A Conference About Water IV: Scum and Sludge

The scum (technical term) that rises to the top of waste water during processes. The ESA Millennium Conference took its participants out into the field yesterday in a series of field trips to learn about local water-related issues.  This blogger ventured out to the Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford, GA, which processes around 28 million gallons of water per day, although the facility can handle up to 60 million gallons. We learned about the process of purifying water that comes to the plant from homes and businesses, which surprisingly takes each bit of water only about 8 hours to travel through the plant. The facility uses four stages of purifying: filters, a vortex, microorganisms and micropore membranes to clean and sanitize the water. Not to mention the initial process, which removes the scent from the sewage in respect of the communities nearby the plant. We learned from Paul Barr, an education specialist at the facility, what the difference is between the technical terms “scum” and “sludge”: scum rises to the top of the water (and looks like a root beer float, says Barr), while sludge settles to the bottom. The trip was a very informative one, even for scholars who study water for a living – it was clear that we academics had much to learn about the nitty gritty (pun intended) process of creating clean and potable water for society. To make the experience even more rich, the remnants of Hurricane Ida were passing through. Standing on the roof of a water treatment plant, staring down into massive drums of water covered with scum while withstanding gale-force winds and rain was quite an experience. Paul Barr of the Gwinnett Environmental Heritage Center in front of the machinery that removes the foul stench from waste water. One interesting caveat was that the plant is attempting to get to the point where they can sell the organic waste skimmed out by the sieving process as mulch and use the methane produced by the bacteria to produce heat used in other parts of processing. Red tape is preventing both of these advances at the moment, but the plant is committed to recycling and reusing as much as possible. An obvious manifestation of this goal is the plant’s associated Environmental and Heritage Center, an education center about water and the environment that hope to welcome more than 40,000 students through it doors by the end of the year.  Completed in 2006, the Gold Certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building has a sloped green roof, a series of rain chains, emphasizes windows to promote natural light and reduce energy...

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A Conference about Water III: Perceptions of Water Use

Todd Rasmussen takes questions after his talk at the ESA Millennium Conference. Yesterday’s morning sessions at the ESA Millennium Conference on water and drought wrapped up the keynote talks and moved into posters showcasing social and ecological studies surrounding water use. Denise Fort, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico, gave an overview of water law and the tradeoffs that occur when ecosystem health is at odds with human demands.  She touched on an interesting case against the Endangered Species Act involving the fifth amendment, where landowners have made the case that laws affecting use of their land, such as using less water or changing their agricultural practices, is equivalent to the government “taking” their land. In these cases, she said, we need to figure out an appropriate compensation for these landowners, possibly in the form of ecosystem services. Fort also made a point that would come to be a recurring theme in conversations later on in the day: the use of the word drought.  She pointed out that in many cases, a social drought such as those that have affected the Southwest or the Southeast is actually not a meteorological drought, or one that includes an unprecedented water scarcity. Nevertheless, she said, managing water scarcities needs to have a large measure of adaptation. “We’re not likely to return to average or normal,” she said. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing in the past, it’s extinction for many species.” Likewise, in his talk, Todd Rasmussen of the University of Georgia told the audience that in most other cultures, the concept of the “American Way of Life” is not translated into their language, but instead said in English.  This idea of water inequity is one of the foundational concepts of the conference, and one that will probably be explored more in the conference workshops. Lisa Welsh explains her research to Jason West at the ESA Millennium Conference poster session. The poster session was another lively event, with researchers presenting their work on water scarcity and mitigation efforts from around the world. Lisa Welsh of Utah State showcased her work on the perception of drought in the Bear River Basin in the West.  This basin feeds several divisions in different ways, and Welsh found that the divisions are good predictors of people’s attitudes toward their water. In divisions where water is traditionally abundant, people are not as worried and in many ways are more vulnerable, Welsh says.  But in water-scarce regions, the people are much more ready to deal with an impending drought. Stay tuned for a virtual tour of the Gwinnett Water Treatment Plant (seriously,...

