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.

References for this post:

Monday, February 15, 2016

The stormwater connection to a viable fishery: NC crabs in decline

This post is the first in a series of posts by the graduating class of the Master in Coastal and Ocean Policy program.  As part of their capstone, each student is working on a policy analysis of a coastal topic of interest to them.  

First up...

Doug Barker is a graduate student in the Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His interest in fisheries related issues stem from previous experience as a fishing guide on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and participating in water quality studies during his academic career. Living in the coastal region of North Carolina over the past 20 years, he has developed personal relationships with people who participate in both the commercial and recreational fisheries. 

The North Carolina blue crab fishery is the state’s largest commercial fishery. In fact, North Carolina is second in the nation for blue crab production. However, in recent years, the blue crab fishery has declined and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) listed the blue crab as a species of a concern.  

Catches in the commercial blue crab fishery experienced an upward trend peaking in the mid-to-late 90s at an estimated average catch of 40 million lbs. Since 2005, average catches have declined by a third to approximately 27 million lbs. Scientists attribute the decline to deterioration in estuarine water quality caused by stormwater runoff. Failure to revitalize the blue crab fishery threatens the livelihoods of fishermen, the vibrancy of coastal culture, and the state’s economic role in the production of US seafood.  

The northeast portion of the state supports the largest fishing grounds for the fishery. Development and agriculture increased rapidly over the last several decades corresponding to the time period of the decline in blue crab catches. What people do not realize is that activities such as development and agriculture, including pork and poultry farming, have far reaching affects on the coastal estuarine systems. One could argue that there are too many fishermen fishing for the same resource, yet participation in the fishery has been decreasing since the late 1990s. Data collected on catch per unit effort indicates a decrease in overall catches. Both trends in participation and catch per unit effort indicate a decline in the fishery.  

Reduced water quality from stormwater runoff impacts reproduction and the survival of the blue crab species. Pollutants introduced from urbanized areas accumulate on roofs, sidewalks, and roadways. The agriculture industry use fertilizers and accumulate massive amounts of animal waste. The vast majorities of these pollutants are washed away by rainwater flowing through river basins entering the state’s watersheds. Problems associated with stormwater runoff impacting the blue crab fishery include harmful algal blooms from increased nutrient introductions, low dissolved oxygen levels in the water, sediment pollution from increased erosion, decreases in ideal salinity levels, and chemical introductions. All of these conditions have occurred in state waters and continue to be issues that influence the lifecycle and biology of the blue crab. 

The NCDMF implemented a Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for effectively managing the fishery in order to maintain a sustainable fishery. Current regulations in the FMP take a passive approach to the problem with water quality in regards to non-point source pollution. The management strategy addressing water quality related to non-point source pollution is primarily voluntary and incentive based. According to the Draft 2015 Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, the inspection and permitting process for the agricultural industry do not have consistent measures in place that monitor water quality. Certain feedlot operations require permitting and annual inspections, yet concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for pork and cattle do not have water quality measures in place. Poultry CAFOs are inspected based on complaints lodged with state regulators. The management strategy further emphasizes the need for improvement to current agricultural and construction practices reducing sediment and nutrient influxes.  

So, why should anyone care about the decline in the blue crab industry? 

Research conducted by North Carolina Sea Grant discussed that globalization impacts North Carolina’s declining seafood industry as a whole. The study recommended continued access to the waterfront and improvements to water quality are necessary encourage the viability of the seafood industry. The problem with water quality isn’t just an issue for crab fisherman, but for all people who live and enjoy North Carolina’s waterways. The conflict in values over the utilization of the coastal zones presents problems that can be attributed to poor water quality. The declining water quality adversely affects marine ecosystems and has introduced swimming advisories and closures to shellfish harvest. Our health, our ecosystem’s health, and a part of North Carolina’s heritage can be affected by non-point source pollution.  

Guest Post at Socializing Finance: Super Bowl's New Money


I have a guest post at the international blog, Socializing Finance.  The post reflects on the Super Bowl... America's best watched state of the union show.  In particular, I focus on PayPal commercial that ran during event (embedded above). 

An except is below, check out the post in full here.

