spy vs. spy, lobbyist-style

I wrote recently about the attempt by the last coal-fired steamer on the Great Lakes, the SS Badger, to circumvent environmental laws that would force it to upgrade to a modern propulsion system.  I really find it hard to justify such an outdated and messy mode of transportation, which dumps 509 tons of coal ash in Lake Michigan every year (an average of nearly one and a half tons per day).  That’s a lot of ash.

Well, the language to exempt the SS Badger from EPA’s oversight was stripped from a U.S. House of Representatives bill just last week.  Advocates from Michigan and Wisconsin had added an amendment to a Coast Guard reauthorization bill to exempt the ship, as a National Historic Landmark, from EPA oversight.  However, the reauthorization bill was passed without the amendment, meaning that the Badger’s permit to operate expires on December 19th, no exceptions.

Apparently, a rival ferry with diesel-powered engines, Lake Express, appealed to its own representatives, including one from Milwaukee, to vote out this amendment.  Lake Express offers ferry service about $50 more than the SS Badger, for service about 1.5 hours shorter (2.5 hours vs. 4 hours).  In a public statement, Lake Express noted that in the SS Badger’s own correspondence with the EPA, the company said it could pay for equipment to eliminate the need to dump coal ash by upping their ticket prices by just $4 per customer — which would still be much cheaper than Lake Express.  In other words, it’s less about the money and more about the effort…

The conclusion from all of this is, two rival companies appealed to rival lawmakers, and despite what might seem like corruption of the legislation process, the best outcome was reached, as far as protecting human health and the environment.  Whether you call the SS Badger’s National Historic Landmark status a loophole or an earmark, it was not successful.  The process works…

bad timing for grand ideas

I’ll take a brief respite from my recent oil pipeline kick (more to come later this week) to compare two different news stories: one is the continuing saga of water management struggles in the Missouri-Mississippi River basins, and the other is the attempt to track down new water management strategies for the water-poor, population heavy Front Range region of Colorado.

Over in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, stakeholders continue to fret about the balance of water flowing through their reaches.  Farmers in North Dakota worry about sufficient irrigation water in the future, as the Army Corps of Engineers considers depleting the 12 years of supply stored in the Upper Missouri’s reservoirs.  (Note to Hetch Hetchy restoration advocates: that’s a lot of supply to be stored.  Engineers must think that excess storage is a hedge against uncertain future conditions, huh…).  Barges in the Mississippi are cutting down their loads, so they can ride higher in the river, and dredging activities to remove natural limestone features along the Illinois-Missouri border have been accelerated.  Don’t let the title of that article fool you — the only water wars in progress are figurative, not literal.

Things could escalate — though almost certainly not to actual violence — if a proposed plan to build a pipeline from the Missouri River watershed to Colorado’s Front Range goes through.  The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) is entertaining far-fetched ideas to address Colorado’s limited water supply, including towing an iceberg to California, shipping giant bags of water from Alaska, and yes, building a giant pipeline across Kansas to Denver.  In order to consider these odd ideas seriously, the USBR has started the planning and alternative evaluation process.  I outlined how this generally works in relation to the Hetch Hetchy restoration idea, but suffice it to say, this pipeline is still at the early stages of “tools for decision making” rather than the early stages of design and implementation.

Although this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it first might seem (the pipeline would need to be roughly 600 miles long, only 50% longer than the 419-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct), I really hope it doesn’t make the next cut for analysis.  The goal in the US should not be to emulate California’s extensive aqueduct network, but rather to implement large-scale water recycling to cut down on net consumption of water by various municipalities or regions.

The timing of this idea is also about as bad as it gets.  Any sign of the Missouri and Mississippi stakeholders getting wind of this idea, and an all-out media war of words will likely ensue.  That’s a good way to ensure that regardless of the engineering feasibility study outcome, the public relations battle will already be far lost.  And who knows, maybe that’s what USBR really wants, too.

science delivers an answer on Great Lakes water levels

Shame on me for repeating news from reporters without looking into the numbers in greater detail.  I’m not terribly surprised to find out that a swath of recent research on the dynamics of climate, ice cover, evaporation, and flow rates in the Great Lakes system has been published.  There’s a great article chock full of details and solid explanations of the research here on the National Geographic Water Currents blog.  Here’s the take-home message, which should settle the debate on why water levels are so low in the Great Lakes:

Lake water levels are heavily influenced by the amount of ice cover in the winter.  Ice cover in the winter affects when and how much the lake evaporates in the summer.  Ice cover has been at record lows, with a singularity in the winter of 1997-1998.  Since then, significant evaporation has started earlier in the summer, and the lake water has been getting steadily warmer.  This means that the annual onset of water level declines is starting earlier in the year, too, which all leads to lower average water levels.

