EPA and Environmental Watch

This has been a banner year for seeing the effects of climate change–storms that contain much greater rainfall than if human-induced global warming were not occurring; triple-digit temperatures in California that produced the worst wildfires in the state’s history; statistics that show an increased number of deaths from floods, fires, heat and asthma–all while the Trump administration is tries to pull out of the Clean Power Plan and lessen regulations for the benefit of companies in various industries. Thankfully, the courts are holding some of this back.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to promote fossil fuels and the companies that produce them while assaulting the climate and public health with proposals to weaken the requirements for monitoring and repairing methane leaks from gas and oil wells and setting no limits on power-sector carbon pollution. Methane is 86% more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over the short run, and methane leaks also emit other volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a well-known carcinogen–creating risks to the climate and to people’s health. (The EPA is accepting comments on the Trump administration’s proposal until October 31, 2018.)

The EPA also has told the outside scientists who advise the agency on the health impacts of soot that their service is no longer required and told individuals being interviewed for a new panel to evaluate ground-level ozone that the panel will not be formed. In addition, the EPA is trying to weaken the rules for radiation exposure despite past guidance that says any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk. The EPA is “turning to scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you–like a little bit of sunlight.” So much for scientific input.

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke is trying to roll back the protection of public lands and allow uranium mining there while limiting the ability of native communities to protest and exposing such communities to the risk of health hazards such as cancer and kidney damage.

At the same time, Congress is seeking to weaken the Endangered Species Act by turning over to state and local governments many of the powers now held by federal scientists. Republican Party supporters say the change will make the act work better and eliminate obstacles to economic progress. Wildlife advocates call the proposal the wildlife extinctions package.

Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals is ordering a ban on the deadly pesticide chlorpyrifos, saying that the EPA left the chemical on the market despite extensive scientific evidence that even tiny levels of exposure can harm babies’ brains. One of the judges on the panel dissented from the majority ruling, so the EPA could appeal the court’s decision.

And so the battle goes on–the economy versus the environment, people and animals.

Sources: Akron Beacon Journal, August 9, 2018; Record-Courier, September 27, 2018; Friends of the Earth, September 18, 2018; Physicians for Social Responsibility, September 25, 2018.

–Lorraine McCarty

The Perils of Plastic

Twenty-two million pounds of plastic go into the Great Lakes every year. The Great Lakes is the largest freshwater system in the world, but it has been used as a dumping ground. The oceans also are filled with plastic, with 80% of it coming from the land. Plastics break down into small microplastics, which we eat when we consume fish and drink beverages. Lake Erie contains more microplastics than any other of the Great Lakes and more than any other body of water on earth, according to Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who spoke at the Cleveland City Club on August 14.

Plastics were created at the turn of the last century, but manufacturing of such products ramped up after World War II. Disposable items became all the rage. The use of disposable items increased over the years and, by 2015, 300 million tons of plastic had been produced. Unlike glass and metal, plastic is moldable, light and durable; however, this durability is a big problem now.

So where does plastic go? A 2012 study found that 8 billion tons of plastic have ended up in the oceans; a 2004 study found that 80% of ocean plastic is coming from the land. Photo-degradation causes plastic to break into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in microplastics. These tiny particles, which are less than the width of a hair, accumulate in the water. Lake Erie has 230,000 particles/km. Tributaries have an even higher abundance of microplastics.

Even more distressing is how much plastic people are ingesting (see the table below). For example, a survey of bottled-water consumption worldwide found that 93% of the bottles contained plastic contamination and that the contamination from microplastics was anywhere from double to 16 times greater than with tap water! No brands were found to be plastic-free. 

No studies have been conducted on how the consumption of microplastics affects human health; however, it is known that certain plastics are tied to cancer, obesity in children under 6 months of age, increased sperm counts, for example. The best course of action is to err on the side of caution. A United Nations working group rates plastics as the No. 2 worldwide problem, just below climate change.

The real problem, however, is people. People need to stop the flow of plastics into the environment by changing their behavior. Start here: 

  • Reject single-use plastics. Carry your own bamboo utensils for eating on the go.
  • Use a refillable metal water bottle rather than disposable bottles and cups for holding beverages.
  • Bring reusable bags to stores. Advocate for consumer fees on plastic bags provided at stores and that the fees increase over time as a way to encourage the use of reusable bags.
  • Carry your own metal straw if you want to use a straw. Advocate that straws should not be given out with every single drink at restaurants.
  • Decrease the way plastics come into people’s lives. Skipping the straw, the plastic bag and the plastic bottle is important because these three items comprise 65% of the plastic people use. Other ways to curb the use of plastics include the use of crushable toothpaste tablets and carrying your own containers to stores and restaurants.

