Managing water with natural infrastructure: win-wins for people and wildlife

By Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst The US Senate is moving forward with a new Water Resources Development Act, a comprehensive bill that authorizes funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects related to flood management, environmental restoration and other water resources infrastructure issues. The bipartisan legislation (S. 601) is sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA). In light of this, the Consortium for Aquatic Science Societies recently held a congressional briefing that highlighted problems with aquatic invasive species and “natural infrastructure” solutions. David Strayer, Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies discussed the varied ways in which invasive species can harm ecosystems, recreation and tourism for communities living alongside major waterways. Invasive species cost the US economy $100 billion a year and cause significant lasting ecological changes, often hindering  recreation and leading to proliferation of less desirable  wildlife. Among the most costly of these is the zebra mussel, which has cost industry and business billions since its initial introduction to the United States several decades ago. The mussels damage boats, invade water treatment and power plants and clog pipes. Strayer also highlighted nutria, plant-eating rodents that can severely erode river banks,  leaving surrounding communities more vulnerable to floods; Japanese knotweed, which crowds out native plants and damages existing infrastructure; and didymo (commonly known as “rock snot”), which – in addition to its obvious aesthetic damage to otherwise scenic landscapes – alters streambeds and cuts out food sources for native aquatic species such as trout. Strayer noted that reservoirs, alteration of water flows in rivers and streams and fish stoking (which can unintentionally include contaminants and undesirable wildlife) can buttress proliferation of invasive species. He praised language in the new WRDA legislation that would establish a program to mitigate invasive species in the Columbia River Basin and manage invasive plants in the northern Rockies and urged support for an amendment recently incorporated into the bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would seek to restrict invasive species from dispersing into the Great Lakes. Emma Rosi-Marshall, also with the Cary Institute on Ecosystem Services, focused her presentation on the general ecology of rivers. Many animals, including salmon and sturgeon, adapt their migration and breeding patterns on the dynamics of rivers. She also expanded on the important role of natural infrastructure such as wetlands and floodplains in mitigating floods and controlling erosion. Dams, while providing services such as water storage and power generation, can also disrupt wildlife migration and alter the manner in which sediment and nutrients are delivered along waterways. These alterations can impact fish abundance as well as...

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ESA Policy News: January 18

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: BEYOND THE FISCAL CLIFF, SPENDING BATTLES AWAIT As battle lines on both sides are beginning to be drawn, the initial makeup of what will prove to be a highly contentious battle next month over how to raise the national debt ceiling and address pending budget cuts to federal agencies has already begun to simmer. On Jan. 11, Senate Democratic leaders formally aligned themselves in supporting President Obama utilizing a perceived, yet contentious constitutional authority under the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceiling through sending him a letter on the matter. In their letter to the President, the Senators said: “In the event that Republicans make good on their threat by failing to act, or by moving unilaterally to pass a debt limit extension only as part of unbalanced or unreasonable legislation, we believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without Congressional approval, if necessary.” Meanwhile House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has made two specific pledges to his conference on any potential debt deal: 1) that he will only bring legislation to the floor that a majority of Republicans support and 2) that any debt limit increase will only happen if it is met dollar-for-dollar with additional spending cuts. If the past is prologue, it is expected that House Republicans will try to tie any debt limit increase with further cuts to discretionary spending and mandatory spending programs that provide assistance to low-income individuals, similar to a bill House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) put forward last May. It is anticipated that any potential deal to increase the national debt may also address budget sequestration, a “trigger” of automatic indiscriminate spending cuts across all federal agencies set to occur on March 1 if Congress doesn’t come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Congressional Democrats have insisted that such a deal included some type of revenue, likely the closure of tax loopholes. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, considers the tax issue “resolved” in lieu of the tax provisions passed in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-240). The Senate letter to Obama is viewable here. DISASTER RELIEF: HOUSE PASSES ADDITIONAL HURRICANE SANDY ASSISTANCE On Jan. 15, the House passed H.R. 152, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, the second of two major bills to provide emergency federal assistance to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The bill originally included $17 billion for immediate repairs, including $5.4...

