Friday, October 17, 2014

Guest Post by Dr. Michael Finewood on Stormwater

A sign along a riverwalk, warning of possible combined sewage overflows
 during wet weather events. Photo by Sara Powell
As western and southern communities battle over water access and cope with drought conditions, other areas of the country wrestle with the opposite side of the water quantity coin: too much water. (Putting aside the anthropogenic characterization of too much…) Water on the East Coast – particularly in postindustrial cities – embodies yet another iteration of the wicked nature of urban water governance.

A few weeks back, Dr. Brinkmann posted a photo to Facebook showing a pool of water on the surface of a road. The sky was cloudy, so I assumed it was just after a rain. Under his post I commented that I am completely obsessed with this. He agreed. And our nerdiness bore the idea for this post. Our obsession is with stormwater runoff. In most cities, when it rains, impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops prevent water from absorbing (or infiltrating) into the soil. Instead, stormwater pools and runs off these hardened surfaces typically to low points in the city, such as storm drains or nearby waterways.
Stormwater Runoff.  Photo by Sara Powell.

There are two fundamental problems here. The first is when stormwater runs across hardened surfaces, it picks up trash and pollutants from cars, power plant emissions, and other sources, which eventually make their way into local waterways. The second is that stormwater runoff often overwhelms urban stormwater conveyance systems (both the treatment plants and the pipes themselves). In many cities, the volume of runoff has increased as our cities expand outward, hardening up the landscape through construction of roads and buildings. Existing urban water conveyance systems and treatment plants were not designed to handle the growing volumes of stormwater that are added to the systems. In other words, the systems can’t keep up with the growth. This is particularly deleterious when sewer and stormwater systems are combined – which is the case for most older cities in the Northeast. So as cities experience what can often just be a fraction of an inch of rain, the systems overflow and sewage and polluted stormwater runoff flow into local waterways. Add to this scenario climate change and increasingly fragmented communities, and you can see why this is such a challenge. However, the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other state and local regulations compel metropolitan regions to address the issue.

But here is the good thing. There are some unique ways that communities are trying to address these issues. From technical approaches such as sustainable drainage systems, to community-driven approaches such as ecodistrict planning, and many iterations in between; municipalities are realizing that multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and community based projects have created the most overall good in communities, while also meeting water quality regulations. This should sound familiar to sustainability aficionados. These are urban water governance strategies that are locally negotiated with a wide range of stakeholders participating in the process, producing outcomes that create multiple benefits for communities. Think here of a riverwalk that serves as a recreational space, riparian restoration, and expanded floodplain to mitigate flooding. Or green stormwater infrastructure that captures stormwater before it is introduced into the system, while simultaneously enhancing biodiversity and increasing community greenspace.
A sign along a river, warning of possible combined sewage
overflows during wet weather events. Photo credit Sara Powell.

But the point isn't about the specific strategy or technology, really. Sustainability is not so much about its definition or outcome as it is about the process. In my view, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder, and it cannot be defined by a minority or devoid of context. In other words, true sustainability must be negotiated at the local level by all community members. Of course, there will be teeth gnashing – and the projects I allude to above are not without their problems – but all 'new' things take time to work out.

Expertise in sustainability will be critical to designing, implementing, and monitoring projects like these. If you live in a city, I would bet you are dealing with some sort of water issue. I encourage you to get involved. Go to public meetings and make your opinion heard. Educate your neighbors. Strengthen your personal conservation approaches. But most of all, consider the ways sustainability could be implemented in your community, and get to work.

Michael Finewood is an assistant professor of Geography and Sustainability in Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability. His interests are in water, climate change, and urban sustainability.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

NYC Back in Business Two Years After Sandy

I did a little field trip to Long Beach and Coney Island to get a sense of the recovery of the region to years after Sandy.  Below are a few photos I took along with some summary text.
While this is not the big season for tourists, it is clear that Coney Island is back in business.  Stores were open, a few tourists were about and the rides are still open on the weekends until the winter.

Even the Side Show is open in its venerable location.

The boardwalk at Coney Island is thriving.

As is the beautiful new boardwalk and seawall at Long Beach.

There is construction all over the place on Long Beach.
Many homes have been lifted above the floodplain
 and there are many infrastructure improvements.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Good, Better, and Best?

