Thursday, December 21, 2017

Paying the Piper

The amount of sediment that is allowed to runoff into the Chesapeake Bay is forty times by weight the amount of nitrogen and 500 times the amount of phosphorus allowed. Now that the Conowingo Dam is silted to the point that scoured sediment is washing through, it will become harder to meet the decreasing sediment limits without dredging. However, the real problem is phosphorus since the sediment contains much more than a 1:500 ratio. Who will pay for the dredging?

Exelon, which operates the power generating station at Conowingo, will benefit from dredging due to less wear and tear on their hydraulic turbines and improved output. Environmentalists have estimated that Exelon could afford to fund dredging at $27 to $44 million per year out of revenues from selling hydroelectricity.  Yet, Exelon did not cause the problem. The dam didn't cause the sediment to flow into the river. It was allowed to run off by poor land management practices. Some silting does occur naturally, but the lack of attention to stormwater management and soil conservation is largely to blame for the rate of buildup. Maryland is taking on the job of dredging, but Pennsylvania should be the ones paying for it. Pennsylvania loses twice as much sediment to the Chesapeake Bay watershed as Maryland. They are not on track to meet their 2017 TMDL target for sediment and have not even committed to doing so.

Just the 25,000 cu. yd. dredging (representing 1% of the total targeted for removal) in the pending demonstration project entails removing 80 million lbs. of sediment. To stop the buildup in Conowingo Reservoir and carryover into the bay, removal would have to proceed at nearly 30 times that rate, i.e. the annual total sediment flow for Pennsylvania (2.4 billion lbs). Should dredging stop after reaching the target amount, the reservoir will refill in a few years.

Pennsylvania cannot be expected to eliminate all of their sediment runoff. Their target is 1.945 billion lbs. of sediment flow per year by 2025, which would equate to about a 55 million lb. per year annual reduction. This means that interstate nutrient trading would not begin to pay for the 8 billion lbs. of  dredging necessary to correct the problem.

Once we dredge Conowingo Reservoir (and I'm afraid Marylanders will be stuck with the bill) , there are two other dams upstream that have the same problem. Pennsylvania should work on those, too. Exelon's bid for a new 46-year lease to run the hydroelectric station should be rejected unless they offer to foot the dredging bills (not to exceed $44 million/yr) as long as they hold the lease. If they do not, as soon as dredging is substantially complete, perhaps we should prepare to dismantle each of these dams. It would ultimately restore the lower Susquehanna River and ensure that we do not have to keep paying the piper.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


If phragmites australis were to be charred under a cover of dredge spoils, the affected area could be immediately nitrogen-deficient due to the loss of N gas in the exhaust. Dredge material from upstream of the Conowingo Dam is nitrogen-rich, however, and the underlying soil would also contain great amounts of nitrogen which could wash up into the biochar. The heat of charring could even create microsites of char from the organic matter mixed in with the dredge spoils.

Nitrogen that was held in the reeds and added organic matter could be entrapped by the sediment casing, making it available when subsequent planting takes place (as with ankara practiced in Cameroon). Nitrogen that is trapped in the sediment cover or char due to an increase of reactive sites on clay or biochar could be sequestered, avoiding the greenhouse gas release or eutrophication that would accompany simply dumping of the spoils on the shore. Inoculating seedling roots with mycorrhizal fungi would be a very helpful step. If native legumes or other nitrogen-fixing species can be found, planting their seedlings preceded by a dip in the proper bacterial inoculum could be all it takes to jump start the nitrogen cycle after charring. Plants that are easy to grow would be necessary in any case, since the soil would be otherwise devoid of microbes. The roots should be placed no deeper than the baked sediment layer, though the underlying baked sediment should be broken up to allow the roots to grow into the charred phragmites layer.

One currently followed method of phragmites eradication is described in this brochure and a more interesting slideshow. It may be less expensive than my method, but it is potentially more harmful to the environment (glyphosate) and takes two years to reach the point of replanting or initial restoration. My method can be performed in a matter of weeks and it sequesters carbon while recycling dredge spoils. Since applying glyphosate must be done in a way that avoids overspray and contacts all the targeted foliage, current methods may also be more labor intensive (adding expense) and pose a health hazard to the exterminators.

Another common method of eradicating phragmites involves burning in addition to herbicides. This video shows what a good tinder phragmites is. My covered method would be more controlled and hopefully much less smoky.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Demonstration Projects

Though installing rock dams at the outfalls to my local lake will require a lot of preparing, planning, organizing, and coordinating, my higher ambition involves another dam, also affecting the Chesapeake Bay, but to a much greater extent. Tomorrow the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) will begin evaluating bids for the contract competition to dredge 25,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Maryland portion of the Susquehanna River upstream of the Conowingo Dam and recycling the dredge spoils in an innovative fashion. The idea is to select a company that offers a promising plan for disposal of 1,000 times this much sediment by using this contract as a demonstration of how it can be accomplished on a small scale.

