For the Conservation Curious

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Where Does Your Water Come From? August 15, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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Do you know where your drinking water comes from? That is a question that I didn’t know the answer to a year ago, even though I have lived in the same city for 10 years now. I knew who managed the water and sent out the utility bills for it (my city, until recently, now a municipal water authority) but I wasn’t sure whether the water was coming from the river that I can see from my window or if there was some reservoir somewhere supplying us with the water. For someone in the environmental community to not know this didn’t bode well for the rest of the public knowing the answer.

Why does it matter that people know where their water comes from? If you know where it comes from I think you can better appreciate it and will be better aware of the potential threats to the water supply. If your water came from XYZ River and then you hear about a spill in said river, well then you would be concerned, right? But if you had no clue that your drinking water came from XYZ River than you might not bat an eyelash over it. Thinking that drinking water just comes from the tap, that it’s always there and always will be, in a clean manner, is foolish but not uncommon. In the Northeast, we are spoiled with a very reliable source of drinking water.

My city’s water comes from a man-made reservoir about 20 miles upstream. The city owns 12 acres of watershed around the lake, helping to protect it from pollution, erosion and other nasty things that we don’t want in our drinking water. The water travels via gravity through pipes to a treatment plant, then on to holding tanks located under a park, then on to the city. Then I can turn on my tap and drink the award-winning water. So simple, yet so complex.

Other people outside of the city get their water from a national water company, which takes water from the nearby river, treats it, then sends it out to tens of thousands of homes and businesses. While there’s nothing wrong with drinking that river’s (treated) water, I am a bit glad to know my drinking water is coming from further outside the developed area of our city. Call me a water snob, I guess.

Regardless of where your drinking water comes from, it is important for you to know the source. Look up that information and share it with those you know. An educated consumer (yes, we are consumers of the water, even if we can’t really shop around for where we get our tap water, unless of course we move) is a better consumer.

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Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

 

Conservation Easements Make Dollars and Sense March 6, 2014

What happens if you own a beautiful, pristine piece of land on the fringe of a city and can no longer afford to keep it? The developers come knocking on your door, looking to turn your 100 acres of woods and meadows into 10, 10-acre home plots. You sign the dotted line, hand over the deed and in come the bulldozers and other heavy machinery, ready to cut down many, if not all, trees and grade the land so it’s as flat as a table top. Once that happens, it’s too late to bring back the habitat.

However, there is another alternative for landowners who want to protect their land but make money off it in the process. It’s called a conservation easement. A conservation easement, as defined by the Land Trust Alliance, is “a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.”

Yes, that’s right – the landowner still owns the land and can continue to live on it – but certain rights are removed, such as development rights. A land trust may approach a landowner or vice versa. The land trust pays a reduced price to the landowner to place the conservation easement on the property. The easement remains on the land in perpetuity – i.e. forever. The easement will contain detailed information about what can and can’t take place on the property. Usually the construction of additional buildings is restricted and there are management guidelines for how to make sure the habitat stays healthy. The land trust is in charge of at least yearly monitoring visits to make sure the landowner isn’t violating the easement. If a violation is found, they will work with the landowner to correct the violation or take them to court as a last resort.

Conservation easements can be very flexible though, so major violations that require legal action are not an everyday occurrence. They are very beneficial to the landowner because easements can provide tax deductions and drastically reduce estate taxes when the land is passed on to the next generation. The land trusts benefit by knowing that they are protecting land from being developed. The environment benefits because good habitat remains as-is, particularly in areas of high development pressure, where conservation easements make the most sense. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If you are a landowner considering a conservation easement on your property, where do you begin? Locate your nearest land trust or conservancy and talk to them about it. They will probably want to visit your property to see if it meets their criteria. Your state conservation agency may also be able to assist in connecting you to the right people. Check out the Land Trust Alliance website at www.landtrustalliance.org.

 

Green Infrastructure is Great February 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking about green infrastructure a lot these days. Part of my job involves the promotion of natural storm water management practices for municipalities, homeowners and other land managers. Go to www.pasustainablelands.org to learn more about what I do. I am excited to see videos like the one created by Penn State about all the wonderful green stormwater projects Philadelphia is doing. I highly recommend you watch it at www.waterblues.org. It is very inspiring.

Last week I attended a storm water management workshop for municipal officials. The presenters mentioned both traditional “grey” management solutions like dry basins and pipes, as well as greener alternatives like rain gardens, swales and porous pavement. The engineer was hard pressed to hide his excitement for the traditional structures. It’s what he was taught in school and probably what he focuses much of his time on still today. That frustrated me a bit. This was a workshop put on by a well-known environmental advocacy organization, so to have a presenter who clearly preferred the old, less environmentally friendly practices was a bit of a surprise to me.

When they did talk about the green stormwater solutions they did an ok job with it, but they did leave some things out. My colleague raised her hand and spoke at length about the role and value of trees in green stormwater systems, something the presenters left out completely. According to American Forests, a single, mature tree can absorb up to 100 gallons of water per day (depending on the species). Think about the flood reduction benefits, not to mention pollutant filtration and all the other benefits of trees for air quality and human health! Trees are amazing and an overlooked feature of things like rain gardens and swales. We need more trees in green stormwater management projects! Here is a great publication talking about the benefits of trees to stormwater management: http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/programs/uesd/uep/products/11/800TreeCityUSABulletin_55.pdf.

At lunch I sat with a few borough and township managers and public works staff. We talked about their experiences dealing with storm water problems and whether or not their municipalities use green infrastructure. One borough guy said that some residents thought the tree pits and rain gardens looked “weedy”. This is all a matter of education (explaining that native plantings don’t always have a manicured look, and that’s ok; making sure the benefits of those features are known) and maintenance (if the beds aren’t weeded and properly mulched of course they may grow actual weeds. You could sense the misgivings he had about these green features. But when I drive through this borough, when all the flowers are in bloom and the trees are leafing out, I see the beauty that wasn’t there two years ago. It just takes time. People resist change.

The worst part of the workshop came when a representative from the township supervisors association stood up and expressed his distrust of green infrastructure. He said they are costly and take too much to maintain. I wish I had the gumption to stand up at that moment and counter him. After all, think about how much more expensive it is to install large pipes underground than to install some rain gardens on the surface. And think about how costly it is to have to dig up and replace those pipes when they fail. For a rain garden, you may have to replace plants as they die, add mulch from time to time, and pull some weeds, but if they are installed correctly they will take very little expensive, time intensive repairs. To me green infrastructure is a budget-friendly solution when looked at in the long-term. Just ask the city of Philadelphia. Instead of spending $8 million on grey infrastructure solutions to meet EPA requirements they spent $2 million over several years to meet the same requirements through green infrastructure. That sounds like cost savings to me!

 

Conservation Wish List for 2014 January 2, 2014

It’s 2014, which means it’s time to create a list of things I hope to see happen (or not happen) in the coming year. I like to think about my sustainability and natural resource conservation dream list… if the sky’s the limit, what could we see take place in 2014? Here are some of my desires, in no particular order…

The Sustainable PA Program will be rolled out to the public and embraced by municipalities across the Commonwealth

New York will keep its moratorium on fracking

Orcas can no longer be held in captivity

Genetically modified foods will have to be labeled if they are sold in the U.S.

More people will embrace the use of native plants in their gardens and yards

Dolphins and whales would not be killed for food or “research”

No new invasive species will enter the country

More municipalities will embrace “green” storm water management strategies like porous pavement, rain gardens and bioswales

Pennsylvania gets a new governor

More climate change deniers are shown the light and start spreading the word about its dangers

When someone abuses an animal they get more than a slap on the wrist

More people decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle or at least cut way down on their meat consumption

Do you have any conservation-related hopes for 2014? If so, let us know about them. Thanks!

 

Sustainable Bus Tours for 2012 August 16, 2012

I am going to make a few shameless plugs for three fall events that I am helping to organize.  As you are readers of a conservation-focused blog I have a feeling you might be interested in knowing about them…

The first event is a Sustainable Forest and Meadow Bus Tour in Lebanon County, PA.  Attendees will get to see various ways of planting, managing and maintaining warm season grass and wildflower meadows, food plots for wildlife, timber plots and tree farms.  The tour is appropriate for small and large landowners, municipal and park managers and anyone else interested in creating great habitats.  The price is only $35, which includes a meal, handouts and a spot on the bus.  To register, go to http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/ucmprd1/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_010455.pdf to download the form or register online.  The deadline to register is August 24, so hurry!

