July 25, 2014
By: Colleen Tuite
Late one June afternoon, a motley crew of ecologists, molecular biologists, landscape architects, and a camera crew gathered in a vacant area of South Brooklyn’s salt storage lot. There, we donned Tyvek suits and boots, sorted empty glass jars and plastic hazmat bags, fastened life preservers, and launched canoes into the toxic waters of the Gowanus Canal.
Originally a creek running through a saltwater marshland, industry began along the Gowanus in the mid-1600s, as mills were built there to take advantage of water power. In the 19th century, as industry grew the Gowanus Creek was dredged and the canal system constructed – a 1.8 mile waterway linking factories, warehouses, coal stores, and refineries to the Upper New York Bay. By World War I, the Gowanus was the busiest commercial canal in the country, and South Brooklyn a major for industrial production – and, simultaneously, industrial pollution.
The Canal was designed and constructed to meet a budget – but at the expense of function. With no outflow system, the Canal cannot be flushed out, and over time it’s become a cesspool of industrial contaminants, sewage, and pathogens. By the 1950s industry along the canal began to wane, and the Canal was dredged one last time in 1955. Since then, the Gowanus Canal has essentially become an aquatic toxic time capsule – cement, oil, mercury, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and coal tar from its industrial past, plus emissions from the overhead Gowanus Expressway and raw sewage from the combined system overflow.
In 2009, the Canal was designated by the EPA as a Superfund site. Preliminary cleanup efforts began in 2013 and the Army Corp of Engineers plans to dredge and cap the canal in 2016. But what can we learn from the existing ecosystem?
Enquête Gowanus is a new initiative to study the Gowanus Canal’s invisible life, led by Ian Quate of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects, in partnership with Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC), and GenSpace, a community biolab based in downtown Brooklyn.
A few weeks after we paddled around the Canal with jars of sludge, Ian and I met up on the Whole Foods rooftop which overlooks our sampling sites, and discussed his project and the future of the Gonwanus Canal.
How did Enquête Gowanus begin?
Ian: Two years ago, I began volunteering with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and I worked with them on a number of landscape projects, mostly delineating storm water and CSO runoff into the Canal. Everyone was excited for the cleanup of the Canal, myself included, but it appeared that no one had actually tested to see what was living in the Canal.
So, I started digging around and asking folks at the multiple organizations involved if the water or sediment had been sampled for biological activity. And indeed, no one had really done any work, especially in the sediment. No one had ever looked at it biologically.
How did you get interested in the microbial habitat of the Canal? Why should we pay attention to bacteria?
Ian: There is no such thing as an environment that is inimical to life. Industrial pollutants, while they are in a refined state, along with everything else that we use, are products from the earth; it’s not as if we are importing stuff from space. And so as long as something is from the earth, there is going to be some little critter that loves eating it – which, in effect, can break harmful chemicals down and remove them from the environment.
Specifically, Enquête Gowanus is about looking at where life would accumulate in the Canal, and to taxonomically catalog and share this information. We identified 15 locations along the Canal – based on depth, light conditions, CSO outflow, and traffic such as dredging – to create a variation in samples. We took samples, and then processed the samples at the lab at GenSpace to extract genetic information from the soil.
What’s happens next?
Ian: All the samples are done and the DNA is preserved in freezers at GenSpace. The next step is to find the funding to have it sequenced. It’s a metagenomic sequencing, so we’re not looking at individual organisms, but rather what organisms exist in the whole ecology. Hopefully it will tell us what’s living in there and what they’re doing. This is the most exciting part of the project, as there is the potential for discovery – it’s an unstudied ecosystem, that’s been relatively stable for the past 50 years, and potentially there are new organisms and cell pathways that could be useful for industrial and hydrocarbon cleanups.
What’s unique about the Gowanus? How can the study and design of the Gowanus Canal become a model for other contaminated sites?
Ian: I’ve heard the neighborhood of Gowanus described as a Rust Belt in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s remained far more industrial than its surroundings because of the contaminated state of the Canal. However, it is a central waterfront property in Brooklyn, and this location makes the land extremely valuable. Once the Canal is cleaned up there is no question that the neighborhood will be rapidly developed.
