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

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: