Dec 14, 2012

Mississippi River faces shipping closure as water levels drop | Grist


By Suzanne Goldenberg
The Mississippi as seen from Ed Drager’s tug boat is a river in retreat: A giant beached barge is stranded where the water dropped, with sand bars springing into view. The floating barge office where the tug boat captain reports for duty is tilted like a funhouse. One side now rests on the exposed shore. “I’ve never seen the river this low,” Drager said. “It’s weird.”

The worst drought in half a century has brought water levels in the Mississippi close to historic lows and could shut down all shipping in a matter of weeks — unless Barack Obama takes extraordinary measures.

It’s the second extreme event on the river in 18 months, after flooding in the spring of 2011 forced thousands to flee their homes.

Without rain, water levels on the Mississippi are projected to reach historic lows this month, the National Weather Service said in its latest four-week forecast.

“All the ingredients for us getting to an all-time record low are certainly in place,” said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in St. Louis. “I would be very surprised if we didn’t set a record this winter.”

The drought has already created a low-water choke point south of St. Louis, near the town of Thebes, where pinnacles of rock extend upwards from the river bottom, making passage treacherous.Tim McDonnell/Climate DeskClick to embiggen.

Shipping companies are hauling 15 barges at a time instead of a typical string of 25, because the bigger runs are too big for current operating conditions.

Barges are being sent off with lighter loads, making for more traffic, with more delays and back-ups. Stretches of the river are now reduced to one-way traffic. A long cold spell could make navigation even trickier: Shallow, slow-moving water is more likely to get clogged up with ice.

Current projections suggest water levels could drop too low to send barges through Thebes before the new year — unless there is heavy rainfall.

Local television in St. Louis is already dispensing doom-laden warnings about rusting metal and hazardous materials exposed by the receding waters.

Shipping companies say the economic consequences of a shut-down on the Mississippi would be devastating. About $7 billion in vital commodities typically moves on the river at this time of year — including grain, coal, heating oil, and cement.

Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

Cutting off the transport route would be a disaster that would resonate across the Midwest and beyond.

“There are so many issues at stake here,” said George Foster, owner ofJB Marine Services. “There is so much that moves on the river, not just coal and grain products, but you’ve got cement, steel for construction, chemicals for manufacturing plants, petroleum plants, heating oil. All those things move on the waterways, so if it shuts down you’ve got a huge stop of commerce.”

Local companies which depend on the river to ship their goods are already talking about layoffs if the Mississippi closes to navigation. Those were just the first casualties, Foster said. “It is going to affect the people at the grocery store, at the gas pump, with home construction and so forth.”

And it’s going to fall especially hard on farmers, who took a heavy hit during the drought and who rely on the Mississippi to ship their grain to export markets.

Farmers in the area typically lost up to three-quarters of their corn and soy bean crops to this year’s drought. Old-timers say it was the worst year they can remember.

“We have been through some dry times. In 1954 when my dad and grandfather farmed here they pretty much had nothing because it was so dry,” said Paul McCormick, who farms with his son, Jack, in Ellis Grove, Ill., south of St. Louis. “But I think this was a topper for me this year.”

Now, however, farmers are facing the prospect of not being able to sell their grain at all because they can’t get it to market. The farmers may also struggle to find other bulk items, such as fertilizer, that are typically shipped by barge.

“Most of the grain produced on our farm ends up bound for export,” said Jack McCormick, who raises beef cattle and grain with his father. “It ends up going down the river. That is a very good market for us, and if you can’t move it that means a lower price, or you have to figure out a different way to move it. It all ends up as a lower price for the farmers.”

The shipping industry in St. Louis wants the White House to order the release of more water from the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi, to keep waters high enough for the long barges that float down the river to New Orleans.

Foster said the extra water would be for 60 days or so — time for the Army Corps of Engineers to blast and clear the series of rock pinnacles down river, near the town of Thebes, that threaten barges during this time of low water.

But sending out more water from the Missouri would doom states upstream, such as Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which depend on water from the Missouri and are also caught in the drought.

“There are farmers and ranchers up there with livestock that don’t have water to stay alive. They don’t have enough fodder. They don’t have enough irrigation water,” said Robert Criss, a hydrologist at Washington University in St. Louis who has spent his career studying the Mississippi. “What a dumb way to use water during a drought.”

