In his State of the State Address on February 3, 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley made the following statement:
“We must realize that where we choose to sleep, eat, and live affects our environment and it affects our Bay. Together, we’ve made some great progress in recent years. And we shouldn’t take that lightly. It didn’t happen by chance, it happened by choice … reducing farm run-off, reducing pollution from aging sewage treatment plants; most recently, starting to reduce the damage and the pollution that’s caused by storm-water run-off. But among the big four causes of pollution in the Bay, there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it’s actually gotten much worse, and that is pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our State – systems which by their very design are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our Bay and into our water tables.
Now look, you and I can turn around this damaging trend by banning the further installation of septic systems in major new Maryland housing developments. This is common sense, this is urgently needed, this is timely, and for the health of the Bay we need to do what several rural counties have already done and had the good sense to do. We are up to this” (source).
Reactions to this statement have been mixed and confused. If you’re not familiar with septic systems, the Governor has just informed you that they are designed to leak sewage. How can this be true? Who would design such a system? If you’re one of the 420,000 Maryland households using a septic system you probably feel singled out. You no doubt wonder how your perfectly functioning septic tank could be contributing to the death of the Chesapeake Bay (source).
The Chesapeake Bay is an amazing and beautiful place. The Bay covers an area of 4,479 square miles making it the largest estuary in the United States. It drains over 64,000 square miles with a watershed that stretches from Virginia to New York including 6 states and the District of Columbia. An estuary is a body of water where fresh and salt water mix creating a unique ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay supports more than 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals and is home to 29 species of waterfowl.
The Bay is also surprisingly shallow. The average depth is 21 feet, but 25% of the Bay is less than 6 feet deep. The size of the Bay’s watershed combined with its shallow waters make it particularly susceptible to pollution. For decades environmentalists have chanted “save the bay!” but the policies implemented by state governments have had mixed results at best. In 2009 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the health of the Bay as a “D” for the 10th year in a row (source).
I am always surprised when some piece of information I’m looking for is actually not on the Internet. Such was the case this afternoon when I searched for a list of the largest endorheic waterbodies in the world. An endorheic waterbody is a terminal lake (sometimes called a sea) that has no outlet other than evaporation. In other words, rivers and streams flow in but nothing flows out. Since the only way water escapes is via evaporation everything else – salt, nutrients, pollution – are continuously concentrated in the remaining water. Some, like the Dead Sea, are so salty they cannot support life, but others support very unique ecosystems.
I’ve become interested in endorheic lakes because they are a microcosm for a number of water-related issues and act as a catchall for the pollution we put into our waterways. Take, for example, Devils Lake in North Dakota. Having no outlet means that the level of the lake can increase dramatically over a short period of time. Since 1995, water levels have gone up nearly 25 feet destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and inundating thousands of acres of productive farmland. State government constructed an outlet to release water into a nearby river but faced stern opposition from other states and Canada, who don’t want pollution and parasites from Devils Lake transferred into their waters. As you can see, it can become quite the predicament. Just wait until I get around to blogging about the Salton Sea!
Anyway, I was searching the Internet for a list of the largest endorheic lakes and I just couldn’t find one. Sure, Wikipedia has a list of the largest lakes in the world, but this only includes a handful of endorheic lakes. Wikipedia also has a page on endorheic basins, which mentions a lot of lakes but not in any structured way. It also intermingles them with drainage basins, which may capture water without outlet but are clearly not lakes. So, Internet, you’re welcome, because today I have constructed for you a list of the Top Ten Endorheic Lakes of the World (by surface area). Continue reading Ten Largest Endorheic (Salty) Lakes of the World→
This winter I had an opportunity to visit the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Blackwater watershed contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands, however, sea level rise, erosion, subsidence, salt water intrusion, polluted runoff, and invasive species have resulted in the loss of over 8,000 acres of marsh (at a rate of 150 acres per year). The marshes are a great place for viewing wildlife, especially bald eagles, and are used by over 50,000 migratory birds as a stopover during fall migration.
I have to admit that when I visited and looked out at the open water I thought I was looking out on to the Chesapeake Bay. Only after coming home and looking at a map did I realize how far removed the wetlands are from the bay. Continue reading Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge→
Over the Holidays I had the opportunity to read a great book recommended to me by a professor of urban planning economics. Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest environmental disasters. The dust storms that ravaged the high plains throughout the 1930’s brought death and destructions to thousands of Americans who moved to the area over the previous 50 years to take advantage of cheap land and soaring wheat prices.
You may have heard of the American dust storms before but Egan’s tale brings these storms to light in new and horrifying ways. Dust storms would black out the sun for days on end as people huddled in shelters. At times the air was so full of dust that candles could not get enough air to stay lit. Children walking home from school were literally suffocated to death by clouds of dust. Men could not shake hands because static electricity built up in the clouds of dust to the point where touching another person could knock them off their feet and barbed wire fences hummed with an electric blue glow as storms approached. Thousands died of dust pneumonia as the silica-laden dust particles scarred their lungs until they could not longer function. This really was the worst hard time. Continue reading The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time→
In today’s edition of Drought Watch we check out conditions in the U.S. and then take a look at the rest of the world.
This week’s U.S. Drought Watch Winner is Central Louisiana, which has gone without rain for more than a month. What started out as a blessing – dry conditions for cotton picking this summer – is becoming a concern this fall as winter approaches and ground moisture has not been able to recharge for the next growing season. Local firefighters are also on alert as high winds combined with the dry conditions have caused multiple bushfires, typically caused by trash burning or the flicking of cigarettes into dry grass.
Globally, northeastern Russia continues to experience the worst drought the country has seen in at least 50 years, though Russia’s Grain Union has said the drought is the worst since record-keeping started 130 years ago. The country’s wheat farmers have been hit hardest as crop yields have fallen and the ongoing drought may mean that farmers will be unable to plant their winter crop.
Winters in Plant City, Florida can be a scary time of year. When the temperature drops below freezing, the strawberries in this self-proclaimed “winter strawberry capital of the world” get rowdy. Roads begin to buckle, schools are closed, and homes are swallowed up by the earth. The culprit? Sinkholes. Sinkholes caused by the 8,000 acres of strawberry fields surrounding the city.
Under normal circumstances, fields of strawberries are quite harmless. The problems start when near-freezing temperatures threaten the crop and farmers turn on the sprinklers. As the water freezes on the plants, it releases just enough energy to keep the plants themselves from freezing. That’s the risk of growing strawberries in Florida in winter; if the temperature drops too low you could lose your entire crop. Freezing that many strawberries, however, takes a lot of water — a lot more than you might think.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida says that each acre of berries needs 6,800 gallons an hour to coat crops in a protective layer of ice. That means a 20-acre farm can use 3.2 million gallons — the equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools — in 24 hours. It’s about the same amount of water used by the 32,000 residents of Plant City in a single day. With 8,000 acres of strawberries to cover in a 110-square mile area around the city, that’s over one billion gallons of water per day. [Source]
This past January the city got 11 straight days of near-freezing temperatures. Farmers ran sprinklers night and day with only occasional breaks. Billions of gallons of water were sucked up from the Floridian aquifer beneath the town. Pumping that much water out of the ground at once destabilizes the already sinkhole-prone Florida landscape. Sinkholes began appearing overnight in seemingly random locations around town.