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A Conference About Water, Part II: Drought and water issues on the big screen
Nov10

A Conference About Water, Part II: Drought and water issues on the big screen

Yesterday afternoon at the ESA Millennium Conference on water-ecosystem services, drought, and environmental justice included a varied program of presentations, including two more plenary talks and a reception showcasing case studies on water-ecosystem services, presented in a manner very different for ecological science: in a session using videos that was reminiscent of a poster session. Emily Bernhardt of Duke takes a question after her talk about sustaining freshwater ecosystems.   Wrapping up the day’s plenary talks were Roger Pulwarty of NOAA and Emily Bernhardt of Duke University. Both focused from different perspectives on the ever far-ranging issue of drought and the types of management that people use to ameliorate its effects. Pulwarty explored the issue of management implementation and identified a key issue with of dealing with drought. Although people  are good at identifying our own expectations for management of nature, he said, we’re not good at adapting those expectations based on new data. In some cases, he said, institutional inertia can harm a project. “We shouldn’t be in the business of helping people do the wrong things more precisely,” he said. In keeping with an emerging conference theme of managing at regional and local levels, he suggested the localized use of tools such as the National Integrated Drought Information System which, he says, provides a systematic collection and analysis of social, environmental and economic data focused on the impacts of drought. Emily Bernhardt of Duke University then gave a thoughtful review of the baseline definitions of drought and its related issues. She made the astute point that in many cases, the synergistic effects of drought and other factors are more devastating than the drought itself. She also commented that, unlike many people’s perceptions, the biggest problem exacerbating droughts is not in fact climate Daniel Pritchett of the California Native Plant Society explains his work at the case study presentations.   change, but simple human population expansion.  The only way to truly help stave off severe droughts like those in the American Southeast and Southwest, she said, is for people to limit their water consumption. The day ended on a boisterous note, with the 100 or so scientists at this conference gathering for food, drink and case study presentations. The 10 case studies were presented concurrently, five at a time, for an hour each.  Although the video presentations were sometimes hard to hear, the presenters made do by narrating their video and taking questions from the surrounding crowd, making it something like an interactive poster session. Daniel Pritchett talked to me at length about his case study on the ever-famous struggle between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles.  The...

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A Conference about Water and Ecology

Nancy Grimm welcomes attendees to the first ESA Millennium Conference. ESA’s first Millennium Conference kicked off today in Athens, GA. The meeting is bringing together ecologists and social scientists to engage in conversations about one of the most dramatic emerging challenges in ecology: that of clean water and water scarcity.  While ecologists’ main expertise is in providing and maintaining adequate water for healthy ecosystems, social scientists are expert in and concerned about scarce water and allocation across diverse communities. The discussion this morning focused on several key issues associated with water conservation. Nancy Grimm was the president of ESA when the Millennium series was suggested, and she welcomed the group to the conference. In her opening remarks, she was the first to bring up the fact that for water reform and management to really take hold, it needs to occur at a regional level.  All-encompassing water legislation, even at state levels, can pit differing priorities against one another; since ecosystem services are largely delivered at regional scales, their legislation should be regional as well. Ann Bartuska addresses a question during her talk about urban ecosystem services. But Carol Couch, formerly chief of environmental protection in Georgia, made the point that a difficult challenge is to learn how to legislate water and water rights among political boundaries.  Since ecosystems know no political boundaries, local politicians must learn to work together. “We need to explore systematically and synthetically how different societies throughout time have dealt with a common pool of resources, so it doesn’t devolve into the tragedy of the commons,” she said. “We need to start thinking about ecological services as a common pool.” A major challenge, she also mentioned, will be considering water as a common-pool resource in areas, like Georgia, where most (96 percent!) of the land is privately owned. Bob Naiman of Washington University made the great comment that it would be nice to have an “opinions map” – one that showed which people over the landscape have what opinions about water and how it should be used. This could inform management strategies and ground-up community initiatives. “We don’t need to convince people, we just need to speak in words they understand,” she said.”We could then spend less time advocating for a public campaign – but instead recruit people to work with us.” A final theme of the first several talks was interdisciplinarity.  As co-chair Ted Gragson of UGA pointed out, we’re ready to practice what we’ve often preached about interdisciplinarity. No water problem will be solved by an ecologist or a social scientist alone, which is the whole reason for the conference. Later this afternoon: Roger...

