Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fields (of Fire?)

Like a life-sized game of Stratego, the lines are being drawn between pastoral landscapes and sprawling development in Maryland. With the enactment of renewed Program Open Space (POS) legislation that expands and reclaims some of the legacy funding to create agricultural and conservation easements in perpetuity, landowners who want to dedicate some of their holdings to posterity have a little help through POS.
Photo by Jean  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Quite sensibly, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program targets prime farmland and the Maryland Rural Legacy Program similarly targets areas that have high value to local ecology. For Calvert County, the latter includes an area along the Patuxent River north of Huntingtown, the area between Prince Frederick and Port Republic, and most of the Patuxent River side of the peninsula south of St. Leonard. Statewide, the targeted ecological areas form a semblance of wildlife corridors that could offer resilience to a multitude of species in this time of climate chaos.

Another recent governmental move to stymie loss of agricultural land in Calvert County was the limiting of transferable development rights (TDRs) to farmland, as opposed to the former practice of setting aside residential lots, such as the one I merged to my place of residence at minimal cost a couple of years ago.

Another factor favoring a regrarian Maryland is a faltering economy driven, in the main, by world population exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. While suburban sprawl is projected to continue apace in our state, economic disruptions and declining resources will, at least, temper growth in the coming decades.

In fact, do you see what's happening in Europe with the wave of refugees flowing out of the Middle East? That is what our countrysides could experience in a few years with waves of unemployed, starving urbanites looking for sustenance outside of dried up food deserts. Project Open Space funds might be best spent on building campgrounds in preparation for such fiascos.

Agricultural land preservation probably won't be able to keep pace against greed and Gaia, so your best insurance at this point may be found among those who have been planning for catastrophe.  The PrepCon this weekend in St. Leonard coincides with Calvert Green Living, which I have already signed-up for. Either event may be a good use of your time if you are concerned about surviving the future.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Beyond Chemicals

While I see a need to have soil restoration promoted in the next version of the Calvert County Comprehensive Plan, there are already many elements of the plan and ongoing institutions promoting soil conservation. The Comprehensive Plan includes "Sediment flows from development and farming" as a threat to the vision that
Our wetlands, streams, and forests support thriving plant and animal communities.
The corresponding action is "Develop soil conservation and water quality plans for farms."

When you look into the Best Management Practices of the Soil Conservation District, it appears that they have this whole issue pretty well in hand (at least among the farms on the list of cooperators). Many of these best practices lead to soil restoration in addition to soil conservation. At least one of the BMPs, however, is potentially counterproductive - that is, perpetuation of chemical fertilizers.
Photo by Paul Riismandel (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The problem with chemical fertilizers is that they can reduce the soil biota population below a critical level where the microorganisms make the soil ecosystem work in the plants' favor. This results in the need to use more fertilizer to achieve the same results as in previous years and the soil undergoes a death spiral until it is no longer economical to farm.  Many of the trace nutrients used by plants are generated by the proliferation of soil microorganisms and could be uneconomical to add directly as we do commonly applied macronutrients like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N, P, K).

It may be possible to restore soil humus by intensive farming methods while still using chemical fertilizers, but a surer method is to farm organically using biochar, compost, and organic fertilizer, as necessary. The goal should be to eliminate fertilizers altogether in favor of creating humus which is self-regenerating as long as crops are grown successively and rotated from year to year. Our farmers, large and small, need to learn to do this if for no other reason than that chemical fertilizers are a nonrenewable resource. A better option, still, is to grow perennial food crops. While we're at it, let's take advantage of soil carbon restoration for its role in cooling the planet.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Mitigating Sprawl

Photo by Matt McGuire (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The information session on the rewrite of Calvert County's Comprehensive Plan offered many insights on the process, current viewpoints, and the situations we face. Attendees were given an opportunity to submit views on paper regarding the top challenges, changes witnessed, and delights of living in Calvert County. Mine were soil tilth, invasive species, and nature, respectively. The presentation that covered some of the trends since the last major plan rewrite in 2004 brought a related problem to light - land use.

According to the statistics presented, the amount of both farmland and forest lost in our county over a ten year period is approximately 5%. As of 2007, about 60% of the county was forest or farmland. A 5% loss would have brought that figure down to about 55% as of 2014. The National Forest Service projections for forest land in Maryland under various scenarios are for additional losses ranging from 20 to 30% by 2060. If farmland losses remain in step with forest losses, we are then looking at a combined loss rate in Calvert County that continues at more than 5% per decade and at least 23 square miles (15,000 more acres) sacrificed to the god of growth.

