Friday, December 16, 2016

Science, Policy & Politics: Class Project!!

This past Fall 2016, graduate students in my (i.e. Dr. Weinkle) Science, Policy & Politics (MCOP 592) turned out an impressive looking website on Beach Nourishment.

The course sought to map a knowledge controversy or looked at another way, a controversy that makes use of difference knowledges.  So... people fight over facts in order to fight over values.

It was my pleasure to guide the class through their inquiry and help them grapple with conflicting information and perspectives.

The project began with a controversy of interest: Recreational fishermen and beach nourishment projects.  The class focused hard on fishermen, prodded the peer reviewed literature and information available from other sources: businesses groups, online forums, and NGO's.  At this point, they came to an "Aha!" moment:  There are lots of facts, ways of knowing about these projects, and interests demonstrate preferences for each.  Fishermen are but one interest involved in a far larger social, political and scientific controversy surrounding beach nourishment.    

***In more recent years, the US Army Corps of Engineers has changed their vernacular from "Beach nourishment"to storm risk reduction projects- It's spin either way.  But then, strategic planning is now called self- study =).

And so, they branched out... Who else is involved here?  What do they say? Where do they get their information?  How does everyone fit together?

Check out the site here:

While informative, keep in mind that the site is a class project and a learning tool.  All error is due the clumsiness of the learning experience (including, my own).

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

UNCW Student Debt Low Compared to Other Colleges and Universities

Just in time for Black Friday shoppers!  

Word on the town is that students of UNCW graduate with lower student loan debt than those from other institutions.  The beach and a bargain =) 

UNCW news reports: 
On average, students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington graduate with lower debt than their peers at other institutions, a study of 1,200 colleges and universities has found. The university ranked 55th among public institutions with the lowest debt load and 124th on a combined list of public and private institutions. 
Within North Carolina, the university ranked 5th in minimizing student debt.

Read more here.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Center for Marine Science Open House and Science Carnival

The UNCW Center for Marine Science (CMS) on Crest Campus is hosting an Open House and Science Carnival, October 1 11-3:30.  Students of the Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy program will man a booth passing out flyers and answering questions.  

Come visit!  Crest Campus is Beautiful and there is sure to be some fun stuff to see, touch and learn =)

You can find more information about the event on the CMS website

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New Op-Ed about Science, Policy and Politics

I (Jessica Weinkle) have an op-ed in the Wilmington Star News Today.  

The title is a bit harsher than I would have preferred.  But the work is meant to respectfully approach the touchy subject of scientists and subtle issue advocacy work. 

The work served as a good case study to kick off the start of the new semester today!  My class didn't read the op-ed.  Instead, we used some of the materials I referenced in the op-ed to stir a good discussion about facts and values and different expectations one holds for scientists and policymakers.

You can read about it here.  An excerpt is below...
Politics is the essence of community deliberation. Inclusive political discourse is well served by a healthy democracy. Today, a resounding swath of America feel left out of the political conversation and in turn, many are skeptical America’s claims to democratic governance. 
Resolving political conflict often has more to do with addressing differences in the public’s moral consciousness than it does with advancing science. Yet, in recent decades the language of science and technology - often wrongly mistaken as free from personal values - has replaced a user-friendly moral discourse. 
North Carolina is a heated battleground for political debate played out through a haze of science. The state garnered national comedic reputation and the science community became enraged when the N.C. legislature regulated the assumptions used in producing sea level rise estimates.
The estimate is a key number in calculating erosion rates used to regulate coastal development. Those opposed to development tend to favor higher estimates of sea level rise. 
However, when estimates of risk threaten the state economy and political stability, it is common for policymakers to control the conception of risk imposed upon the public. 
Most recently, Dr. Stanley Riggs, of East Carolina University, left his long-term, respected position with the Coastal Resources Commission Science Panel due to concerns that the panel’s work has become politicized by pressure to produce information supporting a rigorous policy of growth and development. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

MCOP Students in the News

One of the features of the Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy program is the flexibility to learn more about a specific area of research through independent research projects guided by a UNCW faculty member.