Efforts aimed at advocating for a ban on microbeads were successful, with the ban going into effect on July 1, 2018. Antilittering campaigns face an uphill battle because so much corporate money is behind bottled water, and cities cannot compete with these businesses.

The development of an infrastructure to collect, market, buy and reuse plastics is a problem that society, as a whole, needs to address.

Granted, plastics are recycled today, but postconsumer plastic often is a combination of so many different kinds of plastics that it is easier to use new material to make plastic items. At the same time, the global market price for recyclables has dropped considerably. Many people are working on making plastics more biodegradable using different processes.

In the end, Mason encouraged the audience to not underestimate the influence of individuals.

Look for more information on plastics in our next newsletter.

–Lorraine McCarty

Yes, Yes . . . but Can You TRUST the Water?

by Bob Heath

The other day I had a strong lesson in “environmental white privilege.” I was invited to participate in a water roundtable discussion sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council. The event was promoted as a discussion among a wide variety of stakeholders regarding their “views on water” in general and on Lake Erie in particular. The stakeholders at the table ranged from a former head of the Lake Erie Commission to wastewater treatment professionals to artists to local residents. I was there because of I am a science writer, my research interests include water quality in Lake Erie, I had been part of the Great Lakes Compact Advisory Panel, and I had participated in the development of management strategies for Lake Erie as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board. Each of us was asked to speak only from our experience and not launch into hearsay or hypotheticals.

Did I mention that some of the stakeholders were local residents? You know, those folks who depend on Lake Erie as their sole source of drinking water. Those folks were just there asking for nothing more than reliable drinking water–“just folks” similar to those in Flint, Michigan, who also depended on the Great Lakes as their sole source of drinking water. Did I mention that this meeting was held in a community resource center at East 142nd Street and Kinsman Road in Cleveland, a “mixed neighborhood” ranging from dark-skinned African-Americans to light-skinned African Americans. It’s the kind of ‘hood that white folks usually find a way to avoid.

The moderator of the discussion started with innocuous questions such as, “What is your relationship to water?” and “What is the most important issue regarding water–personal or professional?” The questioning soon took on a sharper edge, with questions such as, “What threats to water pose the most risk to you–commercial or industrial or residential or whatever?” The answers were fairly much what one might expect: people need water to live, people want to swim and fish in the water, people depend on water availability for both personal and economic reasons, hazardous

algal blooms put toxins in the water, and so on. For me, the most telling remark was from one of the local residents. He said, “We here don’t trust the water because of Flint.” I heard him saying that just like the folks in Flint, the local residents in Glenville (on the east side of Cleveland) believed that they, too, could be neglected or lied to regarding the quality of their water and that no one in a management position would care to make it a priority to address local water-quality issues as an urgent matter. Their only recourse, they believed, would be to buy bottled water to drink. Do the math. An average person drinks a gallon of water each day; a pint of water costs a dollar–a gallon costs eight dollars. Per day. Each day.

Did I mention that this was a dinner meeting? But dinner never arrived. Although the caterer had taken the event organizer’s money, the caterer forgot the meeting date. An attempt to order pizza from a local pizzeria was only partially successful. The pizzeria took the group’s order and their money but would not deliver the pizzas “because the driver didn’t feel safe delivering to that address.” The event organizer apologized to the group for lack of food by saying, “That’s the way it is in this neighborhood all the time.”

As the water roundtable concluded, I became aware of yet another dimension of water: trust. When I drafted drinking-water management plans in the past, I believed that all I had to address was abundance of high-quality water. Then I realized that high-

quality water can be abundant–but only at certain times of the year (e.g., only during the “wet season” in equatorial Africa). That realization helped me to become aware of the need for sustainable quantities of water. Later I realized that it could be possible to have high-quality water in sustainable quantities but that accessibility through insufficient infrastructure could be a problem. Now, at the water roundtable, I began to realize that it is possible to have abundant high-quality water in a sustainable and reliable supply that has sufficient infrastructure to deliver the resource throughout a large metropolitan area, but its safety for drinking may be suspect for lack of trust among the people on the receiving end. People need to be able to trust the quality of their water every time they turn on the tap. Even if the tap is in a neighborhood unable to have pizza delivered. It’s federal law.

