My Portland Hipster Vacation

FriendsWhen I told people about my plans for a short trip to Portland, OR many were convinced I’d want to make the city my new home. As Portland is the mecca for environmental progressivism, being one of the greenest cities in the United States, I can understand why people would fear I would never return.

Right off the bat, just outside the airport doors, my friend Mary and I jumped right onto the train to the city. Five dollars a day for full use of any kind of transportation is a great deal in my opinion.  Once in the city, we found everything was easily walkable and most people were almost too nice to pedestrians. On countless occasions we had cars stop right in the middle of the road with no stop sign or stop light to let us cross the street. It got a little dangerous though when it was a multi-lane street and only one car would allow you to cross.

Beer beer beer! It seemed to me that beer ran out of the faucets in Portland. Around every corner was another microbrewery severing craft beers for prices that were out of this world for a girl who has spent $7-$8 for a craft beer in Cincinnati. And oh, was the beer good, yay for local business! They were also pretty “crafty” in the kind of buildings that were repurposed for a microbrewery including one of my favorites, a school building.

As you can imagine, bikes were everywhere. The bike lines were painted in fluorescent green and some intersections even had designated traffic lights for bikes so cyclist could cross the street diagonally! I would like to say, hats off to all those bikers who ride in the rain.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

Have you ever dreamt of opening your own Etsy inspired gift and retail shop? Perhaps a restaurant that only serves local, organic food? Well, most likely the store or restaurant in your imagination probably already exists in Portland. It’s hard to describe something in Portland as unique and different, when everything there already holds that title. How do the residents keep from taking all this wonderfulness for granted?

And you can’t forget the beautiful natural surroundings in Portland. When you get your first glimpse of the majestic river gorge covered in a misty fog, it feels like a scene right out of the The NeverEnding Story. Even in winter, the beauty of Multnomah Falls is outstanding, and the hike is breathtaking…literally. It was such a misty day my skin was so soft from the waterfall mist, who needs a spa? Speaking of mist, Portland is known for its sputtering rains, and my hair was continually growing and curling like Monica Geller in that Friends episode where they go to the tropics (okay maybe not that bad, but still).

Have I found my new home do you wonder? As much as I loved the environmentally friendly mentality of a city that even has roadside compost pickup, there’s something about being in place where everybody thinks like you do.  As nice as it would be to have all these sustainable options available to me, I can’t help but think of the kind of impact I can make as an environmentalist on a place that isn’t already mostly environmentally friendly. It feels good to be unique in Cincinnati and to be a part of a movement towards a more sustainable city. For now, I’m proud to say Cincinnati is still my home.

Nature’s Delicate Balance

Artwork by: Michael Grab

Artwork by: Michael Grab

 Recently I came across the art of Stone Balancing. I’ve seen this practice before along nature trails, but nothing as brilliant as the work of Michael Grab. Watching him put these structures together is fascinating, and you can see that it takes an extreme amount of patience and intuition to balance the rocks perfectly. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of nature, and how our actions on earth play into the cause and effect.

We learned in school about Newton’s Law of Motion, where all forces in nature have equal and opposite reaction. In other words, the forces of nature are working to find balance. When land is moved, wetlands are drained, minerals are mined, or any other major change to the landscape happens, the earth reacts accordingly.

Lately it’s been hard not to notice that the weather has been a little out of the ordinary. Whether or not humans have the ultimate ability to throw Mother Nature off course, it’s important to remember, like all things in life, our environment reflects its need to return to balance.

Think about what happens when it rains in a city. If the land is unable to absorb the precipitation slowly as it is supposed to, the rain causes flooding and the stormwater rushes into nearest stream. The stream then becomes overwhelmed and the outer edges erode, causing dirt and sediment to dump into the water. Not only that, but flooding also carries all other kinds of pollutants into the water. This is not how a watershed is supposed to operate, but obviously most of us living in the modern world do not want the earth to return to the way it was before humans settled it.