In a talk given to the county's Master Gardeners last year, the crisis of ongoing suburban sprawl was also highlighted, with the point made that this results in a loss of connectivity in our ecosystems, reducing biodiversity. The reason Master Gardeners need to understand this is because increasing biodiverse gardens are one small way to mitigate the effects of sprawl on wildlife corridors. By ubiquitously gardening in islands within the developed landscape, the hope is that many of the threatened wee beasties will be able to find sufficient food and shelter.

I wrote down my three responses to the planning questionnaire (soil tilth, invasive species, and nature) before seeing the statistics on land use. In retrospect, it is easy to see a relationship of these three key indicators to the issue of real estate development. The soil that we grow on must be improved, especially if there is going to be less area under cultivation. Invasive species must be curbed in an effort to mitigate the loss of biodiversity caused, in part, by sprawl. Nature, in general, must be given more consideration and care as we continue to spread out across the land. These are action areas that I would like to see promoted in the next Comprehensive Plan update.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Rip Tide on the Chesapeake Bay

Here in Calvert County, the inverted middle finger of Maryland, we have a Comprehensive Plan by which we pretend to shape our own destiny. The wife and I have been ongoing participants in a group called Calvert Eats Local that meets monthly at the county library to feast and keep up-to-date on agricultural topics. Calvert Eats Local is providing input, through the umbrella organization, Sustainable Calvert Network, to the County Planning Commission in order to update the Comprehensive Plan - something that has not been done since 2004.

The impetus for this update to the plan is a wide open gap in the middle of the county seat, Prince Frederick, which appeared when an old middle school and armory were demolished. The Comprehensive Plan has a chapter on Economy which may bear most immediately on the new purpose for this piece of real estate, though I would hope that the People chapter, under the topic of Community Interaction, would play a larger role. Either way, focusing at this stage on the development of this parcel would compromise the integrity of the Comprehensive Plan, as in the tail wagging the dog.

A lot has happened in the world since 2004. I wonder if our planning commissioners have a good perspective on the economic, financial, ecological, demographic, technological, and natural resource developments that are driving our world, nation, and communities into a new era. Keeping in mind the precept that plans are nothing, but planning is everything, we should be able to improve our future through this thought exercise, as long as we don't swim against the rip-tide or exhaust ourselves trying to swim out of it.

An aerial view of the rip currents shows a financial crash in the offing followed by many years of economic adaptation. After the crash, eddy currents of energy and other natural resource peaks will drown much of what we have come to expect from commerce. The dilemma of the drill-baby-drill (or frack harder and deeper, baby) solution is that this has gotten to the point where earth, sea, and sky are revolting against further violations of whatever remains of our planet's purity. In fact, just backing off isn't going to prevent earth, sea, and sky from taking out their grievances on future inhabitants. Our future economies will be shaped by climate adaptation and, if the Paris climate agreement and the Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act mean anything, genuine consideration.

I doubt if our county planners will take this view unless the tide of the public's perception is swept in this foreboding direction and we cry out. Otherwise, our planners (even against their own misgivings) will rationalize and temporize these matters and pretend we can sustain the unsustainable.

Our focus in the Calvert Eats Local group is on the economy, with the outdated plan putting forth a vision that,
We are building a strong local economy based on renewable resources, high technology, retirement, recreation, and tourism.
Last night, among many other changes proposed by our group, I suggested that the word "strong" here be replaced by "resilient." Strong materials can also be brittle. Resilient materials, though somewhat strong, can handle a beating without shattering. We should try to make Calvert County shatterproof.

If you want to help shape the new Comprehensive Plan, there is a public forum on Thursday, 21 April at the Prince Frederick Library at 1 pm that will include the County Planning office. I may have more to say about our economic future at this meeting.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Staying in the Red

The key difference in Maryland's new decision-making process for prioritizing transportation projects is that there is a population-weighted scoring system, so that a great majority of our transportation funds will, no doubt, be allocated to projects that serve higher population areas beginning in 2018. While it has been swell coasting along the ribbon of highway that takes us to the nearest major towns eight or more miles either direction, we may have to slow down soon to dodge the potholes.


Investing the bulk of transportation funds in population centers is a change that should have been made long ago, yet Maryland seems to be leading in this respect, compared to states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which have enacted similar goals and measures based decision-making processes. As James Howard Kunstler might put it, you might as well forget your dream of being able to drive to Wal-Mart forever.