I left the meeting with an array of impressions and feelings. As I got into my car, I turned on the radio to listen to NPR, pressed the button for the air conditioning system and then turned onto Kinsman Road toward home. The pizza driver would feel safe delivering to my place. I don’t distrust the drinking-water quality of the tap water, and I have never felt the need to buy bottled water for the safety for my health. Did I mention that I’m white?

GRACE from Above Keeping an Eye on Groundwater Below

by Bob Heath

Most people in the world, including everyone in the city of Kent, depend on groundwater as their source for drinking water–and for good reasons: ground water is 100 times more abundant than surfacewater, its abundance is less variable than surface water, and ground water in general does not have many of the problems that constantly plague surface water. For example, surface water is susceptible to pollution from airborne contaminants (such as mercury from coal-fired power plants) and contaminants in stormwater runoff (such as nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural activities and the associated toxins from hazardous algal blooms). Surface water also is more susceptible to the vicissitudes of weather patterns such as the three-year drought in Georgia that nearly drained Atlanta’s major drinking water reservoir.

Groundwater aquifers have one major threat: drying up–either from water being withdrawn faster than the aquifer can be replenished by natural process (typically because of population increases that lead to increased demand for water) or from an aquifer replenishment rate that is too slow (typically because too much pervious surface has been lost to roadways and urban landscapes). Another potential major threat to groundwater sources is changes in weather patterns as a result of global climate change. The danger here is a slower groundwater recharge rate. Because most people in the world depend on groundwater as their sole source of water for drinking and for commercial activities, if aquifers shrink to the point of being unable to support the people who depends on them, major populations shifts may occur. If you think that immigration is a problem as people seek a better life, think about what will happen as people immigrate to stay alive. This potential exodus is why the U.S. military views loss of water resilience as a major threat to international security.

Never has it been more important to monitor the size of global groundwater aquifers as global populations increase and aquifers potentially decrease. The problem is that groundwater is out of sight and not as easy to monitor as surface water is. But help is on the horizon and passing overhead every 90 minutes. GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) is not just another satellite; rather, it’s two satellites in exactly the same orbit but spaced about 137 miles apart at an altitude of 300 miles. A balance between the momentum of the satellites and gravitational pull exerted on them by the Earth keeps the two satellites from colliding with each other. For example, as one satellite passes over a region of higher gravity, such as a mountain range, it is pulled into a lower orbit, increasing the distance between the two satellites, which is measured precisely by microwaves that are constantly beamed from each satellite to the other. Satellite GPS instruments record the exact coordinates of the satellites. In this way a “gravity map” of the entire Earth is determined.

GRACE satellite observations from 2002 to 2017 have shown that while the mass of mountains does not change over time, the mass of water does change. The simple explanation is that water moves, but mountains do not. In other words, water moves and therefore its mass at any given point is a sum of the parts that can move (water) and the parts that do not move (the mountains). As a region on Earth become wetter, the mass of that region increases; conversely, as that region becomes drier, the mass of the region decreases. After comparing the gravity maps from several passes of the GRACE satellites over several years, NASA scientists were able to determine which regions are becoming wetter and which regions are getting drier. The original GRACE satellites stopped working in 2017; however, a set of replacements–the GRACE-Follow On satellites, or GRACE-FO, for
short–was launched in May 2018.


GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites

Analysis of the gravity maps during the 15-year life of the original GRACE satellites led NASA scientists to detect trends in water-distribution changes. The scientists summarized their findings by saying, “The wet places are getting wetter and the dry places are getting drier.” The wet places are the high latitudes (i.e., polar regions) and the tropics (i.e., regions near the equator). The temperate regions (the middle latitudes, which span between the tropics and the polar regions) are getting drier. The scientists note in their report that “within the dry areas we see multiple spots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

But why? These changes were examined for causes ranging from changes in rainfall patterns to cyclical changes in weather patterns to changes in human activities and demography. The scientists found that

one of the consistent causes of groundwater depletion is agricultural activity and that the effect is visible in such diverse places as Saudi Arabia, western Australia and the Central Valley of California. In California, for example, farmers in the Central Valley, an area often referred to as the “fruit basket of the United States,” were forced to rely more and more on groundwater during a three-year snowfall drought in the northern part of the state diminished the supply of surface water typically used to irrigate crops. Whether these trends are the result of climate change or the result of cyclical weather patterns remains unknown. The data-collection period was not long enough to answer that question. Thanks to GRACE-FO, that question will be addressed. Stay tuned.

