In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes

The New York Times

In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes

J. David Goodman – January 28, 2023

A truck disposes of wastewater from fracking near Pecos, Texas on Jan. 13, 2023. (Paul Ratje/The New York Times)
A truck disposes of wastewater from fracking near Pecos, Texas on Jan. 13, 2023. (Paul Ratje/The New York Times)

PECOS, Texas — The West Texas earth shook one day in November, shuddering through the two-story City Hall in downtown Pecos, swaying the ceiling fans at an old railroad station, rattling the walls at a popular taqueria.

The tremor registered as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake, among the largest recorded in the state. Then, a month later, another of similar magnitude struck not far away, near Odessa and Midland, twin oil country cities with relatively tall office buildings, some of them visible for miles around.

The earthquakes, arriving in close succession, were the latest in what has been several years of surging seismic activity in Texas, a state known for many types of natural disasters but not typically, until now, for major earth movements. In 2022, the state recorded more than 220 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher, up from 26 recorded in 2017, when the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas began close monitoring.

So unheard-of were strong earthquakes in the flat, oil-rich expanse about a six-hour drive west of Austin that some residents at first mistook the November quake for a powerful gust of wind. Lloyd Chappell, a retired propane deliveryperson who was in his recliner at the time, thought one of his grown sons was making a joke of shaking his chair. But no one was there. His water sloshed around in his glass for 30 long seconds.

“We’ve heard noises before — out there in the oil field, they drop big tanks, or things like that,” said Chappell, 66. “But I’d never felt that before.”

The vast majority of the temblors have been concentrated in the highly productive oil fields of the Permian Basin, particularly those in Reeves County, north and west of the city of Pecos. The county’s official population of 14,000 does not account for thousands of mostly male transient workers staying in austere “man camps” and RV parks, brought there by the promise of good pay in exchange for long hours, stark terrain and dangerous work.

Now earthquakes have become part of the same calculation.

“In West Texas, you love the smell of the oil and gas patch because it’s the smell of money,” said Rod Ponton, a former Pecos city attorney who once unintentionally attained international fame by appearing as a worried cat during a court hearing on Zoom. “If you have to have the ground shaking every two or three months to make sure you have a good paycheck coming in every month, you’re not going to think twice about it.”

The economy of Pecos and a handful of surrounding towns — some little more than sand-blown highway intersections and crowded gas station convenience stores — revolves around the oil fields.

John Briers moved several months ago to a man camp in Orla, in Reeves County, to take a job at one of two convenience stores because the pay was twice as much as he was getting in Houston. “It’s nice to have so much space,” he said of the area. “But it’s two hours from the nearest cardiologist.”

When the November earthquake struck, Briers, 55, was working at the store, whose central seating area acts as an informal workers cafeteria. The force was enough to shake the building, he said, and to push a large mobile crane, parked nearby, into a trailer. Briers likened it to the artillery he felt while serving in the military in Afghanistan.

On a recent weekday, a lunchtime crowd of mostly men in dusty work boots and shirts emblazoned with company logos streamed into the store from white pickup trucks, mostly uninterested in discussing earthquakes. Had they felt any of the quakes that seismic monitors showed striking across the oil fields?

“No.”

“No, sir.”

“Nobody really cares while the money is there,” said Nick Granado, 31, stopping briefly before grabbing lunch. He said he had been at home in Pecos with his wife and 2-year-old child at the time of the November earthquake. “It was different,” he said of the shaking. “But I wasn’t scared.”

In Reeves County, oil and gas production has increasingly meant hydraulic fracturing, a process of extraction that produces, as a byproduct, a huge amount of wastewater. Some of that wastewater is reused in fracking operations, but most of it is injected back under the ground. It is that process of forcing tens of billions of gallons of water into the earth that, regulators and geoscientists agree, is to blame for many of the earthquakes.

The connection between wastewater disposal and earthquakes has been long understood. Other states with substantial fracking operations have also seen the ground shake as a result, including Oklahoma, where a similarly rapid increase in earthquakes more than a decade ago included a 5.6 magnitude quake in 2016 that forced the shutdown of several wastewater wells.

Getting rid of the “produced” water is an important business in West Texas, and locations labeled “SWD” — for saltwater disposal — dot the landscape of drilling rigs and truck-worn roads. Each of the past few years, about 168 billion gallons of wastewater have been disposed of in this way, according to data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil industry.

Texas only recently began its statewide program of monitoring for earthquakes, after a series of small quakes in North Texas rattled residents of Dallas and Fort Worth. The monitoring started in 2017 — just as petroleum development accelerated in the Permian Basin, particularly in and around Reeves County — and began to detect the increasing seismic activity.

“It was really very fortuitous,” said Peter Hennings, the principal investigator for the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research at the University of Texas.

Hennings said that while natural earthquakes can occur in West Texas, they can also be induced through human activity: the injection of a large amount of water in a short period of time adds fluid pressure under the earth, which essentially decreases the “clamping” between rocks along natural faults and allows them to slip, creating an earthquake.

And seismologists have established a relationship between smaller earthquakes and larger ones, Hennings said: The more small earthquakes you have, the greater the likelihood of a bigger one.

The problem can be addressed by cutting back on the amount of saltwater being injected back into the ground. Oklahoma, for example, did so in recent years and has seen a reduction in the number of earthquakes.

In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission noted “an unprecedented frequency of significant earthquakes” in and around Reeves County and asked companies to implement their own wastewater plans, hoping to decrease the number of 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes by the end of this year.

To address earthquakes outside Odessa and Midland, state regulators suspended permits for deep disposal wells. And just north of the border with Texas, New Mexico regulators have been taking their own steps to control saltwater disposal, including $2 million in fines to Exxon over compliance failures.

The fracking issue has been a big one for Texas environmental groups, which have raised concerns about pollution, climate change, social inequity — and now earthquakes. “It is past time for the Railroad Commission of Texas to update the rules on injection wells,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, adding that there should be limits on injecting “polluted fracking wastewater” in places impacted by seismic activity.

For local officials in West Texas, the earthquakes have presented new and unforeseen concerns about the structural integrity of buildings and buried pipes, as well as basic questions such as, what are you supposed to do in an earthquake?

“It brought to light that we need to do some safety training,” said the Pecos city manager, Charles Lino. He had been in a staff meeting on the second floor of City Hall — a building Lino described as “very old” — when the floor began to move for what felt like a minute during the November earthquake, whose epicenter was northwest of town.

“Most of the staff were a little shaken and were, like, what do we do?” he said. “I don’t know how to react either, because I’m from this area.” Lino said the city was just beginning to develop its earthquake training.

Months earlier, in March, the head of emergency management for the county, Jerry Bullard, began keeping track of earthquakes. “There were two yesterday and one today,” he said on a recent weekday, looking at his list. He presented his catalog to the county’s leaders at a meeting in December. “They were kind of surprised,” he said.

His concern has been focused on the area’s older infrastructure, including the three-story courthouse in Pecos. But the county has been traditionally hands-off when it comes to building codes in unincorporated areas. “This county does not even have a fire code out in the county,” Bullard said.

At the same time, storing additional wastewater — with its volatile mix of chemicals — above ground in order to avoid injecting too much into the earth has created a new hazard, Bullard said. There were two explosions this month at saltwater disposal facilities in the county, setting off fires and “a black stream of smoke” visible for miles around, he said.

So far, the earthquakes have not caused much notable damage. Some residents said they noticed new cracks in their walls or patios, or a roof that appeared to slant a little more than before. Earthquake insurance is not something people generally purchase in West Texas, although there has been talk of it now, particularly in the larger cities of Odessa and Midland.

“We have tall buildings — not a lot of tall buildings — but people are concerned about foundations,” said Javier Joven, the mayor of Odessa, who met with state regulators and Midland leaders about the issue in 2021. Most of the area’s taller buildings were constructed decades ago, without the requirements now common in earthquake-prone areas, officials said. (Several in Midland have long sat empty, with some recently demolished or slated to be.)

So far, he said, officials have not taken steps to change building codes to address earthquakes, which could add significant new costs to construction. In the meantime, each tremor has become a topic of conversation. The mayor said he had felt at least three.

“The big popular discussion out here is: Did you feel it? Did you feel it?” he said. “And everyone goes on Facebook: I felt it. I felt it.”

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

Fox Weather

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

Andrew Wulfeck – January 27, 2023

Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe

When the world’s largest and deepest ocean basin warms, satellites will be busy over the Pacific Ocean detecting analogous water temperatures but also, if history repeats itself, landmasses across the globe will have to deal with heat that could be record-breaking.

Since reliable technology started keeping track of world temperatures in the 1950s, the warmest year of any decade were periods dominated by an El Niño event, and the coldest were from La Niñas.

“During El Niño, unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the central/eastern tropical Pacific lead to increased evaporation and cooling of the ocean. At the same time, the increased cloudiness blocks more sunlight from entering the ocean. When water vapor condenses and forms clouds, heat is released into the atmosphere. So, during El Niño, there is less heating of the ocean and more heating of the atmosphere than normal,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts wrote in a 2022 ENSO blog.

The world’s last El Niño ended nearly four years ago, but it’s the event of 2015-16 that holds records for not only being one of the strongest El Niños on record but also causing the world’s warmest temperatures.

The year 2016 ended with temperatures around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, making it the warmest period on record. During the dog days of summer, more than 124 million people were under extreme heat warnings in the U.S. as communities from the Southwest to the Southeast reported record heat.

END OF TRIPLE-DIP LA NINA IN SIGHT: WHAT IT COULD MEAN FOR SPRING SEVERE WEATHER SEASON

The globe is currently still in a La Niña, which is expected to end in the coming months.

The climate pattern has been in control of weather for three years and made history by becoming the first triple-dip La Niña of the 21st century.

Also, during this phase, NOAA reported the world experienced some of its warmest temperatures ever, despite the pattern being known for its cooling effect.

The base mark of near-record heat has some climatologists concerned that once an El Niño is able to shake off the lagging effects of La Niña, temperatures could be off to the races and reach levels never seen before.

“The ongoing La Niña may prevent global average temperature from breaking the record in 2023, but greenhouse gas-induced global warming grows steadily in magnitude. In fact, it most likely helped 2020, a year of La Niña, to tie the all-time high of 2016, a year following a major El Niño,” Shang-Ping Xie, a climate dynamicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in an ENSO discussion.

WHAT ARE EL NINO AND LA NINA CLIMATE PATTERNS?

Computer model guidance shows a trend towards the El Niño state, especially in the latter half of 2023 and possibly continuing into 2024.

If history repeats itself, a protracted El Niño episode could result in warm, if not record-breaking, temperatures.

Significant questions remain on exactly when the world reaches the neutral state and begins the trek through El Niño. Some climate models prematurely killed off the current La Niña during its three-year stretch, so the exact timeframe of transition is not set in stone.

The rarity of a stubborn La Niña state and global temperatures that haven’t declined as readily as during past events, has some experts pointing to climate change as playing an increasingly pivotal role in patterns.

Monthly global temperature anomalies since January 1950
Monthly global temperature anomalies since January 1950

NOAA experts admit what is complicating outlooks are climate change’s influences on Pacific wind and water temperature patterns or what is known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

“If temperatures warm faster in the western Pacific than in the eastern Pacific, the background tropical circulation could become more La Niña-like. But if the trend pattern changes as global temperatures continue to rise, meaning the east starts warming faster than the west in the future, the whole circulation across the tropical Pacific could become more El Niño-like,” Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, posted in a recent blog.

Travelers opting for rail again as Amtrak expands options

CBS News

Travelers opting for rail again as Amtrak expands options

Peter Greenberg – January 27, 2023

In the post-pandemic world, while many travelers have been obsessed with airlines, ground stops, cancellations and delays, Amtrak’s ridership is bouncing back — more than doubling in the Northeast corridor, and 88% across the country. At the same time, Amtrak was strengthening its long-haul services, with trains like the Empire Builder, the Zephyr, the Sunset Limited and the Southern Crescent, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight, to name a few.

And while we don’t yet have true high-speed rail yet in this country — and may never have it — there are some improvements in the service. And why don’t we have high-speed rail? Because Amtrak doesn’t own its tracks. The freight lines do, and they have no interest in high-speed rail.

That may also explain why Amtrak doesn’t exactly own a great on-time service record — because their trains often have to pull over to a siding to let a 100-car-long freight train lumber through.

At the same time, Congress has never properly funded Amtrak to allow it to grow and upgrade and to be able to reinvest profits in its product.

In some cases, Amtrak has brought back the dining cars. But even more important, Amtrak has announced a major upgrade to its fleet, with the new “Amtrak Airo” trains — with more spacious interiors and modernized amenities will be rolling out across the U.S. in about three years. The cars will feature more table seating, better legroom and more room for all your electronic devices.

Until then, there’s some good news. Amtrak doesn’t promote it very well, and most passengers don’t know about it, but Amtrak actually sells a USA rail pass. For just $499, you get to travel Amtrak for 30 days and up to 10 rides. It’s a great deal — and children under 12 ride for $250.

And with new high-speed routes launching in several European countries in the past few months — Spain, in particular, has new options for travelers as train operators compete and prices fall — train travel in Europe is an increasingly attractive option.

The Eurail Pass has never been a better deal. It now enables rail travel in 33 European countries, an expansion from the initial 13 countries, with prices starting at $218. One Eurail pass for $473 gives you two months of train travel.

One caveat: you must buy your Eurail pass in conjunction with your roundtrip airline ticket from the U.S. to Europe. You can’t purchase it once you get there. And you can even get a Eurail pass that’s valid for three months.

3 Chicago-area oil refineries that dump toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan and other waterways are among worst polluters in US, study shows

Chicago Tribune

3 Chicago-area oil refineries that dump toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan and other waterways are among worst polluters in US, study shows

Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune – January 27, 2023

Oil refineries are dumping massive amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the Great Lakes and the nation’s rivers with little, if any, oversight from government regulators, according to a new analysis that found some of the worst polluters are in the Chicago area.

During 2021 alone, 81 refineries in the United States that treat waste on-site released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids harmful to fish and other aquatic life, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project determined in its review of federal data.

The refineries also collectively discharged 60,000 pounds of selenium, an element that can mutate fish, and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, which contributes to water-fouling algae blooms and dead zones in important fisheries such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of the refineries are in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities that face disproportionate health risks from industrial pollution.

Some refinery pollution is legal because federal and state officials have failed to limit it, despite requirements in the 1972 Clean Water Act mandating a review of standards for various chemicals and metals at least every five years based on the latest science and improvements in water treatment technology.

“You have refineries that may look like they are complying with the law, but the standards are decades old and really don’t require very much,” said Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director and former chief of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Three Chicago-area refineries — BP Whiting in Indiana, ExxonMobil Joliet and Citgo in Lemont — highlight the consequences of lax regulations and weak enforcement, Schaeffer said Thursday during an online news conference.

Even when limits are in place, oil companies often pay minimal fines for violating the law. Some aren’t penalized at all.

The Joliet refinery, on the Des Plaines River southwest of the city, exceeded its permitted levels of pollution 40 times between 2019 and 2021, federal records show. Neither federal nor state officials have sued ExxonMobil or fined the company for its repeated infractions.

Only three other refineries discharged more selenium than BP Whiting, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan about 8 miles from one of Chicago’s water intake cribs. Small doses of the element are healthy, but higher levels can cause hair and nail loss, gastrointestinal distress, dizziness and tremors.

Citgo Lemont and ExxonMobil Joliet ranked fifth and ninth for selenium pollution, respectively, the analysis showed.

A public beach near the Whiting refinery is a popular spot for surfers drawn by big waves when winter winds whip down Lake Michigan from Canada.

Mitch McNeil, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he and other surfers have suffered eye, ear and urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal illnesses after swimming in dark brown water that smells alternately like metal, sewage, petroleum and a used ashtray.

“People always ask us why we keep surfing in dirty water,” McNeil said. “Our response is we surf in it but you drink it, so you should be just as concerned as we are.”

BP routinely faces scrutiny about air pollution from the Whiting refinery. Water pollution hasn’t drawn as much attention since the Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Indiana regulators were planning to relax limits on the refinery’s discharges of ammonia, brain-damaging mercury and suspended solids — tiny particles of sewage sludge.

The company later backed down and vowed to abide by the terms of its existing permit.

Responding to the new analysis of federal data, BP said it will “continue to operate consistent with its permit as part of our commitment to safe, compliant and reliable operations, not just at Whiting refinery but at every facility BP operates around the world.”

Speaking on behalf of the oil industry in general, the American Petroleum Institute did not directly answer questions about the lack of standards for selenium and other pollutants.

“Our industry takes seriously its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and adheres to strict local, state and federal requirements to ensure water is properly treated and tested prior to leaving a facility,” Will Hupman, the trade group’s vice president of downstream policy said in a statement.

Schaeffer noted that federal pollution standards for refineries and several other industry sectors haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was president during the 1980s.

Federal judges are taking notice. Calling existing standards out of date is a “charitable understatement,” a federal appellate court concluded after the EPA in 2019 updated its 1982 limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Environmental groups asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan in 2021 why the agency had fallen so far behind in meeting its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act. The EPA acknowledged the letter but didn’t respond.

An EPA spokesman said the agency is aware of the new pollution analysis “and will review and respond accordingly.”

Most of the top polluting refineries are in California or along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Also in the top 10 is a Phillips 66 refinery on the Mississippi River in Wood River, a small, heavily industrialized Illinois city upstream from St. Louis.

The Wood River refinery released more fish-harming nickel than any of the other facilities reviewed. It also ranked among the top 10 for discharges of selenium, nitrogen and total dissolved solids.

For people who live near refineries, the new report reflects what they see, smell and breathe — and ingest when eating locally caught fish or while swimming.

Gina Ramirez grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side and often visits Whihala Beach in Whiting, 2 miles up the lakeshore from the BP refinery. Nowadays her son joins her.

“To think that we are recreating among some of the most polluted waters is terrifying,” said Ramirez, an outreach manager at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and senior adviser to the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “U.S. EPA needs to step up.”

John Beard, a former refinery worker who leads the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said communities like his rely on the EPA to enforce air and water laws because they can’t afford to fight for a cleaner environment.

“(Oil companies) don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills, or River Oaks (in Houston) or Madison Avenue,” Beard said. “They don’t build in communities of affluence that have the ways and means to go about seeking justice and correction.”

“Many people say we need the jobs and we need all these products (oil companies) produce,” Beard added. “That’s true. But we don’t need the pollution that comes with it, and they can do better.”