Alternatively, we could plan our development better to bring more harmony between  man and nature. Increasing the use of green infrastructure in cities, restoring wetlands and floodplains when possible, and applying best management practices to farming operations are a few ways help nature and development to coexist with fewer issues.

Storms like Hurricane Sandy have proven that the standards we once built cities from are no longer useable as the norm. As populations grow, development expands, and infrastructure degrades, we cannot afford to sit back and wait to see what will happen and deal with it then. Droughts and storms continue to cost this country a lot of money and the solution cannot be business as usual.

The earth will continue to ebb and flow, as it has since the earth began. Trying to find the culprit to today’s drastic weather patterns is one way to go, but I prefer to find ways to better adapt to what will come. Balance will always be a part of nature, and just like in the art of Stone Balancing, one small adjustment can have a major effect.

Want to know more about how Climate Change will affect water utilities? The US EPA is hosting a series of webinars on the subject starting January 23rd

Sewer Systems: Not just for Ninja Turtles

Combined Sewer Overflow

The availability of clean water is essential to support the health and economy of every nation in the world. A major source of water pollution is the failing infrastructure we use to control and maintain the water we use. Hidden beneath cities is an underground maze of pipes and tunnels that not only carries the water we consume, but also carries waste water, storm water, and the water used to power and drive our everyday lives.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it could cost the nation $700 billion to $1 trillion to replace the physical water infrastructure. Not only that, but cities would have to be torn apart, causing major disruptions for upwards of 10 years. To make these kinds of major improvements, there must be agreements between political, social, and economic forces, which often bring discussion of water infrastructure to a dead halt.

The 2012 Xylem Value of Water Index, a nationwide poll detailing what US voters think should be done about the country’s water infrastructure and who should pay for it, is a great info-graphic report that provides a visual on what a sample of the population is thinking. This report is interactive, allowing you to navigate through the most important aspects of the study.

In the Mill Creek Watershed, located in the City of Cincinnati, the sewer infrastructure is a topic of major concern. Every time we get a heavy rain event, the combined sewer overflow system dumps the excess stormwater/raw sewage mix directly into the Mill Creek. This stream then makes its ways to the Ohio River, where many residents get their drinking water.

It is important to not only look at making infrastructure improvements in the future, but to also reduce the amount of runoff that makes its way into our sewer structures right now. We can do this by installing rain gardens, creating wetlands, using rain barrels, planting trees, and anything else that allows water to absorb and infiltrate back into the ground slowly. The more impervious surfaces (aka streets, buildings, parking lots, etc) we have, the more taxed our sewer system is during rain events.

Environmentalism Inspired by Dr. Seuss

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” –Dr. Seuss The Lorax

In honor of the Great Dr. Seuss’s Birthday and the opening of the movie “The Lorax” I begin my post with a quote from Dr. Seuss’s famous environmental book “The Lorax”.

Over 40 years ago this book was published, in a time when environmental activism was in the forefront and people were beginning to understand what was happening to their resources and environment. Books like “The Lorax” and, 10 years previous, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” brings to attention the countless consequences of a careless attitude toward the environment, and it’s not pretty.

Even today, amidst the daily chaos, it’s hard to realize the environmental repercussions of your actions. With all the marketing schemes playing with the idea of sustainability and being 100% natural, but in reality not really following through, it’s hard to be a responsible consumer. I’m not saying there aren’t responsible companies out there who are making a difference, but they are not always easy to find, and are hardly convenient to the everyday consumer.

Striving to be an environmentalist myself I sometimes get disheartened. The battle of productivity vs. sustainability has been going on for a very long time. When I hear politicians talk about the environment, and what should and should not be done, it worries me in regards to the power they have to control outcomes. I know that “the people” have the power to vote, but just like the consumer has the power to decide what to buy, I feel like the process is never as easy as the idea.

Last week I stopped by Lake Michigan to watch the sunset. Even though I should, I don’t make it out to the lake as much in the winter as I do in the summer. In that moment I wondered how someone could see something as beautiful as a sunset over the water, and not have compassion for the artwork God creates. Then I thought, maybe in the closed off world that we live it today, it’s hard for people to open their eyes to the beauty, peacefulness, and mightiness of the environment.