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ESA Policy News: December 14

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: SCIENTIFIC SOCIETIES REQUEST ACTION TO DETER ‘FISCAL CLIFF,’ SPENDING CUTS On Dec. 7, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) joined a host of other scientific societies, universities and business leaders in sending a letter, spearheaded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), urging President Obama and Congressional leadership to reach a compromise deal that averts the ‘fiscal cliff’ while preserving federal investment in scientific research. ESA had sent the White House and Congress a similar letter late last month. The fiscal cliff includes a series of automatic discretionary spending cuts (sequestration) set to occur in January, if the Congress does not come up with an alternative plan to lower the deficit by $1.2 trillion before then either through spending cuts or revenue increases. Defense discretionary spending programs would be cut by 9.4 percent while non-defense discretionary spending programs would be cut by 8.2 percent under the automatic cuts.  The fiscal cliff also includes expiring tax cuts and unemployment benefits that, if left unaddressed, collectively threaten to plunge the economy into another recession. The letter encourages the president and congressional leaders to come up with a balanced approach to deficit reduction, noting the important role of science and technological investment. “It is important to recognize that federal research and development (R&D) investments are not driving our national deficits,” the letter notes. “These investments account for less than one-fifth of the current discretionary budget, but discretionary spending is the only place where deep cuts will be made. Placing a significant burden on these crucial areas, as sequestration would do, is nothing less than a threat to national competitiveness.  We recognize that the United States faces severe fiscal challenges, and we urge you to begin to address them through a balanced approach that includes tax and entitlement reform.” Both sides have put forward general plans that propose increased revenues and cuts to entitlement programs. However, despite several face-to-face meetings between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in the weeks since the election, Congressional Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked over the particulars of a compromise proposal. With the holidays fast approaching, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has repeatedly asserted that the House will not adjourn until issues related to the fiscal cliff are resolved. The White House Office of Management and Budget has already begun directing federal agencies to begin planning for the sequester. To view the joint society letter, click here. To view the ESA letter, click here. DISASTER RELIEF: SENATE PROPOSES SANDY SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATIONS LEGISLATION...

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Northwest leaders: coal export proposal deserves environmental review

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst A proposal to develop new marine coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, which could ship between 75 million and 175 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually to Asia, has drawn concern from environmentalists in the region. The National Wildlife Federation and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders have released a report outlining various environmental concerns to local communities brought on by coal production in the region. The six export terminals would be located in Cherry-Point, Grays Harbor, Longview, Port of St. Helens, Port of Morrow and Coos Bay. In the report, entitled “The True Cost of Coal,” the authors state that the proposed projects would pose threats to public health and set back decades of successful environmental recovery efforts in the region.  Among the detriments cited in the report are air pollution from coal dust, noise pollution and congestion from increased train traffic, increased risk of invasive species from tanker traffic as well as mercury deposition and ocean acidification, which could lead to the loss of salmon and steelhead, critical to the regional economy. A number of local communities and organizations, including Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force and the American Indian Yakama Nation tribe, have called upon Governor John Kitzhaber (D-OR) to delay any coal-export projects until a comprehensive health impact assessment is completed. The effort is being pushed by mining corporations, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Ambre Energy North America. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which advocates for the aforementioned entities, contends that “the proposed terminals would create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of millions in additional tax revenue for schools and other services in Washington and Oregon. The group’s website further maintains that the six proposed coal export terminals “can be built in a safe and environmentally responsible way.” The issue has garnered attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced H.R. 6202, the True Cost of Coal Act. The bill imposes a $10 per ton tax on coal and establishes a Coal Mitigation Trust Fund to mitigate potential negative environmental impacts of coal transportation. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House. Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT), both supporters of Powder River Basin coal production, have been joined by leading Republicans and some Democrats in calling on the Obama administration to initiate project-specific permit reviews rather than the broad environmental impact assessments environmental advocates endorse. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has issued a letter requesting that the Bureau of Land Management and...

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Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst   The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking. Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors. Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research...

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ESA Policy News: May 4

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: APPROPRIATORS APPROVE ENERGY AND WATER, AGRICULTURE SPENDING BILLS The week of April 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up its Energy and Water Development and Agriculture Appropriations bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Energy and Water The Energy and Water Appropriations Act for FY 2013 is funded at $33.361 billion, $373 million less than FY 2012. The bill is primarily responsible for funding the Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. The legislation’s funding overall is slightly more than the $32.1 billion approved by the House in committee. For additional information on the House Energy and Water bill, see the April 20 edition of ESA Policy News here. Unlike the House measure, the Senate Energy and Water bill does not include funding for the controversial nuclear waste site under Yucca Mountain, which is opposed by the Obama administration. The Department of Energy would receive $27.128 billion, $1.38 billion more than in FY 2012 to boost research related to clean energy technologies. Agriculture The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013 includes $20.785 billion in discretionary spending for FY 2013, an increase over the $19.565 billion FY 2012 enacted amount. For additional information on the two bills, click here. HOUSE: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS LOCAL EFFORTS ON STEM EDUCATION On April 30, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a field hearing in Madison, Alabama to review science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs and partnerships at the local level and their impact on the economy. The hearing was entitled “STEM Education in Action: Local Schools, Non-Profits, and Businesses Doing Their Part to Secure America’s Future.” Among the subcommittee leadership, there was consensus on the important role STEM education can play in boosting the economy. “Our commitment to STEM education is exemplified by contributions to STEM programs in the community by the University of Alabama-Huntsville’s Propulsion Research Center and related scholarships and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s educational programs, as well as many other local initiatives supporting STEM programs for students ranging from elementary school through high school,” stated Research and Science Education Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL). Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) noted that fewer than 40 percent of college students who start in a STEM-related field obtain a degree in that field, leading to a shortage of qualified employees to fill positions in science and technology, for which there is growing demand in the economy. Additional information on the...