Arizona is not out of water, despite all those headlines you might read

AZ Central – The Arizona Republic

Arizona is not out of water, despite all those headlines you might read

Joanna Allhands, Arizona Republic – January 25, 2023

Michael Rudolph (Dynamite Water) loads his water truck at the Scottsdale fill station on Dec. 29, 2022, located northwest of the intersection of Pima and Jomax roads in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rudolph was delivering water to a client in Rio Verde Foothills.
Michael Rudolph (Dynamite Water) loads his water truck at the Scottsdale fill station on Dec. 29, 2022, located northwest of the intersection of Pima and Jomax roads in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rudolph was delivering water to a client in Rio Verde Foothills.

The national press has had a field day with two not-so-positive Arizona water stories.

About 500 homes in the unincorporated community of Rio Verde Foothills can no longer haul water from Scottsdale, the neighboring city to the south.

Meanwhile, a state-produced model has found that the area north and west of Buckeye does not have enough groundwater to support future massive developments.

They’re alarming stories, but the coverage has piled on the hyperbole. Some headlines have made it sound as if an entire “Arizona town” was cut off.

One even took a giant, misleading leap: “Phoenix runs out of water.”

Arizona is not living with its head in the sand

The Colorado River – once 40% of the state’s water supply – is dwindling. About 80% of Arizona and about 20% of its population has no rules on groundwater pumping, which is draining many of our rural aquifers.

Add in these troubles sprouting in metro Phoenix, an area covered by the state’s most stringent groundwater management rules, and we’ve got urgent issues that require urgent responses.

But the headlines make it sound as if we’re completely botching our jobs as water stewards.

That’s not entirely fair, either.

Judge rules:Scottsdale doesn’t have to serve Rio Verde Foothills

Most metro Phoenix cities have spent decades storing water underground for a (non-)rainy day, for example. They have long recycled most of their wastewater, though we don’t yet drink it.

And while much of the coverage has focused on the fact that there isn’t enough water in parts of the far West Valley to support thousands of acres of future development, it glosses over why that growth may never occur:

Because we had the foresight decades ago to create an assured water supply program, which requires builders to prove they have secured enough water for the long haul before they can plat lots.

We have water protections. They need shoring up

Is that program fail proof? No.

The root cause of Rio Verde Foothills’ water problems is that state law allows property owners to subdivide land into less than six lots and avoid requirements to prove they have secured a 100-year water supply.

Homes were built solely on the promise of hauled water. The potential risk of such a deal was glossed over with homeowners. And despite all the negative coverage lately, people are still building in the area.

It doesn’t matter that these so-called wildcat lot splits encompass a fraction of the homes we build every year. Or that not all homes in Rio Verde Foothills are affected, just those that relied on Scottsdale for hauled water.

The headlines on repeat are that Arizona doesn’t have enough water to grow or even sustain existing residents.

The story is more nuanced than the headlines

The full story is more nuanced.

Water is still being hauled to Rio Verde Foothills, albeit from other spotty sources that are vastly more expensive. Residents haven’t lost water; they’ve lost access to cheap water.

That is unlikely to change if EPCOR, a private water provider, is given the green light in April to more permanently serve these residents. Solving the affordability problem won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, on the far west side of the Valley, developers either must find renewable water sources to build on large swaths of open desert or find affordable ways to grow closer in areas with the capacity to serve new residents.

That doesn’t mean growth is done.

It means we’ll have to rethink how and where we do it, and no, that won’t be easy, either.

Want to counter the narrative? Then up our game

Fixing the cracks through which some development has fallen would be a good start.

In Rio Verde Foothills, the solution cannot simply be to force Scottsdale to serve non-residents. We need to tackle the root problem, which means we need to rein in wildcat lot splits.

Lawmakers could change how we define “subdivisions” – that might be the cleanest fix. Or they could give counties more power to say no to homes that plan to haul water, particularly in areas like Rio Verde Foothills where groundwater is spotty.

In the West Valley, lawmakers must address a proliferation of “build-to-rent” homes, which are touted as a much-needed affordable housing alternative but also aren’t required to prove a long-term water supply before building.

If civic and elected leaders want to counter the narrative that Arizona is irresponsible, they need to get better at telling the full story – which, yes, means more clearly touting the things we’ve done well.

But because perception is reality in water, and virtually everyone else has similar success stories, they also need a clear plan – shared loudly and on repeat – for how they intend to up our game.

And, more importantly, the resolve to do it.

US moves to protect Minnesota wilderness from planned mine

Associated Press

US moves to protect Minnesota wilderness from planned mine

Steve Karnowski – January 26, 2023

FILE - In this Oct. 4, 2011, file photo, a core sample drilled from underground rock near Ely, Minn., shows a band of shiny minerals containing copper, nickel and precious metals, center, that Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The Biden administration moved Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, to protect the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel project. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)
Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The Biden administration moved Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, to protect the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel project. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)
FILE - Supporters of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters drive past the residence of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz as part of an Earth Day drive-in rally to Protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on April 22, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. The Biden administration moved Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, to protect the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel project. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
Supporters of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters drive past the residence of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz as part of an Earth Day drive-in rally to Protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on April 22, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. The Biden administration moved Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, to protect the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel project. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing over 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) of the Superior National Forest, in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.

The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights, and reaffirmed Tuesday that it’s not giving up despite its latest setback.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”

Critics of the project hailed the decision as a massive victory and called for permanent protections for the wilderness. But supporters of Twin Metals said the order runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of increasing domestic supplies of metals that are critical to the clean energy economy.

“The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.

The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.

While the Biden administration last year committed itself to expanding domestic sources of critical minerals and metals needed for electric vehicles and renewable energy, it made clear Thursday that it considers Boundary Waters to be a unique area worthy of special protections. A day ago, the administration said it would reinstate restrictions on road-building and logging in the country’s largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” over the moratorium.

“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said in a statement. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”

Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. Twin Metals says its design would limit the exposure of the sulfide-bearing ore to the effects of air and water. And it says the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.

Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, condemned the decision as “an attack on our way of life” that will benefit only foreign suppliers such as China that have fewer labor and environmental protections. “America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs,” he said in a statement.

“Ultimately, this sends a chilling message to hardworking Minnesotans who need the widespread economic benefits of mining in our state and sends an even harsher message to the business community that they cannot expect fair treatment in Minnesota or the United States,” the Jobs for Minnesotans coalition of business and labor groups said in a statement.

While Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the St. Paul area, applauded the order, she also warned in a statement that a future administration could reverse the decision.

The 1,700 square mile (4,400 square kilometer) Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S. It draws more than 150,000 visitors from around the world who paddle its more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of canoe routes and over 1,100 lakes. According to the Interior Department, it contributes over $17 million annually to the outdoor recreation and tourism economy in northeastern Minnesota. Three Ojibwe tribes exercise treaty rights in the area covered by the moratorium.

The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.

The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest

Los Angeles Times

The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest

Ian James, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, January 26, 2023

LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA , NEV. - AUG. 23, 2022. Clouds are reflected on the surface of a pool that is separated from the main body of water in Lake Mead. Water continues to recede in the nation's largest reservoir. The lake is filled by the Colorado River, and the water is allocated to millions of people in the river's lower basin. ( Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Colorado River begins as melting snow, trickling from forested peaks and coursing in streams that gather in the meadows and valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

Like arteries, its major tributaries take shape across Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, coming together in a great river like no other — a river that travels more than 1,400 miles and has defined the rise of the American Southwest over the last century.

Water diverted from the river has enabled agriculture to spread across 5 million acres of farmland and has fed the growth of cities from Denver to Los Angeles, supplying about 40 million people. Harnessing the river’s bounty has provided the foundation for life and the economy across seven states and northern Mexico.

But the region has for years depended too heavily on the river, taking more than its flows can support. And in recent years, the river’s water-generating heart in the Rocky Mountains has begun to fail.

The Colorado River can no longer withstand the unbridled thirst of the arid West. 

A century ago, the signing of the Colorado River Compact divided the water among the states. The agreement established a system that overpromised what the river could provide. That system, after years of warnings from scientists and insufficient efforts to adapt, is now colliding with the reality of a river that is overused and shrinking.

In the last 23 years, as rising temperatures fueled by the burning of fossil fuels have intensified the worst drought in centuries, the flow of the Colorado has declined about 20%.

Reservoirs have dropped to record-low levels, and the shortage continues to worsen. Scarcity is pushing the region toward a water reckoning.

The looming consequences include major cuts in the supplies used for growing crops and sustaining cities. How those water reductions are divided among states, water districts and tribes has yet to be determined, and could end up being negotiated, dictated by the federal government or fought in court. But the need to shrink overall water use will probably result in less water flowing to farms, more water restrictions for residents and fewer green lawns, while also bringing calls for limiting growth, shifting away from thirsty crops like alfalfa, and dedicating less water to golf courses and other water-guzzling businesses.

The Colorado River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming to northern Mexico, is facing unresolved questions about how to adapt, at what cost, and where the cuts will fall the hardest.

The task of downsizing water use is complicated by an allocation system that promised now-nonexistent water on paper, as well as a legal system that benefits those with the oldest, most senior water rights.

A lake surrounded by dry earth
White surfaces along the banks show previous water levels in Lake Powell on May 16. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Over the last several years, managers of water agencies have reached deals to take less water from the river. But those reductions haven’t been nearly enough to halt the river’s spiral toward potential collapse.

As Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, continues to decline toward “dead pool” levels, the need to rein in water demands is growing urgent.

Efforts to adapt will require difficult decisions about how to deal with the reductions and limit the damage to communities, the economy and the river’s already degraded ecosystems. Adapting may also drive a fundamental rethinking of how the river is managed and used, redrawing a system that is out of balance. This reckoning with the reality of the river’s limits is about to transform the landscape of the Southwest.

Navigating through a forest of snow-covered pines, Brian Domonkos skied up to a site high in the Rocky Mountains, the source of the Colorado River.

He had come to check the snowpack at an isolated stand of monitoring equipment near Berthoud Pass, Colo., where the day before 5 inches of snow had fallen.

A ranch at the foothills of snowy mountains
The foothills of the Rocky Mountains shelter a ranch near the headwaters of the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A waterfall and river are surrounded by snow
Rifle Falls sets a wintry scene near the community of Rifle, Colo., at the headwaters of the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“I hope this holds on a little while longer,” said Domonkos, a snow survey supervisor for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. He was concerned that even with the snowfall, Colorado seemed headed for a below-average snow year.

Last spring, the snowpack across the Upper Colorado River Basin stood at 86% of average. By the end of July, however, the melting snow brought runoff that measured just 67% of average.

This pattern has emerged year after year in the river’s headwaters. A near-average snowpack has often translated into meager flows in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

This winter, storms have brought an above-average snowpack in the watershed. But that snow can go only so far in boosting reservoirs that have been dropping for more than two decades.

Average temperatures across the upper watershed — where most of the river’s flow originates — have risen about 3 degrees since 1970. That has contributed to the driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years.

With higher temperatures, trees and other plants have been absorbing more water, and more moisture has been evaporating off the landscape.

In recent years, long dry spells in the mountains have left the soils parched. And when the snow has melted in the spring, the amount of runoff flowing in streams has often been diminished.

“We are seeing less water,” Domonkos said. “And we’re going to have to adapt.”

The river’s mainstem takes shape in Rocky Mountain National Park, winding through an alpine valley, then flows into reservoirs and meanders through ranchlands.

On one of these ranches, Wendy Thompson can see the river standing outside her house. She walked to the banks, where muddy brown water flowed swiftly past.

“This time of year, it ought to be another foot, 2 feet deeper,” Thompson said.

Clumps of snow cling to dry foliage along the banks of a river
Clumps of snow cling to dry foliage along the banks of the Colorado River near Dotsero, Colo. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Thompson is 67 and remembers much more snow in Colorado when she was growing up. The flooding river used to swell across the pastures.

“In 1985 was the last time we really had a flood here,” she said.

Upstream diversions and dry years have left the river smaller. Some sections on her ranch now usually flow less than 2 feet deep.

In late spring and early summer, Thompson pumped from the river to irrigate her hay fields, and sold the crop to other ranchers.

Many ranchers have had less water for their pastures lately, and some have sold cattle to reduce their herds.

“Everyone knows that we’re dry,” Thompson said. “In this area, when there’s no water, you just don’t irrigate.”