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Check out this article from the New York Times about efforts to rank food sold at Whole Foods and other stores on a variety of indicators such as pesticide use and worker fairness.  Wal-Mart, always a player in sustainability rating systems, is also jumping on board the food rating system.

I think that this is a good advance for changing agriculture in the U.S.  I'm a bit leery about the "good, better, and best" rating scale.  It is a bit too positive in my mind.  But, it is a start.

What is interesting about this advance is that it is one of the first major organized marketing movements away from organic labeling.  For years, farmers like Joel Salatin have argued that the federal organic system was flawed due to the bureaucracy of the scheme and because it didn't go far enough in protecting soils, addressing regional ecosystems, and considering workers.  While this good, better, and best rating system does not fully address the concerns of Salatin and others, it does take a fresh look at food systems to provide consumers with choices about the food they consume.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Texas Week Continues--The Good People of Bexar Grotto

Texas, for all of its quirks, is a very welcoming place.  The expression, "y'all come back now" should be patented for Texas tourism.  Plus, the sense of community in the state is strong.  Texans are very proud of their regional distinction among the United States.
Texas is serious about caves and karst.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

However, Texans are work together to try to make the world a better place.  One of the better examples of this is through the work of Bexar (pronounced "bear") Grotto.

Grottos are cave clubs loosely affiliated with the National Speleological Society.  They promote recreational activities in karst landscapes along with service projects such as cave or sinkhole clean ups and public education.  The Bexar Grotto is taking these activities to a whole different level. 

The interior of Cave Without a Name where I gave the keynote for the
Texas HydroGeo Workshop.
On the weekend of September 26th, they organized the Texas HydroGeo Workshop for students and professionals from around the state.  About 250 attended.  There were even some attendees who planned to come from Mexico.  The workshop featured many field-based workshops such as environmental testing in the field, cave mapping, stream gauging and sampling, geophysics, field-based GIS, and many others.  There was even a keynote speech in a cave by yours truly to round out the first night.

What matters in this context is that this was all organized by volunteers of Bexar Grotto and that the presenters were all volunteers.  I have never seen such a great weekend field training anywhere.  This workshop was billed as the "first annual" and I hope that they continue the tradition.  Great work y'all.

This concludes Texas Week on On the Brink.  Y'all come back now.

Previous Texas Week posts are here, here, here, and here.

Stream gauging as part of the Texas HydroGeo Workshop

Sample protocol training as part of the Texas HydroGeo Workshop.  Photo by Bob Brinkman

One of the leaders of Bexar Grotto at Bracken Cave where the group has done considerable volunteer work.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Texas Karstecue

Everyone knows that Texas is big on cookouts and barbecues, but some of you probably didn't realize that Texas is also big on karst.

The origin of the word barbecue probably comes from native Caribbean languages.  The word entered Europe as barbacoa and was used in Spanish to mean a raised platform for cooking.

Click for image credit.
Of course, raised platforms have a solid top and an often porous subsurface to collect drippings from the roasting meat.  Thus, in many ways, parts of the Texas karst landscape are like the ancient barbacoas of the Caribbean.  That is why it might be appropriate to consider Texas the type location for the landscape known as a karstecue or karst-e-cue if you prefer.  In my mind, I define a karstecue as a limestone or other soluble rock landscape in arid or semi arid regions that is higher than the surrounding landscape.

These karstecues often have rock exposed at the surface or on slopes.

Inside Cave Without a Name in Texas.  Note the microphone.  This was one of
venues where I gave a lecture on karst and sustainability.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
While not all karst areas of Texas are karstecues (the low wet karst landscapes of southeastern Texas come to mind), the state is rich in karstecue landscapes in areas like Austin, San Antonio, and Kerrville.  In the U.S. karst map above, the karstecue areas of Texas are largely the blue, pink and dark green areas of central and western Texas.  These are places with abundant caves, karst water resources (that are now threatened due to overuse and overdevelopment), and prickly pear cactus.

I got to hang out in one of the well-known karstecue areas outside of San Antonio recently at Cave Without a Name.  Here, the landscape is dotted with numerous caves that are richly decorated with a number of different types of speleothems.  Like many areas of the United States, suburban development is encroaching onto this landscape which is creating challenges for water quality and quantity in the region.