Want more information? Go to https://gracefo.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/38/grace-fo-fact-sheet/ for a fact sheet and go to https://gracefo.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/73/for-15-years-grace-tracked-freshwater-movements-around-the-world/ for a NASA video.

What Is Repair Cafe?

Repair Cafe is an international movement to save money and resources by gathering local volunteer experts to repair items normally

found around the house. The items remain useful but a minor problem. The movement is popular in Europe. Locally, Rich Patterson is trying to establish a repair café in Portage County. He has talked about it at KEC’s Friday breakfasts. If you are interested in learning more or helping with this effort, contact Patterson at 330-245-6277 or rpatterson19@gmail.com.

Lake Erie Data at Your Fingertips–Instantly!

by Bob Heath

Are you heading out to Lake Erie to fish or swim, and want to know the condition of the lake right now? Better than “an app for that,” you can text your request and instantly receive a message from the data buoy itself. How cool is that?!

Ok, so here’s how it works. Sixteen solar-powered buoys are deployed on Lake Erie–from the far eastern stations off of Dunkirk, New York, to the westernmost buoy off of Monroe, Michigan. Each buoy contains at least two multiparameter data sondes (devices for testing physical conditions) that monitor water-quality variables such as water temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll as well as external variables such as air temperature, air pressure, wave height, wind speed and wind direction. Each buoy reports the conditions at the surface and at the bottom of the lake. In deeper waters, the buoys collect data at two-meter intervals from the surface of the lake to the bottom of the lake to anticipate the development and extent of “dead zones” in the bottom waters. Some buoys even have a camera onboard that takes real-time images that can be accessed online. These data are stored onboard in a data-logger and are downloaded at half-hour intervals to a central server at LimnoTech, a private environmental consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To access the current data, text a buoy identification number to the server in Ann Arbor and, within seconds, the server texts you a message with the available information.

The buoy identification numbers for some buoys closest to Cleveland and the westernmost and easternmost buoys on Lake Erie are given below:

Solar-Powered Buoy

For a comprehensive view of all the locations, go to https://glbuoys.glos.us

As an example, I texted the server 734-418-7299, and then entered the number for the Cleveland intake crib, 45176. I received a text reply within seconds, notifying me that at “4:30 p.m. EDT the wind was coming from the northwest at 7.8 knots, with an air temperature of 74.8 F, water temperature of 75.7 F in waves of 1.0 feet.” In short, it was a great day on Lake Erie to go boating and fishing.

But wait-there’s more! More buoys, that is. A network of buoys spans the Great Lakes: 13 in Lake Superior, 21 in Lake Michigan, 9 in Lake Huron, 16 in Lake Erie and 9 in Lake Ontario. Another buoy is located in Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vermont, just south of Montreal, Ontario, Canada. The buoys cost about $50,000 each to deploy and are supported by both public agencies (e.g., NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Environment Canada, and Ontario Ministry of the Environment), academic institutions (including State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, University of Minnesota, University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, and Ohio State University) and as private companies (such as LimnoTech and LEEDCo [Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation]). The deployment of this network of buoys costs more than $3.5 million in equipment alone. Given the expense of monthly maintenance on each buoy, it is clear that more is at stake than the convenience of weekend boaters.

The buoy network provides the infrastructure needed to develop a “smart lake.” A smart lake is similar to a “smart city.” In a smart city, the workings of the municipality are controlled like an integrated system. Think of traffic flow being controlled to optimize the efficient flow rate of trucks and cars on a citywide basis. Or think of the electrical grid in a city being monitored and managed as a system for optimal stability and availability of energy for workers and residents. For a smart lake, think of managing the efficient flow of ship traffic through the Great Lakes system. Or think about monitoring and managing water quality for the 14 million people who depend on Lake Erie for their drinking water. While not yet a smart city, Cleveland could have a smart lake one day. The Cleveland Water Alliance (a consortium of academic, commercial, governmental, and nongovernmental organization stakeholders) is spearheading an effort to make Lake Erie a smart lake through innovative water technologies.

For more information about network of buoys, which is part of the Great Lakes Observing System, click here. To watch a video about the buoys  produced by Rock the Lake, click here.

