Posts tagged with Environment
While the lack of snow on the ground may have put a damper on the holiday season, it’s something of a boon for those trying to spot a rare sight around these parts.
Snowy owls are large birds, about 2 feet tall with a wingspan that can reach up to nearly 5 feet long. And a lack of food in their natural tundra habitat is driving them south to Kansas and Missouri.
Mark Robbins, a Kansas University ornithologist, is hoping that if people spot an owl they’ll take pictures and send them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s particularly interested in getting a glimpse of the birds from the back, especially the area near the nape of the neck and tail. He’s trying to use the coloring and banding present to determine the age and sex of the birds found here.
The birds are here, he said, because of a natural cycle in their food supply. The owls typically eat a type of rodent called a lemming, or vole. An unusually large number of lemmings led to an unusually large number of owls reproducing. This led to the situation of today, with fewer lemmings, and owls forced to head south to find food.
The birds aren’t typically used to humans being around, which can be good and bad.
“You can usually walk right up to them and get some pretty good photos,” Robbins said.
But that also can put the birds in danger.
“A certain percentage of these birds are never going to make it back,” he said.
Some have died from being hit on roads, while others are dying of starvation. Robbins said if people find a dead owl, they should contact their local conservation agent.
Robbins said he’s received about 40 emails reporting sightings with photos. He guessed between 10 to 15 birds had been spotted in Kansas and 10 to 12 in Missouri. Three snowy owls were seen in one spot near Smithville Lake in Clay County, Mo. Another sighting was about two hours from Lawrence in Nemaha County, Kan., just south of the Nebraska border.
This explosion of snowy owl populations happens every few years or so, said Chuck Otte, president of the Kansas ornithological society. Otte, an agricultural extension agent in Junction City, said Kansas last saw the owls around 2005-06, and again in 2001-02. This time around, though, he guessed they were attracting a little more attention because people are just more connected.
“I’ve got the numbers of a half-dozen bird watchers in my cell phone,” he said.
If someone spots an owl, they can send an email from the site. And the relatively new email list distributes information rapidly to a larger number of people.
The developments in digital photography also make it easier to share photos.
The birds are easier to spot for several reasons, Otte said. They’re white, first off, meaning they blend well into their natural habitat, but not the Kansas plains. And, unlike many owls, they’re active in the daytime. They don’t typically roost in trees, and can be found sitting on fence posts, on the ground or, occasionally, on a telephone pole.
People are fascinated by owls, Otte said. He gave a talk recently in Topeka about owls and it drew more than 50 people. And these are bigger than usual, and beautiful, he said.
“I think there’s also a little bit of the Harry Potter thing,” Otte said.
It’s been fun for birders like Wichita resident Paul Griffin to track them down. He saw an email on the list, and raced out to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge west of Hutchinson. He found some, and was able to take some good photos.
“A birdwatcher, a person, can go a lifetime and never see a snowy owl in this part of the country,” he said.
Otte’s keeping his eyes open, too.
“There’s an awful lot of white, plastic trash bags in the country,” he said.
By Andy Hyland
The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative has been set in motion by President Obama as a way to advance conservation and recreation in the United States. The basic idea behind the initiative is that solutions for increasing conservation and recreation should come from our own communities versus being decided on solely by Washington.
To carry out the research process for the AGO, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar met with governors and stakeholders in each state this year to get ideas as to what conservation and recreation projects were important in their communities; the goal being that the federal government could partner with states to make these projects come to fruition. From those ideas two from each state were decided upon and listed in a 50-State Report. According to the report, the projects “…aim to reconnect Americans to the natural world through parks, trails, and rivers and to conserve and restore working lands and wildlife habitat. The projects will also create jobs through travel, tourism, and outdoor activities.”
For Kansas, these are the Kansas River Water Trail and The Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area. In a press release from the Department of Interior, it is noted that “the Department could provide financial and technical assistance to increase access to the Kansas River. The Department could also provide technical and financial assistance to the state of Kansas toward construction of the Flint Hills Discovery Center, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Visitor Center, and campsite improvements.”