Recently, two MCOP students, Jonathan Bingham and Kathy Cyr, worked on a research project overseen by Dr. Larry Cahoon exploring the potential for the Port of Wilmington to employ lighter vessels.  The work received press by the locally influential environmental interest organization, The Coastal Federation.  

In a post-PanaMax world, ports (and the economy they support) are struggling to remain accessible to cargo ships.  Dredging wider and deeper channels is an option, but it expensive and taxing on ecosystems.  Cahoon, Bingham, and Cyr found that lighter vessels provide a promising policy alternative.

You can read the story here.

Way to go Kathy and Jonathan!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Navassa Superfund Redevelopment

Yesterday evening, Dr. Jennifer Biddle, assistant professor, MCOP advisor, and Coastal Federation Board Member, led a group of Public and International Affairs graduate students in providing an original report to the local town, Navassa, on opportunities for redeveloping a Superfund sight.  

The group effort was highlighted in the local Star News yesterday.  Below is an excerpt,
The students' work on Navassa’s behalf is part of a collaboration between Navassa and UNCW, which is supported by the Environmental Protection Agency’s College/Underserved Community Partnership. The UNCW students working on Navassa’s behalf are earning their master's degrees in public administration or coastal and ocean policy. 
“It’s a great opportunity for the students to work with real-world clients,” said Jennifer Biddle, assistant professor in UNCW’s Department of Public & International Affairs. “And also, the goal is to really help the town. The town is our client. We’re giving policy and planning assistance.” 
The students’ assessment is a first step of a comprehensive policy analysis UNCW will give Navassa for the restoration and redevelopment of its contaminated land. A policy analysis is a tool to assess the merit and feasibility of redevelopment alternatives before the formal policy formation phase begins. 
A well-done policy analysis, which often undergoes several iterations, increases the likelihood that proposed legislation will be adopted, according to the report, “Exploring the Future of Navassa: An Integrative and Evaluative Framework,” Biddle and the students wrote. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Negotiating beach nourishment benefits and costs

Jonathan Bingham is working on his Master of Science degree in Coastal and Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he also received his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences.   He has lived in Wilmington for almost a decade. Jonathan began his career project management branch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington, NC, and quickly became involved in Federal navigation, coastal storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration projects across coastal North Carolina. His background and experience, in the sciences and involvement in complex policies and politics, ignited his interest in the coastal policy field. 

Coastal storm damage reduction project at Carolina Beach, NC undergoing its final federally funded periodic nourishment in April 2016.
Beaches – many parties have an interest in them.  Beachfront homeowners, the summertime tourist, businesses that make a living from beachgoers, outdoorsy folks, tax collectors, and even those people who bike to the beach because they’d rather not fight for parking (especially this guy right here). 

Since the 1960s, our NC beach towns have grown substantially.  Today, multi-million dollar properties fill the coastline and tourism is a cornerstone of our local and national economy. This valuable development exists in areas vulnerable to flooding and storm damage.  Because of this modern day beach-lifestyle “baggage,” someone has to pay to strategically develop and protect beach communities from storm damages.

The federal government invested in multiple programs through different federal agencies as a means to protect, reduce, and enable community development in these areas. In the 1960s, the federal government started investing in Coastal Storm Damage Reduction (AKA beach nourishment) projects to protect and reduce damages at beaches, and the communities have become highly dependent on beach nourishment projects for their livelihood. I expect a major shift in federal funding and coastal policies in the near future, as the federal government is tightening budgets and politically beginning to slip out of this costly, never-ending business.

The federal government decided to enter into the business of protecting citizens and property from flood damages in 1936 (Flood Control Act), following serious flooding on the Mississippi River in the 1920’s and 1930’s that brought the problem to the national spotlight. 

It wasn’t long before the government began protecting beach communities from the serious flooding associated with hurricanes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implements the federal government’s coastal storm damage reduction program. These pre-disaster mitigation actions are very efficient at reducing storm damages, when beach nourishment is consistently maintained. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, fully supports preserving, protecting, developing, restoring and enhancing, the Nation's resources within the coastal zone. Later, in 1982 Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in order to curb any further development using federal expenditures and financial assistance. This act, enforced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), realized that the federal government has historically subsidized and encouraged development, such as federal flood insurance, on coastal barriers, resulting in threats to human life, health, and property; the loss of natural resources; and the expenditure of millions of tax dollars each year.

There’s a disconnect happening between federal agencies, and conflicting missions cloud the overall goal of the federal government. The questions at hand are: what should the federal government’s pre-disaster stake in coastal development be? Then, does the existing legislation meet the goal? I chose to look at the protection portion of a federal coastal investment policy under the Corps of Engineers, and build a recommendation that uses our current state of development, trends and projections in order to improve the program for all stakeholders involved (federal and local taxpayers, home-owners, tourists, business owners, etc.).

Coastal storm events causing billion-dollar losses and total costs associated
with the storms (2013 dollars) Source: NRC 2014
There are limits to how nourishment project costs and benefits are calculated.   This alters the degree of justification and importance reported to Congress.   On top of that, the trends indicate fiscal responsibilities are shifting away from the federal government and towards the beach communities, likely because of shifting federal budget priorities. However, because of a decrease in the Corps’ funding for coastal storm damage reduction projects, trends demonstrate that storm impact costs are rising, such as: higher losses and post-storm damage costs, and a higher percentage of federal aid to cover these costs. 

Percentage of federal aid through the years following major hurricanes
Source: Michel-Kerjan 2013
I aim to meet policy goals such as: increase the reduction of flood damages to property and infrastructure, increase coastal emergency safety and reduction in loss of life, decrease federal emergency declarations, reduce federal expenditures towards managing coastal risk, and develop an improved benefit-cost analysis, which includes real risks and actual benefits. After an alternatives analysis, I found that restructuring the Corps’ program with updated Congressional legislation would best address the issues surrounding the protection portion of a federal coastal investment policy. In seeking coastal resiliency for the future, a reduction of risk to federal taxpayers, and a true benefit-cost analysis, I saw the need to reduce the federal government’s cost-share in the CSDR program and to establish consistent federal values across multiple agencies for pre-disaster mitigation actions. These recommended actions support a reformed federal coastal investment strategy, with consistently funded and supported policies and programs, in order to lessen overall costs for all parties involved with coastal living.

National Flood Insurance Program and Land Management

Hayley Wise will graduate from the Masters of Coastal and Ocean Policy program this Spring 2016.  She comes to her capstone project with experience in private insurance and administration of the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program. 

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was introduced in 1968 after the private market failed to carry the risk associated with floods. In addition to offering affordable premiums, the NFIP was tasked with encouraging sound land use, minimizing flood losses, and guiding development away from locations threatened by flood hazards. The latter of the two is where the NFIP fails. The NFIP has become a driver in unsustainable coastal development. 

With 52% of the United States population living in a coastal county the demand for coastal development is high. Developers want to make money, and people want to live near the beach. It has caused poor decision-making, which puts property and life in danger. The NFIP uses subsidized rates to offer affordable premiums to homeowners. These rates do not allow for people to realize the real risk associated with coastal living. There is little financial risk associated with building on the coast. Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy are extreme but very realistic examples of the damages caused by poor coastal development.  The reliance on man-made structures, such as levees, dikes and sea walls, cannot be our only solution.  

It is my attempt to bring this issue to light and offer ways in which we can build a better coast. Using insurance as a tool to allow people to realize the true risk of coastal building will encourage smarter floodplain development.   In many cases there are building code regulations to reduce the potential of flood damage, however they are often not strictly enforced or only meet minimum standards. It does nothing but endanger a community and put people in harms way if building codes are lax or not enforced. 

The NFIP has a program in place, since 1990, called the Community Rating System (CRS). CRS offers premium discounts for community’s that require higher than the minimum standards for floodplain management. The program uses a class scale system to determine the discounts. Class 9 is a community that participates in the CRS but only to the lowest level. A class 1 is a community that receives the highest discount of 45% off NFIP premiums. There is only 1 community in the United States, Roseville, CA, that is a Class 1 CRS community. Many of the remaining participating communities fall between a Class 8 and 6. The CRS is a great tool but has been plagued with low participation. The CRS points can be earned through a variety of activities.  Here are just a few: 

Outreach projects
Hazard disclosure
Flood protection assistance
Promote flood insurance
Open space preservation
Higher regulatory standards
Acquisition and relocation
Floodplain management planning