KEC Now Accepting ‘Legacy for the Environment’ Grant Proposals for 2018-2019

KEC is seeking proposals from persons or organizations with ideas for improving the environment in Portage County.  Areas of consideration will include, but are not limited to, environmental education, storm water management, the mitigation of stream and river degradation, the protection of other surface and groundwater resources, enhancement of alternative energy usage, and/or the creation of sustainable communities. We also welcome other areas of consideration that would improve air or water quality, natural beauty, and environmental awareness in Portage County.

Requests will be considered for amounts up  to $1,000.

Proposals must be submitted by December 31, 2018, and awards will  be announced by February 16, 2019.
For a complete description of the requirements and a copy of the RFP application form, click  here.

Don’t Kill That Queen!

Those big, black-and-yellow bumblebees that you’ve been seeing lately are bumblebee queens looking for a nesting site and foraging for nectar and pollen.They do look menacing, if only because they’re so large, but they won’t harm you. So, you should not harm them.They’re too busy looking for a suitable nesting site and building their hive to bother with you. If a bumblebee queen is killed, that is the end of the hive; each bumblebee hive typically produces about a thousand bumble bees in a year.

Bumblebee queens are the only bumblebee to overwinter in the ground, in little spaces they choose  late in the fall. All the worker bees die.In spring, the queens come out of their winter nests   (hibernatoria) and begin to hunt for a suitable place to build their underground hive (generally from late March through mid-June). After they have found a suitable location, they begin to build the tunnels and rooms that become the hive.They also begin to lay fertilized eggs that will become the workers. After the female worker bees mature (about three weeks), they take over the task of foraging for nectar and pollen for the hive.The queen then stays in the hive for the rest of her life.Eventually, she will make some fertilized eggs to produce virgin queens and lay unfertilized eggs that become males.Long-story short: the males fertilize   virgin queens as they leave the nest; once inseminated, the queens search for their hibernatorium; all the workers and the old queen die in the late autumn, completing the annual life cycle.

Bumblebees are among the most efficient pollinators around–perhaps as much as 10 times more efficient than honeybees. Bumblebees are very hairy and can hold a lot of pollen on their bodies. They also mix nectar with pollen to make a sticky ball that they glue to a special part of their hind legs.The rate that bumblebees visit a flower is faster than the visit of honeybees. Bumblebees also can fly from flower to flower faster than honeybees, and they can fly at lower temperatures and explore darker and more diverse habitats than honeybees. Although both honeybees and bumblebees are classified as generalists (i.e., they pollinate many different flowering species), bumblebees can pollinate crops such as tomatoes and peppers (crops of the family Solanaceae) that honeybees avoid. 

In short, although honeybees are having their problems in terms of population numbers, bumblebees may be able to cover for them in fields and with crops that require insect pollination. Even crops that are wind-pollinated have increased yields when insects pollinate them. As you may know, honeybees are not native to Northeast Ohio; rather, they are native to Europe and likely evolved in the Middle East or Asia. Bumblebees are native to North America and therefore may not be as susceptible to diseases as honeybees. Scientists just don’t know that for sure. Honeybees have been studied extensively because of their economic significance; native bees are only now coming under increased scrutiny for their pollination capabilities.

Part of the effort to understand the abundance and distribution of bumblebees in Ohio is being coordinated by the Bee Lab in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, at Ohio State University.

 

Two statewide surveys are under way. The first survey focuses on bumblebee queens searching for a suitable location to develop their hive. The second survey aims to identify when and where bumblebee queens forage for nectar and pollen. This survey is done entirely by looking and primarily by volunteers such as myself. Volunteers do not capture the queens and instead identify the bee species on the fly–something that is easier said than done for a novice like me. I photograph them and then identify the species from the photos. Both surveys will last through June and then be analyzed by Dr. Jessie Lanterman, a post-doctoral professor in the Bee Lab.Stay tuned for the results to be reported at a later date.

–Bob Heath

RIVER DAY 2018

We hope you will come and check out the events for this year’s River Day on May 19th at the Haymaker Farmers Market 9 to 1, at the Tannery Park from 10  to 12 for electrofishing and all day for rentals from KSU Crooked River Adventures’s canoe, kayak, tube or bike rentals.   Click on the flyer below to see details and check out the second page of the flyer for information about the 20th Anniversary of the Cuyahoga as an American Heritage River.