Upstream from western Colorado’s ranchlands, water is diverted and routed to the east, flowing through a series of tunnels that pass beneath the Continental Divide to supply Denver and other growing Front Range cities. Two new reservoir projects are under construction to hold more water — the Chimney Hollow Reservoir and the expansion of Gross Reservoir.

The diversions from Grand Lake are a source of concern for Ken Fucik, a retired environmental scientist and board member of the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group. He said he is worried about water quality and recent algae blooms in the lake and adjacent reservoirs.

Fucik questioned whether the new reservoir projects make sense when the river’s existing reservoirs are rapidly declining.

“Where is that water going to come from?” he said.

Visitors get a view and pictures of the sun setting on Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River
Scores of visitors get a view and pictures of the sun setting on Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River near Page, Ariz., the gateway to the Glen Canyon Dam Recreation Area. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For more than a century, the history of the Colorado River has been shaped by monumental human efforts to control and exploit its waters to the maximum.

The river has been flowing in its course for millions of years, downcutting through layers of sandstone, limestone, granite, shale and schist to form the Grand Canyon.

Indigenous peoples have lived along the river and its tributaries for thousands of years, adorning rocks on canyon walls with petroglyphs and pictographs.

The river’s Spanish name, colorado, or red, described the muddy, silt-laden waters that coursed through canyons.

In the mid-1800s, as white settlers moved west, steamboats chugged up the lower Colorado River, paddlewheels turning. Settlers began diverting water from streams and rivers, taking water rights under the prior appropriation system — “first in time, first in right.”

Water was seen as a source of wealth to be seized. The great ambition of politicians, engineers and fortune-seekers was to tame the river and harness its water.

In the early 1900s, they focused on building irrigation projects to “reclaim” the arid lands, a phrase central to the purpose of the Reclamation Service, which was created in 1902 under President Theodore Roosevelt and which later became the Bureau of Reclamation.

From the beginning, some warned against relying too heavily on the river. John Wesley Powell, leader of the historic 1869 expedition down the river through the Grand Canyon, famously told attendees at an 1893 irrigation congress in Los Angeles: “I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”

Before the signing of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, some scientists warned that there was insufficient water, but those warnings went unheeded.

The compact apportioned the river “in perpetuity,” allocating 7.5 million acre-feet of water for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Mexico later secured 1.5 million acre-feet under a 1944 treaty.

The river was divided among the states during an especially wet period in the early 20th century.

Low water levels at Hoover Dam expose rocky sides
Visitors walk around Hoover Dam, where severe and prolonged drought conditions have exposed the rocky sides of Black Canyon and the intake towers that feed the dam’s power generators. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Workers finished pouring the concrete at Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. As described by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, the dams and reservoirs “created only the illusion of abundant water, not the reality.”

Over the last half a century, so much water has been diverted that for many years the river has been entirely used up, leaving dusty stretches of desert where it once flowed to the sea in Mexico.

Even in the 1980s, when plentiful water filled the reservoirs, some presciently warned that the Colorado could not withstand all the demands placed upon it.

In the seminal 1986 book “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner predicted chronic shortages in the years to come, saying the region had already begun to “founder on the Era of Limits.”

The strains on the river have grown more acute with humanity’s heating of the planet. In the 1990s and 2000s, scientists repeatedly warned that chronic overuse of the river combined with the effects of climate change would probably drain reservoirs to dangerously low levels.

During the last decade, scientists have found that roughly half the decline in the river’s flow has been due to higher temperatures; that climate change is driving the aridification of the Southwest; and that for each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), the river’s average flow is likely to decrease about 9%.

The drying of the Colorado’s upper reaches has shrunk the flow and accelerated the declines of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The system of dividing the water, including the agreement signed a century ago, was designed for a climate that no longer exists, said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center. Continuing this pattern of overuse, she said, is like depleting a bank account by overspending, edging closer to bankruptcy.

“It’s not going to work for anybody,” Bolinger said. “What we really need to do is just completely readjust the budget.”

The federal government has begun to lay the groundwork for scaling back water use.

Interior Department officials have said annual diversions need to be reduced by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, or about 15% to 30%. They have urged the seven states that rely on the river to reach a consensus, while warning they may need to impose cuts.

So far, negotiators for states and water agencies have failed to agree on how to share such large reductions. Some fear these disputes could lead to lawsuits.

As the reservoirs’ levels continue to drop, time is swiftly running out.

A buoy lies on a dried mud flat
A buoy lies on a dried mud flat at a shuttered marina at drought-stricken Lake Mead. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“We have got to put the kibosh on these extra water uses right now, the uses of water beyond what’s being supplied. Either we stop them or nature will,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “Make no mistake. This is a full-on five-alarm fire going on right now.”

The Colorado River has reached this critical stage in a decade when extreme droughts have shrunk other rivers to historic lows around the world, from the Mississippi and the Rio Grande to the Yangtze in China, and the Danube and Rhine in Europe.

Research has shown that climate change is intensifying the water cycle, bringing more intense and frequent droughts, as well as more intense rainfall and floods. In one recent study, researchers found that streams in the western and southern United States have been drying over the last 70 years, with flow data revealing longer and more severe low-flow periods.

Even as wet and dry cycles continue to come and go, the Colorado River is on a long-term downward trend of aridification because of higher temperatures, Udall said.

“It’s fundamentally changing, and it’s not going to go back to how it was before,” Udall said. “We’re going to have to talk about permanent reductions in water use.”

A perfect storm for the whole food system right now’: One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies warns that every country—even those in Europe—is facing a food crisis

Fortune

‘A perfect storm for the whole food system right now’: One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies warns that every country—even those in Europe—is facing a food crisis

Tristan Bove – January 26, 2023

The Ukraine war upended the global economy in many ways. Energy markets have been among the most affected, with declining Russian oil and natural gas exports to the West sparking a domino effect of fuel crises worldwide. But the war has also warped another critical facet of the global economy: food.

Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine were global breadbaskets as top producers and exporters of wheat, sunflower seeds, and barley. The fighting ended up aggravating hunger and food crises in low-income countries that are dependent on imports. But both Russia and Ukraine are also key cogs in the global fertilizer industry, and the war has triggered a shortage of the critical commodity that few people consider but is nevertheless essential to global food security.

Much as Russian President Vladimir Putin leveraged the world’s reliance on his country’s fossil fuels to weaponize energy supplies during the war, he is doing something very similar with fertilizer and food, Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Norwegian chemical company Yara International, among the world’s largest fertilizer producers and suppliers, told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday.

