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The first piece of legislation approved by Congress in 2017:

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-alaska-refuge-hunting-20170326-story.html

We have big issues.  Wolves are not one of them.  Nor are bears.  We should be concerned.  And lower our expectations so we will not be disappointed.

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A couple summer’s back we had the Animas River turn yellow because of materials stored on the edge of the river.  A couple years before that, coal ash and the Charleston spill.  Now the “red” river (but at in Russia)….So maybe legislators can help us understand why continuing to store this stuff on the edge of water supplies is ok? Or why we shouldn’t put a bunch of money toward removing this material so water supplies and ecosystem are less at risk?

http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/12/world/russia-red-river-siberia/?iid=ob_homepage_deskrecommended_pool


According to a recent article in the Estes Park News (July 29, 20156), there are wolves in Colorado.  This can only be a good thing for the ecosystem and maybe water quality as well (Elk are the cause of giardia in the park streams).  If you spend much time in the Rockies, one of the issues rangers will note if the overabundance of elk. Which because there are no natural predators, graze meadows too cleanly, and graze right down to the streams in the middle of those meadows.  The result is that the aspen trees that would otherwise grow along those streams never get a foothold.  The aspens are needed for beavers.  The scenario is exactly that discussed in Yellowstone 20 years ago after the wolves were reintroduced that.  People thought we hunted the beavers out of Yellowstone, and while trappers did not help the situation, the lack of wolves and overgrazing by elk was the final straw.  Once the wolves returned, so did the aspens and beavers.

Now if you have ever been around a large heard of elk, they are majestic creatures.  I really enjoy seeing them, watching the young ones frolic in the fields, and the herd slowly craze its way across a meadow.  Fall activities are also enjoyable as the males try to find willing females.  Good luck with that guys!  So the thought has been that until wolves return to Colorado, people would have to create the barriers to overgrazing.  So, for example, o in Rocky Mountain National Park you will see tall fences around streams in meadows designed to keep the elk away.

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Most state agencies will report that wolves have been absent from Colorado for over 120 years (1896).  Actually lately they are reporting no dens, or packs versus no wolves.  The Estes Park News explains why.  Despite the fact that wolves are still protected under the Endangered Species Act in Colorado,   several have been killed in the last 12 years in the state.  The first one was in 2004 in Idaho Springs on I70.  In 2007 video captured on in the northern part of the state.  In 2009 a radio collared wolf was found dead in Rifle, CO and in April 2015 a trail cam captured a photo of one.  In April 2015 a third wolf was killed, this time by a hunter who though it was a coyote.  Shades of the Grand Canyon wolf that was killed in Utah because the hunter thought it was a coyote.

So that’s 5 wolves, 3 of which were dead.  It seems incursion are coming in from Wyoming, but not yet established.  The state is making preparations to deal with returning wolf populations.  But while the news may be good for the ecosystem, the biggest barrier to wildlife enthusiasts seeing one may be hunters and ranchers, just like Wyoming.  So I have a couple thoughts – a wolf is a lot bigger than a coyote.  Think German shepard versus 20 lb beagle.  Surely hunters should be able to tell the difference.  If not, do we want them out there with a gun hunting?  Next if there are radio collars, it suggests that the animal is being tracked.  Not too many coyotes are being tracked.  So let’s assume all collared creatures are off limits to anyone hunting.  Maybe then we will be able to see a wolf in Colorado one day.  Wouldn’t that be exciting?

 


We got back recently from a week in Colorado.  The state is really pretty dry although toward the end of the week there was some light rain and much cooler temperatures.  Like the upper 50s for a high!  Nice hiking weather.  Even with the increased humidity, so much better than the heat and humidity in south Florida.  But still dry, especially east of the Rockies.  The western side was a little better – lots of green under the tree canopy.    The park reports that temperatures have averages 3.6 degrees F higher over the past century.  That is a lot.  Beetles need really cold weather to die.  That obvious did not happen and the beetles did a number on pine trees form New Mexico into Canada.  West slope snow was average, but the snow seems to come later and the melt earlier.  Sound familiar?  Lots of discussion about impacts on certain wildlife.  But Rocky Mountain National Park is the origin fore many streams, including the Colorado River.  These waters need to be pristine, which is a great reason to have them in a National Park.  It makes you wonder why we do not have more watersheds protected as opposed to developed.