Elected officials from South Dakota and elsewhere have pushed back strenuously at the idea of sending their water downstream. Foster reckons there is at best a 50-50 chance Obama will agree to open the gates.

But such short-term measures ignore an even bigger problem. Climate scientists believe the Mississippi and other rivers are headed for an era of extremes, because of climate change.

This time last year, the Mississippi around St. Louis was 20 feet deeper because of heavy rain. In the spring of 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up two miles of levees to save the town of Cairo, Ill., and Missouri farmland, and deliberately flooded parts of rural Louisiana to make sure Baton Rouge and New Orleans stayed dry.

“It has kind of switched on us, and it switched pretty quick,” said Coast Guard Chief Ryan Christiansen. “It wasn’t that long ago that you had pretty high flooding, and now we are heading towards record lows.”

Others argue that the Mississippi is already over-engineered, after a century and a half of tampering with the river’s natural flow.

Over the decades, Congress funded a number of projects to deepen the shipping channel, doubling it in depth to nine feet, and building an elaborate system of locks and dams to keep the river in a confined space.

The Army Corps of Engineers is constantly dredging the river’s sandy bottom or building new levees to keep barges moving.

Those efforts to confine the river to a deep and narrow channel are believed to have made surrounding areas more vulnerable to extreme floods — like in 2011, when thousands were forced to flee their homes.

They may also not make sense in the long-term use of the river.

Criss argues the long barge trains floating on the Mississippi are just too big for the upper reaches of the river anyway, and that the industry is unfairly subsidized compared with other transport providers such as rail.

“The whole system around here has been entirely reconfigured to accommodate these monstrous barges,” he said.

“This is the whole problem. We want to run boats on the river with nine-foot drafts that are almost a quarter of a mile long. They are too big for the size of the river up here.”

The Mississippi, Criss said, needs smaller boats.

This story first appeared on the Guardian website as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Suzanne Goldenberg is the U.S. environment correspondent of theGuardian and is based in Washington D.C. She has won several awards for her work in the Middle East, and in 2003 covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq from Baghdad. She is author of Madam President, about Hillary Clinton's historic run for the White House.

Dec 12, 2012

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations: David R. Montgomery

Dirt, soil, call it what you want--it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are--and have long been--using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. A rich mix of history, archaeology and geology, Dirt traces the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. We see how soil has shaped us and we have shaped soil--as society after society has risen, prospered, and plowed through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations.

Great book worth reading... Short term economic gain, industrial agriculture, will eventually lead to erosion and destruction of our soil fertilty and our civilization, unless we learn the falacy of our ways and change... Monte

Dec 9, 2012

Mission 2012 : Clean Water

Larger Image

Above is a map of all groundwater supplies in the United States. The light blue section in the center of the map spanning the majority of the United States from South Dakota to Texas is the Ogallala Aquifer.
Map Maker. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2008, from National Atlas: US Geological Survey:

Main Link:

    Prairie: A Natural History: Candace Savage

    Over 2 million square miles of the United States is covered in prairie and is the largest ecosystem on the continent; the prairies are the heartland of the continent, a vast, windswept plain that flows from Alberta south to Texas and from the Rockies east to the Mississippi River. This is big sky country, and until recently, one of the richest and most magnificent natural grasslands in the world. Today, however, the North American prairies are among the most altered environments on Earth. Thorough, detailed, and scientifically up-to-date, Prairie: A Natural History provides a comprehensive nontechnical guide to the biology and ecology of this fabled environment, offering a view of the past, a vision for the future, and a clear focus on the present. Sidebars throughout highlight various grasslands species, tell fascinating natural history and conservation stories, and present the traditional Native view of the prairie and its inhabitants.

