Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kansas WRAPS

On Tuesday I attended a work group meeting of Kansas WRAPS participant agencies. WRAPS stands for Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies. The goal of WRAPS is to fund novel and innovative projects that will improve watersheds. The idea is to do this by getting local stakeholders to participate. The WRAPS process is 4-stage: Develop, Assess, Plan, and Implement. Each WRAPS group represents a particular watershed, and each year they may request funding to accomplish one of those 4 stages.

The funding requests greatly exceeded the available funds (as expected) so the requests had to be pared down considerably. My understanding is that this work group, consisting of representatives from perhaps a dozen state agencies and other interested parties, was intended to offer guidance and thoughts on how to assign that money.

At the meeting, I was told that the initial criteria for getting WRAPS funds was for projects that were experimental or novel or otherwise a dramatic change from approaches that had been tried previously. Yet many of the project proposals included ideas that have been used extensively elsewhere. For example, one group asked for money to build terraces. Fortunately, the work group, along with the ultimate decision-makers, agreed that this was not what WRAPS is intended to fund.

This meeting was actually a fairly interesting look at how decision-making at this scale gets made. For example, there was considerable talk about the possible need to protect the service providers. A service provider is an agency who actually carries out the projects that the WRAPS group wants to implement. So if WRAPS group A gets the money, then they are going to pay, say, Kansas State University (A service provider) that money in order for one of the professors there to design and organize the project. What the WRAPS work group was discussing was whether or not we ought to consider the fate of those service providers when assigning funds. If a service provider is on the books as accomplishing a particular task for 4 different WRAPS groups, but only 2 of those groups get funded, will that service provider be able to exist on 1/4th of the projects it had planned for?

Personally, I don’t believe that should factor into the WRAPS funding assignments at all, because if it does, then it becomes a powerful incentive for WRAPS groups to use those service providers that the WRAPS work group thinks are worth preserving. In essence, the funding agency would be funneling money to particular groups (and eliminating competition). By ignoring those considerations, the service providers that can’t adapt to the changing conditions will simply fade away.

These were the kind of meta-issues that dominated the meeting. There was surprisingly little discussion of the ‘innovations’ that were being proposed. I guess I was a little surprised by that. Fairness was the big motivating force behind a lot of these discussions. The first idea that always arose was to make everything the same for everyone. Yet fairness can also be achieved by any method that is transparent and logical. Written decisions explaining the justification for a particular project can be just as fair as a universal system that can be applied in advance.

The other major issue that got a lot of conversation at the work group meeting was in regards to a couple of individual WRAPS groups. Apparently this is an issue related to history. Bill Hargrove, the K-State representative, took issue with the lower Ark River watershed having two WRAPS (the City of Wichita has one, and Sedgwick County has one). Almost everyone in the room made a point of lamenting the inability of City and County to work together, ostensibly because every other WRAPS group in a similar situation had managed to unite into a single committee/group. Yet, the map online of WRAPS watersheds shows a lot of overlap. Further, the online FAQ for the project seems to suggest that overlapping WRAPS are perfectly acceptable. The issues facing the City and the County would appear to be separate. Yet it was fully ten minutes before the uproar about “Wichita and Sedgwick” died down. Suggestions were made that any funding to those groups be given on the condition of them merging.

I find this very silly. Bill Hargrove, in particular, used questionable logic by maintaining that “every other WRAPS group” had to collaborate, yet he himself identified other WRAPS groups that had overlapping watersheds. Further, Bill had made a point earlier in the meeting of not taking a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to funding WRAPS groups, because each one should be evaluated differently. Yet his (and others) primary objection to the Wichita-Sedgwick split was that it didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold that had been used on so many other projects. Personally, I think that such an arbitrary distinction (the city lines) is silly, but I can understand from an organizational standpoint why it makes sense: Within the city limits, Wichita has extremely well-defined lines of communication between stake-holders and the WRAPS group. But translating those interests outside the city is…odd.

The WRAPS program is a good one. The plan is sound, although the implementation and evaluation is tricky (isn’t it always?). I’m looking forward to participating in this project more in the future.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A good day for Kansas

Last Thursday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied a permit to Sunflower Electric for 2 proposed coal power plants near Holcomb, KS. In the words of Secretary Roderick Bremby: “After careful consideration of my responsibility to protect the public health and environment from actual, threatened or potential harm from air pollution, I have decided to deny the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation application for an air quality permit.”

This decision was a bombshell across the state of Kansas. Almost everyone I know, and I know some people, assumed that the decision would be to allow the construction of the new coal power plants. The KDHE technical review actually recommended issuing the permit, despite protests from numerous individuals, organizations, and the Fish and Wildlife service.