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We have a lot of conversations about the impact of people on the ecosystem, the cost to reuse wastewater, competing water demands, water limited areas etc.  All are valid issues to raise and since people control the outcomes in all of these situations, we need to be aware of consequences.  So while Florida is a leader is wastewater reuse for irrigation, it is kinda cool to see what happens when we think outside the box.  The Wakodahatchee wetland is a sewer treatment area created by Palm Beach County Utilities a number of years ago.  This is reclaimed quality water placed into an area specifically designed to allow for nutrient removal and aquifer recharge.  The County placed mosquitofish in the water to reduce mosquitos. Bluegills found there way.  So did the turtles and alligators.  But this is THE bird watching site in southern Palm Beach County.  And it is located between the wastewater plant and a neighborhood.  You can’t get parking easily.  This is an example where looking at the bigger picture seems to have a positive effect on the community and the ecosystem as well.  The birds don’t look unhappy.


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Most water suppliers realize that the more natural their land is upstream of their water supplies, the less risk there likely is for their customers.  Under the source water protection programs that state, local officials and water utilities implement, the concept is to keep people related activities out, and let the natural forests and landscapes remain.   For the most part the natural areas support only a limited amount of wildlife (sustainable) and thereby there natural systems are attuned to compensate for the natural pollutant loads, sediment runoff, ash, detrital matter, etc., that might be created through natural processes.  For thousands of years these systems operated sustainably.  When people decide there needs to be changes, it seems like the unanticipated consequences of these actions create more problems.  Now many of these same ecosystems do not work sustainably and water quality has diminished, increasing the need for treatment and the risks of contamination to the public.  It would be better, but decidedly less popular on certain fronts, to provide more protection to natural systems that extend into watersheds (which is most of them), not less.

So this leads to a series of questions that go to the greater questions about natural environments:

Is it really necessary to cull the small Yellowstone bison herd by 1000?  What do bison have to do with watersheds?  Well, the bison create much less damage to grasslands and underlying soil than cattle due to the size of their hooves.  An argument is that we need to cull the herd because they transmit disease to cattle, but Brucellosis has never been demonstrated to move from bison to cattle, so disease is not an answer.  What is really happening is that there is competition between buffalo and cattle for grazing.  Competition with cattle means that the cattle are on public property, not private ranch lands, and the cattle trample the public lands which creates the potential for soil erosion and sediment runoff.  So I am thinking water folks should be siding with the bison. Of course without wolves, there is no natural predator for bison, which raises a different sustainability problem, so maybe instead of killing them, we move them to more of their native ranges – maybe some of those Indian reservation might want to restart the herds on their lands?  That might be good for everyone, water folks included.

Part 2 – is it necessary to continue to protect wolves or should we continue to hunt them in their native ranges?  Keep in mind wolf re-introduction efforts are responsible for most of the wolf populations in the US, specifically in the Yellowstone area.  Without wolves, there is no control of large grazing animal populations (see bison above, but also elk and deer), and there is a loss of wetland habitat because the elk eat the small shoots used by beavers to build dams and trap sediment.  Eliminating wolves has been proven to create imbalance.  Wolves = sediment traps = better water quality downstream.  Sounds like a win for everyone. (BTW there is a program in Oregon to protect wolves and help ranchers avoid periodic predation of calves by wolves so they win too).

Part 3 – Is it really necessary to kill off coyotes in droves?  The federal government kills thousands of coyotes and hunters and others kill even more.  This is a far more interesting question because it leads to one of those unintended consequences.  !100+ years ago people decided wolves were bad (we still have this issue ongoing – see above).  So we eradicated wolves.  No wolves means more rodents, deer, elk, etc. which mean less grass, less aspens and less beavers, which means more runoff which does not help water suppliers.  It also means more coyotes, because there is more food for the coyotes.  Interesting that coyotes have pretty much covered the entire US, when their ranges were far more limited in the past.  Coyotes are attracted to the rodents and rabbits.  But the systems are generally not sustainable for coyotes because there is not enough prey and there is no natural control of the coyotes – again, see wolves above.  A Recent Predator defense report indicates that culling coyotes actually increases coyote birth rate and pushes them toward developed areas where they find cats and small dogs, unnatural prey.  Not the best solution – unintended consequences of hunting them on more distant land pushes them into your neighborhood.  Not the consequence intended.  So maybe we keep the small dogs and cat inside at daybreak and nightfall when the coyotes are out and let them eat the rats and mice that the cats chase and once consumed they go away.   Coyotes need to eat grazers and rodents but you need the right mix or the grazers overgraze, which leads to sediment runoff issues – which is bad for us.  That also seems like a win.