But from the perspective of ecology, especially urban ecology and natural history, there are definitely some unique organisms living here. I think it’s worth imagining how it could be developed with pockets of these ecosystems left intact, as little organic laboratories within a larger cleanup effort. Fundamentally, it’s not good for people to live near the Canal – you can’t touch this water, you can’t have children around it; and ultimately it’s an unhealthy ecosystem in an urban center, and its needs to be cleaned up. But I think it’s worth entertaining an alternative route. In art conservation, when you restore a painting, you leave a swatch of it, so you can look at the original state, so there a visual comparison. In this case, it may be beneficial if some areas of the Gowanus were preserved, not so much for visual comparison, but for organic comparison.
To this end, at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects we’re interested in making some sort of constructed intervention that talks about what’s going on here, especially with the knowledge that in two years the Canal will be dredged and capped, and it will become a different place. Where we are right now [the rooftop bar of Whole Foods, overlooking the canal] is indicative of that direction.
What opportunities have you found for scientists and designers to collaborate?
Ian: Scientists often have a different approach, and their ideas can be surprising for designers. I think it’s a good tradeoff. It’s been my experience, particularly with conservation biologists, is that they want to study biology in its current given state, and catalog that, and that’s it. And so I’ve found that the volition that designers bring to a project, and ask, for example, “Well, what kind of habitat does this ground nesting bird need?” and then we can provide that through designing and altering the environment to create more or less of a certain habitat. Scientists can look at a site, and make recommendations based on what the project goals are, ecologically, and the designer can manipulate the environment to make those habitats possible.
As we ride our bikes over the small bridge and out of Gowanus, it’s clear that the presence of the Canal has carved out a rare place in the city, for residents of all shapes and sizes – right down to single-celled organisms. Let’s hope that in the process of remediation, scientists and designers can work together to preserve and adapt its unique culture and ecology, while making the Gowanus safe once again.Leave a comment
July 18, 2014
By Erin Hathaway
Invasive species, a Colombian drug lord, and hippos are not commonly associated – that is until recently. As one the world’s top drug lords, Pablo Escobar used his wealth to create a personal zoo on his estate. At the end of his reign, officials dispersed many of the animals to other regional zoos but left a small herd of (4) hippos on the property, and no one thought twice.
Transported from Africa, the hippos thrived in the similar Colombian climate. Today, the growing herd is up to an estimated 60 hippos, after just 20 years, and moving into other bodies of water in the region. The country’s expansive waterways make it easy for the hippo population to spread across the country and without native predators their growth is uncontrolled. Not only are the hippos a threat to the native Colombian ecosystem, but they are also becoming a challenge to the community. In addition, many people claim to “adopt” baby hippos found in the wild without understanding that these animals grow to massive sizes and are known to kill humans.
Invasive species are a worldwide epidemic threatening ecosystems and costing billions of dollars to control. Like the story of Escobar’s Hippos we don’t realize the impact of our choices in the future. Most often people buy exotic species to have as pets but eventually release them into the wild when they can’t or don’t want to take care of them. This is the case for the largest snake in the world that now calls the Everglades home. The Burmese Python was and still is a popular exotic pet but are often released into the wild when the owners realize the snakes size and strength are too much to handle for a pet. The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and an ideal environment for the pythons. With similar conditions to the python’s native Asian climate, the species thrives. However, the python interrupts the Everglades ecosystem and competes with other top predators for food. Since 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent more than $6 million to control and attempt to eradicate this species and other large invasive snakes in Florida.
The Great Lakes ecosystem is highly valuable and threatened as a direct result of invasive species. The Asian Carp came to the United States not as a pet but rather as a way of controlling algae. They were brought into aquaculture and sewage treatment facilities to filter water in the 1970s because of their ability to consume large quantities of plankton. Consequently, this has had detrimental effects on our freshwater ecosystems. After a flood allowed them to escape, the carp made their way into 23 states and represent over 97% of the biomass in portions of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Many organizations are trying to stop their expansion before the fish reach the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes.
In addition to threatening the Great Lakes ecosystem, the carp could devastate the Great Lakes $7 billion fishing industry, further threatening the $16 billion boating industry, and harm fisheries. Physical barriers and chemical control methods have been implemented to control the carp population but a complete hydrologic separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi region is believed to be the only way to prevent the species from showing up in the Lakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the barrier to cost as much as $18 billion.