There are areas around the county that are creating a more resilient coast. One great example of acquisition and relocation is the New Jersey Blue Acres Program. After Extratropical storm Sandy, the state of New Jersey began a program using Federal Disaster money to remove homes from high-risk flood areas. The goal of the program is to reduce the risk of future catastrophic floods, and to help move people out of harm’s path. As of September 2015, The Blue Acres Program had received 519 accepted offers from homeowners to purchase homes. If the homes were damaged during Sandy, the program pays the homeowner pre-damage value. 243 of the 519 homes have completed demolition. The properties will be conserved as green space for recreation and conservation. 

It is not realistic to say every house in danger should be forced to retreat from the coast, but we can create a better and more resilient coast using tools such as the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System. Instead of throwing money into losses again and again, more funding should be given to prevent losses in the first place. In the long run, this could make the program more successful than its current state. As more and more people move to the coast and as world population continues to grow it is extremely important to make change now to protect the precious coast that we all love.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Southern Flounder: Fish, family and uncertainty

Shelby White is a graduate student in the Masters of Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. As a part of the commercial fishing industry in NC, she has witnessed first-hand the issues occurring between commercial and recreational user groups. Shelby's research focuses on the socio-economics of commercial fishermen in the Albemarle Sound, providing insight into how recent southern flounder regulations will impact the commercial fishing industry in the area. 

Historical accounts of eastern North Carolina often begin with tales of Algonquin tribes settling along the bountiful coastline and relying on the water as a means of survival. Using primitive tools to harvest species such as shad, striped bass, and herring, the Algonquin tribes and their discovery of North Carolina’s invaluable water resources paved the dreary road for what has become fisheries management.

The term “fisheries management” sounds relatively simple. Professionals and scientists within the field make sure fishes and other marine species are sustainable and viable for years to come. Since the purpose of management is to sustain fisheries that are important to both the commercial and recreational industry, it would seem that both stakeholders accept management decisions and regulations with ease. Unfortunately, fisheries management is far more contentious and convoluted, with most management decisions exacerbating conflicts between and within the commercial and recreational industry. These decisions must account for multiple stakeholders and potential user group conflicts, making fisheries management more about managing people, rather than fish. 

North Carolina’s commercial and recreational fishing industries are a source of tourism, recreation, employment, income, and food for the state. However, these two groups of fishermen often find themselves at odds with one another when it comes to fisheries management and regulation. With the decline of many fish species equally important to each industry, commercial and recreational fishermen blame each other. As a result, fishery managers struggle to make equitable and politically palatable decisions.

The recent controversy over the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) in the Albemarle Sound of North Carolina highlights the difficulties of fisheries management. Southern flounder is one of the most prominent species found in North Carolina, with significance to both the commercial and recreational industry. The southern flounder is the most economically valuable finfish species in the commercial industry and a popular target species in the recreational industry. 

Recent stock assessments of the southern flounder place the species under “concern,” raising alarm between commercial and recreational fishermen. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) suggests the sustainability of the species at current harvest is questionable. Other scientists, however, claim these results do not account for the mixing of stocks and suggest the data is highly uncertain. With potential for regulation, commercial and recreational fishing interests politicize the science and practice of fisheries management. Commercial fishermen question the accuracy of the stock assessment and the legality of proposed management plans, while recreational fishermen focus on extensive regulation of large mesh gill net practices.

Faced with making decisions mired in scientific uncertainty and cultural value tradeoffs, the Marine Fisheries Commission, the regulating body of NCDMF, held several meetings inviting public comment from all stakeholders. Public comment included outcries from commercial fishermen whose livelihoods were at stake, as well as recreational fishermen who believe the large mesh gill net is to blame for southern flounder declines. Despite pleas from both sides, the Marine Fisheries Commission developed regulations that affected both groups of fishermen, pitting them against each other once again.  