The second tour takes place on September 20 in Luzerne County, PA.  This tour showcases a variety of businesses, parks and landscapes that have natural stormwater management features, native plantings, and green building practices.  Sites include Plains Animal Hospital, Nescopeck State Park, The Lands at Hillside Farms, and Kirby Park Natural Area, among others.  The variety of sites and the sustainable features you will see at each make this a great tour for just about anyone.  And the $30 price tag can’t be beat!  To register for this tour, call Vinnie Cotrone at 570-825-1701.  The deadline to register is Sept. 14.

 

 

 

 

Last but not least is the Stormwater and Sustainable Open Space BMPs tour in Montgomery County, PA on October 24.  This innovative tour will showcase places like Ursinus College, Shelly Square Shopping Center, and Cuddy Park – all places that feature green stormwater management solutions like native plantings around detension basins, swales, riparian buffers and more.  To register for this event, go to http://agsci.psu.edu/sustainable-landscapes/montgomery.  The price is $35 and includes continental breakfast, lunch, handouts and a spot on the bus.  The deadline to register is October 12.  Sponsorships are still available too.

 

 

 

 

All of these great events are part of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Sustainable Lands Program.  We work with a variety of organizations like the PA Environmental Council, Penn State Cooperative Extension, county conservation districts and more, to bring educational tours, workshops and publications to municipal officials, non-profit staff, landscape architects and the public.  More information about our events, publications and more can be found at: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/conservationscience/sustainablelands/index.htm.

I hope you can join us for one or more of these great events.  And if you are interested in becoming part of one of the five the Sustainable Lands Partnerships across the state, please email me at jsprajcar@pa.gov.

Thanks!

 

 

Taking Water for Granted March 22, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 7:29 PM
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In the last blog post I noted that we should love the environment because it provides fresh water for us to drink. Yet that is a very North American-centric way of thinking. We are truly blessed in this country to have an abundance of clean water (at least an abundance by the rest of the world’s standard, although it is not distributed equally throughout the country). I wrote from my naïve point of view, so I want to add a little more clarity to the subject, especially since today, March 22nd is World Water Day.

I just read a wonderfully poignant article in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine by Tina Rosenberg, called The Burden of Thirst. It follows one woman’s trek up and down a mountain in Africa, three or more times a day, carrying a 50-pound jug of water on her back. She can spend up to 8 hours of her day getting water for her family. And it’s not even clean water. It is filled with sediment and the feces of donkeys and cattle. According to the article, “nearly 900 million people in the world have no access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people have no safe way to dispose of human waste—many defecate in open fields or near the same rivers they drink from. Dirty water and lack of a toilet and proper hygiene kill 3.3 million people around the world annually, most of them children under age five.”

Makes you really appreciate what you have, doesn’t it?! This same woman says she doesn’t wash her clothing because they barely have enough water to even drink. She bathes once a year. Yet here in the US we shower daily, wash our clothes whenever we want to and pour millions of gallons a day on golf courses and other landscapes (even in desert areas). This post is not to make you feel guilty but if you pause for just a second and think how we could take clean water a little less for granted than we do, that is a small step in the right direction. If you take a moment to donate to a charity that is building sanitary toilets and drinking water wells in developing nations, then you are helping to provide a better life for people. No one should have to spend 8 hours of their day getting water, especially when the technology exists to help them TODAY.

As I have said, conservation is about saving the things we love. I love clean water. It is an essential ingredient in beer, it keeps my vegetable garden alive, and it doesn’t harbor disease causing micro-organisms. The US is not immune to water-related problems – think of the drought that plagued the Atlanta area in recent years, the clash between agriculture and the Endangered Species Act in southern California, and leaking infrastructure country-wide that loses millions of gallons of water a year, and we have our hands full. But as such a wealthy country (wealthy in both per capita incomes and clean water-wealthy) we can do much to make future World Water Days better for all.