February 2 – Lord Love A Duck

Today’s factismal: It is World Wetland Day – have you hugged a duck?

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention. Held in Iran in 1971 this convention was all about protecting the wetlands. And in 1971, did they need protection! Though many in today’s world may not remember, the 1960s were known for a series of epic ecological disasters that fundamentally changed the way we look at our world. There was the Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted it caught on fire (thirteen times!). There was the Santa Barbara oil spill which spread 100,000 barrels of crude oil over the California coastline. (For comparison, the more recent Macondo blowout heaved out some 4,900,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.) There were so many pollutants in the Housatonic River that it changed color on a daily basis. In short, things were bad.

An example of "natural pollution", the La Brea Tar Pits are a special type of wetlands (My camera)

An example of “natural pollution”, the La Brea Tar Pits are a special type of wetlands
(My camera)

But instead of getting worse, things got better. They got better in part because a group of scientists and politicians came together in Iran, home to some 3.6 million acres of wetlands. For a month they worked together, putting the finishing touches on a treaty that they’d been working on since 1963. And on February 2, twenty-one countries signed it, putting some 72 million acres of wetlands under treaty protection. (That’s an area roughly the size of Arizona.) And more countries signed every year. In 1987, the USA joined the treaty, bringing the total area under protection to 160 million acres, or an area as large as California and Minnesota combined. Today there are some 169 countries that are signatories to the treaty, protecting more than 505 million acres of wetlands – or enough wetlands to cover all of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, and Rhode Island! (Or roughly twice the total water area of the USA!) Thanks to that treaty, wetlands have become cleaner and our lives have gotten better.

Though it looks like a big mess to us, to many forms of life, wetlands are the next best thing to paradise (My camera)

Though it looks like a big mess to us, to many forms of life, wetlands are the next best thing to paradise
(My camera)

Why should we care? Because wetlands are more than just wet. They are the places where new species thrive. They are the places where floods get controlled. They are the places that reduce the damage of hurricanes. And, most importantly, they are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth. So celebrate wetlands today. Go hug a duck!

An intrepid explorer, just back from hugging a duck (My camera)

An intrepid explorer, just back from hugging a duck
(My camera)

April 2 – Water You Gonna Do?

Today’s factismal: The typical American household uses an average of 320 gallons of water each day.

You’ve probably heard the news that California is in a severe drought that has lasted four years so far. The governor has declared a state of emergency and instituted some of the toughest water conservation measures in America. What you probably haven’t heard is that California is not alone; right now, more than half of the USA is in a drought. That’s right – about 53% of the land in the USA (59% of the land in the contiguous US) has been using water faster than it comes in. Believe it or not, this is an improvement over 2012 when nearly 80% of the US was dry.

More than half of the US is abnormally dry (Image courtesy KKKKKKK)

More than half of the US is abnormally dry
(Image courtesy US Drought Monitor)

The drought has been worse before (Data from US Drought Monitor)

The drought has been worse before
(Data from US Drought Monitor)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the reason for the drought is climactic; both long-term climate cycles (e.g., AMO, PDO) and short term ones (e.g., ENSO) have contributed to a dearth of precipitation in much of the US. And part of the reason is simply that demand has exceeded supply for some time now. The Colorado River is notorious for running dry before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. And that’s caused by the two main users of water: families and farming.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

About 80% of the nation’s water use is for agriculture. Irrigation is an important part of the “green miracle” that has fed the world since the 1960s; without it, we would have much less (and much less nutritious) food. But even the remaining 20% is a pretty hefty amount. Every day, some 37 billion gallons of water are used by families across the USA. That’s 320 gallons per family per day, on average.

Where does all that water go? Well, a typical shower uses up 17 gallons of water. Toilets? They take 5 gallons per flush. Don’t forget to wash your hands afterwards even though we use about 6 gallons a day on it. A load of laundry uses up 45 gallons of water. Doing the dishes in a dishwasher uses up 15 gallons. And that nice, green lawn? That takes 48 gallons of water a day. Add it all up and we’re talking about the same amount of water that the Mississippi pours out in two hours!

Now there are lots of things that we can do to help conserve water during the drought. We can pressure our politicians to pass laws requiring more water-efficient agricultural practices. We can convert our lawns and gardens into xeriscapes. And we can take part in FreshWater Watch. This international program looks to collect data on fresh water supplies around the world, and turn those into a better understanding of where our water comes from and where it goes. To learn more, stream to:
https://www.freshwaterwatch.thewaterhub.org/index.php

March 12 – What A Drip!