The Super Bowl is a favorite American pastime.  Akin to asking someone if they will watch the event is equivalent to ensuring someone has a warm home in which to share the holidays. 
In general, 1/3 of America watches the football-sporting event every year. Super Bowl 50, garnered 114 million viewers.  For comparison, 126 million viewers turned out for the 2012 presidential election. 
I consider the Super Bowl as a type of ‘State of the Union.”  The commercials, halftime show, network’s computer graphics depict a good portion of America’s consciousness at that moment.  It reflects what Americans’ value, their hopes and their fears. 
This snapshot in time and heightened public attention (a whopping 4+ hours) is of great value and symbolizes common ground.  Consider a 30 sec commercial slot during the 1st Super Bowl in 1967 sold for $298,045 (in 2015 US dollars) whereas, the same time allotment last week sold $5M. 
Hence, BudLight ran a commercial referencing America’s polarized Congress to begin a discussion about the things America agrees on: comedians, raunchy innuendoes (big ‘cauc’-us, hehe!), and of course cheap beer.  (BudLight’s affiliated beer “family” Budweiser is known for the ever-classic Super Bowl commercial Bud-Weis-Er frogs). 
This year’s Super Bowl took place in San Francisco. 
The event drew out less affluent locals protesting against the reduced accessibility of the city for living, working and enjoyment caused by new concentrations of wealth in the tech industry.  The conditions prevail throughout the Bay Area, including San Jose, home of the “Silicon Valley.”  (I write a bit about this and some of the complexities it surfaces for underlying value conflicts in debates over disaster losses in the US.)
In an era of heightened political concern over income inequality, PayPal’s Super Bowl commercial (above) is brilliant if not also a bit ironic.  PayPal, headquartered in San Jose, aired a 45 second ad cleverly spinning unique concepts of ‘Old Money’ and ‘New Money.’ 
Visit Socializing Finance to read the rest! 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Facts and Values: Science and Advocacy: The Zika Virus and Women's Rights

CDC: Countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission
The Zika virus spreading rapidly through Latin America and headlines has also made it's way into religious controversy.  

Catholics for Choice, an advocacy group, founded in 1973, has harnessed scientific findings from the CDC to request the Pope reverse the Church's stance on birth control.  Several political issues are wrapped up together with the scientific fact.  

Of grave concern with the Zika virus is the potential for fetal microcephaly.  The CDC writes, 
Zika virus can be spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. There have been reports of a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies of mothers who had Zika virus while pregnant. Knowledge of the link between Zika and birth defects is evolving, but until more is known, CDC recommends special precautions for pregnant women.  Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus is spreading. If you must travel to one of these areas, talk to your healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip. 
Using this potential link between the virus and the brain condition, Catholics for Choice, invoke their perceived injustices in the the rights of women to access birth control especially in El Salvador.  From a press release on their website
When you travel tomorrow to Latin America, we ask you, Francis, to make it clear to your brother bishops that good Catholics can follow their conscience and use birth control to protect themselves and their partners. Make it clear to the Catholic hierarchy that women’s decisions around pregnancy, including the decision to end a pregnancy, need to be respected, not condemned. 
“Pope Francis has an opportunity to reverse a longstanding injustice on this trip,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “If he wants a church that lifts up the poor, he must remove the birth control ban that falls so harshly on the women of Mexico and Central and South America, and allow women to make a decision about their pregnancies.” 
“In El Salvador, women are imprisoned if they are even suspected of having an abortion, while the Catholic hierarchy continues its heartless ban on birth control. We need Pope Francis to stand up for the vulnerable women here, who deserve to make their own decisions about pregnancy,” commented Rosa Hernandez of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir El Salvador, who co-signed the ad in El Diario de Hoy.
The organizations ad running in several international papers concludes with a plea to the Pope to "not play politics with the lives of women."  

Yet the whole scenario is political: invoking scientific facts to support policy change,  appealing to an individual and symbol of great political power (the Pope), international politics, human rights, and of course a classic political symbol of women, motherhood and children.    

This is not to say anything about rights or wrongs of the scenario.  That I will leave that for others active in this area of work.  

Instead I seek only to use the case as an example of the need for social values to make facts meaningful; and likewise, the role of advocacy in connecting scientific facts to a policy context. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

San Francisco's Super Bowl teaches us about disaster risk governance


Last night 1/3 of America watched the Broncos beat the Panthers in the 50th Super Bowl.  Leading up to the event San Franciscans protested the rising cost of living in the beloved city.  The protesters claim long gone are the days of aspiring artistry and gentle wanderers with flowers in their hair.  Now, if you are going to San Francisco be sure to bring lots of cash... more cash than most Americans ever fathom carrying. 