Evidence demonstrating flounder stock variability decline, naturally or anthropogenically caused, increases hostility between the commercial and recreational industry. It is important that the future of fisheries management account for these user group conflicts and find a way to support regulations that not only aim to bring back North Carolina’s once thriving fisheries, but that are also politically acceptable to all stakeholders. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hurricane Stats: Recent changes to 1969 Hurricane Camille

NOAA maintains North Atlantic tropical cyclone data and history in a catalogue known as HURDAT.  For a while now, scientists have reanalyzed data in the catalog in consideration of a wide range of historical information and scientific advancements to improve data quality and completeness.  

Such reanalysis projects often result in changes to a storm's "Best Track," the authoritative scientific agreement of where the storm traveled and its characteristics along the way.  These updates may change the historical or scientific significance of a storm.  For instance, reanalysis may result in a drop or increase in central pressure, an increase or decrease in storm winds, and thus the storm's Saffir-Simpson category and perceptions of the hurricane record.  

The Landsea et al (2004) reanalysis of the 1992 Hurricane Andrew provides a great example of this. 

Until the reanalysis took place, Andrew was on record as a Category 4 landfall.  Thus, between 1900 the time of publication (which can be extended to today) there were 2 category 5 hurricane landfalls in the US mainland on record (Camille and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935).  

The Andrew reanalysis project resulted in the scientific re-categorizing of the storm as a Category 5.  Overnight, the probability of a Cat 5 US mainland landfall increased by 50%!      

Recently, Kieper et al published a very captivating account of the reanalysis of the 1969 Hurricane Camille life history in BAMS.  The article mixes oral history from affected residents and scientists with considerations of virtues and limitations of historical data collection methods. 

Hurricane Camille has long fascinated scientists and the meteorologically inclined.  The storm's intensity increased remarkably rapidly and caused widespread devastation.  It has long been considered the strongest storm to make landfall.

However, the reanalysis project resulted in adjustments demoting Hurricane Camille's first place status as strongest to affect the US.  The reanalysis resulted in downgrading the storm's peak intensity of 165 knts to 150 knts and scientists deepened historical central pressure data from 909mb to 900mb.  
Those interested can find several other adjustments to the historical record in the fascinating article.  

When data is rare such as, the case with hurricane events, changing understandings of the past and thus, expectations for the future, is a paramount difficulty.    

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Pointy End of Hook: Fisheries Policy and the Importance of At-Sea Enforcement

Eric Quigley is a graduate student in the Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  He graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2006 with a BS in Management.  Currently, he is an active duty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard with six years of at-sea experience aboard three ships enforcing Federal and multi-national laws and treaties including, leading approximately 120 fisheries enforcement vessel boardings in the Gulf of Mexico and Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

Illegal incursions in the United States Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) increased by 13% from 2014-2015.  The increase reflects a general trend over recent years.  The continued illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing in US waters have led the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the US President to encourage development of new frameworks to improve effective management these resources.  A common ethical perspective holds that despite the manner by which a fish is caught (legal or illegal), once brought to shore fishermen should bring the animal to market for consumption.

The question then arises, how does society, or even just the US, curb illegal fishing while bringing illegally caught fish to market remains an acceptable practice?

US Exclusive Economic Zones
The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 established an EEZ extending 200 nautical miles from the coast of the United States and its territories- an area encompassing approximately 3.4 million square nautical miles.  Congress enacted the legislation in response to negative impacts on the U.S. economy and U.S. fishing fleet financial interests by foreign fishing vessels exploiting fish stocks in close proximity to the U.S.  In 1997 Congress amended The Act to include fish stock rebuilding and sustainability mandates as policy goals; and it reauthorized The Act in 2007.

The ability to effectively enforce the related laws, rules, and regulations of a policy is critical to policy success.  Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implements the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the U.S. Coast Guard enforces the laws resulting from the Act.  That is, the Coast Guard enforces the sovereignty of the US EEZ, which in turn, supports NOAA’s goals of economic prosperity and food security through ocean biological sustainability. 

However, fisheries enforcement is only one of 11 Coast Guard statutory missions.  The other 10 missions, specifically, homeland security, search and rescue and drug enforcement, requires some of the same resources as fisheries protection but promise visually attractive benefits.  For instance, in 2015 the Coast Guard saved 3,500 lives at sea and seized 179 metric tons of drugs worth $4.9 billion.  Each event is an opportunity for media attention thereby overshadowing the fisheries protection activities which are comparatively, less sensational. 