Conowingo Dam photo by Aaron Harrington
I am not in the dredging business, but the amount of dredge spoils requiring disposal from this dam  could be an ideal opportunity for me to try my idea for phragmites eradication. A successful small scale grant-funded demonstration would be a good way to gain the interest of MES and whichever compan(ies) they eventually award contract(s) totalling $3 billion. Before I even seek a grant,  backyard experimentation with charring under earth and/or sediment cover would be a good first step. Once I finish building my cob oven, I will be able to practice a few techniques, but will eventually want to replicate charring of dry grasses using a configuration like that in my eradication concept.

On top of that, following a year of training and practice, I am happy to report that tonight I got my certificate naming me a Master Watershed Steward. And I got the t-shirt. That oughta make 'em sit up and pay attention to my ideas on saving the bay.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Passable Stream

I have pleasant memories of the street near my grandfather's southern California ranch bordered by a three-foot wide concrete lined drainage ditch. Though I now live in a residential area that borrows its name from western ranch culture, we don't do gutters here much. Instead, we have some stormwater management ponds, lots of woods, and drainage ditches that are pretty much out of sight and mind. Fifty years has taken a toll on many of these ditches, so it may be time to restore them.

The restoration work that would qualify as a Best Management Practice (BMP) is much more than I had envisioned. Whereas my first thought was to simply use several wattles to filter runoff before it reaches the lake, Maryland prefers that long runs be totally retrofitted. An example that bears a strong similarity to one stormwater channel near my land is shown on pg. 60 of this presentation on the topic of Step Pool Storm Conveyances and copied here:

The step pools in the lower photo were created by emplacement of very large rocks and an equal amount of riprap in the stream bed. Underneath is a substantial amount of woodchips and sand mixed together to promote drainage. The banks have been reformed into a wider floodplain, but the stream elevation is unchanged. The engineering behind it all is pretty intense, so taking this on would be a real challenge for me.

Getting someone to fund all this might be a problem, but it is worth taking some time to grind through some calculations to see if the nutrient loading on Lake Lariat (which carries over to the Chesapeake Bay to some degree) could be reduced enough to earn nutrient trading credits. Who knows, the restoration might even pay for itself (besides doing nice things for the neighborhood and the lake). Fortunately, the HOA has equipment that might allow us to do it all in-house.

Wattles could still be the first step. They would be located near the outfall where the channel is shallow. The restoration work could take place upstream of the wattles, which would be useful for a few years and help reduce sediment spilling into the lake during restoration.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Git 'er Done

By Mark Rain

To get them all done in time to avert ecological armageddon, the thirteen prescriptions for healing the planet offered by the concerned scientists who signed the updated warning to the world would require coordination at the highest level conceivable. Coordinating implies a grasp of the larger system effects of any particular activity, prioritizing some over others as needed for the good of the whole. Though strategic coordination is sorely lacking on the environmental front, focused efforts may still help, if not just to allow more time for wiser leadership to ascend.

One of the ominous trends shown in the report is the 75% increase since 1992 in the number of dead zones in the oceans and estuaries.  The supplemental report's description reads,
Coastal dead zones which are mainly caused by fertilizer runoff and fossil-fuel use, are killing large swaths of marine life. Dead zones with hypoxic, oxygen-depleted waters, are a significant stressor on marine systems and identified locations have dramatically increased since the 1960s, with more than 600 systems affected by 2010.
The trend has been nearly linear for the past 50 years, in which about 12 additional aquatic zones have died each year. One of these is the upper Chesapeake Bay where I live. Dead zones are a degenerated condition of algae blooms that rampantly feed on phosphorus and nitrogen, overpopulate, and die, with the consequent breakdown of algal biomass starving the surrounding waters of oxygen and releasing chemical toxins. In 2016, toxins from blue-green algae were found in one-third of lakes and reservoirs in the U.S. One of those was the 90-acre lake in my neighborhood.

Agriculture is blamed for much of the nutrient runoff in the developed world. Fossil-fuel use is also implicated in the report as a cause of dead zones. In less developed areas, sewage is the main contributor. In that respect, my neighborhood belongs to the less developed category. With 4,500+ homes on 6 square miles of hilly land, the number of septic systems overloads the watershed.

While hilly land promotes more runoff, it may also be key to a solution. Most of the runoff does not flow directly into the lake, but into ravines that eventually empty into the lake. My idea to lessen the amount of nutrients in the lake is to install filtration wattles not along the entire lakefront, but one wattle per ravine at the endpoint of contributing septic drainage. Using a mixture of biochar and ablated clays, zeolites, vermiculite, and possibly peat, wood chips, mushroom spawn, or compost, the wattle can be imbedded at the surface of the streambed. This would be done initially at several of the largest ravines with test filters which could be used to measure phosphorus buildup after a year. The ravines with the largest amounts of phosphorus in their test filters would then receive a larger number of wattles to capture the major nutrient flows. I am hoping to get a grant to execute this plan, possibly teaming with a local biologist and academia as an innovative research project. Without funding, I could probably perform a limited version of the plan.

