Friday, May 9, 2014

Green Lawns Don’t Make For “Green” Yards

Traditional front lawn -- see last pictures for this lawn
restored with native plants

The natural world around us is awakening from a tough winter.  Our yards are greening up as the weather warms, but are our yards as “green” as they could be?

All across the country as communities have expanded and new developments have been built, the amount of land covered with a green grass carpet has grown.  We have lost the native vegetation, trees and shrubs in particular, that should characterize our landscapes.  Just as we have lost our native trees and shrubs, we have seen floodwaters rising, streambanks eroding, drinking wells running dry and declining water quality.  There is a direct connection between the loss of native vegetation across our communities and what is happening to our local streams and those that live downstream.

When vegetated with native trees and shrubs, when covered in a blanket of decaying leaves, needles and wood, the land acts as a sponge.  Rainwater percolates into the soil, filtering down to the water table below to re-supply the aquifers that provide our drinking water.  Rainwater also provides base flow to our streams, creeks and rivers.  The landscape, in this natural state, is alive with life — birds sing in the trees, squirrels dance across the ground, bugs revel in the earth.  Our lives are richer and our water flows free and clean.

Not all vegetation is created equal, however.  Lands vegetated only with grass cannot perform the functions of the natural landscape.  Lawns don’t act as sponges.  Lawn mowers, heavy use and foot traffic all cause soil compaction which limits infiltration.  Lawns established as part of a development have soils compacted intentionally for site engineering and construction purposes.  As a result, lawns more closely resemble impervious surfaces.  Like sidewalks and roadways, lawns shed rain during a storm event rather than allowing it to infiltrate.

Water rushing off lawn dumping to stream.
The bulk density of soil — the mass of a dry soil divided by its volume, and expressed as grams per cubic centimeter (gms/cc) — can provide an estimate of its compaction.  Bulk density increases as soil becomes more compact.  Not surprisingly, lawns can have high bulk densities, from 1.5 to 1.9 gms/cc, rivaling that of concrete which has a bulk density of 2.2 gms/cc.[i]

Lawns generate significantly more stormwater runoff than meadow, scrub vegetation or forests.  What’s more, runoff from our lawns is often carrying with it any excess or improperly applied fertilizers and pesticides.  This runoff is channeled, usually by roads, to a nearby storm drain, which is likely receiving runoff from other lawns, roadways and communities. Stormwater runoff travels through storm sewers to a local creek where it combines with the runoff from all other upstream communities.

Our stream channels are being scoured by fast-moving stormwater.  Streambanks are being eroded and, when they have been cleared of vegetation or are maintained as close cropped lawn, they are particularly susceptible.  The eroded sediments turn our streams a chocolate brown, depriving fish and plants of light. When the sediment settles out of the water column, it smothers the streambed where aquatic insects live and where fish lay their eggs.

More and more frequently, downstream communities are suffering the effects of the loss of open space and vegetation upstream.  These downstream communities are experiencing higher and more frequent flooding caused by increasing stormwater flows.  Communities are bearing the brunt of the loss vegetation.  And both upstream and downstream communities include among their vegetation clearing practices, the streambanks and floodplains that could otherwise serve as part of a protective solution.  Wide forested buffers and vegetated floodplains can serve as a place for holding and filtering floodwaters and runoff, their roots prevent erosion of public and private lands, and they provide the habitat that ensures healthy bugs and fish that actually help cleanup pollution that has already entered our streams.  The combination of cleared lands throughout the watershed, and denuded, or barely vegetated, streamside lands and floodplains packs a powerful combination punch of harm.

Stormwater detention basins, as they are presently constructed, do little to alleviate problems associated with runoff, and they can, in fact make problems worse.  These basins serve only to reduce peak flows of stormwater runoff, and ultimately prolong the harmful impacts of a storm event on our streams and on downstream communities.  Planting our stream corridors more with vegetation, especially trees and shrubs, could moderate the effects of increased stormwater runoff.

We can also have an impact with how we manage our own lands, public and private.  Many of us enjoy a grassy area in our yards, a place to play, sunbathe or read.  We can continue to enjoy our spot in the sun, but we can also reduce the total amount of lawn we maintain.  Start by re-vegetating little used grassy area.  Plant native plants.  Add a garden.  Consider adding a perimeter of native trees, shrubs.  Doing so not only beautifies our gardens, increases the value of our homes, provides shading to cool homes in the warm summer months reducing cooling costs, and provides a visual and noise buffer that can enhance our quality of life, but it provides flood and pollution prevention and protection to our downstream neighbors.

same front yard as above
For those of us who have streams in our yards, it is vitally important that we take on the added obligation of protecting and/or putting in place wide vegetated buffers filled with native trees, shrubs and plants that will prevent streamside erosion, help reduce flood flows and peaks, and can help filter out pollution found in the creek. 

Through simple landscaping practices we can improve local water quality, contribute to flood relief for downstream communities, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, bring privacy and peace to our own back yards while still allowing for the lawns many people so love to mow.

Authored by Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

[i] Schueler, T. 2000. The Compaction of Urban Soil: The Practice of Watershed Protection. Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD. Pages 210-214.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

President’s Spin on Asia Trip and Trade Deal Ignores Harms of the TPP

The President is heading to Asia with an eye to pressing forward passage of a new trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP). The  problem?  The TPP is a bad deal all the way around or our country, at least as currently written and proposed. 

It will jeopardize food safety: .

And while it is light on environmental preservation, it is heavy on corporate protection: . 

And to top it off, the President wants Congress to pass a piece of legislation called the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014  -- “Fast Track” for short – that will diminish our democracy.  Fast Track would give the President super powers to be able to continue to negotiate the TPP deal in secret, to sign the deal on behalf of the United States, to draft and put forth the legislation that would implement his secretly negotiated deal, and to relegate our Congress to a mere “yay” or “nay” vote, no hearings, no amendments, and very little conversation at all.  

Just looking at the issue of shale gas development -- the TPP, and the Fast Track legislation designed to grease its path through Congress …

      do not support strong job creation, they actually hurts it;
      do not support energy independence, they actually diminishes it; and
      certainly do not help protect our environment, they help to devastate it.

TPP Will Increase Fracked Gas Exports, Economic and Job Losses, and Environmental Harm
There is already a rush to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) because gas is selling for as much as 3 to 4 times the price overseas as in the U.S.  Advocates for LNG exports are using the situation in Ukraine as a renewed call for exporting US fracked gas as LNG in order to bolster their press for more drilling and fracking. 

If passed as planned, the TPP will give special status to new countries who will benefit from automatic approval of LNG export plans – those countries include Japan, Vietman, Brunei, Malaysia, and New Zealand, with China expected to be added to the list soon.  That means environmental and economic reviews of the impacts of new LNG construction, operation and export would be by-passed. 

LNG operations are not about economic or job prosperity for the people of our nation.  Information submitted to the Department of Energy demonstrates that while LNG exports generate increased revenues for the gas exporters and gas companies, other areas of the U.S. economy, as a result of exports, decline.  Among the losses are job losses.  LNG exports harm labor income and jobs in many other sectors of the economy such as paper, metals, chemicals, stone, clay, glass, plastics, and food processing. If LNG is allowed to proceed nationally as is being considered it is estimated that as many as 270,000 jobs could be lost. In fact, if LNG is allowed to grow as is being proposed, folks in every major sector, except for natural gas, will lose income; and we all will have to pay more for goods and services as the impact of increased gas prices reverberates through the economy.  (for more see:  Will LNG Exports Benefit the United States Economy? Synapse Energy Economics, Jan 23, 2013)

TPP Will Mean More Fracking and Drilling In Our Communities – Bringing Economic and Environmental Harms.
More LNG exports means more pressure for shale gas development and fracking.