The scientists apparently don’t want to speculate on the influence of climate change, since water levels aren’t yet statistically different from historical ranges.  Fine, but increasing surface temperature and decreasing ice cover/snowpack are two clear factors in favor of this explanation.  I suspect that the drought is the short-term driver of losses in the Great Lakes system, but climate change is the long-term driver, perhaps of both the Great Lakes system and the drought itself.

Happy Thanksgiving to all — let us be thankful for what we have to drink!

Mississippi river blues

I’ve mentioned that water levels in the Great Lakes have declined recently, and that this is probably related to climatic factors like recent droughts.  Low flows on the Mississippi River suggest that droughts are, indeed, a big factor in the upper Midwest right now.  In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to manage the reservoirs on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to balance conservation and water flow.  Their latest decision to keep more water stored in an upper Missouri reservoir may mean that barge traffic on the Mississippi near St. Louis and Illinois may shut down early next year, absent heavy rain/snow.  The Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, and in a normal year, up to 60% of the combined flow comes from the upper Missouri watershed.  This year, however, approximately 78% of the combined flow has come from the upper Missouri — which means that the flow from the upper Mississippi (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and even Lake Michigan) is a mere 22% of the flow.  In other words, the upper Mississippi makes up a smaller piece of the pie than in a normal year, plus the whole pie is smaller than a normal year.  Rough times.

There’s not much to be done in the midst of a drought except draw down our reservoirs (this is why we save up our water every wet year) and increase dredging to deepen existing shipping channels.  But I can say that this saga tells us that the problems of the Great Lakes are not due to a couple of extra diversions here and there — the middle of the country is in a tough drought, and there’s less water to go around.  Another year like this, and we’ll be praying for rain.

the Great Lakes don’t drain where you think

The water levels in the Great Lakes look to remain low for the foreseeable future, according to projections by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  This time, though, there’s a new suspected culprit for the prolonged declines, according to a local politician: the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC).

You may not know it, but the CSSC connects Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River.  So besides the main outlet of the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence River, there’s also some flow that is diverted towards the Gulf of Mexico. Originally, the city of Chicago was similar to Berlin, Germany and Las Vegas, Nevada, in that its wastewater discharged into the same body of water from which it withdraws its water supply.  But this was back in the late 1800s, when there wasn’t wastewater treatment but there was cholera.  People were rightly worried about public health.

So, the engineers came up with the easiest option: build a separate canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River (flowing water away from the city), ostensibly for shipping, and then dump the city’s wastewater in it.  Problem solved! (Except for Milwaukee’s wastewater, but that’s a separate topic.)

With Chicago taking water from Lake Michigan and diverting its wastewater to the CSSC, a large quantity of water is diverted from the Great Lakes system, on average some 1.2 billion gallons per day, or 450 billion gallons per year.  That’s a lot of water.  But how much water is normally flowing through the Great Lakes?  Ultimately, the water in the Great Lakes goes over Niagara Falls, which has an average flow rate of approximately 4 million cubic feet per second, or roughly 944 trillion gallons per year.  So, back of the envelope says that Chicago is diverting 0.05% of the flows from Niagara to the Mississippi.  I suspect that this is not as significant as the climactic effects of record droughts and low snowpack, but that’s a bigger calculation than I’m willing to take on for today.  We’ll see if the Michigan politician mentioned in the article above ends up stirring the pot further on this question.

nostalgia for coal ash

For those of us who like to think back on “the good old days”, try a ferry ride on the last coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes, on Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  The ship has been granted a reprieve from standard environmental laws that allows it to burn coal and dump its coal ash in the lake as it goes along.  That’s “only” 4 tons per trip, or 509 tons annually, and just like the good old days, the ash is laced with arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals.  If you’ve been feeling far too removed from pollution, and would like to recall the US before environmental regulations stifled small businesses like this one, the S.S. Badger is the ship to take.