Invasive species are more common that we think and in many cases don’t appear to be invasive at all. While recently visiting a project site in California, I was drawn to a beautiful flower unfamiliar to me on the east coast, a Cynara cardunculus, also known as a Cardoon or Artichoke thistle. Turns out Artichoke thistle are invasive much like their related Canada thistle found on the east coast. Artichoke thistle are thought to be originally brought to the California area for their ornamental and culinary use. Originally from the Mediterranean region of Europe, California’s sandy arid climate was a perfect match for the species. The plant spreads fast and can form thick spiny stands creating barriers to wildlife movement. The aggressive root system outcompetes native species and leads to a thistle dominated landscape with little plant diversity. The fragmentation of the landscape and the decrease in biodiversity has caused a California wide effort to eradicate these weeds. Who knew such beautiful flowers could be so harmful to our ecosystem.
With more than 50,000 invasive species in the United States, control and eradication of invasive species is a top priority to protect and support native ecosystems. As a society, we recognize the valuable services – economic, social, and environmental, provided by a highly functioning ecosystem. To protect these services, such as those provided by the Great Lakes, the U.S spends almost $120 billion per year on invasive species control and eradication. (Pimentel, 2005). Despite appearances as beautiful plants, exotic pets, or even other invasive species controls, we must think critically before introducing a nonnative species into an area.Leave a comment
July 3, 2014
By: Kate Gazzo
Even though drinking water is disinfected and filtered, anthropogenic pollution to surface waters may be lowering the quality of your drinking water. As you turn on your tap, pharmaceuticals, industrial and agricultural chemicals, heavy metals, and in some cases pathogens may be flowing out. Human health effects from lowered water quality range from acute illness stemming from microbial outbreaks to more common, chronic exposure to a wide range of aforementioned contaminants. Even though water filtration and disinfection can remove a lot of these contaminants, some are still present in domestic supplies. During a five year study (2004-2009) analyzing tap water from across the U.S., over 300 different contaminants were identified; 200 of these contaminants were not under federal or state regulation and a quarter of these 200 unregulated contaminants were above human health guidelines.
A combination of increasing chemicals and chemical loads in waterways stemming from Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS) combined with urban sprawl and development are elevating the risk for contaminants to enter drinking water sources. Sprawl and development contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation, including a loss of natural watershed areas such as forests and floodplains which are essential for the protection of water supplies.
An increasing diversity, as well as magnitude, of these pollutants necessitates the preservation and protection of watershed areas, especially those upstream of drinking water sources. Drinking water sources are headwater areas to an end route, such as a lake or river. Protecting upper watershed lands and key buffer areas provide an effective barrier against common drinking water contaminants including, agricultural, industrial, and urban water pollution sources. Currently water utilities spend $4 billion each year on chemicals alone to treat drinking water; in contrast, only $200 million (one twentieth of this amount) is spent on the protection of source waters and watershed protection efforts. Increasing drinking water treatment costs are leading to costly water bills for consumers.
Although humans have engineered drinking water filtration plants to filter and purify drinking water, these services are provided by ecosystems for free and are often just as effective at meeting water quality standards. Multiple cities, including some of the largest cities in the U.S. including New York, Boston, and Seattle consistently meet drinking water quality standards with limited use of human engineered filtration systems. These cities rely primarily on green infrastructure (forests, grasslands, and riparian areas) to safeguard their water supplies. As a result these cities have saved millions and in some cases, such as New York City billions of dollars in potential human engineered or gray infrastructure.
In New York City, a drinking water filtration system, the Croton Water Filtration Plant, was necessitated in the 1990’s by the U.S. EPA and NY State Department of Health mostly as a result of the developing upstream watershed. When completed, the Croton Water Filtration Plant will supply 10 % of the city with water from the Croton watershed, however, 90% of NYC, or eight million people still receive unfiltered drinking water from the protected Catskill-Delaware (Cat-Del) watershed. Due to the continued protection of the Cat-Del watershed, New York City is well known for the best tasting and purest drinking water in the world. The city also avoided $6 billion in the construction of a second water filtration plant by committing $1.5 billion to watershed protection over a 10 year period, further enhancing the upstream Cat-Del watershed.