Everglades restoration is a big south Florida issue.  The recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades.  So water there seems like a win for water suppliers?  So why aren’t we the biggest Everglades advocates out there?  Still searching for that answer, but Everglades restoration is a win for us and a win for a lot of critters.  Federal dollars and more federal leadership on restoration is needed.  Which leads to ….

Do we need more, not less management of federal lands?  Consider that the largest water manager in the west is the federal government, which has built entire irrigation systems to provide water to farmers who grow crops in places that are water deficient.  Those farms then attract people to small towns that consume more of the deficient water.  Then people lobby to let cattle graze on those public lands (see bison above), timber removal – which increases sediment erosion, or mining (what could possible go wrong there?).  So since the federal government manages these lands, wouldn’t better regulations and control to keep the federal properties more protected benefit water users and suppliers?  Contrary to the wishes of folks like the guys holed up in a federal monument in Oregon, or the people who have physically attacked federal employees in Utah and Nevada, more regulations and less freedom is probably better in this situation for the public good.  If we are going to lease public lands (and most lands leased are leased to private parties for free or almost free), and there should be controls on the activities monitoring for compliance and requirements for damage control caused by those activities.  There should be limits on grazing, timber and mining, and monitoring of same.  Lots of monitoring.  It is one of the things government really should do.  And we need it to protect water users downstream.  Again a win for water suppliers.

So as we look at this side issue, ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades seem very distant from our day-to-day water jobs.  But in reality they are not.  We should consider the impacts they might have on water supply, keeping in mind natural system decisions are often significantly linked to our outcomes, albeit the linkage is not always obvious.


 

So everyone is doing their Top 10 questions for 2016 (although with David Letterman off the air, perhaps less so), I figured why not?  So it the vein of looking forward to 2016, let’s ponder these issues that could affect utilities and local governments:

  1. How wild, or weird will the Presidential election get? And part b, what will that do to America’s status in the world?  Thinking it won’t help us.  Probably won’t help local governments either.
  2. Will the economic recovery keep chugging along? Last time we had an election the economy tanked.  Thinking a major change in direction might create economic uncertainty.  Uncertainty (or panic) would trickle down.  Status quo, probably keeps things moving along.  .
  3. What will the “big” issue be in the election cycle and who will it trickle down to local governments and utilities? In 2008 it was the lack of health care for millions of Americans and the need for a solution. Right after the election we got the Great Recession so most people forgot about the health care crisis until the Affordable are Act was signed into law.  And then ISIS arose from a broken Iraq and Arab summer.  None helped local governments.
  4. What are we going to hear about the 20 richest Americans having more assets than the bottom 150 million residents? 20 vs 150,000,000.  And while we are at it, the top 0.1% have more assets than the bottom 90%, the biggest disparity since the 1920s.  While we will decide that that while hard work should be rewarded, the disparity is in part helped by tax laws, tax shelters, lobbying of politicians, etc. as Warren Buffett points out, indicate a discussion about tax laws will be heard.  Part b – if we do adjust the tax laws, how will we measure how much this helps the bottom 99.9%?
  5. What will be the new technology that changes the way we live? Computers will get faster and smaller.  Phones are getting larger.  Great, but what is the next “Facebook”?  By the way the insurance folks are wondering how the self driving car will affect the insurance industry.  So reportedly is Warren Buffett.  Watch Mr. Buffett’s moves.
  6. Along a similar vein, will the insurance industry start rethinking their current risk policies to look at longer term as opposed to annual risk? If so what does that mean for areas where sea levels are rising?  The North Carolina coast, where sea level rise acceleration is not permitted as a discussion item could get tricky.
  7. Will unemployment (now 5%) continue to fall with associated increases in wages? Will that help our constituents/customers?  Will people use more water as a result?
  8. Where is the next drought? Or flood?  And will the extremes keep on coming?  Already we have record flooding in the Mississippi River in December – not March/April?  Expect February to be a cold, snowy month. IT is upper 80s here.  Snowing in the Colorado Rockies.
  9. Will we continue to break down the silos between water “types” for a more holistic view of water resources? We have heard a bunch on potable reuse systems.  More to come there, especially with sensors and regulations.  But in the same vein, will we develop a better understanding of the link between ecosystems and good water supplies, and encourage lawmakers to protect the wild areas that will keep drinking water cleaner?
  10. Will we get water, sewer, storm water, etc. customers to better understand the true value of water, and therefore get their elected official on board with funding infrastructure neglect? And will that come as a result of better education, a better economy, breaking down those silos, drought (or floods), more extreme event, more breaks or something else?

Happy New Year everyone.  Best to all my friends and followers in 2016!

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