Earl Watkins, Sunflower’s president and CEO was not happy (.pdf): “We are disappointed with the Secretary’s arbitrary and capricious action. It’s clear the KDHE technical staff followed the law in its treatment of Sunflower’s air permit application when the staff recommended that the permit be issued. All Kansans should be alarmed by this action, since the impact of this denial will be felt across many industries in Kansas, not just power plants.” Watkins went on to imply that Sunflower wouldn’t invest in the algae technology they had previously been planning to produce ethanol and other biofuels. Watkins characterized the decision as political. Steve Miller, a spokesperson for Sunflower, was quoted as saying investors would gather a “truckload of lawyers” and “find out if there’s a way around this or to overturn this.” As he put it: “Our main thing is we think this was an arbitrary and capricious decision.”

State legislators were quick to pile on as well, directing their wrath at the Democratic Governer:

“I am disappointed in the governor’s lack of support and leadership for western Kansas on this major development project. I am hopeful this effort will not live or die on Secretary Bremby’s decision.”

-- Steve Morris, R- Hugoton

“His [Bremby’s] action today sends a clear message that economic development is not welcomed in rural Kansas. This is clearly to me a political decision dictated by Governor Sebelius.”

-- House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls

“As despicable as I find the national Republican Party, I find the leaders of the Kansas Democratic party even more despicable. Anyone who would throw a 3.5 billion-dollar investment away when it offered the citizens of this great state an opportunity to show the world what can be done with one of the most innovative energy programs ever conceived does not and will not get one minute of my time.”

-- Lon Wartman, who resigned as Finney County’s Democratic chairman.

"By forcing Secretary Bremby to deny the permit she (Sebelius) has not only caved to liberal special interest groups, but she has once again has shown her lack of commitment to promoting Kansas economic interests."

-- Kris Kobach, Republican state chairman (cites: 1, 2)

But this did not really reflect the range of opinions regarding the KDHE’s decision:

“I am encouraged by this decision, because protecting the people of Kansas – in every corner of our state – has always mattered more to me than anything else.”

-- Governor Sebelius

“moving forward it is critical that members of our administration and the Kansas Legislature continue to aggressively pursue renewable energy sources, such as wind generation. These opportunities will not only allow our state to lead the nation in clean energy, but will provide much-needed economic opportunities for rural Kansas.”

-- Janis Lee, D- Kensington

“The Holcomb plant would have locked the state into another 50 years of dirty, polluting coal energy and eliminated the market for the renewable forms of energy that are the future.”

-- Craig Volland, Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club

Based on this decision, we can say Kansas is becoming part of the solution rather than becoming part of the problem of global warming. It's a tough decision, but the right decision.”

-- Bob Eye, Topeka attorney for the Sierra Club

In my opinion, this was the best decision for Kansas. The supporters of this initiative are attempting to re-cast the issue as one of political development, and even in terms of Eastern Kansas dictating to Western Kansas, but these are misguided arguments. Allow me to explain:

1. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is not mandated to promote economic development, but rather to protect the health and environment of Kansans. As a result, any argument based on economic development should be ignored. I’ve found no one arguing that the coal plant won’t produce greenhouse gases, and I’ve seen no evidence anywhere that greenhouse gases aren’t causing global climate change. Further, the citizens of Kansas were given an extraordinarily long time to make comments on this proposed permit, and based on the 117 page response to comments that KDHE generated, many of those comments expressed doubts that the EPA/KDHE air quality standards were strong enough to protect Kansans’ health. The only arguments in favor of the new coal plant were financial, but it isn’t the Kansas Department of “Making the Rich Richer.”

2. Individuals from Western Kansas (some of my in-laws among them) are trying to cast this as Eastern Kansas stifling Western Kansas development. My initial feeling is that Western Kansas is making a straw man argument here. Take a look at this map (.pdf) (or this one) showing the distribution of Kansans. Notice anything? The vast majority of Kansas lives in the Eastern half of the state. In fact, the top 3 metropolitan areas of the state (Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita) make up over half of the state’s total population. So does Eastern Kansas have a bigger say in what goes on in the state: Of course it does. Last I checked, this was still a democracy.

Consider this, in the U.S. Senate, 51 representatives are voted in by just 17% of the U.S. population. I haven’t dug through all the numbers to find out, but I suspect a similar effect occurs in Kansas. I imagine the # of citizens per representative in Kansas is smaller in the west than in the east, and therefore the west is over-represented in the government.