Laura Calwell, Riverkeeper for Friends of the Kaw, said her nonprofit organization was delighted with the proposed Kansas River Water Trail. “Friends of the Kaw has helped Junction City, Ogden, St. George, Wamego, Topeka, De Soto, Edwardsville and Kansas City, Kansas add eleven access ramps to the Kansas River and we are currently working with the communities of Belvue and Shawnee on planned construction of two more ramps. We welcome additional funding for signage and improvements (like restrooms and picnic tables) at the access points” says Calwell.
“The Kansas River is the longest prairie river in the nation, and as a sand bed river, it is something pretty special,” she said. “The Kaw is a unique natural resource. If we develop this water trail right, it has the potential to provide something new and appealing for kayakers and canoers in the region – in the nation, really. This project is a great economic development opportunity.”
Calwell noted, though, that the Kansas River faces multiple threats, ranging from pollution by agricultural chemical run-off to in-river sand and gravel dredging. Currently, there is a proposal before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand dredging on the Kaw from 2.2 million tons to 3.2 million tons, an increase of almost 50%. Public comments are due to the USACE by December 9 and can be emailed to email@example.com.
“The Kansas River Water Trail is among the best potential conservation investments in the nation,” said Calwell. “Dredging will harm this investment, not maximize it.”
By Christina Glauner
Private in-channel dredging operations on rivers like the Kansas River cause deepening and widening of the channel and accelerate erosion of the banks. As a result, dredging lowers the water level of the river and the adjacent water table in the floodplain. This creates the risk for harm to public river uses (such as water treatment facilities, municipal wells, bridge footings, etc.) as well as to fish communities throughout the watershed, including endangered species.
These preliminary findings come from a study funded by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) and carried out by Kansas State University researchers Melinda Daniels and Craig Paukert. The scientists have documented riverbed incision in dredged reaches, which is most likely also causing excessive bank erosion both upstream and downstream of dredge sites. The final study results will be released in late December.
The Army Corps of Engineers is considering a proposal from five private dredging companies to increase dredging on the Kaw close to 50%, from 2.2 million tons to 3.2 million tons. The local nonprofit conservation group Friends of the Kaw (FOK) recently interviewed Daniels for its public comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“If you take 3.2 million tons from the river bottom, then the river will take 3.2 million tons from the riverbanks, trying to balance the sediment load in the system,” Daniels said. “That’s the simple physics of how water works in river channels to transport sediment. Any riparian owner should be worried, particularly farmers with unforested river banks next to their fields. So should anyone with a water intake pipe or a creek in their backyard. The effects of in-channel dredging will propagate both upstream and downstream from the dredge site until a hard control point, like a dam or a bedrock outcrop, is reached. That means up tributary streams as well as the main river.”
Daniels surveyed major dredge holes on the Kansas River with a sophisticated new measuring technology, an acoustic Doppler instrument that mapped river channel topography and measured water velocity. The researchers discovered that while the Kansas River averages four to five feet deep, active dredge holes can measure up to forty feet deep.
The researchers also discovered that these deep dredge holes can migrate up and down river - sometimes very rapidly, depending on water conditions. Even during small flow increases, researchers documented the upslope lip of a dredge hole traveling upstream.
“People used to think the dredge holes just filled up, but now we know they don’t. The holes first cause erosion upstream and downstream and then eventually do fill in, but not before causing a net loss of sediment from the bed and banks of the channel, meaning the channel does not simply go back to its original state,” Daniels said. “If there’s no bedrock, or physical structure like the Bowersock Dam to stop them, those dredge holes cause channel erosion that will keep on going through the entire river network. Their effects can even travel up the tributaries.” Unless a bridge footing or other engineering infrastructure in the river is armored, then the migrating hole could erode that physical structure as well.
The technical term for this river phenomenon is a “migrating head cut.” Here’s how it works: The Kansas River is a sand bed river. Sand is a light sediment, and water transports it easily. When dredgers excavate into the riverbed, that hole creates a steep wall (or head cut) where the river depth suddenly increases. Water rushes rapidly over that wall, gaining speed and picking up sand from the upstream edge. At the same time, some sand falls into the hole. The water passing over the hole then picks up new sediment downstream, causing erosion there as well. The hole starts to expand, both upstream and downstream.
Part of the dredging proposal before the Army Corps is to re-open a closed dredge site above Topeka. The Army Corps previously shut down the site, operated by Meier’s Ready Mix, due to unacceptable bed degradation.
“Whatever happens above Topeka will eventually migrate upstream through the entire network, stopping only at the bases of Tuttle Creek and Milford and other dams,” said Daniels. “It could happen quickly, within one to two years. Dredging incisions set up cascading environmental effects – bed degradation, riverbanks become unstable and steep from accelerated erosion, etc. Change happens very quickly on a sand bed river.”
Over time, repeated dredging deepens and widens the river by removing sediment from the system. The result is that the river bottom lowers, too, along with the water level. This can leave the intakes for water treatment plants stranded. Dredging on the Missouri River has been scaled back recently because of similar problems propagating into the lower Kansas River and other tributaries to the Missouri.
When the river deepens, the water table in the floodplain lowers. Daniels said that this creates the potential for less water storage, which could affect the many municipal wells along the river. A lower water table also affects river vegetation and forests. For example, the cottonwood – the state tree of Kansas – can’t survive unless its roots can reach a good water supply.
The deep dredge holes may affect fish populations, too. “The river’s physical habitat is significantly different between dredged and un-dredged areas,” noted Daniels.
However, dredging’s most major environmental impacts for fish are not limited to the Kaw. Since migrating head cuts can also affect river tributaries, Daniels said the K-State study raises questions about risks to the habitat of endangered species (like the Topeka Shiner) that live in these smaller streams.
Daniels said that knowledge of the environmental impacts of dredging is incomplete without studying dredging’s impacts on the entire Kansas River system.
“We need a new environmental impact study that considers the impacts of dredging on fish that live in the tributaries as well,” said Daniels. Right now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is depending on an environmental impact statement (EIS) dating from 1991.
Before Daniels and Paukert carried out their study, the effect of sand and gravel dredging on the Kansas River had not been seriously studied. This study was the first time such sophisticated measuring technology has been used.
“The Army Corps has studied similar conditions with sand dredging on the Missouri River,” said Daniels. “They are aware of the problems, and if dredging is a problem for the Missouri River, then it’s going to be a problem for the Kansas River. Simply shifting the problem from the Missouri to the Kansas is not a good strategy.”
How fast will the dredge holes move? Water movement on the Kaw is greatly influenced by how much water the Army Corps releases from upstream reservoirs. Extreme rains plus reservoir releases can add a lot of extra velocity to the Kansas River system. In some circumstances, this may mean the dredge holes have the potential for very rapid movement.
Daniels is seeking additional funding for a second phase of the study, to model dredge hole migrations under different flow regimes.
More information and a public comment letter template can be found on the Friends of the Kaw website.
By Christina Glauner
Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday unveiled a proposal he said will help conserve the Ogallala Aquifer.
The proposals were pushed forward by an advisory committee that reviewed issues with the Ogallala, a vast underground water table beneath eight states, including western Kansas.
“The Ogallala Aquifer is the primary source of water for the western third of Kansas,” said Gary Harshberger, chairman of the Kansas Water Authority. “It is essential to find ways to help extend and conserve the life of the aquifer.”
Brownback’s proposals for the 2012 legislative session, which starts in January, include:
• Eliminating the “use it or lose it” policy for groundwater rights in areas closed to new water right development.
• Providing a process for proactive conservation plans.
• Allowing development of additional groundwater “water banks.”
• Giving irrigators expanded flexibility in managing their crop water over a five-year period.
State officials have scheduled four public meetings to talk about the proposals. Those meetings will be Dec. 8 in Wichita; Dec. 9 in Topeka; and Dec. 13 in Garden City and Colby.
By Scott Rothschild
Businesses hope to increase dredging along Kansas River; environmentalists warn process is destructive
Several area companies hope to increase the amount of sand and gravel dredged from the Kansas River by 1 million tons per year.
But before that happens, the public has the opportunity to weigh in.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for issuing dredging permits, is accepting public comment until Dec. 9 regarding proposals by five companies for new permits on 13 locations — including several in or near Lawrence — along an 80-mile stretch of the Kansas River, from Shawnee County to Wyandotte County.
The current dredging permit, which expires at the end of 2012, authorizes five companies to dredge 2.2 million tons annually from 10 sites. The new proposals, by the same five companies, seek to increase the tonnage dredged to 3.2 million. If a new permit is issued, it will run from 2013 to the end of 2017.