Enforcing regulations that protect resources over the open ocean and in remote areas is a costly endeavor. Hourly rates to operate appropriate Coast Guard ships range from $5,000 to nearly $30,000, and surveillance aircraft cost between $10,000 and $20,000.  The Coast Guard budget of $10B is comparatively small to other agencies such as the US Navy at $127B, US Marine Corps at $22B and the NYPD at $4.8B (NYPD has a similar number of personnel to the USCG) and much of this goes towards the Coast Guard's other “sexy” missions rather than fisheries protection. 

The social and economic benefits from fishery sustainability and national security far outweigh the fiscal costs of Coast Guard operations.  According to budget documents for the Coast Guard, the fisheries industry contributes $186 billion and 2 million jobs to the economy annually.  

Although those numbers may seem large, the US imports upwards of 90% of our seafood, approximately 5.3 million pounds worth approximately $18 billion, and 20% of the seafood we consume is illegally caught.  The World Wildlife Fund estimates that worldwide, $23.5 billion worth of seafood is illegally caught annually.

As nations such as, Indonesia and Argentina, secure their EEZs and take action against illegal fishers new areas for exploitation will become targeted.   The US, with the world's largest EEZ, is at increased risk of having our resources stolen, impacting our economic well-being as well as our fisheries health.  Implementing more stringent policies is a start, however, in order to ensure the laws are followed, at-sea enforcement and deterrence is critical for ultimate policy success.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Weight of a Word

Feletia Lee is graduating with a Master's of Science in Coastal and Ocean Policy in May. She works at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort as the environmental coordinator and will be spending three weeks with the National Park Service in Yellowstone helping collect data for the Cutthroat trout conservation program. 

When I began my internship at the New Hanover County landfill, I didn't really understand what a landfill was. For some reason, I had a mental picture of mountains of trash teeming with rats. Liquid sludge pooled up and swarming with flies. And a stench so horrid it singed my nostril hairs. I had no idea it was so clean and orderly. Sure, there's a smell (not all that bad really), and it has its own version of rats (we call them seagulls), but on the whole, the county landfill is, well, sanitary. But those pools of liquid sludge I envisioned? They do actually have that, but not like I imagined.

Leachate (the liquid sludge) is something every landfill generates. The amount produced is a function of rainfall and whether or not the cell is capped. It's a by-product of decomposition within the landfill. Precipitation falls onto the solid waste, trickles through the layers, and mixes with any disposed liquids already in the landfill cell. By the time the liquid gets to the bottom of the landfill cell, it's chock full of caustic chemicals such as mercury, acids, and ammonia. Leachate is some pretty wicked stuff. Untreated, it could render an aquifer undrinkable or destroy a river ecosystem.

Funny, given how dangerous it is, it's a wonder I've never really heard of it before.

Often when people think about toxic, hazardous waste, they visualize mysterious, ethically challenged super-conglomerate burying rusted vats of fluorescent green bubbling sludge along riverbanks. Mom and Dad scraping leftover food scraps into the trash couldn’t possibly be creating TOXIC WASTE!!

But Mom and Dad are creating toxic sludge, as we all are every time we put carbonaceous materials into the trash. The more organic, or carbon based, material decomposing in a landfill; the more lethal the leachate.

Prior to the 90’s, raw leachate seeped into the ground slowly making its poisonous journey into our aquifers. Since then, we've recognized the dangers involved with leachate and changed how we handle it in order to mitigate the environmental hazards it presents. Today, the federal government heavily regulates leachate to protect public health; however, as regulations become more and more stringent, taxpayers have to invest more and more money into treating leachate.

Even though leachate is toxic, produced in massive quantities, and is difficult and expensive to treat, the public rarely hears about it. Indeed, trusted authorities generally downplay leachate toxicity and connection to everyday household behavior. The EPA explains the process and creation of leachate to the public using the metaphor of percolating coffee. How simple and easy to understand. But also, how NOT dangerous. Coffee is the nectar of the gods in my mind! This innocuous metaphor may aid in the public's understanding of how water moves through a landfill but hinders the appreciation of public and environmental impacts.