Of course, karstecues are great places to live at first glance.  They are relatively flat, water is at some depth below the surface, and they often have terrific views.  However there are many water challenges associated with these places that make them unable to support large populations over the long-term.  The aquifers are interconnected making pollution a particularly vexing problem.  The arid nature of the landscape makes aquifer recharge slow.  Many communities in karstecues are mining water that fell thousands of years ago.  Water use is not sustainable over the long-haul--particularly if you add irrigated agriculture into the mix.

This brings on another image of the barbacoa--that of cooking. The hot Texas sun is quite good at heating the limestone and dolomite landscapes of the state.  Perhaps the best land use we could make of such areas is as low intensity housing, agriculture, and parks or natural lands.  Karstecues are not truly suitable to intensive urbanization.  The landscape cannot support the water use needs over decades of use.  By overdeveloping these areas, we are putting systems out of synch...thereby creating conditions that will lead to a collapse of the land's ability to support the population--putting human's on the hotseat, or babacoa, in the coming years.

For previous Texas week posts, see here, here, and here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Going to Bat for Bats!

The sign at Bracken Cave (photo by Bob Brinkmann).
Texas Week continues on On the Brink!  For previous Texas week posts, see here and here.

One of the great things about the Texas karst landscape is that there are many caves scattered throughout the state.  These caves are home to many species of bats, many of which are migratory.

Due to the importance of bats to ecosystems, the ecology and cave scientific communities seek to preserve caves and protect the habitat of these important creatures.  We've seen a significant drop in bat populations in recent years due to habitat destruction and white nose syndrome, a disease plaguing bats in many caves in the eastern portion of North America.

The entrance to Bracken Cave (photo by Bob Brinkmann).
That is why conservation efforts of karst systems are so crucial to us.  Many of the bats are key pollinators and they also eat lots of bugs.

One Texas cave, Bracken Cave, is home to the largest bat colony in the world, according the Bat Conservation International.  You can read about the cave here.  Bat Conservation International focuses on cave and bat protection around the world.

In Texas, many volunteers have worked to protect Bracken Cave and the surrounding karst landscape.  In addition, they have built a viewing area where visitors (with permission of the managers of the cave) can watch the millions of bats enter and leave the cave in the morning and evening.  A big thanks to the folks at Bexar Grotto for showing me the cave.

If you've ever been to Austin, you are familiar with the bat bridge colonies that draw tourists from all over the world.

 You can see the video below of one of the flights.

Here is a video of bats leaving bracken cave:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Texas Week Continues: Water

After a slight delay, I am back with Texas Week!  Today, I discuss water issues.
As I mentioned last time, Texas has a number of water issues.  Much of the state is undergoing an historic drought and communities are running out of water.  Private wells have gone dry and municipalities are implementing conservation measures.

While one might consider that municipalities are the main users of water, the reality is that agricultural use accounts for roughly 60% of the water consumption in the state.  Some of the water is used inefficiently and some of the agricultural enterprises are out of synch with the natural dry climate of some parts of the state.  In many ways, Texas is facing a stark reality.  For many years, agriculture, municipal, and industrial interests mined water from the ground without considering the long-term implications of excessive withdrawals.  Now, due to declining resources, excessive use, and the drought, there is greater competition and conflict over water.

There is no doubt that better water management is needed in the state.  There are already outstanding organizations working on this issue (the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the San Antonio Water System for examples).  However, greater policy clarity is needed to effectively manage the resource for the greater good of the entire population of the state.  The ownership of this commons resource is commonly disputed.

Of course, there also needs to be greater emphasis on conservation.  Texas has one of the highest per capita municipal water use rates in the U.S.  Plus, that water consumption figure is not even throughout the state.  Dallas, according to this source, uses 213 gallons per person per day while Houstonians use 134 gallons per day.  Dallas, it is time to go sit in the corner of the classroom for your bad behavior!  Houstonians, you get an A for Awesome conservation!  With the very high population growth that Texas is seeing, per capita water consumption must go down beyond the usage rate of Houston.  Dallas has a long way to go.

It seems to me that the next decade in Texas will see some interesting changes.  Agricultural interests will need to find new ways to conserve water to try to reduce their need for the dwindling water supply.    Some may not be able to continue to operate as water resources diminish.  At the same time, cities and industrial concerns will also need to advance conservation efforts as populations grow in the region.  Policy makers will need to develop sound regional strategies for effectively managing water resources.  

The current drought condition is a bit of a warning shot for Texas.  How the state moves forward in the next decade will decide the long-term sustainability of the region.  Right now, water use is unsustainable in many areas of the state.