As a desirable place to live- beautiful, progressive, comfortable climate- the wealth wealth flocked there.  In more recent years they have flocked in association with the tech industry that pays handsomely.  

Thus, as a city and the broader Bay Area region has on the one hand,  done well for itself.  It has established a productive industry bringing money people to the area that are capable of paying taxes and fostering upkeep of their communities.  Real estate is booming which is favorable for the national economy.  

On the other hand, it has alienated its residents you call the area home, love it, but are finding it increasingly difficult to live there.  This eats away at the culture of SF, exacerbates the image of inequality in America and is very anti- love, flowers and assimilation.   

A recent article in The Atlantic covered the protests and reports the San Francisco government seeks to improve the matter by increasing affordable housing in the city.  However, their are zoning regulations limiting how the city builds.  The Atlantic explains, 
In other words, this is a zoning problem. In the early 1970s, a series of decisions were made to “downzone” areas of the city to prevent it from changing, Metcalf said. Those decisions limited where high buildings could be built and restricted where dense office and residential spaces could go up. The below San Francisco Planning Department map indicates that most of the residential lots in the city are restricted to three units per lot.
This was one of the things that first struck me when I arrived in San Francisco. I’d heard about the high prices and lack of housing, and thought the city would be, like New York, finding creative ways to pack in more living spaces and cars and offices and people. But San Francisco isn’t very dense at all. Some of its hottest areas are still taken up by multi-level above-ground parking lots. Its streets are dotted with one-story commercial buildings, even in neighborhoods like the Marina District, where people really, really want to live. Its waterfronts still feature empty warehouses and industrial spaces, and even developers who want to divide Victorian homes into separate units to fit more people are rebuffed. In much of the city, anyone who builds a new unit is required to also build a parking space with it—one of the only ways to get around that regulation is to have a hearing. Stand atop Twin Peaks and look over San Francisco, and it’s hard to see any apartment buildings at all: Most of the buildings are either the tall office buildings of downtown, the colonial Spanish-style churches of the Mission, or the three- and four-story homes that are just about everywhere else. 
It’s a big contrast to New York City, where you can’t miss the scaffolding and cranes and construction when you walk down the street, regardless of what borough you’re in (okay, maybe not Staten Island). In New York, parking garages are compressed into small spaces with wacky stacking systems where cars ride elevators to be parked. There, just about every empty warehouse, building, or park is in the process of being converted into something. In San Francisco, everywhere you turn there are empty lots or empty commercial buildings that would make for great spots for apartments. 
“We have plenty of room to add housing—but yes, it would mean bigger, taller buildings, it would also mean more people getting around by bike and transit rather than driving,” Metcalf said.  
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors could change the city’s zoning to allow more tall buildings, but they’d likely face opposition from residents who still don’t want the city to change, Metcalf said. After all, if you own a home in San Francisco, you are likely seeing its value skyrocket as demand continues to increase and supply remains low. And why support new building that might block your view or your sun or bring hassles into the neighborhood?
In another context, some are concerned that San Fran is built up plenty.  An earthquake similar to the one of 1906 could, depending on your assumptions, cause damages upwards of $300B.  Increasing housing units necessarily increases loss potential and increasing affordable housing increases the number of people in the area that can't afford (almost by definition) volatility in housing costs say, costs in insurance coverage.  

While the iconic San Francisco may be the most expensive place in America to live and is therefore most prominent in the affordable housing debate, it is one heard from far and wide: Miami, The Keys, Boulder (CO), New York City and Long Island, Hawaii...and well, pretty much anywhere people want to live that also has a thriving economy.   

Thus brings about the important question: Who is responsible for the shared risk of urban development?  As is the case for taking risks, their are benefits: real estate profit, jobs, economic growth... Super Bowls.  But also the potential drawbacks: loss of culture, loss of "home" for the less well to do, and damage from extreme events.  

The common argument that insurance can manage this issue, rates should reflect the "real" risk, and disaster risk must be communicated unfairly oversimplifies the social values at stake.  The perspective holds that insurers know best how a city should be zoned, who should rule and what should matter.    

I would guess that San Franciscans beg to differ.  As The Atlantic quoted one resentful SF local as saying, “Everything they build is for rich people.”  Indeed, rich people are a great way to offload public risk.  

But where does the rest of America get to live if not in the very places that symbolize the cultural and economic achievement of the nation.