What we throw away matters. The danger of leachate is directly related to the content of a landfill. The more carbonaceous material a landfill receives, the higher the ammonia concentrations in the leachate. And that carbon based material is generated by every day folks like me and you.

We all pay for leachate treatment through our garbage and disposal fees and taxes. If leachate continues to increase in potency and federal regulations continue to be more stringent, more money will be needed for better treatment facilities. Those costs will be picked up by taxpayers. By being proactive about controlling the waste stream upfront enables less reactive measures on the back end. In order for policy makers to develop proactive waste stream control, the public needs to understand the dangers associated with leachate.

The language of leachate matters. Discussing threats to public health using misleading imagery conflicts with the public’s right to know. For communities to truly move toward, and participate in, zero-waste measures and reduce taxpayer burdens, it is essential to frame leachate dangers in language that is true and accurate.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Teamwork makes the Dream Work: collaborative management of the nation's estuaries

Alex Goldstein is completing her master's degree in Coastal and Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also received her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Environmental Studies and Spanish. Alex's experiences leading kayaking expeditions in North Carolina's Outer Banks fueled her passion for environmental education and coastal policy. She was drawn to the study of collaborative watershed management because of the complex and critical nature of improving coastal watershed governance, locally and globally. As an advocate and aspiring naturalist, Alex hopes to continue helping individuals and communities value and protect their natural resources.

"Teamwork makes the dream work" is one of my favorite cheesy sayings from summer camp. As the quote implies, one is more likely to reach a goal with the help of others. A common activity used to demonstrate this idea is the "spider web"- A challenge in which participants must cross from one side of a web of ropes to the other, without touching the ropes, and without more than one person passing through the same opening. The activity reveals the benefits and difficulties of collaboration, illuminating the factors that contribute to success. A diverse, small group might complete the “spider web” in less than ten minutes without talking, while a larger group, with fewer leaders may take an hour. 

Environmental problems are similar in that they arise within a web of diverse human actions, social values, economic systems, and complex ecological processes. Following the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s, collaborative environmental management (CEM) emerged as a common policy approach to tackling these complex problems. CEM became particularly popular among national efforts to improve water quality and coastal conditions, which saw substantial decline beginning in the 1960s. 

In both theory and practice, CEM makes sense- it is a logical strategy with the potential to increase public awareness, minimize costs, and bring necessary people and groups to the table, even across local and state boundaries. However, starting in the early 2000s, the widespread application and praise of CEM spurred a wave of critiques. After examining a variety of collaborative programs, scholars pointed out that collaboration is not a "cure-all" for governance problems and the excitement over these processes did not demonstrate evidence of environmental improvement (Imperial, 2005). 

So, does collaboration work? Does teamwork make the dream work? 

Contemporary studies say "yes", asserting that CEM can enhance cooperation and foster belief change among stakeholders, generate funds and support for non-regulatory policy measures, increase implementation success, and yield a measurable, positive effect on environmental outcomes. In addition to establishing certain strengths, this recent wave in CEM research aims to identify which factors contribute to the struggles or successes of CEM efforts.   

Watershed governance is a particularly appropriate and popular context for analyzing collaborative management strategies. In the U.S., scholars and practitioners have consistently looked at the National Estuary Program (NEP). Created in 1987, the NEP is a voluntary federal program that facilitates the identification, planning, and implementation of actions to improve water quality, habitat, and living resources within estuaries and their watersheds. Compared to traditional collaborative institutions, NEP networks tend to involve more levels of government, include more experts in policy development, foster stronger interpersonal relationships, and create greater faith in the fairness of local policy. Overall, these strengths paint a picture of successful collaboration within the NEP, but in reality, a variety of factors determine the effectiveness of each of the 28 programs.

Map of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System
Though many of the problems facing these estuaries are the same, the NEP’s 28 watershed management programs vary in size, structure, representation, and political, social, and ecological context. And while the EPA makes broad claims of the NEP’s efficiency and effectiveness, certain participating estuaries have had more success than others. So for my capstone I will be answering the following questions: What are those keys to success? Which factors pose the greatest challenges? And how can these lessons be applied within North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP)? 

