years), and farmers receive shares of the water supply that they can buy and sell.  The NPR story suggests that, although “water markets” is still a bitter pill for most Californians to swallow, it might not be completely off the table.  (Here is a moving visualization of the drought.)
  2. Speaking of California, the recent buzz word has been “shade balls”, which were deployed in the Los Angeles reservoir.  Most of the Colorado River (yep, LA gets its water from the Colorado) reservoirs and canals are uncovered, meaning significant losses of water to evaporation.  So, when the mayor of LA released 20,000 shade balls into the LA reservoir to help stem evaporative losses, it was media gold.  But the idea that it helps stem the California drought is misleading, as explained in this LAWeekly article “Shade Balls Are A Really Stupid Way to Conserve Water”.  Basically, the cost of the shade balls is not an efficient use of money for the amount of water it protects, and the media stunt was really the city coming into compliance with existing federal drinking water quality mandates, which it would have to do drought or no drought.
  3. Let’s switch gears to water quality instead of water quantity as we move eastward to Iowa where the Des Moines Water Works has filed a federal lawsuit against ten drainage districts and their county supervisors in the Raccoon River watershed, as reported in the DTN/The Progressive Farmer.  The heart of the issue is that the utility wants tile drains to be treated as point sources of pollution rather than non-point sources, which if successful, would have big impacts on farmers.  They would have to buy expensive permits and would be required to limit their use of nitrogen fertilizers.  Tile drains are a fascinating feat of engineering, they are basically slotted pipes that are laid below crop fields to rapidly drain soils and prevent fields from flooding.  The pipes quickly and efficiently move shallow groundwater away from fields and into drainage ditches.  These pipes can serve as the “headwater” for many streams in this area of Iowa.  The downside of this system is that the drainage water bypasses the soil flow paths where the nitrogen could be filtered out and removed from the water before reaching the ditch/stream.  By treating these pipes as point sources, they would come under much more intense regulation by the EPA. Farmers in the area are very concerned about the potential costs they would incur if the litigation is successful.
  4. Let’s end on a hopeful note: Science Daily published a report yesterday explaining how a scientific study found that a wild population of honey bees in Ithaca, NY have evolved resistance to a predatory mite–one of the leading causes of colony collapse disorder.  The story highlights the importance of museum collections of organisms as historical references for evolutionary research and the value of a species’  genetic diversity for adapting to future challenges.  The story does not predict how this information could be used to help other honey bee populations.

That’s all for now.  Enjoy the rest of your summer & remember:

No water, no life.  No blue, no green.

–Sylvia Earle


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