For those whose decisions lack global reach, thinking globally and acting locally at least gains you some cred, raises awareness, encourages replication, and offers the consolation of confronting the world's problems, though they may seem to mount. As one's credibility grows, one can possibly take a leadership role which could involve less hands-on implementation and more coordinating. I am not knowledgeable enough to adjudge priorities between the thirteen global solutions recommended by the thousands of scientists who issued the warning, but that doesn't stop me from taking action at a local level.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

America's Fateful Choice

As we approach the climax of the USA's fourth turning, a national consensus is brewing on the nature of our crisis and the way to overcome it. It hardly appears that renewed warning cries from concerned scientists are what we are preparing to rally around. Americans are loath to allow global concerns to trump our privileged status. On the other hand, threats to our great nation could lead us to intervene globally, saying with Lucifer, 'Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Paradise.' Only one problem with that: Lucifer is immortal. Mankind is not.

Hell could overwhelm Earth regardless of who reigns if humanity does not rally in the next few years to reclaim what we can of this lost Paradise. Then, what will it matter whether Putin, Xi, or Trump wore the one ring to rule them all? It is not just a matter of quality of life, it is a matter of life and death - for everyone.

A war between great powers, while culling masses from our overpopulated planet, will only delay action and waste resources needed to resolve the ecological crisis. If the war goes nuclear, it would doom untold millions even more quickly by accelerating the collapse of earth systems.

By James Vaughn
As Old Blowhard acts out his China policy, we will soon have a better idea of the USA's propensity to ignite the nuclear fuse. A war between the U.S. and Russia is now doubtful, but, unless the Un-President's Asia trip marks a real change of tone toward our next near-peer competitor, doomsday could be in the offing.  Let's hope that Xi realizes that the Fatty Trumpling is just a blowhard and also, that said blowhard would find a Gameboy should he ever pop open the nuclear 'football.' If his future actions vis-a-vis China comport with the airs he displayed while visiting, then we should be relieved. The strategic situation calls for retreat, not saber rattling.

When the two possible alternatives are permanent human extinction or a temporary era of difficulty, eliminating the first choice should be a no brainer. Are we such misanthropes that we would risk the lives of billions of humans just for a chance at greater personal freedom? Better for a nation to endure, for a spell, even the indignity of subjugation, than to endanger the whole world with annihilation. In the culmination of our secular crisis, whatever beligerence Old Blowhard engenders with China, let our singular consensus be to reject fratricidal war and, instead, turn as a nation to the intergenerational project of saving the planet.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


Leading up to COP-23 being held this week in Bonn, Germany, a flurry of reports on climate progress and solutions have been released by NGOs and governments. Drawdown was one of the early arrivals, but in the past couple of weeks, we have seen the annual Countdown report by The Lancet, a National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) report called Natural Climate Solutions, the fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment (Vol. 1), and the eighth annual Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environmental Program.

Of these, I gravitate toward Natural Climate Solutions, which is an independent update of work included in IPCC Working Group III (WGIII) for the greenhouse gas inventory sector referred to as agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU).  +Albert Bates offers a good case for prioritizing NCS, predicated by the understanding that these ecosystem solutions are only a small part of human activity required to prevent climate chaos. In NCS, as opposed to other remedial efforts, nature cooperates in restoring climate equilibrium, though humans, in their proper domineering role, intervene to initiate and manage that renewal.

Biochar, my chosen interest, ranks pretty high among NCS solutions, despite use of much lower estimates than scientists have offered. The NCS authors took pains to ensure no overlap when they compiled these, but in doing so, probably missed some synergies, partly because biochar is not just good for thirty years, but for hundreds of years. For biochar, synergies are possible with fire management, improved forest plantations, reforestation, trees in croplands, improved feed, crop nutrient management, conservation agriculture, and rice cultivation.

Granted, the problem we face must be dealt with quickly, but a long view puts the carbon net present value of biochar much higher than such a crisis management evaluation would include. For example, suppose reforestation included soil-ready biochar in the initial planting and added to the periphery of each tree's root tips each year for thirty years. That tree will likely grow healthy and live a hundred years or more, with larger and more plentiful roots, sequestering much more carbon than trees absent biochar. Those synergies were not assumed in the reforestation category or the biochar category. Another example of synergy, regardless of biochar's longevity, is the use of beetle-killed trees in providing biochar feedstock. This make biochar production more economical and helps with fire management and natural forest management.

Though synergies aren't accounted for in the NCS estimates (but possibly inadvertently included in the uncertainty ranges), they are still acknowledged in the larger sustainability context. The Nature Conservancy's summation concludes:
Most nature climate solutions—if effectively implemented—also offer water filtration, flood buffering, improved soil health, protection of biodiversity habitat, and enhanced climate resilience.
“The approach is synergistic,” says Justin Adams, managing director for Global Lands at the Nature Conservancy. “We can hit multiple targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals if we get this right.”

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