Today’s factismal: Not all drains lead to the ocean.

If you’ve looked at a storm drain cover lately (or watched Finding Nemo), then you’ve probably seen the warning on it: “This drain leads to the sea”. And, in 82% of the spots on land, that warning would be correct; those storm drains do lead to the ocean, eventually. They lead to creeks that drain into rivers that drain into other rivers that drain into the sea. But in about 18% of the cases, the creek leads to a river that leads to a lake that leads nowhere; it is an endorheic (“flows inside”) basin. When water and other stuff is dumped into that storm sewer, it flows downhill until it gets trapped in a lake. At the lake, the water evaporates away, leaving behind an increasingly salty (and, in some cases, polluted) body of water.

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed (My camera)

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed
(My camera)

This happens in the Dead Sea, the Caspian Sea, Laguna del Carbon, and the Great Salt Lake. These “terminal lakes” receive the water from everywhere within their drainage basin (also called a catchment or watershed), just as rivers in other watersheds eventually lead to the oceans. But in both cases, the quality of the water has a strong influence on what can live in the watershed. The abundance of fertilizers and silt provided to the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River watershed creates an annual dead zone where fish cannot live; this then reduces the number of fish available for fishing and recreation. Similarly, the continuing shortage of water in the Colorado River has created hypersaline conditions in the Gulf of California that threaten the safety of gray, blue, and finback whales that spend the winter there.

This is not how you clean up a river (My camera)

This is not how you clean up a river
(My camera)

Though it may seem like the problem of cleaning up watersheds is too big to be tackled, the opposite is true. That’s because each big watershed is made up of smaller watersheds. The Gulf of Mexico gets water from the Mississippi River watershed, and the Mississippi River watershed gets water from the Arkansas River, Ohio River, and Missouri River water sheds. And the Ohio River watershed gets its water from the Allegheny and Monongahela River watersheds. And the Monongahela River watershed in turn gets its water from the Youghiogheny, Cheat, and Tygart River watersheds. And each of those watersheds can be further sub-divided into smaller rivers and creeks until you finally arrive at something small enough to clean up.

If you’d like to take part in cleaning up a watershed near you, then there’s no time like the present. Use one of the links below (or google for your own watershed) and get cleaning!


Great Swamp Watershed Association http://www.greatswamp.org/
Hudson River Estuary Program and Scenic Hudson http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/4920.html
Kentucky River Watershed Watch http://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/KRWW/
Klamath Riverkeeper http://www.klamathriver.org/
Loudoun Stream Monitoring http://www.loudounwildlife.org/Stream_Monitoring.htm
Master Watershed Steward program (Arizona) http://cals.arizona.edu/watershedsteward/
Missouri Stream Team Program http://www.mostreamteam.org/
OPAL Water Survey http://www.opalexplorenature.org/WaterSurvey
RiverSweep (Ohio River) http://www.orsanco.org/sweep
Shermans Creek Watershed Monitoring Program http://www.shermanscreek.org/monitoringprogram.htm
Watershed Watch http://www.mywatershedwatch.org/
Willamette Riverkeeper Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring http://www.willamette-riverkeeper.org/WRK/waterquality.html
Wisconsin Stream Monitoring http://watermonitoring.uwex.edu/wav/monitoring/
WV Save Our Streams Program http://www.dep.wv.gov/WWE/getinvolved/sos/Pages/default.aspx
Yuba River Water Quality Monitoring http://yubariver.org/river-monitoring/

February 26 – A River Divided Cannot Stand

Today’s factismal: The Republican River is named for the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived beside it.

The Republican River is a beautiful tributary that flows through the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas before it joins the Kansas River and flows on down to the Gulf of Mexico. At a mere 453 miles long, it isn’t America’s longest river and with just 848 cubic feet of water per second moving through it, it certainly isn’t America’s biggest. But what the Republican River just might be is America’s most adjudicated river. That’s because the Republican River was the center of a lawsuit that went all the way from the local courts up to the US Supreme Court. More about that in a moment.

