Current Events: Great Lakes ice, pig poop & artificial glaciers

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great lakes ice cover february 19
Satellite image of ice cover on the Great Lakes from February 19. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it definitely doesn’t feel that way to those of us living in the eastern half of the United States. This month has brought record cold temperatures to much of this part of the country; last Friday, the thermometer dipped to -17ºF at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Cleveland this late during winter. It’s enough to make you empathize with the police in Merrimack, New Hampshire, who issued an arrest warrant for Punxsutawney Phil after the groundhog “predicted” six more weeks of winter.

But, for as blisteringly cold as it has been in this part of the US, it has been just as warm in the western half of the country. While large swathes of the country have seen temperatures 9-10ºF below average this month, much of the West has been 10-11ºF warmer than normal. You might say it’s been a tale of two winters.

february 2015 temperature anomaly map
Temperature anomalies across the continental US for February 1-23. Source: National Weather Service

It has been so warm in the West, in fact, that there have actually been five times more record high temperatures than record lows in 2015. Rest assured, these temperature extremes will affect water patterns throughout the country, as you will see below. Now, on to the news from the world of water.

Great Lakes news

Efforts to tackle the root causes of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie continue to progress slowly. The Ohio Senate passed Senate Bill 1 by a unanimous 32-0 vote. The Senate bill includes provisions regulating the spread of manure on frozen or waterlogged soil and requires wastewater utilities to monitor phosphorus levels. Some environmental groups have criticized the bill for only regulating manure, rather than all forms of fertilizers, and for including a clause that sunsets the regulations after five years. At the federal level, the US House of Representatives voted Tuesday to pass the “Drinking Water Protection Act” by a 375-37 margin. The bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a strategic plan to manage algal blooms across the country. While both bills will require action by the other legislative chambers, we are at least seeing action.

Ice cover reached 85.4% across the Great Lakes last week. That number is actually higher than the mark at this point last year, when the lakes reached a 35-year high. The spike in ice cover should have beneficial effects for the lakes, helping to restore lake levels to historical norms. It may also limit algal growth by keeping water temperatures down; but, as the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District notes, the most important factor will be weather conditions during the spring. Moreover, while the past two winters have seen significant ice growth, the long-term trend still demonstrates a startling decline in ice cover of 71% from 1973-2010.

In order to keep the Cuyahoga River deep enough to be navigable for large container ships, the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges sediment from the bottom of the river. It needs somewhere to place this sediment, which stores decades of harmful contaminants, including PCBs. The Corps argues that years of environmental remediation has rendered the sediment harmless, but stakeholders throughout the region, including the Ohio EPA, disagree. This opposition forced to the Corps to abandon its plan for 2015, but the fight is not over. The Plain Dealer‘s editorial team has accused the Corps of “reprehensibly hostaging” ArcelorMittal Steel, which relies on the river for shipping, to its open lake dumping plan.

United States news

Scientific American has a gross story on how massive pig farms are fouling North Carolina’s rivers and streams with pip poop. The state currently exempts these farms from having to monitor the waste that they discharge. This exemption has had serious consequences, though, as 40% of samples taken from watercourses near the pig farms exceed federal limits for fecal coliform bacteria.

We know that rising sea levels, one of the major consequences of climate change, threatens coastal cities. But as a part of its new series, Water: The high price of cheapMarketplace explains why South Florida is uniquely endangered. A combination of a high water table, land subsidence, and porous limestone that lies beneath the region means that saltwater could contaminate crucial groundwater reserves long before Miami faces inundation.

The water utility in Portland, Oregon has invested in an ingenuous new technology that allows the city to generate electricity while delivering drinking water to residents. Lucid Energy has installed small turbines in one of the city’s main water lines. As gravity drives water through the pipeline, it forces the turbines to spin. The system could provide a way to tackle the water-energy nexus, especially in the West, where up to 20% of energy is used to provide water.

Earlier in the month, we interviewed John Noël of Clean Water Action, who described how one EPA program allows the energy industry to inject contaminated wastewater into potential underground sources of drinking water. John noted that we already have evidence that such contamination of aquifers has occurred in California. Well, the Los Angeles Times has reported that, on average, wells associated with fracking for oil have benzene levels more than 700 times higher than federal standards. With California’s ongoing drought – San Francisco recorded zero inches of precipitation in January – this sort of irrevocable damage to the state’s groundwater will have consequences.

International news

Lest you think that harmful algal blooms only affect the US, here’s some news from Central Asia. The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake, has an an algal bloom so large that European satellites picked it up from space.

A study published earlier this month in Science reported that, in 2010, some 10.5 to 28 billion pounds of plastic entered the world’s oceans. As Mother Jones notes, this amounts to 1.3 times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. While we all share some of the blame, China appears to be the biggest culprit here. The world’s most populous country accounted for nearly 5 billion pounds of plastic pollution on its own.

Brazil, home to the mighty Amazon River, is sometimes called the “Saudi Arabia of water.” But that doesn’t mean every Brazilian enjoys an abundance of life-giving liquid. In fact, the combined effects of an historic drought, severe pollution, deforestation, and demographic pressures are rapidly depleting the water reserves for São Paulo, the country’s largest city. Officials warn that, without drastic changes, the city’s main reservoirs could run dry before the end of the year.

Lastly, some good news out of Pakistan. Water is a major political issue in the country, where man urban residents have access to just 10 liters per capita per day of drinking water, less than 1/5 the recommended amount. Climate change is making the issue worse. Fortunately, some residents in arid parts of the country are taking matters into their own hands, creating artificial glaciers that release water during the dry season.