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Entries in pollution (55)

Wednesday
Mar082017

Pollution Is Not Good, But Neither was Obama Clean Water Rule

Capt. Steve Chaconas with Potomac River bass

President Trump recently signed an Executive Order to roll back Obama's  2015 "clean water rule," which greatly expanded federal authority over public and private waters. Below is my 2014 analysis of the proposal, before it was enacted by executive fiat.

 *     *     *     *

We all live downstream.

Thus, pollution poses an exponential threat to our waters and our fisheries. And in a perfect world, no one would pollute.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

As a consequence, we pollute, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes flagrantly. Along the Potomac River, signs once warned that just touching the water could be hazardous to human health. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire. And Lake Erie was known as a “dead sea.” The list of waters degraded and almost destroyed by pollution is a long and shameful one.

We, however, also have learned to clean up after ourselves, prompted by the federal Clean Water Act of1972. Erie now is one of the nation’s most productive fisheries. The Potomac is nationally known for its bass fishing. And the Cuyahoga, a river once devoid of fish, now is home to 44 species. The list of waters enhanced and restored is a long and hopeful one, and we arguably do more to protect our aquatic resources than any other country in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve done as much as we can or should do to minimize pollution. But neither are we living in a time when rivers are catching on fire and as much needs to be done or even can be done, for that matter.

But that doesn’t keep some from trying, especially those who believe that more big government is the solution to our imperfections. That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to expand the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ to include water on private property.

Additionally, under new proposals, jurisdiction would extend to streams regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, as well as to ditches, gullies, and just about any low spot where moisture collects on a seasonal basis.

And that’s why the move is being heartily endorsed by environmental groups, who argue that court rulings have weakened the CWA.

“It’s taking the way the Clean Water Act works back, so that it works the way water works in the real world,” said Bob Wendelgass of Clean Water Action.

But just how far do you allow the federal government to intrude on the rights of private property owners? Those rights are a cornerstone of who we are as a nation and why so many from all over the world want to live here.

“The EPA’s draft water rule is a massive power grab of private property across the U.S,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas. “This could be the largest expansion of EPA regulatory authority ever.

“If the draft rule is approved, it would allow the EPA to regulate virtually every body of water in the United States, including private and public lakes, ponds, and streams.”

While I understand and even sympathize with the environmental side of this argument, I do not support such an expansion of power using regulations written by anonymous, unelected bureaucrats. Such decisions should be left up to Congress, which represents the people.

Additionally, many who want to impose ever more strict environmental regulations upon industries, agriculture, municipalities, and now private property owners do so with unrealistic expectations. In their never-ending quest for perfection, they want to reduce pollution limits to levels that can’t even be measured.

“These folks live in la-la land,” one water quality expert told me. “If you attack these things (regulations) as unrealistic, you are evil.

“What I’d really like to see is for them to sustain themselves on their own little happy ¼-acre subdivision lot. I’d be willing to bet every single one of them has a nice, cozy temperature-controlled house, pantry full of food, a sink with a spigot full of safe drinking water and a shower and toilet that take away all that nasty that they just can’t think about, much less live with, while they point fingers at everyone else.”

So . . . would I like to see an end to all pollution?  Absolutely. After all, we all live downstream.

But I believe that’s an unrealistic expectation, considering our prevalence and dominance as a species on this planet. Let’s keep trying to reduce our pollution footprint, but let’s do so with consent of the governed and with realistic standards, not those imposed by anonymous bureaucrats who live in “la-la land.”

Monday
Mar062017

Okeechobee Bass Fishery Thrives as Debate Rages About Discharges

Debate rages about what to do with excess water from Lake Okeechobee. Laden with nutrients, it feeds algae blooms and kills fish when discharged by the Corps of Engineers into coastal waters on both sides of southern Florida

But what about bass in the Big O? They're an integral part of a recreational fishery worth about $49 million to counties surrounding the 448,000-acre lake that is half the size of the state of Rhode Island.

"This is an iconic fishery, and yet all you hear about are the massive discharges and the algae blooms. You don't hear about the lake itself, other than it is the source," said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director.

Not to worry.

"They're doing great," said Andrea Dominguez, fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).  "We're doing a survey now (early December) and are seeing a lot of fish over 16 inches, and a couple above 24.

"People are happy. They're catching fish, especially on the north end of the lake," she added. "Bass are healthy and growing."

But sadly for coastal fisheries and residents alike, the lake's eutrophic water must be channeled east and west when it rises too high, both to keep the 70-year-old dyke from being breached and prevent drowning of the marshes, which are key not just for the health of the fishery, but the entire Okeechobee ecosystem. Before the dyke was built and the Big O altered from a natural lake to a hybrid impoundment, high water flowed south. It replenished the Everglades, which absorbed most of the nutrients, before sending the water on to vitalize Florida Bay.

The dyke was built to protect towns and farms south of the lake, following major hurricanes that struck South Florida during the 1920s, causing massive flooding and killing nearly 2,000. Additionally, the Corps installed water control structures to direct water via canals into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

With the lake walled off, much of the land around it was converted to agricultural use, with dairy farms and beef cattle ranching to the north and sugar cane and vegetable farming to the south. These added to the nutrient load of nitrogen and phosphorus already flowing into the Big O from the Kissimmee River watershed and developed areas to the north.

For decades runoff pollution has been a concern, both for the lake and the estuaries. But exceptionally high water, starting in January, forced heavier and more frequent discharges than normal, decimating the estuaries and garnering most of the headlines. In fact, an algae bloom covered 33 square miles  in the southern portion of the lake during May, no doubt nourished by that same high water.

Algae blooms occur regularly in many of Florida's southern freshwater fisheries, but usually they appear later in the year, when the water is warmer. "They are very difficult to predict," said Terrie Bates of the South Florida Water Management District. "They move with the wind. They can form and dissipate in a week's time."  

Fortunately, the Big O has proven resilient, thanks to its abundant aquatic vegetation, especially the fringe of bulrush on the lakeward side. It not only provides beneficial habitat directly, but helps dissipate wind and wave energy, allowing eel grass, spike rush, and pepper grass to grow in interior areas of the marsh.

And thanks to Corps discharges of dangerously high water.

"Excessive stages destroy this outer bulrush wall, which is then followed by damage to the interior marsh," said Amber Nabors, FWC's communications and marketing manager.  

"FWC puts high priority on efforts to maintain a healthy diversity, abundance, and distribution of aquatic vegetation in the lake to support the abundant fish and wildlife resources there.  We do this with both direct management actions and by closely working with partner agencies to influence water level management to include fish and wildlife benefits."

Those management actions include scraping, planting, and targeted herbicide treatments, as well as occasional burnings.

"We want the correct plants," said Dominguez. "We don't want stands of cattails to get too big, because we want the bulrush to grow."

Water hyacinths and water lettuce also are especially problematic because they grow so quickly and block waterways. The latter can be a problem both for navigation and for sustaining flow, which is critical for maintaining water quality.

High water and blocked flow are an especially lethal combination, as plants die and decompose, burning up dissolved oxygen in the water and releasing a "sewer gas" smell into the air. "It happens sometimes back in the marshes," said Sam Griffin, who grew up on the lake and guided for decades there. "When it does, the fish go around it to get back in the marshes to spawn."

Dominquez added, "We want to keep the waterways clear and we don't want just one plant (species). We want diversity, not monoculture."

Ideally, she explained, fall water levels will be high enough to allow bass to migrate back into the marsh. From winter into spring, they will recede, with stability during the summer, when fish can move out into the lake for refuge in cooler water if necessary.

Of course, storms and heavy rains in 2016 forced the Corps to intercede more than it does during a typical year. "Without those discharges, the vegetation would have been smothered," the biologist added.

Knowing the importance of Okeechobee's sport fishery and its ecosystem in general, FWC biologists talk weekly with the Corps, providing their opinions on what's best in terms of water levels, Dominguez explained. "We advocate if we see a need."

Nabors added, "FWC doesn’t only manage for fish, but also waterfowl, wading birds, alligators, and other species."

Additionally, FWC has an intra-agency team working on Okeechobee/Everglades issues, as the ecological disasters on both coasts during 2016 forced both federal and state officials to accelerate the search for a solution to the lake's high water. Should flow be restored to the south? Should reservoirs be built north or south of the lake to store excess water?

What can be done to lessen the nutrient load from agriculture and upstream development?

The target phosphorus level for Okeechobee is 105 metric tons annually. In 2015, it was 450. About 37 percent of that came from land that drains into the Kissimmee River, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Sources include citrus groves, dairy farms, and neighborhoods as far north as the Orlando suburbs.

Whatever the solution, FWC intends to make certain that it will not negatively impact the Big O and its world-class bass fishery.

"All of the efforts in Everglades restoration, including reservoirs, water management north of the lake, discharges, and moving more water south, should ultimately allow flexibility and better management of the lake for ecological benefits, including sportfish management," said Nabors. 

(This article appeared originally in Bassmaster Magazine.)

Friday
Jan062017

Restoration of Lake Apopka Continues With Stocking

With recent stocking of one million largemouth bass, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) continues its decades long efforts to restore Lake Apopka as a sport fishery.

"The FWC’s Richloam Fish Hatchery staff spawned the genetically pure Florida largemouth bass at two separate times a year, instead of just once, specifically for Lake Apopka," the agency said.

"Pure Florida largemouth bass tend to grow bigger than other species found in other parts of the country. Stocking the lake earlier than usual ensures that larger bass are going into the lake, which allows them a better chance of survival, as there is a more abundant food source available."