Putin’s energy gambit, which sent fossil fuel prices soaring and left Europe on the brink of recession last year, has so far not gone as expected, with a warm winter working against him and Europe able to buy natural gas from elsewhere. But Holsether warned the world’s reliance on Russia for fertilizer threatens more disruption of food supply, adding to existing challenges of logistics bottlenecks and climate change.

“If you look at the role that we have allowed Russia to have in global food supply, we depend on them. How did that happen? What kind of weapon is that? And Putin is weaponizing food,” Holsether said.

“It is sort of a perfect storm for the whole food system right now: very challenging in Europe, of course, with higher prices; even worse in other parts of the world where a human being dies every four seconds as a result of hunger,” he added.

Global fertilizer crisis

When natural gas prices surged last year after Russia invaded Ukraine, so did prices for fertilizer, which manufacturers such as Yara produce with ammonia and nitrogen obtained as a byproduct from natural gas. Fertilizer prices had already begun increasing in 2021 due to high energy costs and supply-chain issues.

Declining natural gas prices and weak demand among farmers have eased pressures somewhat over the past few months. Earlier this month, fertilizer prices fell to their lowest level in nearly two years in tandem with natural gas prices. But despite falling prices, Holsether insists that the global fertilizer market is precarious, and countries should shift from relying on Russian natural gas, to safeguard their agricultural industries.

“Putin has weaponized energy and they’re weaponizing food as well,” Holsether told the BBC at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s the saying, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’”

Fertilizer prices remain high by historical standards, and the World Bank warned earlier this month that global supply is still tight due to the war, production cuts in Europe, and stricter export controls in China.

Averting a food crisis

If fertilizer is in short supply or prices remain unaffordable to many countries, farmers may be unable to keep their soil fertile enough for crops.

Concerns over fertilizer have taken center stage in recent weeks in Africa, which is heavily reliant on Russian food imports, and where agricultural production has taken a blow in recent years due to drought in many countries. The eastern Horn of Africa—including Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya—has been particularly hard-hit, as it is likely on the verge of a sixth straight failed rainy season, the worst drought conditions in 70 years of recorded data.

Securing additional sources of fertilizer was the cornerstone of a $2.5 billion U.S. food assistance package to Africa signed last month, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted the importance of stabilizing fertilizer supply in Africa multiple times during a visit to Zambia this week.

“Now we’re in 2023, it’s tragic and shouldn’t be like that,” Holsether told the FT about the state of global hunger. “That should be a very strong reminder of the need to have a more robust food system—from a climate perspective, from a logistics perspective, but also from a political perspective.”

Holsether said that all countries must become more self-sufficient with their food production. For fertilizer, he touted the promise of “green fertilizers” that use hydrogen and renewable energy to produce ammonia rather than natural gas, saying that clean and local solutions are critical to decoupling the global food system from Russia’s war.

Holsether also warned that European nations should not rely on their wealth to avert a food or fertilizer crisis. Like with natural gas, Europe has in recent months turned to the U.S. for nitrogen to replace Russian imports, but Holsether warned that Europe buying its way out of a food crisis is no remedy for global food insecurity.

“Yes. Not near term…there will be a shortage and there will be a global auction for food—but Europe is a wealthy part of the world,” Holsether said when asked if Europe should be concerned for its food security.

“But we need to think it through,” he added, saying that Europe buying food and fertilizer products from other countries will only create more global supply shortages and take away from other countries in dire need.

“In terms of food and food security, when you have that, you see wars or mass migrations, extremism, all these things,” he said.

Startup aims to convert invasive zebra mussels in Lake Michigan into a renewable product

USA Today

Startup aims to convert invasive zebra mussels in Lake Michigan into a renewable product

Alex Garner – January 25, 2023

Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US.
Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US.

PLYMOUTH, Wisc.— AntiMussel hopes to mitigate trillions of invasive zebra mussels infiltrating the Great Lakes by harvesting them for use in paper and pharmaceutical products.

The Plymouth, Wisc.-based startup, which has raised nearly $20,000 in funding and placed second at county and regional pitch competitions, will launch a pilot program this spring to remove the mollusk from Lake Michigan.

In a 250-square-meter and 80-foot-deep area, AntiMussel will connect a suction to the lake floor and transport them to shore. Wind speed and water temperature data will also be collected.

AntiMussel hopes to use the abundance of zebra mussels as a renewable resource for calcium carbonate, which is typically processed from limestone into varying products like Tums, white melamine paint and plastic.

Ideally, the company wants to create a renewable calcium carbonate product with a corporate partner.

A view of the Sheboygan lighthouse as seen, Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis. A search for a man who was last seen near a break wall on Lake Michigan will continue today, according to the Sheboygan Fire Department
A view of the Sheboygan lighthouse as seen, Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis. A search for a man who was last seen near a break wall on Lake Michigan will continue today, according to the Sheboygan Fire Department

“I want to skip that 6 to 8 million years of geology that it takes to make limestone and instead remove the mussels from the lake where we don’t want them, process them, and we end up with a ground calcium carbonate material that is exactly what is being sold on the market now,” Tyler Rezachek, AntiMussel founder and U.S. veteran, said.

Subscriber exclusive: It’s mid-January and the Great Lakes are virtually ice-free. That’s a problem.

Participating in the pitch competitions helped Rezachek connect with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors, who will take him along on a research boat this spring to study zebra mussels, too.

“I was really kind of an entrepreneur in search of a problem,” Rezachek said about starting AntiMussel. “And zebra mussels (have) been something that I’ve heard about my whole life but never heard anything else about other than how to stop them from spreading.”

Zebra mussels were likely brought to the Great Lakes from Europe and Asia via ship ballast water in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve completely invaded the region and have riddled waterways feeding into the Mississippi River and western states Texas and California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

They negatively impact ecosystems in several ways, like outcompeting and incapacitating native mussel and other aquatic species.

Additionally, a female zebra mussel can release up to 1 million eggs per year once reaching reproductive age of two, according to the National Parks Service.

Not much can be done to remove them once a large population has invaded a lake or river.

“At this point, they’re so well established that I could have boats out there sucking zebra mussels all day every day and probably never put a dent in the population,” he said.

Today, an estimated 300 to 750 trillion zebra mussels are in the Great Lakes.