Long before it was the center of a lawsuit, the Republican River was the center of the lives of the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived on its banks in what would become Kansas and Nebraska. This tribe would come to be known as the Republican Indians,  for reasons that are now obscure. This matrilineal group used the river for food, for water, and for transport for centuries before the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped by to say hello in 1804. Many of them continue to live there today, even though the river is somewhat less full than it was back when their grandfathers’ grandfathers lived there.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

The reason that it is less full is also the reason for the lawsuit. As is the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), there are more people that want to use the water from the river than the river can support. And, as has been the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), the folks downstream have sued the ones upstream to get their fair share of the water. What was unusual in this case is that the downstream folks won. Usually, the people upstream have a nearly unlimited right to use the water as they choose, but in this case the states of Nebraska and Kansas had signed a compact defining how much water each was entitled to. The Supreme Court agreed that the compact had been violated (though they disagreed on how much it had been violated) and found for Kansas, fining Nebraska $5.5 million dollars.

Now if you’d like to get involved in helping out the folks downstream from where you live, you have a couple of choices. You can wait for them to file a lawsuit or you can do what you can to conserve water where you live. And one part of that would be to join a “Stream Team” like the one in Texas. These folks go out and measure the amount of water flowing in their streams, so they can help scientists and farmers plan water usage; they also do stream clean-ups and bioblitzes to help improve the water quality and understand what wildlife their stream supports. To join them, flow over to their page:
http://www.meadowscenter.txstate.edu/Service/TexasStreamTeam.html

January 16 – Seed Pearls Of Change

Today’s factismal: The oysters in Chesapeake Bay once filtered all the water in the bay in four days; today it takes them a year.

Oysters are amazing animals. They filter feed by sucking in dirty water, passing it over their gills, and then noshing on the sediment and floating debris that gets trapped in their mucus. As they do so, they clarify the water and make it suitable for other critters to live in. At one time, there were so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay (located by Baltimore) that they could clean all of the water in the bay in just four days. Unfortunately, over the past century, the number of oysters in the bay have decreased due to over harvesting (people like to eat oysters as much as oysters like to eat crud), pollution, and changes in the water chemistry.

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab (My camera)

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab
(My camera)

How can a change in water chemistry affect an oyster? By making it harder to grow a shell. Oysters create shells (and pearls) out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that is dissolved in the water as calcium ions (Ca++) and carbonate ions (CO3–). But when carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in water it forms carbonic acid (H2CO3) which dissolves calcium carbonate; as a result, the shells of the oysters are thinner, more brittle, and take more energy to build. (This is also the cause behind coral bleaching.) And that leads to what is known in the oyster business as “lazy larva syndrome”. The young oysters have to spend so much energy building their shells that they have little left for eating or swimming. At the end of a year, oysters that grow up in a more acidic ocean are smaller and don’t reproduce well.

Bleached coral (My camera)

Bleached coral
(My camera)

The interesting thing is that it takes only a small change in ocean chemistry to create a big change in the number of lazy larvae. Thus far, the oceans have changed from a pH of 8.25 to 8.14; almost all of that change is due to increases in atmospheric CO2.  And the other interesting thing about this is that it isn’t just oysters that are affected; the change in ocean pH has led to more coral bleaching and slower growth of bony fish like tuna. So what is a citizen scientist to do?

Other than making sure your tires are inflated properly, perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is help the folks at Ventus as they map out all of the sources of CO2 in the world starting with the power plants. They hope that by producing an hour by hour map of how much CO2 is produced, we can identify easy places to cut back on CO2 without cutting back on our standard of living. If you’d like to help (or just see what they’ve found so far), then blow on over to:
http://ventus.project.asu.edu/

January 15 – Running On Empty

Today’s factismal: The Colorado River powers some $1,400,000,000,000 in economic activity.

There is no denying the power of a river. Rivers can sweep away towns and topsoil, carve mountains, and generate electricity. They water our fields and move our goods. And yet, rivers are running into problems. And no river is in more trouble right now than the Colorado. Born in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, the Colorado River drains seven different states and carries more than four and a half cubic miles of water along its 1,450 mile length. Along the way, the mighty Colorado River provides water to people living in Los Angeles and to farmers feeding the nation from their fields in the Imperial Valley. It makes dusty Las Vegas bloom and cools Flagstaff. All told, the Colorado River is responsible for some $1,400,000,000,000 in economic activity.