The protection of the Cat-Del watershed exemplifies how protection and restoration of key land areas is a wise investment to reduce human health risks and water treatment costs. Soil and vegetation within protected watersheds degrade and filter pollutants transported form upstream areas and thereby lower the risk of downstream water contamination. Cities that invest in green infrastructure save money on treatment costs because ecosystem services decrease the level of treatment needed. For every 10 percent increase in forest cover, treatment costs decrease by 20%. Considering an average treatment plant may treat 20 million gallons/day, a 20% decrease in treatment costs may save thousands of dollars.
Ernst, C., Gullick, R., & Nixon, K. (2004). Protecting the Source Conserving Forests to Protect Water. American Water Works Association. Opflow, 30(5).
Gartner, T., Mulligan, J. Schmidt, R., Gunn, J. (2013). Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the U.S. World Resources Institute. Washington, DC. doi:ISBN 978-1-56973-813-9
National Research Council. (2000). Watershed Management for Potable Water Supply: Assessing the New York City Strategy (p. 545). Washington DC. Retrieved fromLeave a comment
June 13, 2014
By: Jeffrey Harlan, LEED AP
As the summer travel season approaches, many Americans will hit the highways, city streets, and rural roads to reach their vacation destinations. Buzzing by at 65 miles per hour (or more), little thought will be given to how the vehicular transportation network – there are 4.09 million miles of roads in the United States, including 175,514 miles of the National Highway System – impacts our natural resources.
But there are companies, individuals, and communities that are thinking big and small about re-envisioning how our roads can positively impact the environment. In fact, improving roadway infrastructure is not just about transportation anymore.
One of the more imaginative and revolutionary ideas is to generate energy by replacing our asphalt roads with solar panels. That’s right, Solar Roadways.
Solar Roadways founders Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband-wife team have developed a prototype of industrial-strength solar panels (with specially textured glass coating) that can be installed on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, bike paths, and almost any other surface under the sun. Solar Roadways estimates that solar roadways roads could produce more than three times the electricity consumed in the United States. The modular system also features LEDs to make road lines and signage, heating elements to stay snow/ice free, and a Cable Corridor for fiber optic cables and other infrastructure (including stormwater).
After completing two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development, Solar Roadways initiated an internet crowdsourcing campaign through to raise the funding needed to gear up for production. As of June 2014, Solar Roadways have raised over $2M of their $1M goal!
Another big idea for reusing our roadway system comes from William McDonough, a noted designer, architect, thought leader, and sustainability expert. McDonough’s current initiative is to utilize the countless acres of highway and railway landscape buffers to create critical food supply and habitat for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have dramatically declined over the past few decades. In 2013, only 33 million monarchs were recorded in the annual North American migration to Mexico, down from 556 million in 2003.
Monarch butterflies have suffered a one-two punch recently. First, their coveted habitat in Mexico (where they spend the winter) was decimated by cutting the amount of essential forest land; more than 44 acres of habitat in 1996 has been reduced to about an acre and a half today. Second, their food supply—milkweed—has been almost eradicated by herbicides applied to America’s corn and soybean crops.
McDonough’s solution to save the monarchs and promote biodiversity is to plant residual lands (e.g, the forgotten landscapes along highways) with milkweed. One piece of the puzzle is to generate widespread interest in monarchs. McDonough points to an app funded by the Annenberg Foundation that encourages children to take photos of monarchs with their smart phones to record the butterflies’ migrations. To date, the app has been downloaded over 900,000 times! Another avenue to promote the butterfly’s revitalization is to rebrand the food supply. Milkweed’s public appeal is limited because, well, it’s a weed. McDonough proposes a public relations campaign centered on growing the “milkflower” or “monarch flower” to encourage people to plant this vital species in their gardens.
At the local level, one organization in Los Angeles is taking to the streets to incorporate natural systems in neighborhood infrastructure. Water LA, a non-profit that advocates for capturing, conserving, and reusing water, has retrofitted residential avenues to better manage stormwater, decrease urban runoff, and replenish water supplies. One project, the Woodman Avenue Median Retrofit in the Panorama City neighborhood, was designed and constructed with native and drought tolerant landscaping and trees to capture stormwater from the surrounding 120 acre-area. Runoff is directed into pre-treatment devices and a naturalized, vegetated swale where it infiltrates into the ground to recharge groundwater supplies.