Zebra mussels can also overwhelm commercial, agricultural, forestry and aquaculture industries in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

They also burden taxpayers.

According to some estimates, broad removal and resulting increases in water bills can cost taxpayers up to $1.5 billion a year.

Rezachek said only 3% of the costs is dedicated to preventing further spread.

According to Rezachek, efforts to get rid of zebra mussels center on taking them off infrastructure, like applying chemicals or pressure washing, rather than completely removing them from the water.

“None of those solutions stop mussels from reproducing or remove the resulting shell,” he said. “They just push them away.”

A young woman checks over her cell phone while getting some beach time in at Deland Park, Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis.
A young woman checks over her cell phone while getting some beach time in at Deland Park, Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis.

The remaining shells wash onto beaches.

“We can’t walk on a lot of beaches on Lake Michigan now because they’re covered in mussel shells, and they’re razor sharp and they’ll cut your feet and your dog’s feet,” Rezachek said. “And they’re just going to keep collecting there, and the waves just keep pushing them on the beaches. So, unless we remove those in mass, we can never make beaches reusable for people again.”

Heavily infested water bodies like Lake Michigan are beyond the point for a complete elimination of zebra mussels, but there is still hope for smaller lakes.

While AntiMussel will focus on the Great Lakes, it also hopes to conduct customer surveys to see if landowners across the state need zebra mussel clean-ups on private beaches or in lakes.

“The smaller lakes that maybe only have a few thousand mussels in them, they’re not lost,” Rezachek said. “We can get those back and eliminate the mussels there, but then we have to stop them from getting there.”

To help prevent the spread, the National Parks Service suggests boaters drain boats, motors and livewells (circulating tank) before leaving an area of water, wash boats and trailers, and let them dry for at least five days before taking the boat out again because zebra mussels, dependent on water currents and transportation, can infest boat motors and livewells.

Scrub Hub: Passing a wind farm, I see some turbines spinning and others motionless. Why?

IndyStar – The Indianapolis Star

Scrub Hub: Passing a wind farm, I see some turbines spinning and others motionless. Why?

Karl Schneider, Indianapolis Star – January 23, 2023

Wind farms are becoming more common in Indiana. The state already boasts the fourth largest “farm” in the U.S. and produces nearly 3,500 megawatts of wind energy, with more on the horizon.

The towering windmills reaching up to the sky produce slightly more than 9% of all the electricity used in the state. That’s enough to power more than 1 million homes, according to the American Clean Power Association.

With more projects in the works that will produce another 302 megawatts, and a handful of bills proposed in this session of the General Assembly, wind power is likely to continue to grow across the state. And with the increasing presence of the conspicuous energy generators comes some curiosity.

So, for this edition of Scrub Hub, we took to our trusty submission form and chose a question from Teresa, who asked: Why are the wind turbines not turning right now?

Wind turbines operate in a rural area north of Lafayette, Indiana, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Wind turbines operate in a rural area north of Lafayette, Indiana, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

It’s possible for the blades on wind turbines to reach up to speeds of 200 mph, so it may seem odd when some are spinning very quickly while the blades on others nearby are not moving.

We dug around in some state, federal and industry reports and reached out to academic experts in energy technology to determine why some turbines in a wind farm spin while others remain still.

Short Answer: The turbine is down for maintenance

Wind turbines, like all machines, need both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. In some instances that explains why some are operating but not others.

The basic components of a wind turbine are the visible tower and rotor blades, as well as the gearbox and generator located at the top of the tower.

Scheduled maintenance helps prevent wear and tear from breaking parts and unscheduled maintenance occurs when the turbine experiences any of a number of failures.

Regular preventative maintenance can include periodic equipment inspection, oil and filter changes, calibration and adjustment of various parts, as well as replacing brake pads and seals. General housekeeping and blade cleaning can also temporarily keep a turbine from spinning.

In larger wind farms, several turbines on a circuit can be inoperable and not spinning because they are all down for maintenance, said John Roudebush, program chair of Ivy Tech College’s Energy Technology program.

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Long answer: Curtailment, congestion and wind speed

Energy transmission in Indiana is run through the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, commonly known as MISO. The group manages the flow of electricity by balancing demand versus what’s being generated, which means there are times where excess electricity is being produced.

“(Sometimes) we don’t need the power as demand is down or another power plant is selling power to the customers instead,” Roudebush wrote in an email. “Power plants compete on the grid. A coal plant, a natural gas plant, or a wind farm will all bid to sell power during some part of the day and MISO will pick the cheapest bid for the day. Generally, wind is the cheapest but not always.”

John Hall, assistant professor at the University of Buffalo’s Engineering and Applied Sciences, focuses his research on the technical aspects of wind energy. While some wind turbines will operate normally, he said others may be stopped to match production with grid demand.

“Basically, you have the utility company distributing power and buying and selling in real time,” Hall said. “Based on how much they need, wind farms would turn turbines off accordingly.”

The industry calls a wind turbine that is not spinning “parked,” Hall said, and this is done with a braking system that holds the rotor in place. Once energy demand rises, the brake is released and almost immediately the turbine starts delivering electricity to the grid again.

Another obvious answer to why the turbines may not be spinning is that the wind speed is not high enough.

Generally, turbines can generate power with wind speeds as low as 5 mph. If speeds fall below that, there just isn’t enough to turn the sometimes massive blades.

On the other hand, wind that is too fast can cause damages to the turbines, so operators of wind farms will park the rotors until the wind calms down. Turbines generally shut down when wind speeds hit about 55 mph.

“The system is not designed for that, so they shut it down,” Hall said. “That’s OK because we rarely get winds over that speed, and it would not be worthwhile to design for that for the few instances.”

To help improve the efficiency of wind farms, Hall said banking excess power is a huge research area right now.

“There are studies on new battery technology and super capacitors and different ways to get around that issue,” Hall said.

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Another solution for storing excess electricity is by making hydrogen, Hall said. Wind farm operators would be able to create hydrogen and store it for use later when the grid demand increases.

While fossil fuel plants may be more responsive to the constantly moving supply and demand for electricity, Hall said the future depends on renewables.

“If folks are concerned about climate and want a better future for the next generation and everything, renewable energy like wind and hydro-electric and tidal power are all really not just sources of energy but vital to perhaps our existence,” Hall said.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter.

IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.