It is still possible, though more blatant, for the Governor to make his or her own decisions about transportation projects that don't jive with the priorities coming out of the scoring system. According to the mayor of Baltimore, Governor Hogan has already taken $736 M from projects in the Baltimore area and given the funds to rural transportation projects. However, having an ordered list of projects will, in the future, make any cherry-picking a lot more obvious.

One project already near the construction phase is the purple line light-rail system that will take beltway dwellers from one township to another along a route that skirts the northern edges of Washington, DC. That's something to look forward to (six years from now). Baltimore won't be getting their version of the same thing, however. Buses are going to be the mainstay there. Bicycles are figuring more into the planning of both systems.

I'm all for helping out the frazzled city commuters. In fact, making my humble abode less accessible to them by virtue of degraded roads would make me feel even better down here in Calvert County (in the map above, we're the middle finger resting on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay). Keeping these urbanites satisfied where they are makes it less likely that they will attempt to strike out for the exurbs. I hope they are not forced by circumstances to migrate before the purple line and newer projects make their city lives a bit more bearable.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Get Ready for Life in the Slow Lane

Besides lower emissions from electricity generation, the Maryland Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan puts transportation improvements at the top of the list of measures that we expect to help us achieve the mandated reductions. The principal improvements in transportation are in fuel economy and in cleaner vehicles.

The relative amount of greenhouse gases emitted by road transportation in Maryland is 28%. Yet, the amount of reduction predicted for these sources by 2020 is just 15%. Not only is the goal not proportionate to the problem, but the expectation is a bit high. The fuel economy goals are based partly on CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) projections. While the CAFE of light vehicles improved by 7 mpg to ~ 35 mpg since the turn of the century, the federal standard for 2025 would require an additional 15 mpg improvement, i.e. twice the improvement in half the time. The law of diminishing returns might have a problem with that.

In spite of CAFE's rose-colored looking glass, Maryland's projections could well turn out accurate for other reasons. Politicians could finally sell gas tax increases to their constituents while the oil price is still low for the next year or so. When oil prices and gasoline climb back to the unaffordable level, driving will fall off. Vehicle miles traveled is somewhat inelastic vs. gasoline prices, but an increasingly impoverished public is left with little choice but to economize.

Now that my wife and I have economized to the hilt by running our 2000 Honda Odyssey well past its natural lifespan (transmission hasn't worked right for the past two years), we are down to one vehicle, which is fine. We will probably trade in our 2012 Chevy Sonic for a slightly larger used car and cargo trailer. One criteria is that fuel economy will be 32 mpg or better. That limits our choices pretty quickly.

Having an economical vehicle is good for now, but a day is coming when that will be an oxymoron. The commitment to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 C will necessitate that a lot more of us rely on other means to move about and carry stuff. Let's hope that other means will be an electric vehicle.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Remedial Reading for the Maryland Climate Change Commission

Before we can expect the Maryland Commission on Climate Change to take biochar seriously as a carbon sequestration tool, we have to educate them more on the mechanisms which make it such a favorable option. In the latest update to the Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan, biochar is cited as a promising emerging technology, but carbon farming is given only 0.4% credit for reductions planned by 2020. The real potential of biochar alone is more like 12%.

The Emerging Technologies Appendix does not mention biochar, but the 2015 plan update has a paragraph in the Emerging Technologies chapter, saying
biochar is made "by heating vegetation slow without oxygen" 
(it's made by heating a carbonaceous biomass, e.g. wood, ag waste, manure, fast or slow with little or no oxygen, depending on the process). Inputs could be "lumber waste, dried corn stalks and other 168 Maryland Department of the Environment plan residues." 
"The resulting biochar... can be placed in the soil as fertilizer." 
(It is a soil amendment, which improves many soil properties, including preservation and reduction of added fertilizers.) 
"However there are some risks to keep in mind to ensure that it remains carbon negative and doesn’t harm the soil it is meant to be fertilizing." 
Rarely would biochar cause lasting harm to soil. The long term benefits would outweigh short-term yield reductions. 
"Biochar must be used in soils of similar pH or else it can have a negative effect on soil fertility." 
Biochar could change pH in the short-run, but these changes are predictable, depending on the biochar feedstock and production method, and it can be applied discriminately
"If the biochar is made from forest ecosystems, the result could be a net increase in greenhouse gases." 
That final jab is the bugaboo that many biochar skeptics raise, fearing deforestation as an industrial means of obtain biochar feedstock. Sustainable forestry should trump biochar production as a general principle in crafting environmental regulations, but the two are far from mutually exclusive. It's also a reason why economies of scale should not be allowed to run rampant in the biochar industry. 