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

The Colorado River Basin includes seven states (Image courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

And the Colorado River is hardly the only river in the USA. All told, All told, there are more than 250,000 rivers in the USA and they stretch a total of 3,600,000 miles. They range from the the mighty Missouri (2,540 miles) to the tiny Roe River (201 ft), these riparian passages push 48,000,000 gallons of water and sediment into the ocean every second. If you were to catch the water flowing from America’s rivers with Olympic swimming pools, you’d fill up 72 of them every second. Yet, even though these rivers are essential to supporting both our life and our economy, nearly half of them are too polluted to fish from!

There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA (Image courtesy AAA)

There are 3,600,000 miles of river in the USA
(Image courtesy National Atlas)

Today, scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens are working to develop plans to help save America’s rivers. If you’d like help, then consider joining a Riverwatch program (or starting your own!):
http://www.coloradowater.org/River%20Watch
http://cwriverkeepers.wikispaces.com/Home+Page
http://www.georgiaadoptastream.org/

November 6 – What A Drip!

Today’s factismal: Not all drains lead to the ocean.

If you’ve looked at a storm drain cover lately (or watched Finding Nemo), then you’ve probably seen the warning on it: “This drain leads to the sea”. And, in 82% of the spots on land, that warning would be correct; those storm drains do lead to the ocean, eventually. They lead to creeks that drain into rivers that drain into other rivers that drain into the sea. But in about 18% of the cases, the creek leads to a river that leads to a lake that leads nowhere; it is an endorheic (“flows inside”) basin. When water and other stuff is dumped into that storm sewer, it flows downhill until it gets trapped in a lake. At the lake, the water evaporates away, leaving behind an increasingly salty (and, in some cases, polluted) body of water.

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed (My camera)

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed
(My camera)

This happens in the Dead Sea, the Caspian Sea, Laguna del Carbon, and the Great Salt Lake. These “terminal lakes” receive the water from everywhere within their drainage basin (also called a catchment or watershed), just as rivers in other watersheds eventually lead to the oceans. But in both cases, the quality of the water has a strong influence on what can live in the watershed. The abundance of fertilizers and silt provided to the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River watershed creates an annual dead zone where fish cannot live; this then reduces the number of fish available for fishing and recreation. Similarly, the continuing shortage of water in the Colorado River has created hypersaline conditions in the Gulf of California that threaten the safety of gray, blue, and finback whales that spend the winter there.

This is not how you clean up a river (My camera)

This is not how you clean up a river
(My camera)

Though it may seem like the problem of cleaning up watersheds is too big to be tackled, the opposite is true. That’s because each big watershed is made up of smaller watersheds. The Gulf of Mexico gets water from the Mississippi River watershed, and the Mississippi River watershed gets water from the Arkansas River, Ohio River, and Missouri River water sheds. And the Ohio River watershed gets its water from the Allegheny and Monongahela River watersheds. And the Monongahela River watershed in turn gets its water from the Youghiogheny, Cheat, and Tygart River watersheds. And each of those watersheds can be further sub-divided into smaller rivers and creeks until you finally arrive at something small enough to clean up.

If you’d like to take part in cleaning up a watershed near you, then there’s no time like the present. Use one of the links below (or google for your own watershed) and get cleaning!


Great Swamp Watershed Association http://www.greatswamp.org/
Hudson River Estuary Program and Scenic Hudson http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/4920.html
Kentucky River Watershed Watch http://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/KRWW/
Klamath Riverkeeper http://www.klamathriver.org/
Loudoun Stream Monitoring http://www.loudounwildlife.org/Stream_Monitoring.htm
Master Watershed Steward program (Arizona) http://cals.arizona.edu/watershedsteward/
Missouri Stream Team Program http://www.mostreamteam.org/
OPAL Water Survey http://www.opalexplorenature.org/WaterSurvey
RiverSweep (Ohio River) http://www.orsanco.org/sweep
Shermans Creek Watershed Monitoring Program http://www.shermanscreek.org/monitoringprogram.htm
Watershed Watch http://www.mywatershedwatch.org/
Willamette Riverkeeper Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring http://www.willamette-riverkeeper.org/WRK/waterquality.html
Wisconsin Stream Monitoring http://watermonitoring.uwex.edu/wav/monitoring/
WV Save Our Streams Program http://www.dep.wv.gov/WWE/getinvolved/sos/Pages/default.aspx
Yuba River Water Quality Monitoring http://yubariver.org/river-monitoring/