Water LA has continued its educational efforts at the grassroots level by offering community workshops about best management practices for residential properties. Residents are learning about how to conduct site assessments; install rain gardens, parkway bioswales, and greywater systems; and “kill” their water-hungry lawns. These design strategies, integrated with green infrastructure improvements to roadways, illustrate how local streetscapes can play an important role in natural resource protection.
Whether it’s generating energy, promoting biodiversity, or helping manage local water resources, our roads and highways are proving to be fertile ground for innovative approaches to environmental management and stewardship.Leave a comment
June 9, 2014
By: William Coleman
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) jointly proposed new language related to critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The new approach is intended to increase the predictability and transparency of critical habitat decision making and set the stage for addressing current and future habitat conservation needs. This is especially significant because the agencies appear to be connecting climate change adaptation with ecological risk management for the first time.
Under the ESA, the FWS and NMFS ensure that federal agency actions don’t result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of designated critical habitat. Among other changes, the proposed language:
What does this mean?
For land holders and developers, these changes would remove existing limitations on the designation of unoccupied habitat even if these land areas currently have no physical or biological features supporting listed species. As a result land only needs to have the “potential” to contribute to species recovery to qualify for critical habitat designation.
The proposed changes expand the agencies scope, increasing their ability to make broad-scale designations of critical habitat. Furthermore, the number of “adverse modification” determinations will likely increase (because potential habitat is being so broadly defined), impacting project costs associated with changes due to the location of critical habitat.
Every state in the U.S. has at least one species, if not significantly more, included in these review categories. Further, of the 1,527 species listed by both FWS and NMFS within the U.S., only 688 species presently have critical habitat designations. The potential number of new critical habitat designations within the next three to four years could exceed 150 species made under the newly proposed rules and draft policy.
However, the presence of rare species or critical habitat on private property does not necessarily lead to restriction as to how the property may be developed or utilized. In fact, incentive programs have been established to reward property owners for conserving properties with the potential to support rare species. This includes market-based programs supported by FWS and NMFS-supported conservation banks and easements. Landowners will want to pay careful attention to developments in their states that could represent opportunities for generating significant long term revenues from these incentive based programs. Great Ecology works with large industrial and commercial land holders as well as private landowners to realize market-based conservation value from underutilized properties supporting rare species and habitats.
For more information about these market-based incentive programs and how the proposed language may impact your projects contact us today.
The proposed language is currently in the public comment period but ends July 11, 2014.Leave a comment
June 9, 2014
Great Ecology is thrilled to announce the opening of our newest office in Lexington, Kentucky. Led by Kentucky native and Great Ecology’s Associate Designer, Erin Hathaway, it is an exciting opportunity as the region moves towards a more sustainable and natural resource sensitive approach to design. Erin specializes in ecological guided design and has worked on complex restoration and design projects nationwide. As a member of the KYASLA executive committee, Erin is looking forward to becoming more involved in the local design community.
Contact Erin to learn more about Great Ecology’s ecological guided design services in Kentucky.
May 30, 2014
By: Chris Loftus, RLA
All landscapes hold “the potential to both improve and regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their natural state.” (SITES, 2009)
To help achieve that potential, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) sets environmental benchmarks and provides guidelines for sustainable landscape design. SITES v2, a revised rating system, will be released later this year and will establish the initiative as a tool for evaluating sustainable site design solutions.
SITES is a voluntary program similar to the USGBC’s LEED certification. While LEED pertains primarily to buildings and developments, SITES focuses on performance criteria for a built landscape’s ability to provide ecosystem services. In addition to reducing environmental impacts, ecosystem services provide long term economic benefits.
Founded in 2005, SITES evolved from the combined efforts of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanical Garden. The SITES pilot program was initiated in 2010 to gather more information and develop more permanent guidelines. Since then, 162 projects in 34 states registered with the program, 30 of which received certification as sustainable sites. An additional 50 projects are currently pursuing certification, including the Fort Totten North Park in New York, a collaboration involving Nancy Owens Studio and Great Ecology.
SITES evaluates projects based on various criteria including site selection, habitat preservation and restoration, stormwater management, construction practices, and long term maintenance strategies. The criteria are divided into broad categories including site design for water, soil, vegetation, monitoring, and innovation. Projects earn credits by fulfilling requirements and are certified after accumulating sufficient credits.
