Categories
Environment Garden

At Low Level

Spring Garlic

The shoreline was exposed as I crossed Coralville Lake to secure provisions.

While it looks like we are in a drought, it is better to say we are ready for extra water coming from upstream snow melt and spring rains flowing into the Mississippi River basin.

Lake water level is decided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a function of their plan to mitigate flood damage. The experience was a reminder ours is a built environment.

I stopped at a chain drug store and at the wholesale club to stock up. I’ve been donning a mask and going shopping every other week during the pandemic. Most other people inside retail establishments wear masks. If I didn’t want dairy products or were vegan I’d go to town less often, maybe once a month.

We harvest something daily from the garden. This morning it was spinach. With a spring share from the farm, I’m getting backed up on greens. It’s time to make vegetable broth for canning. I’ll carry six quarts over from last season and want 20 quarts on the shelf to make it through another year. Broth has become a pantry staple. I use it to cook rice, make a roux, and add flavor to soup.

In addition to making broth, today’s work will be preparing the main tomato bed for planting. That means to spade lanes in the plot, rototill the lanes, rake the surface smooth, lay garden cloth on the surface and put enough grass clippings on top to hold it down until the seedlings are in. I’m short of grass clippings for mulch but tomatoes are a high priority and will take the entire stockpile.

My creativity is at a low level and I’m not sure why. Partly it is the coronavirus pandemic, partly something else. Perhaps I’m simply enjoying this glorious spring weather — the part before insects begin foraging every living plant. Spring serves as fit distraction for what ails us. One can do a lot worse than spring.

Categories
Environment Garden

Insects in a Garden with Arugula

Pear blossoms ready for pollination.

Pollinators came in abundance and did their work. Now it’s snowing flower petals.

The collapse of insect populations is a well-documented phenomenon. 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, due mostly to habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture. Agricultural chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes, according to Biological Conservation.

In our yard insect populations find a home, begin doing their work, and cause trouble in the garden almost as soon as freezing temperatures abate. They are relentless. Humans should be so relentless.

Insect damaged Pak Choy.

Because of insects our yard has a bird population. They nest in the fruit trees and lilac bushes. They perch everywhere there is something upon which to stand. It’s easy to find them chasing insects through the air. It’s for the birds and insects I use no weed killers or lawn fertilizers and let the grass go to seed.

We are an island in a sea of agriculture. When wheat is harvested Japanese beetles head to property like ours where they feed on certain types of vegetation. Corn and soybean harvests result in visits of additional species of displaced insects. It is important to consider the world outside our property lines as insects know few boundaries and what farmers do a section of two over impacts us.

The first white butterfly flew around the cruciferous vegetables yesterday. They lay eggs on foliage which hatch and produce green worms that eat said foliage. It didn’t take long after planting for the butterfly to show up.

I observed a number of bee species during the pear tree pollination. Dandelions are an excellent source of early pollen for bees so I let them go. A large bumble bee lumbered through the air, laden with pollen, and flew through an opening in the chicken wire mesh around a garden plot.

The pear tree is being pollinated as I type this post. If pears form this year there will be another struggle with Japanese beetles over the fruit. Last year we lost the whole crop to the pests.

I went out to the garden before sunrise to see if I could catch the culprit eating my Pak Choy. In order to defend against bugs they need to be identified. I shone the light on my mobile phone but couldn’t find it today.

I turned to the arugula which reaching maturity. I returned to the garage, got a colander, a pair of scissors, and a knee pad, and pulled back the fencing to harvest a big bunch. I removed an insect, cleaned it and put it away in the ice box.

When I returned from a shift at the farm I made a lunch using this process:

Add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a large bowl. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, tablespoon of home made apple cider vinegar and finely minced spring garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until incorporated. Fill a serving bowl with arugula and dump it into the larger bowl. Toss gently until the leaves are coated. Return the salas to the serving bowl. Sprinkle feta cheese on top and serve.

Categories
Environment

Climate Change in 2020

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

I noted the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a letter to the editor.

“That’s it?” I asked myself this morning.

Next I reminded myself the essential environmental task between now and the general election is to remove as many Republicans as possible from office nationally, in Iowa, and locally.

When I attended Al Gore’s slideshow presentations and the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training I held certain assumptions about how government would work. What may have been isn’t or has been tossed out the window in the time of Donald Trump’s political leadership.