Positive publicity about biochar is growing. An authoritative article in Nature last week pointed out that the theoretical potential for soil to sequester carbon is 80% of the rate at which it is currently being added to the atmosphere by humans. That sure makes the Maryland Climate Change Commission carbon farming target of 0.4% look weak. The French initiative, 4 pour 1000, adopted by several other countries at the Paris climate conference, to increase soil carbon 0.4% through carbon farming is another inducement to put biochar on the entrĂ©e menu.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Waiting on the Courts

Another non-violent form of revolution for the sake of our collective well-being is advocated by Roger Cox, author of Revolution Justified - why only the law can save us now. Through demonstrated success in The Netherlands and current legal battles in other countries, Cox believes lawyers can turn the attention of legislatures throughout the world toward enacting laws that will put us on a path to a less "climatic" future. Several state Attorneys General are already taking up this "call to arms".

Maryland, of all places, didn't need the prompting of courts to spur legislative action that puts it on par with The Netherland's decision and second only to California and New York of U.S. states working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We have been a leader in greenhouse gas reduction since 2009 when the first Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act was passed and continue to set the pace with the latest revision which puts our state on track to meet the ambitious goals embraced by the Paris Climate talks.

This revolution will not be televised. It will be hard to notice, at first, since the plans that the government will devise aren't due until the end of 2018 and not placed into effect until a year later. If you think transition of power plants away from coal to natural gas and an increase in telework and public transportation mark a revolution, then maybe you have noticed it. I will notice sometime in 2017 when public comments are solicited for the Department of the Environment's plan that includes provisions for sequestering carbon, because the law says they must,
"Provide for the use of offset credits generated by alternative compliance mechanisms executed within the State, including carbon sequestration projects, to achieve compliance with greenhouse gas emissions reductions required"
That's where biochar may get a lot more legs here in Maryland.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Exposing the Exposers

We are at the point that concerned citizens must hold the cold feet of anyone whose responsibility it is to uphold environmental laws close to the fire. +Albert Bates says that this is a civic duty brought to the fore by the revolutionary mandates of the Paris Agreement, as the preeminent example. The fate of humankind hangs in the balance.

Though easily jaded, I am not ready to begin my civic action efforts with civil disobedience, though there may come a time when roaring becomes my M.O.  A lot of leftist literature seems to be written by fanatical, poor-men's Donald Trumps, to borrow from The Flaming Lips. Less hostile steps may win the day in some cases, though escalation may ultimately lead to destructive behavior.

A template for reasonable objections to offending parties dealing with watershed protection regulations is provided by Community & Environmental Defense Services, offering an actionable alternative to raising hell. I noticed one glaring case in my community where Dominion Corp's contractor, IHI/Kiewit, has piled up excavated soil from the Cove Point LNG plant expansion and does not seem to protect it well from erosion.



One side (not pictured) is mostly covered with new turf, but the remainder does not seem to get the attention it should. The simple principle that Exposed Soil = Pollution makes this small mountain of dirt a likely pollution problem. The silt fence cannot be expected to catch more than half of the soil that reaches it, with the rest eventually settling in streams and ponds in the Gray's Creek subwatershed, and, ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

I may not be fanatical or even a radical, but after Dominion's callous treatment of concerned citizens during the hearings on the LNG plant construction, I'll be ready to take the gloves off this time.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Way to Plant Free Trees

The erosion control project that I am advocating for my church is to block surface runoff from eroding the topsoil into our detention pond by building a hugelkultur mound on the upper rim of the excavated area. This mound would be planted with a cover crop for at least one season, but after that, it would get some perennials or even trees in places where they wouldn't interfere with future building plans.

I hope we can get started with our preparations soon because we might be able to get help from The Alliance for the Chesapeake's Trees for Sacred Places program, which offers not only free trees, but technical support, training, and religiously-oriented motivation. You just need to have room to plant 60 or more trees. This may be possible, but it would surely fill up our open ground (outside the future building footprint). Teaming with another church congregation to make a total of 60 tree plantings may have to be our approach.

Alliance for the Chesapeake has partnerships with an organization called Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, which includes the tree planting program and a new program called RiverWise which looks at stormwater management more broadly, similar to the Watershed Stewards program, and even provides substantial financial assistance to correct problems.

It makes sense to involve church congregations in these efforts. They already have many diligent members who want to be contributors to improving their local communities, but starting with their own properties is a necessary first step.

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