The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center, a pilot project that earned SITES certification, was completed in late 2012 in southwest Colorado. The project encompasses 105 acres of desert landscape within Mesa Verde National Park. Through the use of native plant material, appropriate soil management practices, on-site renewable energy generation, and the establishment of a sustainable maintenance program, the Center met SITES certification requirements. In addition to implementing sustainable measures, the Center provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the project’s regenerative qualities through interpretive trails, signage, and immersion in the landscape.
Another pilot project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, combined a 175-acre conservation easement, Low Impact Development (LID) stormwater management techniques, and Smart Growth principles to earn SITES certification. Located in arid Golden, Colorado, the project conserves water by harvesting stormwater for irrigation. A network of bioswales, bioretention basins, and native vegetation corridors was constructed to imitate historic drainage patterns and treat contaminated runoff from impervious surfaces. The project’s other sustainable features include porous paving materials and the use of salvaged stone for retaining wall construction.
Pilot projects such as Mesa Verde and NREL illuminate challenges associated with the SITES system. Completing the necessary documentation and tracking SITES requirements through design, construction, and monitoring incurs additional financial burdens. Gathering sufficient baseline data for monitoring project performance and insuring the implementation of long term maintenance measures can also prove difficult. The revised rating system aims to address these and other issues by incorporating knowledge gained through the pilot program, input from technical advisors, and additional research.
The benefits of participation in SITES include energy savings, reduced infrastructure and long-term maintenance costs, marketing and PR opportunities, and healthier, more productive places to live, work, and play. SITES is gaining momentum and will likely continue to do so. It may soon be incorporated into the LEED certification system, which could streamline inefficiencies and introduce SITES to a broader audience.
As demand for environmentally sound development continues to increase and understanding of the value of ecosystem services grows, SITES will guide the enhancement and restoration of ecosystems while realizing positive economic impacts.
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May 30, 2014
Ecology Team Manager, Timothy Hoelzle, joins the joint SETAC/SER-sponsored Technical Workshop, titled Restoration of Impaired Ecosystems: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure. The week long workshop unites the nation’s leading scientists and practitioners to discuss best practices and research regarding the remediation and restoration of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems on contaminated sites. Outcomes from the workshop include a series of publications and presentations at the 2014 North American SETAC Conference in Vancouver this November, as well as a primer describing issues related to the restoration of contaminated lands.
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May 23, 2014
By: Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.
The deadline for the public review and comment period for the Draft Bay-Delta Conservation Plan is approaching in mere weeks, on June 13, 2014. Did you wait until the last minute to skim the approximately 40,000-page document and send in a comment or two? Fear not! Here in the Sacramento office of Great Ecology, we have a ringside seat for the development and (potentially) implementation of a plan that addresses one of the largest—if not the largest—water management challenges in California since the building of the California Aqueduct. In the interest of promoting an informed and involved citizenry, we have distilled the entire Plan down to an easy-to-follow information fact sheet for your edification.
What is the Bay-Delta?
The Bay-Delta is shorthand for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, an inland Delta in northern California and the largest estuary on the west coasts of both North and South America. The entire Bay-Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles (so, most of northern California). Fed by the melting snowpack, streams and rivers of several mountain ranges, the waterways of the Bay-Delta course across the state into several large bays before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.
What is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?
The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, is a regional Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) that covers the central delta of the watershed, an area of 872,000 acres. The goal of the plan is to protect the water supply the Delta provides to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California, while also maintaining ecosystem health of the associated wetland, riparian, grassland, and forest habitats and the plant and animal species.
Why is the BDCP needed?
The existing water supply transport system, which conveys Bay-Delta water as far south as San Diego, consists of an extensive network of levees, weirs and canals. These aging above-ground structures are vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, such as a storm surges or earthquakes, and could result in the flooding of adjacent communities of over 500,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Sea level rise due to climate change will likely increase the scale and frequency of these catastrophic events.
The problem doesn’t stop there. Saltwater intrusion from the San Francisco Bay has always been a natural component of the Delta tidal ecosystem. However, the diversion of freshwater out of the Delta through massive intake pumps at its southern end changes the natural east-west flows through the Delta’s wetlands to north-south flows, causing a buildup of salinity in the waterways. The increasing salty water threatens to impact plant and animal species with low salinity tolerance, such as the Endangered Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus). This, as well as the levees’ contribution to the loss of floodplain habitat, natural channel margins, and tidal marsh, has resulted in a highly altered and degraded system.