When I say we should “Act on Climate” it means getting involved in politics to elect people who will address the climate crisis. None of us can do much alone.

Our choices are few but to do the work of getting people to vote. Six months from the election Democrats can feel the wind at our backs. Nonetheless it will be a hard sail to shore and a foundation on which we can begin to face the challenges of the climate crisis more directly.

Categories
Environment

Earth Day 50 Years Later

Earthrise by Bill Anders, Dec. 24, 1968

I helped organize my home town for the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders’ Dec. 24, 1968 Earthrise photograph changed the way we look at our lives. We became aware of the fragility of human society spinning through the void of space.

As we complete the 50th year since then, society changed.

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in December 1970. The Republican president led an effort to protect our natural environment through legislation including The Clean Air Act (1970), The Clean Water Act (1972), The Endangered Species Act (1973), and more. These laws made positive things possible.

50 years later our government seems ready to throw all that in the ditch because it is too much of a burden for business. Powerful interests infiltrated our government. Corporations write environmental laws that protect their interests first, rather than the common good. A form of nationalism is rising which says, “Put America first.”

We live in a global society in which we are intimately connected, as Anders’ photo suggests. Large American companies manage a global supply chain and produce much of their revenue in other countries. We are connected as the current pandemic suggests: the coronavirus does not recognize national borders.

We must transcend nationalism and consider the best interests of everyone. We must lead in a way only the United States can. On the first Earth Day we thought that was possible.

I hope it still is.

~ Published in the Solon Economist on April 16, 2020.

Categories
Environment Social Commentary

Reducing Chloride in the Wastewater Stream

Kinetico Water Softener

One of the roles I play in society is secretary of the Macbride Sanitary Sewer District, a public entity that manages wastewater treatment for our group of  about 84 homes. I recently spent time writing a questionnaire about water softener usage and tabulating the results from a user survey. The report I sent to members this month has broader application so I’m publishing it here for my WordPress community. Your feedback would be welcome.

Thanks to the 66 home owners who submitted a survey on home water softener use. Before discussing the survey results, you may be wondering why we are working to reduce chloride in our wastewater. Short answer: the rules changed after our previous NPDES permit expired. Our new one, issued May 1, 2017, has new requirements for chloride and other elements. Here is some information about the new standard from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources which manages NPDES permits for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Iowa adopted water quality standards for chloride and sulfate in November 2009. These two new standards replaced the previous water quality standard for total dissolved solids. “Total dissolved solids” is a measure of all chemical elements that have become dissolved in water. It includes chloride, sulfate, nitrate, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, among other chemicals. The total dissolved solids standard was designed to protect aquatic life from toxic conditions caused by these chemicals. However, research by DNR showed that in Iowa waters, chloride and sulfate are more accurate predictors of toxicity to aquatic life than the combined measurement of total dissolved solids. DNR thus undertook to replace the water quality standard for total dissolved solids with specific standards for chloride and sulfate.

Of the people who responded to our survey, 31 use a timed-cycle water softener, 30 use on demand-initiated cycling, and 5 didn’t know.

Reported annual salt usage ranged from zero to 2,000 pounds. 20 homes used less than 250 pounds, 21 between 251 and 480, 15 used more than 480 pounds, and ten didn’t know.

A couple of things are clear from the data: 1. Many people don’t think much about their water softener or keep records about how much salt they use. One 40-pound bag per month is 480 per year and several people used that as an estimate; 2. We use a wide variety of brands of water softeners. Kinetico was most popular. There are a half dozen others; 3. Most families installed their softener and seldom had maintenance done on it; 4. The three most popular plumbers were Water Conditioning Systems (Kinetico), Affordable Soft Water, and Neal’s Water Conditioning; and 5. Most homes have a separate line to run untreated water outside for lawn, garden and cleaning.

What should home owners do regarding salt use?