So for the sake of all the “Truffula Trees”, “Swomee-Swans”, “Brown Bar-ba-loots”, and the “Humming-Fish” we hope there are people out there that care a whole awful lot!

This image was derived from the educational materials of http://www.seussville.com

Frack Attack

With most introductions to the newest trend in “clean energy” the public response is explosive. In the Midwest we are seeing this with hydrologic fracturing (or “fracking”), a process used to extract natural gas from deep in the ground.

Pictured right is a shale map from U.S. Energy Information Administration.

With nationwide reports of water contamination and earth quakes allegedly tied to fracking, we find that impact studies and regulations are a few steps behind.

For Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stated in a report in May 2011:  “The DEQ has not found any cases where hydraulic fracturing has caused adverse impacts to the environment or public health in Michigan.” The major concerns listed by the DEQ are as follows:

  1. Keeping the gas contained once it is fracked from the ground to protect aquifers (water reserves)
  2. Deciding where and how much water is withdrawn (A single fracture treatment for a typical Antrim well requires 50,000 gallons of water while a deeper Marcellus gas well needs about 500,000 gallons of water – Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council-National Wildlife Federation)
  3. Making sure the produced water (or the water that was used and mixed with chemicals) is disposed of properly.
  4. Managing flowback water (or water that comes back up through the piping)
  5. Identifying the chemicals added to the water during the fracking process (Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council does list a few of the known chemicals, Click Here to link to their fact sheet, but many are still undisclosed.)

Other states however, are experiencing adverse impacts. Recently Ohio experienced a 4.0 earthquake, the 11th earthquake to occur near a 9,200 foot deep disposal well where liquid waste from hydrofracking was injected, according to a New York Times report on January 3, 2012. In Texas, 4.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in a “center point for natural gas and oil production,” as stated in a KUT news, National Public Radio report.

Near hydraulic fracking sites in Wisconsin there have been concerns about water quality, prompting the EPA to conduct a study of ground water contamination. In the Draft Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming the EPA states “A lines of reasoning approach utilized at this site best supports an explanation that inorganic and organic constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have contaminated ground water at and below the depth used for domestic water supply. However, further investigation would be needed to determine if organic compounds associated with hydraulic fracturing have migrated to domestic wells in the area of investigation.”

The report also emphasizes a need for future study, believing that there is a “need for collection of baseline data, greater transparency on chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids, and greater emphasis on well construction and integrity requirements and testing.”

While these findings help to pinpoint the problems, they unfortunately arrive after the fact. Regulation is too often behind the curve.

Luckily in Michigan the DEQ has set standards and permit requirements for fracking. As of September 2011, the DEQ implemented a Water Withdrawl Analysis for High Volume Hydraulic-fracturing with a two-phase permitting process to decide if there is any potential for Adverse Resource Impacts (ARI). These evaluations will decide if the area is fit for high volume fracking.

Great Michigan is an effort among environmental, conservation, and public health groups across Michigan to address environmental issues across the state. With the issue of hydraulic fracking wells they state: “At present, these wells are not subject to the highest monitoring and testing requirements because the fluids are designated as oil and gas waste, and this designation results in less protective requirements. There are no requirements to analyze the constituents in the fluids prior to injection.”

While the future of fracking is uncertain, we know it’s not going anywhere and we continue to learn more about the process every day. It is my hope that the industry take a hard look at the environmental impacts before continuing to move forward, or that regulations be put in place to make sure hydrofracking is a responsible and sustainable practice.

If you are interested in what fracking looks like, watch the 2 min video below:

Wrapping Up on Holiday Shopping

Facing the crowds this holiday season in local shops downtown I’ve encountered a certain whispered phrase time and time again, “don’t buy that here, we can find it cheaper online”.

In a time of recession it is comforting to see people flooding the streets and packing in stores during the weeks leading up to Christmas. However, with cell phone apps that allow consumers to scan bar codes to find a better deal, you wonder how many people are leaving stores empty handed only to do their shopping online.