It seems that four years ago, the ship’s owners promised EPA to upgrade their ship’s propulsion system to diesel.  The ship already had an exemption to state air quality standards to allow its black exhaust in the air, and the owners had previously rejected an offer for state funding to convert to diesel in 2001, claiming that they wanted to operate “without governmental assistance”.  But the EPA deadline is quickly approaching, with no update in sight.  Now that they didn’t get $14 million in stimulus funding to make the same upgrade, they’ve shifted to subverting EPA’s enforcement; they’ve spent $290,000 on federal lobbyists since 2008, according to records compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Though the latest round of supplications to EPA insists that they’ll store the ash onboard by 2017 and convert to liquified natural gas in the more distant future, the owners are really trying to register the S.S. Badger as a National Historic Landmark out of EPA’s reach.  The application says that the ship’s “historical propulsion system” is “under threat” by the EPA.  It does not mention that this one ship’s 509 tons of ash far exceed the 89 tons of coal, limestone, and iron waste that all other Great Lakes freighters discharge to the lake annually.  Combined.

Political support for the “historical” ship is mixed, with just enough power in the opposition (notably, Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader) to keep the ferry from being written into loopholes of budgets for federal agencies.  To me, this is an example of a company trying to act above the law.  Its responses to EPA are disingenuous and incompatible with the National Historic Landmark application.  Is anyone out there nostalgic for the days when our cities were covered in dark soot clouds from coal-fired industry without any environmental regulation?  I find the argument for preservation of a historic coal boiler specious — this is about being cheap and staying above the law, plain and simple.  I hope EPA throws the book at them.

canary in the coal mine

[*Note: Sorry I didn’t get this post up on Monday.  Things got away from me, being out of town this weekend for fun and then all day Monday for work.  We should be back on track for the rest of the week.*]

People like to talk about water issues in the West like they’re a special case. And by and large, they’re right — water scarcity in the Southwestern US brings up issues of water rights and alternate supplies well before they hit the rest of the country. But the rest of the country is not immune to water scarcity, despite the relative abundance of rainfall (San Diego: 10 inches per year; Boston: 42.5 inches per year; Atlanta: 50.2 inches per year). Really provocative thinkers propose grand schemes to save the West like piping water from the Great Lakes to the Colorado River. Well, besides a large number of Michiganders, Chicagoans, Wisconsinites and others who would insist that the West can’t have their water, things aren’t perfectly rosy in the Great Lakes.

In fact, Lake Michigan recently hit its record low. What happened? Lake levels vary quite a bit (a few feet) annually, but Lakes Michigan and Superior have been below the long-term average since the late 1990s.  Their main outflow, the St. Clair River, has been heavily dredged, which increases the rate water exits the lake basins.  Add in a touch of climate change (you may have heard of the spectacular drought across the US this year), and there’s just not as much water in the system.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but it is worth pointing out that water mismanagement–or perhaps, lack of management–is a nationwide issue.  The impacts may hit the Southwest first, but the story of water scarcity across this country is not going away any time soon.

the do-nothing alternative

I was pleased to see this recent report out of a US-Canadian advisory panel that the best option to manage varying water levels of the Great Lakes is, actually, nothing.  Homeowners adjacent to shorelines that have risen and fallen significantly in the past 20-30 years were hoping that dams or similar water flow controls between the Great Lakes would constrain the water levels with less variation.  But remember, these are the Great Lakes.  That’s a lot of water we’re talking about, and building big dams on that scale would be massive in cost (both dollars and environmental damage).  Plus, there’s no guarantee that dams can prevent long-term trends in water balance between rainfall, runoff, and evaporation.  I mean, look at Lakes Powell and Mead on the Colorado River: the physical infrastructure can’t overcome the lack of precipitation and runoff in the Colorado basin when withdrawals continue unabated, and consequently water levels have declined on the order of 100 ft since the lakes filled.

So let’s see, a project that would benefit some shoreline property owners but have huge infrastructure and environmental costs…doesn’t exactly sound like something I’d want my taxpayer money paying for.  It’s a relief that the advisory panel was not swayed by a few annoyed shoreline residents into unsound advice.  The “do nothing” alternative can sometimes be a high bar to meet and exceed.