Even if I were inclined to bicker over the financial aspects of this project, I suspect they would all come out bad for Kansas. The energy this coal plant would produce would be sent primarily to Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Just 15% of the proposed output from this plant would be going in-state, yet, 100% of the pollution would be occurring in-state. Air pollution from coal plants has been linked to increased infant mortality and asthma attacks, while filling the air with NOx, SOx, mercury, lead, and a host of other compounds that are known to cause human health concerns. The financial analyses done previously don’t really take these health effects into account, but if you think they don’t matter, you’re not paying attention.

All-in-all, I think this is a great day for Kansas. Secretary Bremby has drawn a line in the sand, and I hope we can defend it. The onus is now on the power industry to come up with some real solutions to our power needs, even if those solutions do not necessarily generate the most profit possible.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Toxistoichiometry: Integrating Ecological Stoichiometry and Ecotoxicology

In my current job I haven’t been doing a lot of original research, but that hardly means I am abandoning my wide range of research interests. I wanted to explain today a little bit about the “big idea” that I’ve been chipping away at for years. What follows are pieces from a talk I’m going to give to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Milwaukee on November 12th.

Evaluation of toxicity is most often done by the use of standard bioassays on commonly used test organisms. For example, you can pull up an EPA-approved method for determining the acute or chronic toxicity of any chemical to Daphnia spp. Theoretically, anyone in the world can follow the same protocol and get the same result. In reality, considerable differences occur between labs and even between Daphnia strains (not to mention different species), but this overall approach has been accepted for years as a means of estimating toxicity. The problem is that this method only estimates relative toxicity within a specific context. Relating the results of these short-term, laboratory tests to real-world scenarios is not only difficult, it may be impossible. For example, frequently used protocols often provide organisms with an abundance of high-quality resources, while in nature organisms are often faced with either low quantity or low-quality resources. A number of studies have tried to understand how the effect of a toxin varies with food quantity, but few have adequately addressed how food quality alters the effect of a toxin. Imbalances between the nutritional quality of a food source and an organism’s dietary needs are common in nature and appear to play a role in individual physiology, population dynamics, community interactions, and ecosystem processes. The study of how nutrient imbalances alter ecological relationships is often referred to as ecological stoichiometry. Organisms respond to changes in the stoichiometric ratio of elements in their food with corresponding variations in growth, reproduction, assimilation, and excretion. Essentially, nutritional imbalances have a large effect on ecosystem function.

My interest is in linking ecological stoichiometry with ecotoxicology. Initially, I have focused on how food quality affects acute toxicity in aquatic organisms. My collaborators at the University of Notre Dame and Trent University and I have shown that some toxins (iodine, cobalt, fluoxetine in particular) are stoichiometrically explicit, meaning the effects on organisms vary based on the quality of food the organism is getting. Other toxins do not appear to be stoichiometrically explicit (bendiocarb, triclosan, methanol) although it is obviously harder to prove.

The implications of stoichiometrically explicit toxins are presently unknown, but one can imagine a situation where the concentration of a toxin allowed by law is harmless when organisms are fed high-quality food, but detrimental when they are given poor quality food. Obviously, in nature species are often faced with food shortages or poor food quality, thus the actual effect of toxins may be much greater than the estimated effects. Evaluating the risk a chemical poses to an ecosystem therefore requires a more context specific approach. Are the receiving ecosystems frequently nutrient stressed? Are times of pollutant release going to coincide with occasions when ecosystems are nutrient stressed? I’m not sure whether regulatory agencies are equipped to permit in this way.

This kind of work is obviously just a first crack at the idea, and in many ways a very basic approach. Without this kind of base data, however, addressing more interesting questions becomes difficult. I believe that toxistoichiometry has the potential to provide a new axis of understanding for ecotoxicology.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Photos: October in Redbelly Snake Habitat

The key component of critical habitat for Northern Redbelly and Smooth Earth Snakes is an Oak-Hickory forest. I think this is because the soil must have been maintained for quite a while if Oak-Hickory is present, so the soil-dwelling snakes could be present.

Another big component is limestone and other rocky outcrops. Here something has made its den along an outcropping.
Permanent water and a fairly dense leaf litter layer is also important. This seepage is probably not permanent, but still adds something to the habitat.
Again, some more pics of rocks and rocky outcropping under a dense Oak-Hickory forest.

A final key ingredient is evidence for food sources. Here's a European earthworm, a primary food-source for these snakes. I also found snails and other soil-inverts at this location.

Random Bonus Picture:
Nothing to do with snakes, just a neat picture of a mushroom.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Report from Kansas E3: Energy, the Environment, and Economics.