After comparing common variables across multiple programs and determining which correlate with more effective implementation, I will develop recommendations for APNEP’s Policy Board. APNEP is unique in that it is the largest and one of the longest-standing programs. Considering the growing cumulative impacts of human activities, population growth, and climate change to the valuable and nationally-significant Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System, it is critical that APNEP understands how they can best set themselves up for success. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

To TMDL or To TMDon’t?

Anna Reh- Gingerich is a 2nd year Masters student in the Coastal and Ocean Graduate Program at UNCW. She graduated with a B.S. in Zoology with a Marine Biology concentration from Michigan State University in 2013. She is currently working as the Education and Outreach intern for the City of Wilmington's Stormwater Services.  She has always been drawn to water (thanks to a close proximity to the Great Lakes) and coastal ecosystems, mainly wetlands. Anna enjoy getting others excited about nature, wildlife, and our coastal resources and hopes to continue her involvement with community outreach related to coastal management issues. 

“’Tis a lesson you should heed: Try, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.”
 – William Edward Hickson

Nancy Drew was one of my heroines while I was growing up. Her determination to get to the bottom of a case was inspiring and for a short while, I wanted to be a detective just like her. Fast forward about fifteen years and suddenly, I have my chance to be “On the case!”. But instead of secret staircases or old clocks, my search for answers falls within an area my ten-year-old self would never have imagined: pollution legislation.

Even though it may not seem as dreamy as dramatized detective work, investigating problems with established legislation is more common than you think. It often takes review, discussion, revision, re-revision, and then more review to work out the kinks. In our imperfect and dynamic world, the review process never truly ends (or so I hope).

My area of focus recently is nonpoint source pollution in developing areas along the coast, i.e. any pollution whose source cannot be “pointed” out. While it sometimes makes me question whether or not I really want to swim in that section of the beach, there is a lot of value in keeping people informed about where pollution comes from and what they can do to help. As I frantically searched for a capstone project, I tried to focus on ways of curbing nonpoint source pollution, how we can keep shellfish beds open, strategies to reduce swimming advisories, etc.

But something kept nagging at me. We have all of these waterbodies that are “unusable” and lots of legislation detailing how to get back to safe pollution standards: so why hasn’t much changed?

And then I found something intriguing. A clue, you might say. A small article about loose legislation regarding water quality. Specifically the success of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program as set by the Clean Water Act.  A blog cited a United States Government Accountability Office (US GAO) report regarding TMDLs... and further down the rabbit hole I went.

To make complicated legislation short, TMDLs are water quality reduction plans states are required to compile in order to bring down unsafe contamination levels in waterbodies that have been classified as “unusable."  Specifically,
“Each state shall establish for the waters identified…the total maximum daily load, for those pollutants which the Administrator identifies…as suitable for such calculation. Such load shall be established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards with seasonal variations and a margin of safety which takes into account any lack of knowledge concerning the relationship between effluent limitations and water quality”
On paper, it’s great: target the specific pollutants contaminating the waterbodies, reduce the amount entering the waterbody by a certain amount, and continue to review and adapt until water quality improves. Sound easy on paper? Yep. Actually easy to put implement? Not really.  

The U.S. GAO examined a sample of 25 long-standing TMDLs that had been reviewed and approved by the US EPA. Some of the summary results were slightly alarming:
  • 18/25 included evidence for the target pollutant(s)
  • 7/25 provided evidence that reductions would help meet standards
  • 13/25 had adequate information about implementation
  • 7/25 did not have a monitoring plan
    • 8/18 of those that did had no details about how to adapt to the plan

You could say TMDL officials should take a page out one of Miss Drew’s books and gather more evidence for their arguments.

These statistics don’t even scratch the surface regarding the lack of information regarding TMDL production and review. The communication between state and federal regulators is strained, leading to gaps in information at state and local levels. These include lack of knowledge about TMDL development, no implementation plans, and no monitoring. The lack of available funding for states to produce the reports has not helped these problems.

If major legislation detailing methods for water quality improvements is subject to shortcuts, then I think it’s worth investigating how it can be solidified. I’m also going to look into possible funding options to help lift some of the burden off of the states.  

I don’t expect to hit the point of “Case Closed!” in a semester, but I do hope to educate/remind others about the importance of reviewing key legislation.

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