    Editorial Reviews

    "There are people who think of the prairie as boring, and it is hard not to pity them." Bergen’s forthright and fetching celebration of America’s grasslands sometimes feels almost as personal as it is informative, as the author, who’s written numerous books (including Wild Cats and Born to Be a Cowgirl), traces the prairie from prehistory to the present. She shares her enthusiasm for her subject as easily as she shares facts about prairie ecosystems—their geography and climate, their flora and fauna, their taming by agriculture and their uncertain future. Photographs by James R. Page reveal the prairie in its vast, rolling spaces as well as in its intimate corners, where pincushion cacti bloom and red-winged blackbirds perch on cattails. Sidebars offer all sorts of additional information (on ants, droughts and skunks, just to name a few things) and maps and b&w illustrations further enliven the pages. Savage’s instructive main text is lucid and thorough, making this a fantastic guide to North America’s largest ecosystem. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Looking forward to reading this recently obtained book...! Monte Hines

    Immortal River: The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times: Calvin R. Fremling

    This engaging and well-illustrated primer to the Upper Mississippi River presents the basic natural and human history of this magnificent waterway. Immortal River is written for the educated lay-person who would like to know more about the river's history and the forces that shape as well as threaten it today. It melds complex information from the fields of geology, ecology, geography, anthropology, and history into a readable, chronological story that spans some 500 million years of the earth's history.

    Like the Mississippi itself, Immortal River often leaves the main channel to explore the river's backwaters, floodplain, and drainage basin. The book's focus is the Upper Mississippi, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Cairo, Illinois. But it also includes information about the river's headwaters in northern Minnesota and about the Lower Mississippi from Cairo south to the river's mouth ninety miles below New Orleans. It offers an understanding of the basic geology underlying the river's landscapes, ecology, environmental problems, and grandeur.

    Editorial Reviews

    "More complete and comprehensive than any book I know on the Upper Mississippi River."—James W. Eckblad, Department of Biology, Luther College.

    "Calvin Fremling has successfully described and explained a very complex river system and series of events to a general audience. To my knowledge, there has not been any attempt to address the spatial and temporal scope that is contained in Immortal River. In fact, I dare say, there is nothing even close."—Thomas O. Claflin, professor emeritus of biology, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse

    About the Author
    Calvin Fremling is professor emeritus of biology at Winona State University and former aquatic ecologist at the Resources Studies Center, St. Mary's University of Minnesota. He has written numerous articles on the environment and the Mississippi River.

    Great book on Mississippi River, the best I have ever read... chronological story that spans some 500 million years of the earth's history! ...the Mississippi river is three million years old. Man has been active around it for a few thousand years. Modern economies have influenced it for a mere 180 years or so. Calvin Fremling (Mississippi, hunter, fisherman, environmental contractor and scholor [PHD]) did an outstanding, comprehensive, factual job of telling the whole detailed story. All aspects of the Great River: geology, prehistory, history, ecology, flora, fauna and environmental management issues are all discussed in an organized scholorly, yet conversational manner. The complete history of all Corps of Engineer improvements from the early 1800s to modern day are detailed. Even funny dicussions: about Hawkeye Hotel brothel near Lock 19... Mayflies causing motorcyle accidents.. A must read for anyone interested in the Mississippi River! Especialy if you worked for Corps of Engineers or other agencies associated with the Great River... Monte Hines

    Visit Sepp Holzer's Permaculture Farm


    Visit Sepp Holzer's amazing, biodiverse farm 1500 metres (almost 5000 feet) on an Austrian mountain. Most neighbouring farmers mainly 'farm' monocultural spruce plantations, Sepp is able to produce an incredible range of crops through the creation of microclimates and his unique water management systems. Sepp builds water retaining ponds and lake systems high up on the mountain which have become thriving aquacultures producing fish for the table as well as wildlife habitats teeming with biodiversity. The water creates microclimates around the banks where Sepp is able to grow an abundant edible landscape of fruit and nut orchards plus heritage vegetable and grain crops planted along the banks. In a cold Alpine climate you can find oranges, lemons and kiwis growing, as well as numerous other fruits and vegetables.

    Sepp works with nature and also creates habitats where his heritage breed farm animals thrive as well. He uses pigs as tractors to clear land for crops, farms cattle and keeps many breeds of chickens and ducks and makes sure his animals are kept in as natural a way as possible. Seeing this place is believing.

    Take a tour with Josef, Sepp's son, and see for yourself what applied permaculture design can do in a farmed landscape. Human beings can live in harmony with the land, creating wildlife habitats and producing an incredible variety of foods. Sepp and his family have proved it.

    Full Article Link: