It has been a couple of years since I mentioned "The Big Three." With Earth month (April) starting on Wednesday, it seemed like a good time to refresh our collective memories!
The Big Three are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
Today, most people know that birds migrate by flying south during winter, and then fly north again as the days grow longer and temperatures rise. We also understand that some birds fly great distances each year to move from their summer homes to their winter spots.
Did you know that our understanding of bird migration is a relatively recent development?
There is a concept known as the Commons which refers to all of the natural resources that do not belong to any single entity or individual, but belong to society as a whole.
Commons includes air, water, navigable rivers, the oceans and the like. Every living thing needs some combination of air and water to live. And rivers and oceans are in constant motion, so do not lend themselves to individual ownership.
What hasn’t always been clear is whether some have the right to pollute the Commons – or overfish the oceans, rivers and lakes – even if that spoils them for others. Before clean air and water laws, people and businesses used air and water to dumping waste because that didn’t cost anything, which was good for the bottom line. Nevermind that thick, brown smog blanketed urban areas and rivers sometimes caught on fire.
Over time, regulations were enacted to help protect the commonly used air and water so that the decisions of some to release pollution into them were balanced with the health and well-being of all people. These regulations improved life and the economy for everyone. Rivers don’t catch on fire, Lake Erie isn’t dead, and one cannot see the air in US cities.
Yet, problems persist. An “island” of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean is larger than Texas. Coal mining companies literally remove the material from the top of mountains in Appalachia and dump the rock onto the surrounding landscape to mine the coal in the mountains. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” to extract natural gas that is trapped in shale formations deep underground, has resulted in polluted water supplies from Pennsylvania to Australia.
The situation is what economists have long described as “the tragedy of the Commons,” meaning that when individuals make decisions about the use of shared resources, they will act in their own self-interest, whether or not that is good or bad for the community. Another way of putting it is that people and businesses tend to make decisions based on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability.
For those who saw “The Lorax” movie, or read the book, the story is familiar. Use and despoil the local resources so long as a profit can be made, then when the money dries up, move on and start over some place new.
Personally, I object to the term “tragedy” because it implies that there is some aspect of fate that led to the bad situation. It is tragic when a man catches the early train to get home to surprise the family, only to be killed when that train is derailed in a collision with a truck. It is not tragic when a company injects toxic chemicals into a well knowing that 5% of the well casings will fail, and the chemicals then show up in local wells and people get sick. I would not call that a tragedy – I would call it a crime.
After all, everyone needs clean air and clean water to live. No one needs natural gas to live.
Have I mentioned "The Big Three"?
These are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
Humans live just a couple of minutes without oxygen (which is found in the air around us), we survive just a few days without water, and just a few weeks without food. Thus, the term "The Big Three."
Everything else, as much as we might like it or crave it or desire it, are things we do not physically need.
Yet, in America (and elsewhere) people, businesses and the goverenment often put those other things ahead of The Big Three.
Take hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as an example. States have been granting permits to mining companies to install thousands upon thousands of wells that cover landscapes in a strange grid of access roads and rectangular pads for the well and mining equipment. It is like some demented subdivision with no residents.
The mining takes place thousands of feet below the surface in a rock formation made up of shale, which is a sedimnetary rock that was formed when layers of clay particles were subjected to compaction over millenia deep within the Earth.
These shale layers do not occur uniformly beneath the Earth - just as mountains are in some areas and not others. Also, the type of shale is not identical from place to place. In some places, the shale formation contains natural gas trapped in the fine cracks that occur naturally in the shale. Fracking, then is a process whereby liquids are injected into the shale formation to enlarge the cracks and release the natural gas.
(Note: In other places, the shale might contain oil, as in the Green River Formation in Utah & Wyoming. Unlike natural gas, which is, well gaseous, the petroleum in oil shale formations is not so easily extracted, as it is essentially part of the rock, not just trapped in the cracks of the rock.)
There are two ways that fracking is in conflict with The Big Three, specifically with #2, Water.
Fracking reduces the amount of water available for human use. The fracking process uses millions of gallons of water that is combined with chemicals and then injected deep into the ground to crack the shale - that water is taken out of aquifers and streams where it would otherwise be available for human use. And that water is not cleaned and eventually returned to the public water supply. It is effectively unavailable for human use forever.
Fracking has been shown to pollute groundwater aquifers that people use for their household water. The YouTube videos of people lighting the water coming out of their kitchen faucets are not just publicity stunts. In many cases, they are actually the result of dramatically increased amounts of methane getting into individual's wells after fracking wells were installed in their communities. It is not a big leap to think that the fracking process led to the contamination of the aquifers. According to the mining industry itself, 5% of fracking wells have cracked well casings as soon as they are made. (The casing is the lining that is supposed to prevent leakage - into and out of the well.) So, if 1,000 fracking wells are drilled, 50 of those start out with a leaky well casing.
For purely selfish reasons - our lives - perhaps we should keep our priorities straight. Always put The Big Three first.
A friend of mine, Debra Shore, is on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District which oversees management of the stormwater and sewage treatment and disposal systems in much of Cook County. In honor of World Water Day (March 22nd), she sent out the following message that I quote in its entirety.
"We have lived through the golden age of water, the era when water was safe, abundant, and cheap. At least that's what Charles Fishman asserts in his compelling book, The Big Thirst, published in 2011. In the 20th century, Fishman contends, in the United States and the developed world, "we could use as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, for almost no cost." But in our uncertain future, no longer will those three characteristics be present at the same time. Fresh water may be abundant and safe, but it will not be cheap. Water may be cheap and abundant, but it won't be safe.
"The development of water filtration and treatment systems installed in municipalities throughout America between 1900 and 1915 led to the most dramatic improvements in quality of life and increases in life expectancy. "How much did clean water matter?" Fishman writes. "[Two professors] conducted a remarkable analysis, published in 2005, teasing out the impact of the new water treatment methods on the most dramatic reduction in death rates in U.S. history. By 1936, they conclude, simple filtration and chlorination of city water supplies reduced overall mortality in U.S. cities by 13 percent. Clean water cut child mortality in half."
"Yet the miracle of modern water utility - that throughout America we can turn on our taps and expect safe, fresh water to come out every time - has lulled us into thinking it will be like that always. Not so, says Fishman, and I agree.
"Those of us who live near the southern tip of one of the world's great lakes are both lucky and obliged: Lucky because the Great Lakes collectively hold nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water; obliged because we must become better stewards of this precious, irreplaceable resource. In the last six years we have lived through water abundance - two of the wettest years on record (2008 and 2011) -- and water scarcity. The water level in Lake Michigan reached its all-time low in January and the Midwest experienced a severe drought in 2012. These wild swings are likely to continue, a possible sign of climate change.
"The average daily water consumption in Cook County is 165 gallons per capita (gpcpd), according to David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). "That's huge," he says. The national average is 100 gpcpd and in Atlanta, where water supplies are scarce, consumption has dropped to about 40 gpcpd. The MWRD treats 1.2 billion gallons a day of wastewater on average. "If we cut our water use in half," says St. Pierre, "that's like building another tunnel system to handle storm events. You've just significantly increased the size of your system [without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new reservoirs or tunnels]."
"Biggest single thing you can do to conserve water? Get a new, dual-flush or low-flow toilet. I know, sounds funny, right? But old toilets are the largest single user of water in our homes and leaking toilets can waste huge volumes of water without noticing it (because water is still so cheap). Fishman again: "We use more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our hands, our dishes, or our clothes. The typical American flushes the toilet five times a day at home, and uses 18.5 gallons of water, just for that. What that means is that every day, as a nation, just to flush our toilets, Americans use 5.7 billion gallons of water - 5.7 billion gallons of clean drinking water down the toilet."
"So, my friends, on this World Water Day, let's be mindful of our water use, thankful that we can depend on fresh, safe and, yes, still cheap water issuing reliably from our taps, and resolved to retrofit or replace our toilets. Because water matters."
The bottomline is that if we take water for granted, we do so at our own peril. Remember, people can live a few minutes without oxygen, a few weeks without food, and just a few days without water. Lisa
I heard them before I saw them, hundreds of Canada geese. A raucous honking as the birds circled a pond, vying for a spot to spend the night. The sun was near the horizon, and as I drove home, I noticed ribbons of the birds flying as far as my eyes could see – some in the classic V-formation, others in long lines. All, presumably, in search of open water where they would spend the night.
Branta canadensis, as it is known to scientists, has proved to be a highly adaptable species that benefitted greatly from the rapid suburbanization of metro areas like Chicago since 1980. In fact, the geese like the suburbs so much, that many have stopped migrating – they are now considered a year-round resident species. Geese like the suburbs for several reasons: habitat, food and safety from predators.
Canada geese like open water, especially when it is free of places where predators can hide. People call these areas stormwater detention ponds, and have a tendency to keep the lawn mowed right up to the edge of the water. To a flock of geese, these neatly manicured detention areas are perfect.
Geese are herbivores, meaning that they eat mostly plants. They like grass and corn (which is a type of grass). And if there is one thing the suburbs have in abundance, it is grass. Plus, as development marched steadily westward into agricultural areas, the suburbs also put detention ponds and farm fields in close proximity. To the geese, we could not have planned it any better.
Finally, the suburbs tend to have fewer predators to bother geese. Many suburban communities have implemented programs to cull coyotes that might otherwise prey on geese. (Cull means to reduce a species’ population deliberately through hunting). Additionally, hunting, for sport or food, is not permitted in most suburban areas, providing geese with a large safe haven in the ‘burbs.
The birds are now found in such high numbers that many consider them pests. There exists a whole industry that offers to keep geese from golf courses, corporate campuses, public parks and airports. Some use border collies that harass the geese enough that they will not stay in an area. Others have machines that make noise to scare the geese and keep them away.
There is a simple way to keep geese away from some areas: plant tall vegetation. Seriously. Geese will not be comfortable in a pond that is ringed with tall grasses or shrubs – there are too many places where predators can hide. Similarly, by maintaining more tall vegetation in a golf course’s “rough,” geese will choose to spend their time elsewhere.
Personally, I like Canada geese – they mate for life and the parents work together to raise their young. And I appreciate their hardiness. About a Century ago, the Canada goose appeared headed for extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. After conservation efforts began in the 1960’s, they rebounded. Then, as more suburban development occurred, their population exploded, thanks in large part to open water detention ponds and mowed lawns.
It seems ironic that humans provide the ideal conditions for the geese to thrive, and then complain that there are too many of them.
I am fascinated by water.
Humans can only survive a few days without it, and our bodies are 65% water. Less than one percent of the water on planet earth is available for people to use because the vast majority of water is in the oceans (where it is too salty for humans to drink) or it is locked in the polar ice caps.
Water is so essential to life, yet so often taken for granted.
Here in McHenry County, all of the water people use comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up to the surface.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock).
If the water in these aquifers is not replenished, they can run dry just like a river or pond can go dry. And the source of water to refill an aquifer is the same as that which fills our rivers and ponds – precipitation (rain-sleet-snow).
We had a severe drought last year. On average, our area receives about 37 inches of precipitation each year. In 2012 we received about 25 inches.
The drought of 2012 led many local rivers and streams to run dry (like the one on the left side of the accompanying photo). Many ponds are very low, and some have dried up altogether. Farmers are able to cultivate parts of fields that were too wet to farm just a year or two ago.
Groundwater aquifers face a double whammy during a drought. First off, people pull more water out of the ground to water their lawns, gardens and farm fields to compensate for the lack of rain. Additionally, with no precipitation, there is no new water to replenish the water we are pulling out of the ground.
There is one final challenge that aquifers face when there’s a drought. They take time to recover even when rain starts to fall again. After all, the precipitation must be able to soak into the ground is areas where the soil is permeable enough to allow the water to pass through 100 to 400 or more feet of material. It can take several years for water that hits the ground today to make it to the nearest aquifer where it becomes available for a well to pump to the surface.
So, if you are still looking for a resolution for 2013, how about “I won’t take water for granted”?
We worked with a group of 9 volunteers the other day to plant 120 oak trees. While taking a mid-morning donut break, folks were talking about whether or not we should be planting species other than native oaks because of climate change. The concern was that as the climate warms, the more northern species will not fare as well as species that are found further south.
I explained that the species of oak most commonly found in McHenry County – white, bur, red, black and scarlet (or Hill’s) – occur throughout the State of Illinois. That’s right, one can find these same species of trees in the southernmost part of the state with a climate more similar to southern Missouri than northern Illinois.
A couple of folks also mentioned the summer drought, wondering how we could possibly water the 2-4 year-old seedlings enough if there is a drought next year.
Frankly, we couldn’t, and we won’t. The oaks are on their own, as trees have been for millennia. I pointed to ten young oaks that were planted just two years ago, noting that they were all doing fine despite no additional water during the recent drought.
Just imagine, oaks were thriving on every continent except Antarctica long before humans were much more than food for larger animals. I’m guessing they have a few tricks up their genetic sleeves.
As we resumed digging and planting, I looked over at a nearby bur oak that was close to 300 years old. It grows on the fence line between the planting site and the adjoining farm field. That tree was growing in that same location before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That oak survived a series of droughts in the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl years) and a severe drought from 1954-56.
We’ll keep planting oaks.
I read an article about bats in the most recent University of Vermont alumnae magazine today. It made me want to cry.
Bats are dying due to a little-understood disorder called "White nose syndrome." The disorder causes the bats to wake frequently throughout their winter hibernation, and since they are hungry when they wake, they fly off in search of insects - their primary source of food. The problem is that in the winter, there are no insects, so the bats expend valuable energy in futile searches before returning to their winter slumbers. By the time they wake in the spring, the bats are so emaciated, that they are susceptible to other illnesses that healthy bats can easily fight off. So, the bats die from a variety of things, so it has been hard to pin-point the exact cause of the syndrome.
I heard a talk about Water this morning by Reverend Budd Friend-Jones of the First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake. He spoke of the spiritual aspects of water - the life force that all religions somehow honor through their creation stories and important rituals.
Our bodies are about 70% water, as is the planet. Where there is no water, there is no life, for all life on our planet evolved in a water world.
Reverend Friend-Jones suggested that when we look into water, we see ourselves - not just our reflections, but our deeper selves as a people. What does our relationship with water say about us? What kind of people would treat the source of all life on the planet as a waste product or a garbage can?
Call me a savage, but I don't think you need modern religion to be moved by that idea!
Consider the Lakota word for water, "mee-nee." The literal translation of "mee-nee" is "my spiritual quality of life." The Lakota regarded water as the life source, and felt they had been entrusted to care for this Sacred Resource by the Creator!