Environmental advocates, including Friends of the Kaw, say the increase is detrimental to the water supply and natural habitats in the area.
“River dredging is very destructive, and the cumulative effects are not in the public interest,” said Laura Calwell, representative for Friends of the Kaw, a local environmental advocacy group. “Dredging stirs up sediments and industrial pollutants that threaten our drinking water.”
Calwell said her group has advocated for a decrease and eventual stop to dredging on the river, or, at the very least, no increase to the current tonnage limits.
Kale Horton, with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City Regulatory Office, said the decision process for the permits will take place over the next year, and could include adjustments to the tonnage limits requested by the companies.
“It’s a back and forth,” said Horton, who encouraged citizens to contact his office to comment.
Horton can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (816) 389-3656.
By Shaun Hittle
Although oak leaves do have the potential to acidify soil, they are highly unlikely to be causing problems in your yard in northeast Kansas. If you are having trouble growing grass (or anything else) under an oak tree, the real culprit is most likely root competition, low light and soil compaction, or some combination of all three.
As far as oak leaves and acidification, I know your neighbor or your friend or your relative who gardens may have told you otherwise. They probably heard about it from their neighbor who heard about it from their neighbor. In some parts of the country, some oak disease problems have been associated with oaks growing in acidic (low pH) soils. Here, however, there are more oak diseases and problems associated with basic (high pH) soils.
The simplest way to know for sure whether your soil pH is less than ideal is to test the soil. Take samples from several locations around the tree and mix them together to get a representative sample of the area. Use a knife or a trowel to take slices of soil four to six inches deep. Test the soil pH with a pH testing kit or through the K-State Research and Extension – Douglas County office at 2110 Harper St. Testing kits are available at most garden centers. (If you test through the Extension office, you will also get recommendations to correct the soil pH if necessary.)
If pH is not the problem, fight soil compaction by core aerating the lawn under the tree. Select grass seed that contains three to four varieties of turf-type tall fescue, as they perform the best in shade trials in this area. Grass seed labeled as “sun/shade mix” or “shade-loving” often contain grass species that are inappropriate for our area. Avoid overwatering as it will encourage shallow root growth.
Another good indication that soil is not too acidic for lawn grasses is when it is too basic for good oak tree growth. Ever see a pin oak with light green or yellow leaves? Chlorotic pin oaks are common in the Midwest. In oaks, chlorosis is caused by an iron deficiency that is almost always the result of the tree’s inability to take up iron. Iron is tied up in high pH soils. Adjusting the soil pH requires applications of sulfur and may take years.
Researchers in France who studied the relationship between oak leaf litter accumulation and soil acidity note that the trend was different in each of the 30 oak trees in the study. Soil clay content plays a role in soil acidification, as well as soil organisms, bark and the soil parent material. The only conclusion drawn from the study was that on average more acidification and litter accumulation occurred near the trunk base.
Pine needles carry the same reputation as oak leaves and acorns, but also have little effect on soil pH. White pines are a good indicator — they often suffer from iron chlorosis in high pH soils just like pin oaks.
Another option if you are having trouble growing grass under an oak or pine tree is to cover the area with mulch or a drought-resistant ground cover.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. She can be reached at 843-7058.
Vampire power is a term coined to describe electrical power wasted by typical household electronics when they are plugged in but not in use.
Not all electrical devices are vampires, but devices with LED lights, digital displays, plug-in chargers or remote controls typically suck power when not in use and bleed your pocketbook of hard-earned cash.
Computers, modems, televisions and other electronic devices are the most active vampires in your home. Digital cable boxes with DVR devices are the worst offenders. A well-rounded plan of attack against these home vampires can reduce your energy bill by 10 percent and make your bank account a little less anemic. Use these simple “wooden stakes” to control the power-sucking abilities of electrical vampires.
Stake 1: Unplug devices when not in use. When in doubt, pull the plug. Energy cannot be wasted if the plug is not in the outlet.
Stake 2: Use surge protectors or power strips whenever possible. Use the on/off switch on the power strip to completely cut off the electrical supply to both regular and vampire devices.
Stake 3: Purchase Energy Star appliances and devices. Energy Star-rated appliances use 50 percent less vampire power than their average non-Energy Star counterparts.