So last week on Thursday I attended the 2007 State of the State, Kansas Economic Policy Conference (with the above title). The conference is put on by the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas. They’ve got a website with some basic information.

The key theme of this meeting was about how to balance our staggering energy demands with the environmental hazards caused by energy generation. I had been under the impression that this was going to be more of a panel-discussion type of conference. The two big sessions were labeled “Panels” and listed moderators, but in the morning session each of the panelists gave a 20+ minute talk, and there was virtually no time for questions.

I found the conference to be very interesting, at least the portions I saw (I did not see every speaker). Several points stood out, and I’ll discuss them briefly:

1. Our energy problems are enormous, and getting much greater. All the speakers agreed upon this point. They also agreed that the dramatic increases in demand over the next 25 years will be driven by increasing energy consumption in China and India. One speaker tossed out the staggering datum that China is building 1 coal power plant a week. The (old-school) industrialized world (OECD countries) is probably not going to see dramatic increases in energy consumption. The estimated increases are amazing. Speaker Tim Carr, of the Kansas Geological Survey and the University of West Virginia, put the energy numbers into a somewhat comprehensible format. Today, we globally use the energy equivalent of 211 million barrels of oil (MMBOE) a day. By 2030 we’re globally expected to be using 311 MMBOE/day. As he points out, there probably are enough coal, petroleum, and natural gas resources available to meet this demand over the next hundred years. As he also pointed out, the problem is the effect using such resources will have on the environment.

2. Nobody in the energy industry has any idea how to develop an environmentally friendly energy source. The morning Keynote speaker, William Downey of Kansas City Power and Light, repeated over and over again that “I have been in the utility industry for 35 years, and we’ve essentially got the same options for power generation now that we had 35 years ago.” Tim Carr pointed out that wind, ethanol, geothermal, solar, and all other biofuels account for less than 1.5% of our global energy usage. Downey also pointed out that the amount of money being spent on R&D has been decreasing from both the public and private sector over the past thirty years, despite the increasing need to find solutions. In my opinion, this is strong evidence that the industry is not hiring a diverse enough workforce in the R&D field. If energy companies continue to hire geologists and engineers who have specialized in understanding how to find petroleum and coal, it should be obvious that they aren’t going to be able to come up with innovative strategies to utilize solar, tidal, or bio-energy options.

3. Individuals with positions of security generally give terrible talks. Not all the talks I saw were awful. William Downey’s talk was actually quite good, especially considering the computer went out and the tech people kept interrupting him. Other speakers were less skilled orators. I assume this is because they didn’t practice. The speakers were generally rambling, monotone, and apparently intimidated by the audience. Some of them mumbled! By contrast, almost all the truly great talks I’ve seen have been by graduate students or other young and ‘inexperienced’ speakers. I assume this is because the younger speakers have more at stake. The mind reels at the implication that the people who are most listened to are the ones who have quit caring about how to express themselves.

4. Mis-information and spurious correlations can dramatically alter how people perceive an issue. Tim Carr put up a correlation between life-expectancy and energy consumption, making vague appeals to “refrigerating medicine” as the causative agent. I don’t actually have the data to disprove this assessment, but he offered no evidence in support of it. Other speakers have suggested that HIV/AIDS, which dramatically lowers life expectancies whether or not it is treated, is single-handily driving down life expectancy in Africa. Eliminate African countries, and the energy-lifespan relationship looks a lot weaker. Yet by putting up a figure with little or no context and supporting data, Tim Carr managed to suggest that we must produce more energy to save lives. In reality, the relationship between energy usage and life-span is more complex, and even spending more time in contemplation of Carr’s figure suggests that any relationship that might exist plateaus at a level 1/10th of the U.S. per capita energy consumption. That information doesn’t support the central tenet of the speakers: That energy consumption must continue to rise.

Tim Carr also put up a list of “Humanity’s Top Ten Problems Next 50 Years” as enumerated by Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. #1 on the list is Energy. Carr said “I like to start my talk with a Nobel Laureate.” This is an appeal to authority, and while Richard Smalley was certainly passionate about cheap energy, it is hard to take seriously a list that lists “Energy, Food, and Water” as the top three concerns, while listing “Population” as #10. After all, if population problems are solved, won’t most of the food, water, and energy problems be solved? Further, Smalley himself advocated education as the means to achieve cheap energy, yet education is only #8 on the list. Again, by showing this slide, appealing to authority, and then moving on without any critical analysis of the idea, the real issue is obscured so that a particular viewpoint can be promoted.

