ESA Policy News: March 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: FY 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL CUTS INNOVATION, FEDERAL WORKFORCE On March 20, House Republicans unveiled their proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the budget bill sets an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.028 trillion in FY 2013, $19 billion below the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act. Among its provisions, the House budget resolution includes significant cuts to Department of Energy programs while expanding oil and gas drilling. It also supports the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands identified in a 1997 Department of Interior report that were deemed suitable for sale or exchange to benefit the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The White House released a statement asserting that the Ryan plan would cut clean energy programs by 19 percent and slash $100 billion from science, space and technology programs over the next decade. The budget also proposes to cut the federal government workforce by 10 percent, providing $368 billion in savings. Under the proposal, federal employee retirement contributions would also rise from 0.8 percent to 6.3 percent. The bill would also extend the current federal pay freeze to 2015. View the full FY 2013 House budget proposal here. The White House response to the House budget proposal can be viewed here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS EPA MERCURY STANDARDS FOR POWER PLANTS On March 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety met for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury rules for power plants. EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide on Dec. 16, 2011. “I believe it’s possible to have a clean environment and a strong economy. I think it’s a false choice to say that we have to have one or the other; we can have both. That is especially true for cleaning up our air pollution,” declared Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) in his opening statement. “In fact, as the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, our nation’s air has gotten cleaner, while electricity rates have stayed constant and our economy has grown by 60 percent. For every dollar we spend cleaning the air, we’ve seen $30 returned in reduced health care costs, better workplace productivity, and lives saved.” Subcommittee Ranking Member James...

Read More

Out of the ashes: The Gulf, one year later

Last year the world’s eyes turned to the Gulf of Mexico when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling unit exploded, causing what became the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion that resulted in 205.8 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the Gulf, 17 were injured, and countless more had to rebuild their livelihoods. This time last year Deepwater Horizon was still spewing about 53,000 barrels per day into the Gulf, in a community still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  This year, Gulf residents are bracing themselves for another assault—one that arrives every summer. That is, the Mississippi River deposits nutrients into the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The influx of nutrients sets off a chain reaction that transforms a large area of the Gulf into a massive “dead zone” where virtually no aquatic organism can survive. This area,  off the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas is the largest hypoxic zone  currently impacting the United States, and it is second worldwide only to the Baltic Sea. Moreover, this year’s is predicted to be the biggest ever due to excessive flooding (see the above image showing sediment from the Mississippi River). The Gulf just can’t seem to get a break. So where does the problem start? When it rains, it pours. Rain that falls almost anywhere between the Rocky Mountains in the West and the Appalachian Mountains in the East (about 40% of the land area of the lower 48 states), with some exceptions, drains into the Mississippi. The majority of the land in this area is farmland, and the majority of farms in the Midwest are dependent on chemical fertilizers. “As agricultural commodity prices have plummeted and farm communities continue to decline,” according to a factsheet published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “many farmers feel they have no choice but to intensively fertilize and maximize production of a few low-value commodities.” This winter and spring brought record snowfall and record amounts of precipitation to the central US, causing the  Mississippi River floods of this spring. And big floods carry large amounts of fertilizer. Mississippi’s 1.2 million square mile watershed essentially funnels agricultural fertilizer straight into the Gulf. If you’ve ever wondered why nutrients could be so bad for marine ecosystems, hypoxia, which means oxygen depletion, is your answer. Nutrients from chemical fertilizers feed giant algae blooms, which in turn feed a population boom in algae-eating zooplankton. Dead algae and zooplankton fecal pellets sink down to the sea floor and are feasted on by bacteria, a process that consumes oxygen. In...

Read More

Mississippi floods out humans and wildlife

In late April, two major storm systems across the Mississippi River watershed brought about one of the most catastrophic floods upon the Delta region in generations. Thousands of homes have had to be evacuated and there have been a number of deaths. President Barack Obama has declared bordering counties in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky as federal disaster areas. The flooding along the Mississippi River has also sparked a great migration among the numerous species of wildlife. In one of the worst cases of overflow since the Great Depression, the Mississippi River has flooded three million acres across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. The Mississippi River has the third-largest drainage basin in the world, absorbing 41 percent of the drainage from the 48 contiguous United States, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The massive river covers more than 1,245,000 square miles. According to the National Weather Service, a number of cities are currently experiencing record flood levels. In Natchez, Mississippi, the water now stands at 58.3 feet, shattering the 1937 watermark of 53.04 feet. In Memphis, the Mississippi crested May 9 at 47.8 feet, just under a foot below the city’s record, set in 1937. A wide range of wildlife is on the move, trying to escape the rising waters.  Animals such as deer have been frequently spotted swimming across stretches of water in search of higher ground. Wild turkeys, which nest this time of year, have lost nesting spots and hatchlings to the floodwaters. Other creatures swept up in the floodwaters include alligators, spiders, rats and even fire ants. Venomous water moccasins have been reportedly appearing everywhere from residential trees to yard porches and sheds. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, it is also mating season for the water moccasins, making the reptiles more aggressive than usual. The Tennessee government has issued a press statement advising residents to avoid the displaced snakes and offering tips on how to treat snake bites. However, some species may benefit from the floods. Biologists have noted that flood waters, which wash increased amounts of worms and insects into the water, provide extra food to fish such as catfish, common carp, bluegill and crappie. However, an aggressive non-native species, the Asian carp, is also expected to flourish. Contamination of the water is also a concern, with the Tennessee and Mississippi State Departments of Health warning residents to steer clear of the water for health reasons.  The greater Mississippi River is expected to contain a number of contaminants, from trash and farm runoff to untreated raw sewage and chemicals. Testing performed by ABC News found E. coli and coliform at 2,000 times the...

Read More

From the Community: Respecting animal privacy, rewilding America and reassessing the Dead Zone

Early morning flyovers produce a 3D map of New York City’s environment, scientists analyze lizard competition in the Bahamas, Slate reviews the ecological cost of large scale illegal drug production and golden lion tamarins paint for an auction to fund National Zoo research. Here is the latest news in ecology for the first week in May.

Read More

Q&A: Ecologists assess oil spill damage

An oil slick originating from a rig about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, which is dumping oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of approximately 25,000 barrels per day, is drifting toward the Alabama, Florida and Louisiana coasts, and scientists are still assessing the ecological impact that will result. In the Q&A below, three members of the Ecological Society of America’s Rapid Response Team discuss the current and possible future damage of this spill and the effects it could have on the Gulf region.

Read More