Fifty years ago, the 31,000-acre lake was considered one of the nation's best bass fisheries. But municipal and agricultural pollution, along with muck farming that destroyed much of the lake's filtering system, sent it into steep decline.  Still today, it has a large organic sediment layer, dense algae blooms, and limited plant growth.

But significant strides have been made to improve water quality, including a marsh flow-way system, restoration of wetlands, and a commercial gizzard shad harvest program  that helps limit re-suspension of phosphorus from bottom sediments. Additionally, the Florida Legislature appropriated $4.8 million in 2012 for re-establishing beneficial aquatic plants and placing brush attractors, as well as dredging of access channels and bank fishing sites.

Since the early 1990s, FOLA has been dedicated to educating the public about Apopka's plight and generating support for restoration and conservation of Florida's third largest lake.

Friday
Sep302016

House Approves Financial Help for Florida's Water Pollution Crisis

Legislation was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that could help alleviate the environmental crisis plaguing Florida's coastal waters, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and, by extension, Florida Bay.

In passing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the House by an overwhelming 399-25 vote included $1.9 billion in critical funding for the Central Everglades Planning Project, as well as authorization for waterway access improvements and the use of natural infrastructure wherever possible.

In a nutshell, coastal waters on both sides of the state have been damaged by nutrient-rich waters discharged out of Okeechobee, which feed massive blue-green algal blooms. Before man's interference, high water at the Big O flowed naturally south in the Everglades, where it was filtered, even as it sustained life there. From there, it provided vital fresh water to Florida Bay.

But levees were built to prevent flooding around the lake and allow for development south of it. And that required discharging the water east and west.

“The sportfishing industry recognizes that it is vital for the Florida Everglades to receive funding as soon as possible to expedite the implementation of multi-year projects that will help fix the water quality and water management challenges that plague south Florida,” said American Sportfishing Association Government Affairs Vice President Scott Gudes. “These projects have been through an extensive review process and will provide significant environmental benefits by moving more water south from Lake Okeechobee. We encourage Congress to conference quickly on a final bill so that appropriations and construction can begin as soon as possible.”  Gary Jennings, Keep Florida Fishing manager, added, “These projects will bring much-needed relief to our state’s estuary systems.

"Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World, and we thank lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate for recognizing the urgent need for measures that will have a major positive impact on fisheries conservation, ecosystem restoration and water quality.”

In a joint statement, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) expressed confidence that reconciling the differing versions of WRDA reauthorization in conference will be relatively easy.

"The strong, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives is a clear sign that we can reconcile the House and Senate bills swiftly and smoothly," they said.

Wednesday
Sep212016

More Intersex Bass Found--- This Time in Illinois

The more waters that scientists investigate, the more intersex bass they find. Latest discovery is in the Des Plaines River, about 125 miles downstream from here.

In dissecting 51 male largemouth bass, researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) found that 21 had grown oocytes, or female eggs, in their testicular tissue.

“Long-term surveys conducted by the INHS in this region have shown big increases in largemouth bass over the past 40 years since the implementation of the Clean Water Act,” said fisheries biologist Mark Fritts. “It's a dichotomy here because we're seeing a population that has increased dramatically, but we're also seeing this potential problem rising.”

But this part of the river is far from pollution free. Treated sewage from Chicago flows into this area from the Chicago sanitary and Ship Canal. In a 2016 water quality report, the Illinois Protection Agency found 12 out of the 14 segments of the river tested were impaired by contaminants such a fecal bacteria and toxic industrial chemicals.

Pollution seems to be the common thread in other discoveries of intersex bass, both from municipal sewage and agricultural runoff. Specifics are elusive, except for the belief that chemicals acting as "endocrine disruptors" are causing the mutations.  They distort functions that regulate hormones and the reproductive system.

"This is an emerging field of research. We're kind of on the tip of the iceberg," Fritts said. "There are still a lot more questions than answers."

Starting in 2003, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found male smallmouth and largemouth bass with immature eggs in several areas of the Potomac River. Then they noted intersex smallmouth and white suckers at 16 sites in the Delaware, Ohio, and Susquehanna Rivers in Pennsylvania.  At one site near Hershey, Pa., 100 percent of male bass sampled had eggs.

Of these findings, USGS scientist Vicki Blazer said, "We keep seeing a correlation with the percent of agriculture in the watershed where we conduct a study."

Additionally, studies conducted from 1995 to 2004, revealed  intersex bass in the Apalachicola, Savannah, and Pee Dee River basins of the Southeast.

Just last year, meanwhile, two federal agencies found significant numbers of male bass were intersex in waters of or near National Wildlife Refuges in the Northeast. Eighty-five percent of male smallmouths and 27 percent of male largemouths tested positive, according to USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.