Moreover, the pumps themselves disrupt the passage and migration patterns of fish such as the Smelt, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and sturgeon. To protect the fish, certain levels of water have been mandated to remain in the Delta by a 2007 court ruling. This reduces the available water supply, particularly in drier years. This potential year-to-year fluctuation would impact the reliability of the supply delivered throughout the state, where the demand for water is certainly not diminishing.
What solution is the BDCP proposing?
The proposed solution: divert water from north of the Delta, higher up the Sacramento River through 2 massive underground tunnels, each of which is 40-feet wide and extends 35 miles south along the Sacramento river. These tunnels would divert freshwater to the Bay Area and southern California from further upstream before the water enters the Delta, thus ensuring a reliable, high quality water supply to most of the state, while also protecting the conveyed water from potential natural disasters. Additionally, the tunnels would allow the natural east west flows to return to the Delta estuary, allowing the restoration of natural fish movement patterns.
So, problem solved, right?
Well, not exactly. The construction of tunnels will directly impact numerous habitats in the Bay-Delta region, and will also potentially create further saltwater intrusion and habitat degradation higher up the Sacramento River, since freshwater will be removed from higher reaches of the river. To address and compensate for these anticipated impacts, the BDCP includes a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under the federal and state NEPA and CEQA processes. The plan and the EIS/EIR seek a 50-year project permit to proceed with the BDCP work, which would allow some take* of Threatened and Endangered species through the regulatory context of the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP); as compensation for the take, the plan promotes landscape-level natural community conservation in an adaptive management framework. Thus the NCCP includes plans for approximately 150,000-acres of mitigation via habitat restoration throughout the Delta over the next 50 years to compensate for impacts to sensitive species and habitats from the tunnels’ construction
Wow, all that habitat restoration! So now the problem is solved, right?
Not quite yet. Some argue that the plan does more harm than good, citing their worry about the increased salinity in the Sacramento River and in the Delta, which would compromise the water sources of the area’s farming operations. Yet another concern is that the tunnels will take too much water out of the rivers, drying up some downstream habitat in the drier years which are expected due to climate change and subsidence. In fact, the Delta Independent Science Board concluded that the Draft BDCP fell short of integrating the appropriate amount of science into the Plan. Particularly, the Board was concerned that the feasibility and effectiveness of the planned habitat restoration was overstated; that the plan lacked an adequate analysis of uncertainty; that there was an exclusion of discussion about climate change effects on the project over time; and that the detail in describing adaptive management methods was insufficient. This analysis was released in a report last week. Not to mention, it’s expensive: the official price tag is $25 billion, but critics claim that the actual costs could be as high as $67 billion when interest and other costs are included.
What if they fix the restoration plan and then it gets approved?
There would be yet another hurdle for the BDCP to overcome. Assuming that no lawsuits delay the EIS/EIR approval or project implementation, the funding for the habitat restoration is not guaranteed. The $4.4 billion required for the full habitat restoration will be supplemented by several sources; some of that funding depends on the passage of two Water Bonds that require passage by the voters of California. The first Water Bond has been working its way through the legislative process since 2009 and is planned for submission to the voters this year.
Now what do I do? I want to learn more about this BDCP.
Well, the BDCP website breaks down the 40,000 page behemoth into its pertinent parts to make it more digestible for the public. If you want to search farther afield and simply do a Google search for “BDCP,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t offer some strong opinion on the Plan. With a critical eye, read these pages, too! Taking the time to learn about these multiple perspectives is first step into the world of science, land management, economics, and politics that we practitioners often live in… and it’s not always pretty.
Even if you don’t plan on commenting on the Draft BDCP, the site—and the sites that have something to say about it—contain a wealth of information about the ecology of a magnificent and imperiled ecosystem. The BDCP also provides a valuable opportunity to learn about the fascinating, complex story of the long history and uncertain future of water management in California.
*The Endangered Species Act defines “take” as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, would, kill, trap, capture, or collect.”
May 23, 2014
President Dr. Mark Laska is featured in the recent Sustainable City Network’s article, Habitat Restoration Projects Abound in Urban Settings. Dr. Laska joins a panel discussing the growing focus and momentum of urban habitat restoration projects within the last 10-15 years and how this trend will continue to define our future cities.Leave a comment