5. The conference organizers don’t know how to make a vegetarian food option. No. Potatoes and asparagus (the sides) do not constitute a ‘substitute’ for beef. And here I thought KU would be able to provide some reasonable alternative (cheese ravioli? Anything?).

I really didn’t end up learning much about how environmental concerns could be addressed while developing economically viable energy sources. Mostly the energy people seemed to just throw up their hands and advocate “clean coal” (I’ll try to explain why this is a misnomer in some future post) or nuclear. I’m not sure nuclear isn’t a good solution, but I’m not as informed as I ought to be about the risks. The other major suggestion was to get consumers to be more energy efficient. That strategy has been so effective in some places that energy companies have raised their rates to compensate for lost revenues.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

One Acre at a Time

A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful Kansas is. When people think of natural beauty, they often think of mountains and forests. Kansas is lacking in both. In terms of natural beauty, however, Kansas lacks little. There are few more imposing and awe-inspiring views on earth than the sea of grass in the Flint Hills. Standing atop a plateau, with the wind very nearly blasting you out of your shoes, you feel the enormity of the sky above and you can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.

Even in the agricultural lands of Kansas, I’ve often found pockets of beauty. On Friday I was out in the field, doing an environmental assessment on a site that will one day be flooded for a dam. From the road the site looks pretty boring: Overgrown pasture abutting cropland. But I went out and walked the site anyway. The pasture was like a bizarro-world tall-grass prairie. Instead of a nearly impenetrable sea of 6-foot bluestem, I was wading through a nearly impenetrable sea of 6 foot ragweed. I had been following a stream, and lost it when it meandered and I wandered into the pasture.

In order to find my way back to the stream, I did what any Kansas-born kid would do: Look for the trees. Stumbling forward towards a huge cottonwood, I suddenly burst out of the pasture and into an area where the tree canopy had cut off light to the grown, and the underbrush was sparse. All around me were mulberry trees, grape vines, cottonwoods, gooseberry, and red-bud trees. In the surprisingly still air of this pocket of semi-forest there were monarch butterflies wafting around, and I startled deer from their slumber. I felt like I had stumbled into another county. The stream had obviously criss-crossed this area of the valley a dozen times, as evidenced by old, dry stream channels. In the active channel was the only remaining pocket of water anywhere in this entire stream-reach.

Pockets of natural areas like this are probably more common than I know, and pretty important for the general welfare of the surrounding animal community. This isn’t the most obvious habitat to protect, and it isn’t the most obvious habitat to try and get replaced, but you can say that a thousand times and then you’ll have lost a thousand little pockets like this. That starts to add up.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Explanations: Why you can't convince me to not do my job.

I consistently hear complaints from residential developers, engineers, and builders that environmental legislation causes unnecessary “delays.” Occasionally these complainers will attempt to argue with me about whether or not I should require mitigation for the loss of wildlife areas. I find these complainers to be borderline offensive, for the following reasons.

First, and perhaps foremost, I am not the one requiring mitigation, and I am not the one causing the delays. The elected officials of the state of Kansas passed into law the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1975 and since then the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) has been required by law to require mitigation for loss of habitat. Since 1975, the citizens of Kansas (and the U.S. as a whole) have repeatedly been polled to gauge the level of support for this legislation, and have consistently responded that they favor such laws. Environmental regulations are no different than regulations governing workplace safety or speed limits. The majority of Kansas citizens want such regulations to prevent irresponsible practices.

Secondly, whether or not I personally believe that each species should be regulated, or that KDWP regulations represent the best science, I am obligated to regulate based on the KDWP-approved methods. Now that I’m a part of the process, and because I’m a scientist, I will work to make sure that the methods KDWP uses are objective and transparent. In many ways, what we do can’t be improved upon. In other ways they can. What’s true in all cases, though, is that I’m obligated to not use my own methods, but methods that KDWP has approved.

Finally, this country needs environmental regulation. The evidence from the past suggests that various industries will pollute as much as they are allowed, even when that pollution is the source of human and environmental health concerns, so long as it increases profit. The reasons are many, but ultimately it is because any industry governed by market forces will punish those who willingly forgo an advantage. Without environmental regulation, any industry that benefits from immoral polluting will be at a competitive disadvantage to those companies that will pollute immorally. Regulations insure that all competition occurs on a level playing field that the majority of society agrees is fair. A similar line of logic exists for developers, agriculturalists, etc.
To sum up: I’m going to protect the threatened and endangered species of Kansas. Nothing you say or do will convince me otherwise. As a result, feel free to keep your meaningless grumbling to yourself.