  1. Contact a plumber to have your water tested for hardness and your water softener checked for proper functioning and adjustment. Have the plumber program your softener to a low-salt setting appropriate for the water hardness in your home.
  2. If you plan to replace your water softener, get one that cycles based on demand rather than on a timer. This will ensure all the water used is properly softened and save salt if your usage is lower.
  3. Install high-efficiency water fixtures, like low-flow shower heads, to reduce your home’s soft water use.
  4. Have a plumber disconnect water that doesn’t need to be soft, like toilets and lines to outdoors, from the water softener.
  5. If your household is using more than 480 pounds of salt annually look at replacing your water softener to take advantage of new technology and use less salt. A new Kinetico softener will use about 250 pounds of salt annually for a household with two people.
  6. Water is not an unlimited resource so develop creative ways to conserve water at home, such as taking shorter showers, running only full loads in the dishwasher and clothes washer, and turn the faucet off when taking care of personal hygiene or doing dishes — break the bad habit of letting it run. Consider getting EPA WaterSense-certified toilets which use less water for flushing.

At this time the Macbride Sanitary Sewer District is not considering a mandated salt reduction program. We are to be in compliance with the new chloride standard by April 1, 2022, and if voluntary efforts produce the desired results, that will be that. If we don’t meet standards, the board of trustees will revisit the issue of more specific requirements.

Categories
Environment Politics

Mining the Jordan Aquifer

State Senator Liz Mathis (L) and State Representative Molly Donahue at the Ely Public Library, Ely, Iowa. Feb. 29, 2020.

It should be no shocker that I attended a political event on Saturday. How could I miss it? It was six miles from our house.

State Senator Liz Mathis represents the 34th Senate District in the Iowa legislature. Alongside State Representative Molly Donahue, who represents House District 68, they hosted a legislative listening post at the Ely Public Library.

The closer one gets to Cedar Rapids, the more likely we are to encounter kolaches, a traditional semi-sweet roll originating in the Czech heritage of Iowa’s second largest city. Mathis pointed out the box of kolaches in the back of the meeting room soon after my arrival. About 16 people attended.

I was in graduate school in Iowa City when Mathis began her broadcast news career at KWWL at their then new Cedar Rapids bureau. She has been a broadcast anchor, television producer, college professor, and is currently an executive at the non-profit organization Four Oaks Family and Children Services. Donahue has been a teacher for 30 years with a current focus on secondary students in special education or those who have behavior disorders that can affect their learning. They were well qualified to discuss Iowa’s mental health system, school safety, the K-12 education budget, the school bus driver shortage, and related topics. I listened and tried to learn.

News on Friday was Pattison Sand Company of Clayton sought to extract 34 million gallons of water per year over a ten-year period from the Jordan Aquifer, according to Perry Beeman of Iowa Capitol Dispatch. The water would be shipped by rail to arid regions in the American west, potentially to New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona or California. The Jordan Aquifer is also the source of municipal water for the city of Marion which lies within Mathis’ senate district.

Earlier this month Pattison proposed to extract 2 billion gallons per year from the Jordan Aquifer using wells they drilled to support their frack sand mining operation. This proposal was rejected by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The problem with tapping the Jordan Aquifer is it is prehistoric water, in other words, it has been there a long time. The aquifer does not recharge at the same rate as the Silurian Aquifer which lies on top of it. Once the Jordan Aquifer is drained, the water will be gone and communities that currently rely upon it could be left without a reliable water source.

The climate crisis is evident in the American west. Demand for water exceeds the region’s capacity to produce it through rainfall, snow melt, and underground aquifers. Something’s got to give for people who settled there to survive. Mining and shipping water from Eastern Iowa is not a good idea because what may be abundant to meet our current needs will be diminished by the extraction proposed by Pattison and others. It is easy to see how a discussion over water rights could escalate into regional conflict over this basic human need.

If we look at history, humans have continued to exploit natural resources until they are gone, in many cases leading to the collapse of societies. Our brains are not wired to perceive the threat shipping billions of gallons of water from Iowa to the west could have. We have to pay attention, and the role of government is to look out for the common good.

It is hard to image an overall plan to resolve the climate crisis at its root causes. Further exploitation of natural resources doesn’t solve anything and could potentially make matters worse. At least we were discussing it and in doing so raising awareness on a sunny morning in Ely over kolaches.

Categories
Environment Social Commentary Writing

Spring Is Late, But Coming

Garden in Winter

The driver delivering pallets of yard and landscaping stone, peat moss, and dirt said his spring deliveries are running about two weeks behind last year.

We just finished our annual inventory at the home, farm and auto supply store and are ready for incoming freight of garden supplies, utility trailers, wheelbarrows, fertilizer, three-point farm equipment, and the like. I unloaded a pallet of 50-pound bags of seed potatoes. The greenhouse will be installed in the parking lot next week. Spring seemed late to our suppliers but it’s almost here.