According to USA Today, sales online from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1 are up 15% this year compared the same month last year. With many sites offering free shipping, and discounted prices, it’s easy to see why many consumers are opting to shop on their computer.

Being of Dutch heritage, I can understand a good deal. I’m the girl you seeing shifting through the sale rack of retail shops and buying the medium drink at a coffee shop instead of the small, just because you get more drink for your money. I also understand that many are strapped for cash these days, and want to be able to get their friends and family something special for the holidays.

In 2008, a study was conducted on the impact of local business on the economy of West Michigan. It was found that for every $100 a person spends at a local business $68 stays within the community, while when the same amount is spent at a non-local business, only $43 remains within the community.

Now think about the money you spend online at businesses that are not even within your community, or within your state or country for that matter. How much purchase revenue is your community missing out on with all the online sales?

Just some food for thought while you finish checking off the rest of the gifts on your list this holiday season. I can’t say that I’ve bought all my gifts at local businesses this year, but it’s nice to know for the ones I did I’m supporting my community in a big way.

Happy shopping!

References:

USA today: http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/story/2011-12-06/online-retail-sales-surge/51682896/1

 LOCAL WORKS! Examining the Impact of Local Business on the West Michigan Economy September 2008

This lake is my lake; this lake is your lake…

Our lakes are in trouble, which threatens to drag down an already stressed economy in the Great Lakes region.

A study was released this month by the National Wildlife Federation called- Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes: How Nutrients and Invasive Species Interact to Overwhelm the Coasts and Starve Offshore Waters, about the greatest problems happening within the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. The study notes that about 1.5 million jobs in the United States are associated with the Great Lakes in some way.

The issues within the Great Lakes revolve around a tug of war pull between a nutrient rich and nutrient deprived lake system.

How can there be both you ask?

The report explains there is too much nutrient near shore from all the surface runoff pouring into the lakes, and the essential nutrients are not able to reach the deeper depths of the lake. This is due in part to the zebra and quagga mussels that hitched a ride to the Great Lakes some few decades ago. They are everywhere within the Great Lakes, filtering water and holding the nutrient load near shore. With the filtered water providing sunlight and the abundant amounts of phosphorus available near the shore, the algae are able to thrive, especially now that water temperatures have increased.

When the nutrients are trapped near shore, fish and plant life beyond the shoreline are left starving. So what you have is explosive and dangerous algae blooms, too many mussels, and fish not getting what they need to survive and flourish.

Once the algae eventually die, it sinks and sucks up the available oxygen. This causes what the report calls “dead zones” in the deeper depths of the lake. Fish then have even less of a chance for survival with both oxygen and nutrients being depleted within their ecosystem.

The landscape surrounding the Great Lakes is very different than it was hundreds of years ago. Urban, industrial and agricultural land covers what were once miles and miles of trees and wetlands. The barriers that once kept the lakes protected are now mostly gone, making it harder to keep the lakes healthy. Of course, people will continue to populate the land, but there are things that can be done to give the lakes a better chance.

So the story of our lakes cannot end here. Not only are there millions of people that rely on the Great Lakes for income, but there are millions more that care about and enjoy the beauty and recreation these lakes provide, and rely on the resources supplied by the Great Lakes.

Read this report from National Wildlife Federation to learn more about what the lakes are worth, how our lakes are changing, and what is being done about it: Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes: How Nutrients and Invasive Species Interact to Overwhelm the Coasts and Starve Offshore Waters

Here is a list of programs and organizations provided by the study that are working on Great Lakes issues:

 The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Clean Water Act

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)

U.S. Farm Bill

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)

Total maximum daily loads (TMDLs)

International Reference Group on Great Lakes Pollution from Land Use Activities (PLUARG)

Environment Canada

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)

International Joint Commission (IJC)

References: Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes: How Nutrients and Invasive Species Interact to Overwhelm the Coasts and Starve Offshore Waters