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ESA Conference: Drought & environmental justice

The first conference in ESA’s Millennium Series begins on Monday at the University of Georgia in Athens. The conference, titled “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought, and Environmental Justice,” will bring 100 scientists and land managers together to work on the resolution of social issues related to localized drought. The conference will focus on issues surrounding one of the biggest emerging environmental issues – water – and its relationship to human social structure. Although many areas experience periodic drought, the results of such drought often depend on an area’s government and policy, its infrastructure, and the behavior of its people. These factors can create differences in vulnerability to water shortages across communities with different racial, cultural and income profiles. The Millennium Conference aims to combine the knowledge of ecologists and social scientists to begin to address this issue of environmental justice. The Conference attendees will present 12 case studies on water shortages and their effect on societies throughout the world. In one study, an urban water shortage in Melbourne, Australia, led to a controversial infrastructure project to transfer water from a similarly water-stressed rural area to the city. In another, Michigan residents are fighting annual water bills as high as $10,000 and the potential privatization of their water resources. You can watch live streaming video of the plenary speakers on the Millennium Conference web site on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  Videos about each of the case studies are available. Learn more about ESA’s Millennium...

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Ecosystem services experts database online

ESA is a supporting partner of a really innovative and useful new project by the World Resources Institute: an online directory of scientists whose work relates to ecosystems services.  This experts database is meant to be a resource for journalists, policymakers and businesspeople. The free directory enables users to search for experts around the world in a wide range of disciplines, including ecology, geology, environmental science, law, business and architecture. Each expert’s profile includes their area of expertise, a short bio, a CV and contact information. You can view the database here. To be considered for inclusion in this database, send your name, organization, title, and resume or CV to the organizers at the World Resources Institute, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the IUCN or Earthwatch. The criteria to apply are that you are affiliated with a university, NGO, corporation or government body, hold an advanced degree in a field related to ecosystem services and have 5 years in a research or practitioner role related to ecosystem...

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ESA Policy News: Sept. 11

In this week’s Policy News, produced by ESA’s Policy Analyst Piper Corp: climate legislation delayed, acceleration of the process for Endangered Species listing, new Energy and Natural Resources bill in the House and the EU unveils environmental measure of GDP.  Read the full Policy News here. Senate delays climate bill, raising questions about Copenhagen. Senate Democrats no longer plan to unveil their climate and energy bill by September 28. They gave several reasons for the delay, including the healthcare debate, the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and the need for additional consultation from government experts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has yet to announce a new deadline for committees to finish their work on the bill, although he is standing by plans to hold a floor debate before the year is out. But with the country still reeling from last year’s Wall Street meltdown, some observers speculate that a climate bill may fall to third place, behind both healthcare and financial reform legislation. Beyond the busy calendar, though, diplomatic considerations could be keeping the bill on hold.  Most supporters agree that although it would be ideal to have climate legislation in place before this December’s UN negotiations in Copenhagen, a losing vote in the Senate could have far worse implications for an international agreement than non-action. Key to negotiations will be signs of significant progress-in lieu of a climate package, President Obama could present the clean energy components of the economic stimulus package passed earlier this year, or focus on using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants. Both Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would prefer to see the Senate pass a climate bill before December, but Jackson has indicated that her agency could step in if necessary. EPA’s recent endangerment finding could, if Congress is unable pass climate legislation, place the agency in charge of nationwide emission reductions under the Clean Air Act. For more information on the endangerment finding, see the April 23 edition of the ESA Policy News at:...

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Video of Sen. Tom Udall’s address to ESA

Well, it’s just been a week full of videos, hasn’t it. For those interested in Sen. Tom Udall’s address to ESA at the recent annual meeting, below is a video of his Regional Policy Award acceptance speech. You can also read the full transcript of the address...

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