It’s more like we didn’t have a winter.

In a retail warehouse we notice the seasonality of commerce. Shelves fill with mowers, trimmers, blowers, chain saws and tillers. We received two tall pallets of box fans. Large ceramic pots were shipped in crates from Mexico. We have a delightful collection of ceramic and metal rooster art. This entire post could be a repetition of inbound inventory processed during my two days per week part time job. I have something else in mind.

The intersection of commerce, private lives, spirituality and society is where we spend most of our lives. In time, if we are lucky and talented, we create a process of living that ensures our survival. In Eastern Iowa it is pretty straightforward how one secures food, shelter and clothing: seek training and then work as a skilled professional, an entrepreneur, or for someone else. There is no guarantee of success but most people in my circle make it, including those who are forced to live in their cars because they are poor, or who sleep on someone’s couch for a while due to physical abuse at home. We live a privileged life despite the real problems people have.

There is a sense our process of living, for lack of a better description, is built by us, for us, and there is separation from what others do. That’s okay. If we have more in common than we believe, the articulation of a life can be a conscious effort with variations in the use of materials from a mass society. We make something of our selves. Such a process may seem individualistic, bordering on taking care of “me only,” but it is intertwined with the fate of the society which provides context.

I may subscribe to the local newspaper, but so do a thousand other people, our subscriptions and advertising giving life to the enterprise. In a few brilliant moments I find my life has not been consciously nurtured, nor has it been self made. It has been a collaborative undertaking in a social network from which I emerged and in which I remain rooted… kind of like the newspaper.

I read an article about the high cost of prescription drugs. The Congress is working to lower the cost of such medicine, yet to date their work has been an utter failure. People are skipping medically necessary prescriptions because of the cost, Megan Leonhardt of CNBC reported. There is another side to this issue.

Over the years I’ve had several conversations with physicians, and now my nurse practitioner, about taking prescription medicine. Just like finding a good auto mechanic or a reliable technician to work on my yard tractor, it is part of a process for living. Every time a medical practitioner suggested a prescription — either to control cholesterol or prevent Type II diabetes — I pushed back.

I have been able to address each diagnosis through behavioral changes coupled with regular visits to the clinic. These physiological conditions may persist, and at some point I may have to accede to medication. Last year I took a small step and began taking a low-dose aspirin in addition to my daily vitamin B-12 tablet. We’ll see how things go during my follow up appointment later this year. My point is when we focus on the failure of our government to properly regulate the pharmaceutical industry we neglect focus on a process for living. Having a process for living is more important than what our government does or doesn’t do.

I feel life in society all around me. Maybe that is a Cartesian outlook, one rooted in my earliest memories of reading at home before breakfast, after being an altar boy for Catholic Mass at the convent. Despite whatever separation I feel in intellectual outlook our future is inseparable from its context. The fate of our society is complexly intertwined. To separate a single strand of it in the form of an individual life, from the broader organism, would be to our mutual detriment.

I don’t understand how we will manage the many challenges we face — environmental degradation, climate change, economic inequality, the threat of conflict, and diminished natural resources. I do know that without a process for living that recognizes the web of life that engendered us, that brought us to this moment, we may not be up to the challenge. Humanity’s well-being will predictably decline. I’m not ready to say it is inevitable. I don’t believe it is.

Yet so much depends on the observations of truck drivers who pay attention to the variability in our lives — and together try to make them better.

Categories
Environment

Snow Lingers

Snow Lingers

On certain days the weight of civilization is crushing.

Despite occasional good news, our steady decline into the abyss seems imminent.

Signs of it are everywhere.

Iowa is a manufactured place. The wilderness that once existed here is gone. It was the first thing to go after the Black Hawk War. A few stands of oak-hickory forest remain but not many. Instead we have endless miles of farm fields fenced neatly on the landscape. With the ancient forests so went our dreams.

It’s an ersatz life we created, lived in a wake of environmental destruction. We do the best we can. Row crop fields look dull, almost gray. It feels like we are in end times.

That’s not to say there is no hope of improving our lot. The political will to do so is in remission, gone like big groves of trees that used to live here. New trees could grow yet someone must plant them. It would take more time than is left in my life to restore what used to be. I wait. For what?