More drilling and fracking does not mean economic prosperity.  An increasing number of reports scrutinizing the job claims of drilling companies is demonstrating their claims of benefits to be increasingly false.   As one recent report stated: 

Employment estimates have been overstated, and the industry and its boosters have used inappropriate employment numbers, including equating new hires with new jobs and using ancillary job figures that largely have nothing to do with drilling, even after the flaws in those numbers have been brought to their attention. …..  [S]hale-related employment across the six-state Marcellus/Utica region fell over the past 12 months for which data exist, from the 1st quarter of 2012 to the 1st quarter of 2013.” (

The unparalleled level of harm to drinking water, air quality, food supplies, and people’s health that result from ongoing and increasing levels of drilling and fracking for shale gas bring high price tags for the United States economy and taxpayers.  Not only do our communities lose out on life’s basic needs – air, water, food and health – but we as taxpayers have to pay the upfront and long-term financial burden of these harms, including the necessary clean up and health care costs. 

The deforestation, land compaction, wetlands destruction, and increased earthquake potential inflicted by shale gas development means increased flooding and flood ravaged homes and communities; it means increased erosion of public and private lands; it means the fear and harm of an earthquake where it happens; it means lost fishing, hunting, boating, birding and all the jobs they generate.  And of course someone has to pay for all this harm too – that someone is you and me in the form of emergency services, taxes, hazard mitigation, and more national debt.

And increased drilling will bring with it harm for jobs and economic prosperity.  For example, our healthy Delaware River contributes $22 billion in annual economic activity.  Increased drilling and fracking brings harm to the River which means harm for this economic vitality. 

TPP Empowers Industry to Undermine Community Protection Laws Here in the U.S.
Not only will the TPP pump up the pressure for drilling and fracking, and grease the wheels for LNG, but the TPP would give foreign corporations the right to sue our government for millions of dollars if they believe a U.S. environmental law (State, Federal or local) has diminished its ability to make profits – one corporation is already taking action under similar provisions in NAFTA against Canada for a ban on fracking passed in Quebec.  So environmental protections at the local, state or even federal law designed to protect our communities from the harms of drilling, could actually be legally challenged and fall under explicit provisions in the TPP designed to give Corporations the upper hand.

So don’t buy the bunk you are hearing about the values of the President’s Asia trip and his push for the TPP and Fast Track. See the President’s support of the TPP for what it is – another sell out of the residents and citizens of the U.S. to industry and big money donors.

Take a moment to make your voice heard on this important issue:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Water, Our Air, Our Communities -- and Forced Gas Drilling?

Our Water, Our Air, Our Communities -- and Forced Gas Drilling?

Riverkeeper Network hosts a forum with the lead litigators and litigants of the
landmark Act 13 case – the case in which the conservative Pennsylvania Supreme
Court declared that the rights of pure water, clean air, and a healthy
environment, across the generations, must be protected by state and local
legislators.  View it live or over the web.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Communities Protected from Exploding Gas Well Because of Good Fortune? What About Good Sense?

At 6:45 am on Tuesday, February 11, the town of Dunkard, Pennsylvania was rocked by the explosion at a Chevron Appalachia natural gas drilling site.   On Wednesday the fire was still burning.  One worker was reported injured and another as missing.

According to press reports, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) Secretary Chris Abruzzo said it was “fortunate” that the nearest house was about a half mile away from the exploding drilling site.

While Abruzzo is busy thanking fortune for protecting families and the community from the devastating explosion, it is his agency that continues to fight to reinstate Governor Corbett’s pro-drilling Act 13 – the law that would allow gas well pads and  their attendant infrastructure and harms, to be built just 300 feet from homes, schools, day care centers, hospitals or any other structure in Pennsylvania.

It is time for good judgment, not just good fortune.  The half mile buffer good “fortune” gave to the residents of Dunkard far surpasses what the DEP or the Governor would see them have (see picture that shows the comparison of what good fortune gave Dunkard versus what Abruzzo and Corbett continue to argue for).  Secretary Abruzzo and Governor Corbett continue their efforts to reduce the buffer of protection between between drilling sites and houses, between the poisonous hazards on these site and the streams that provide us our drinking water, between dangerous drilling infrastructure and every aspect of our communities. 

As the Dunkard explosion reminds us, simple good commonsense commands that we protect our families and our drinking water from this dangerous industrial activity.