2018 River Day Flyer two-sided final

Our Dirty Little Secret …An Essay by Bob Wilson

“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:18, King James version

“…We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”–Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

Science and religion agree–we are dirt. Dirt and sunlight, and yet we act as if dirt is of little importance. Water is number one, the most exploited resource on the planet, and air if you want to get technical, but in third place is sand. We glue it together with cement or tar, or melt it into glass, and then build our houses, skyscrapers, sidewalks, roadways, bridges, dams, churches and celestial observatories out of it. For our food, we utterly depend on a few inches of topsoil that took millennia to form, and yet we allow it to wash, blow or be bulldozed away as if it were easily replaced.

 

Human beings progressed from hunting and gathering to farming along rivers like the Nile, the Euphrates and the Mississippi, taking advantage of the mineral wealth of continents washed down from on high by cold rushing water, blended in the turbidity of tributaries, and spread as rich mud across flood plains and deltas. Long before we learned to pan for gold in the headwaters, our first gods were sunlight, water and mud. Our first population booms were made possible by this intermittently replenished fertility, and our first deserts were created by our inability to understand the fragility of the dirt we farmed as we took agriculture farther and farther from the rivers. From the first farmers and city builders of the Fertile Crescent to the green revolution of today, we have treated dirt as an inexhaustible resource, spending it like an endless trust fund. But, is it really so inexhaustible?

 

Consider sand. It turns out that sand is not as simple as it looked when we played with it in our sandboxes. There are many kinds of sand with different properties, and not every sand can be used for our many specialized applications. Can you imagine anyone importing sand into the sandy desert or spending billions to pour it onto sandy beaches with oceans to wash it away? According to a 2016 BBC report, the United Arab Emirates imported $456 million worth of sand in 2014. Whether that is in pounds or dollars, it is a lot of sand. Desert sand is apparently worthless for building or even for use in the sand traps of the amazingly odd golf courses of Dubai. After hurricanes or “super storms” such as Sandy, U.S. taxpayers pay for millions of tons of sand to replenish beaches that are eaten away from that long row of condominiums along the coast. And the U.S. fracking boom gobbled up 54,000,000 metric tons of high silica sand in 2014. We won’t run out of sand anytime soon, but the cost of many special sand mixes is increasing, as is the global demand.

 

The use of petroleum-based fertilizers and hydroponic agriculture gives us the illusion that soil quality is no longer a major concern for modern food production. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Fertilizer amends, it does not replace, topsoil; hydroponics provides a tiny share of the world’s food supply. Topsoil is the irreplaceable base of our crop and grazing agriculture. Soil is more than the sum of its parts, x amount of sand, x amount of clay, x amount of water, x amount of organic compost, etc. Soil is more of a living, breathing superorganism. Successful plants depend on an ecosystem of soil microbes and fungi, invertebrates and vertebrates, and passages and canals for the flow of nutrients from subsoil to surface, from mycelium to root hair, from taproot to canopy. If all the topsoil washes or blows away, plants will still grow but not necessarily the plants we want and not necessarily with the nutrients we need. Erosion is not some new threat that we need to convince ourselves of. We have been watching the process for 12,000 years. Civilizations have come and gone with the soil upon which they depended. Most recently, the dust bowl years of the 1930s illustrate what happens when we overplant, overplow, and forget about cover crops. Productive farms are gone with the wind.

 

Perhaps what is new is our understanding of the process. Soil biology gets better and better, with more tools and a richer understanding of how intricate it all is and how much more there is to learn. What a pity if we allow our traditional practices to destroy the land just as we come to truly know it. Consider one example. Scientists recently found evidence for a subtle but profound feedback loop in forest fertility in the Pacific Northwest. The rivers of the northwest have been moving nutrients from the mountains to the sea for eons. Along with those nutrients, the rivers sent countless salmon into the Pacific Ocean to grow fat on the fertility of the ocean. Those fish then swim back up the river to spawn and be caught by bears that left their partially eaten carcasses in the forest, thus bringing the lost nutrients back to support the great trees with which, along with sand and tar and cement, we build our civilization. The irony is that we have come to understand this marvelous process only after fishing and damming most of the wild salmon runs out of existence and after killing most of the great bears. How many other living cycles must we discover only after stunting or killing them? From dirt we come, and unto dirt we’ll go, so let’s start treating the dirt like an important part of the family.