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ESA Policy News: April 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CJS BILLS SUPPORT SCIENCE, SENATE TRANSFERS SATELLITES TO NASA The week of April 16, both the House and Senate Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees approved their respective funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. In total, the House CJS appropriations bill would provide $51.1 billion to all agencies under its jurisdiction, a reduction of $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 below the president’s request. The Senate bill would fund all agencies under its jurisdiction at $51.862 billion, a $1 billion reduction from FY 2012.  While the House bill’s funding levels are overall less than the Senate, both chambers supported increases in key science agencies in comparison to the current fiscal year. The Senate CJS bill would also move funding for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There has been bipartisan, bicameral criticism directed at NOAA’s costly satellites. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the move would save $117 million in FY 2013 and reduce duplicative federal activities. Enclosed are funding levels for key science bureaus outlined within the House and Senate bills: The National Science Foundation House: $7.333 billion, an increase of $299 over FY 2012. Senate: $7.273 billion, an increase of $240 million over FY 2012. NASA House: $17.6 billion, $226 million below FY 2012 Senate: $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over FY 2012. (*The increase is due to the bill’s provision transferring weather satellite procurement from NOAA to NASA. Absent these funds, the bill would mean a $41.5 million cut for NASA. NOAA House: $5 billion, $68 million above FY 2012 Senate: $3.4 billion, $1.47 billion below FY 2012 For additional information on the Senate CJS bill, click here. For additional information on the House CJS bill, click here.  APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE RELEASES FY 2013 ENERGY AND WATER BILL On April 17, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee released its funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill, which funds federal programs for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, would be funded at $32.1 billion, $965 million less than the president’s request, yet a slight increase from FY 2012. Department of Energy (DOE) – DOE would receive $26.3 billion, $365 million less than FY 2012. DOE environmental management activities would be funded at $5.5 billion, $166 million below FY 2012. The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $300 million from FY 2012 and would direct funding...

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ESA Policy News: December 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. CONGRESS: ENVIRONMENTAL RIDERS LOOM FOR MUST-PASS MEASURES Before the first session of the 112th Congress adjourns at the end of next week (or weekend), it will take up a short, but important list of measures to keep the government funded and extend the existing payroll tax cut. Each of these bills could potentially include environmental policy riders to overturn or scale back Obama administration efforts. Congressional Republican leaders appear set on taking up a comprehensive measure that ties a year-long extension of President Obama’s payroll tax cut to the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Earlier this fall, the Obama administration announced it would postpone review of the pipeline project until after 2012 and the president has personally stated he would veto an effort to politicize the payroll tax extension. However, some Members have voiced concern that the president may end up taking back that statement, particularly as the bill also includes an extension of unemployment insurance. Entitled the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011, the 396-page measure is sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI). Congressional leaders also have to deal with the remaining appropriations measures, which must be acted on by the end of next week to maintain government funding of several agencies. The House Interior Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012 is a virtual Christmas tree “ornamented” with policy riders to restrict various Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Provisions incorporated into the House measure include efforts to restrict EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule, curbs on toxic emissions from power plants, industrial boiler regulations, a proposed change in the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act, Interior’s withdrawal of acreage surrounding the Grand Canyon from uranium mining and efforts to restrict mountain-top removal mining. Senior Congressional Democrats have already conceded they may need to relent on a few environmental riders in order to pass a bill. Those concerned about the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline or any of the aforementioned environmental policy riders are encouraged to contact their Members and Senators. For additional information on the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, click here. To contact your Member of Congress, click here. To contact your Senator, click here. ENDANGERED SPECIES: COMMITTEE EXAMINES LITIGATION, EFFICACY SURROUNDING E.S.A. On Dec. 6, the House Natural Resources Committee convened for a hearing examining the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act. Committee Republican majority members took the opportunity to call for reform of the legislation....

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