Snow lingers on the ground as I plan the gardening season. We have to eat and what we grow is better than what can be bought in retail outlets. The cycle of gardening and harvest inspires hope that our efforts will produce something. We keep at it.

All the while, the gray, predawn sky reminds us of a new day’s potential. Today comes down to what we will do to make the most of it, to get along with others, to be kind.

We do the best we can.

Categories
Environment

100 Years of Iowa Parks

Jerry Reisinger at the Solon United Methodist Church, Feb. 7, 2020

Dedicated in 1920 as Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, is one of the most geographically unique locations in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The steep and narrow ridge of bedrock from the Maquoketa River forms the highest point in northeast Iowa — The Devil’s Backbone — giving the park its legendary name.

The park originally had three words in its name: Devil’s Back Bone, according to Jerry Reisinger who gave a presentation about the state parks on Feb. 7 at the United Methodist Church. That was a bit spooky so the “devil” part was dropped.

The centennial celebration is replete with organized fishing tourneys, bicycle touring, jogging, hiking, boating, bird watching and other events. While it’s a bit old school, taking a picnic luncheon to enjoy with family at a state park is a popular activity.

There is a traveling art exhibition called 20 artists 20 parks organized by DNR, the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa State University.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Backbone State Park’s dedication, a three-day festival is planned May 28-30 with all events open to the public.

Expansion of the state park system seems unlikely as farmers seek to increase acreage for crop production. The state parks made it to the centennial and that seems worth celebrating.

Categories
Environment Nuclear Abolition

Nuclear Power Transition

Google Maps Image of Duane Arnold Energy Center

In 2018 NextEra Energy Resources announced plans to retire the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) — a 615-MW nuclear power plant located in Palo, Iowa — before the end of 2020.

NextEra’s main customer at DAEC, Alliant Energy, will buy out its contract in September for $110 million, sourcing electricity instead from NextEra’s wind generation fleet. The move is expected to save Alliant Energy customers $300 million over 21 years.

There are no plans to replace Duane Arnold with new nuclear generating capacity.

Two essential problems with nuclear power plants are they cost too much, and a lack answers to the question of what to do with spent nuclear fuel. These problems are political. In our current political climate that makes them unsolvable, practically speaking, even though potential solutions exist for both.

Certain environmental groups favor nuclear power to replace coal as an emissions reduction tactic. On its face this is belied by the urgency of the climate crisis.

“Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change,” climatologist James Hansen said on Dec. 3, 2015. “The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools (such as nuclear energy) to solve the problem is crazy.”

The challenge for nuclear energy is the timeline for market penetration in the industrial age. It will take too long.

Cesare Marchetti of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis did research which suggests the historical trend on implementation of new technologies such as wood, coal, oil and gas takes 40-50 years to go from one percent to 10 percent of market share. Nuclear energy occupies about 12 percent of current global market share. It will take almost a century for an energy source to occupy half the market. The world doesn’t have 50 years, and likely longer, to wait for nuclear energy sources to gain acceptance and growth the way coal, oil and gas have.

Even if political issues surrounding nuclear waste disposal could be resolved, the financial cost of building out a fleet of new nuclear power plants would likely follow the course of the Georgia Power Vogtle Plant expansion, which, when they broke ground, was the first nuclear power plant contemplated in 30 years. Despite proclamations of “making American nuclear cool again,” by then Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Georgia Public Service Commission questions whether the plant will be economically viable if going on line is delayed much longer. New nuclear energy remains too expensive, especially when compared to renewables and natural gas.

Renewable energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric) is further along than nuclear in its evolution as an energy source. At 31 percent of global market share, we remain decades away from achieving 50 percent market penetration, according to Marchetti’s analysis. At the rate we are going, elimination of coal, oil and natural gas from the energy production mix for electricity won’t occur in my lifetime, and likely not the lives of the millennial cohort. By then all of this electricity talk may be rendered moot by the climate crisis.

There are no big-picture answers to the trouble of an over-heating planet in a 500-word blog post. What remains clear is our problems are driven more by politics than by technology and reason.

It is critical we root out influence and corruption in government. To do that it will take voters who care about our future and are willing to make the hard choices necessary to address the climate crisis.

In any case, from my vantage point, it seems unlikely nuclear power plants will be part of our energy future.