ESA Policy News: August 4

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. NATIONAL DEBT: OBAMA SIGNS MEASURE RAISING DEBT CEILING THROUGH 2012 The week of August 2, Congress passed and the president signed a bill to increase the national debt by as much as $2.4 trillion. After weeks in which a deal between leaders of both parties appeared elusive, the deal was finally announced the weekend preceding the vote, mere days before the Department of Treasury predicted a default if the debt ceiling was not raised. The plan implemented by Congressional leaders has the skeletal frame of a plan first proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in that it reduces the debt limit in phases, giving the president sole authority to increase the debt. While revenues were left off the table, the administration was able to win on its contention that the debt increase should run through the end of 2012, punting the issue through the next election. In the interim, however, the measure sets the stage for $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts to federal agencies over a 10 year period beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. It is expected that this will lead to federal agency appropriations even further below what was enacted in FY 2011. The plan provides for debt ceiling increases in two stages: The president may request a $900 billion increase now, of which $400 billion in borrowing authority is immediately available to the U.S. Treasury. This $900 billion is subject to a resolution of disapproval in both the House and Senate. The disapproval measure would be subject to a presidential veto.  Once the debt comes within $100 billion of the debt ceiling, the president may ask for at least an additional $1.2 trillion, which could rise to $1.5 trillion if a Balanced Budget Amendment is sent to the states or the joint committee process described below enacts more than $1.5 trillion in savings.  This increase is also subject to a resolution of disapproval and can also be vetoed by the president, consequently granting him authority to raise the national debt through the end of 2012. The second part of the plan involves up to an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, to be decided by a joint committee made up of 12 members (six from each chamber). Appointed by the House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader, the committee members will be tasked with developing legislation to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in future deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The committee members must be appointed by August 16. As part of the deal, both...

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Are seagrasses buried under urban development?

Seagrass populations are facing major declines in the midst of global climate change and increasing urban development along coasts, according to a study conducted at the request of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Frederick Short from Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in New Hampshire and colleagues reported that, of the 72 species of known seagrass, 10 species are classified at a higher risk of extinction and 3 qualify as endangered. Seagrass meadows are responsible for many vital functions in marine ecosystems, explained Robert J. Orth from the College of William and Mary and colleagues in a 2006 study. They are directly linked to mangroves, coral reefs, salt marshes and other marine habitats. These meadows provide a haven for species of finfish and shellfish in their juvenile stages. Manatees, dugongs and green sea turtles are also heavily dependent on seagrasses: They provide the primary source of nutrients for these endangered marine animals. Reduction in the area of seagrass coverage available to these endangered species would undoubtedly decrease their already diminishing populations, according to Orth and colleagues. Seagrass is also a large source of carbon, some of which is transported deeper into the ocean, serving as a nutrient source for organisms that live in food-limited environments. Seagrass also captures and holds carbon within its rhizomes, roots and leaves. Much like tropical ecosystems, seagrass meadows serve as biodiversity hotspots, providing shelter and allowing various species to flourish in the nutrient-rich environment. Seagrasses serve as effective bioindicators because changes in their environment can cause changes in their development and ability to serve as filters. According to Orth and colleagues, changes in water quality are easily identified by the health of seagrasses because of their high reliance on light—for example, when a decline in seagrasses is linked to an increase in nutrient deposits from coastal development. The environmental advantages of seagrass can be noted by the after-effects of the “eelgrass wasting disease” of the 1930s: Substantial amounts of seagrass were destroyed on coasts surrounding the North Atlantic Ocean due to the wasting disease and in turn caused alterations in current patterns. Food chains and fisheries were damaged, and sedimentation was negatively affected. Research conducted by Orth and colleagues suggested that, although seagrass species were able to undergo evolutionary adaption during periods of environmental fluctuations, current environmental changes are occurring too rapidly to allow them to adapt. Increases in sea surface temperature, sea level and the frequency of storms, which cause surges and swells, have all played a part in impacting seagrass populations, wrote the researchers. Tsunamis and hurricanes have frayed seagrass communities and in turn affected their ability to provide the ecological...

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From the Community: forming a biodiversity body and taxing tomatoes

Representatives from around 90 countries approved the formation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Nature and Scientific American collaborated on a survey to analyze the public’s interest in science and the history of the tomato’s taxonomy in the United States is reviewed. Here are some stories in ecology from the second week in June.

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Human-ecosystem interactions: Perspectives from the LTER symposium

Human-ecosystem interactions are complex and ever changing, influenced by factors ranging from region to religion, family history to homeowner’s associations. And in many cases, global change is having, and will continue to have, a pronounced impact on these already dynamic relationships—not only on which ecosystem services people value, but also how they obtain, use, and protect them.

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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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