Stake 4: Use “Smart Strip” surge protectors for computer and audio/video devices. Smart strips come in various configurations. Typically they have a “master” outlet and several “slave” outlets. When the device plugged into the master outlet is idle or off, the smart strip senses this and automatically turns off the power to the “slave” devices. Plug your computer into the “master” outlet and your printers and other peripherals into the slave outlets to save energy when your computer is not in use.
Stake 5: Use the “other” off switch. Many appliances and devices have a regular power switch that puts the device into a stand-by mode or sleep mode, allowing a continuous amount of power to be sucked from the wall outlet. Often there is a second power switch to the back of the device, near the power cord, that will completely cut off power to the device.
Stake 6: Unplug chargers from the wall when not in use. Battery chargers for cell phones, laptops and power tools continue to suck power after the device is fully charged or even removed. Pull the charger out of the wall socket to stem its vampire capabilities.
By Linda Cottin
During the past summer, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tracked toxic blue-green algal blooms in more than 40 lakes and ponds.
Those blooms caused 16 people to fall ill and the deaths of at least four dogs. Money lost from visitors who stayed away from some of the state’s most popular summer recreation spots hasn’t been calculated. Neither has the number of other animals who became sick or died from algae-infested ponds.
As the weather cools, days grow shorter and winds pick up, the algal blooms across Kansas are disappearing. And as they do, state agencies are beginning to study just how well they responded to this year’s outbreak and how to better manage future blooms.
“As we go into the winter months, we aren’t just going to put the binder back on the shelf,” said Tom Langer, KDHE director of the Bureau of Environmental Health. “We are studying what we have learned. This was the second summer we have been collecting this type of data.”
The KDHE plans to have an epidemiologist look at the health effects of the blooms. They plan to write papers, publish their findings and share the information they’ve gathered with other states.
One thing’s certain: Algal blooms will return next year. When and where will be harder to predict.
“For our state, the one thing we all have to understand is based on the geography of where we live. Every lake, every pond is a candidate,” Langer said.
Key to controlling blue-green algal blooms is better management of the nutrients that run into watersheds and into lakes and ponds. Those nutrients makes it easier for algae to flourish.
“This is not something you can flip the switch and change. It takes decades and decades to get to a condition like this. And it will take decades before we resolve this,” Langer said.
One community in Kansas already has begun to take serious steps. Great Bend, which has had a blue-green algal problem in a community lake since January, is looking at ways to restore its watershed and better manage what flows into the drainage area. Langer hopes lessons learned in Great Bend can be applied throughout Kansas.
Last summer, the state got a glimpse of just how bad it could get when Kansas’ largest reservoir, Milford Lake, was closed to swimming, wading and water skiing for nearly three months.
Last week, an algal bloom that had been festering in Milford Lake since the end of June returned to normal levels. But it was far too late to attract many of the visitors who had stayed away during those hot summer days.
“It scared away a lot of people,”, said Jan Boan, who owns the Flagstop Resort and RV Park, a campground on the edge of the lake.
After Labor Day, most people packed up and went home, Boan said.
“There’s not much going on outside other than fishermen in the water,” she said last week.
A unique set of circumstances made the algal bloom at Milford Lake particularly bad this summer. At the base of the lake is nutrient-rich soil. Even more nutrients were absorbed this year when upstream flooding pushed the reservoir 15 feet above its normal level. And for much of the summer, none of that extra water could be released from Milford because of downstream flooding.
And then there were the days upon days of 100-degree temperatures.
“It was a giant Petri dish,” Langer said.
The toxic algal bloom in Milford Lake had a far reach. When floodwaters finally receded downstream in late August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from Milford Lake. When the water flowed through the Kansas River it brought with it toxic levels of blue-green algae that could be detected all the way to Johnson County. Those levels prompted the city of Lawrence to stop pulling water from the Kansas River.
Tests later showed that the blue-green algae levels weren’t be detected in treated drinking water. But it was one example of just how interconnected watersheds are.
“We want people to understand the severity of it. It’s not just white noise, Chicken Little or a boy crying wolf,” Langer said of the blue-green algae outbreaks and the health of the state’s aging lakes. “It is going to affect every single one of us. We rely on water. It’s important that we are taking the proper steps.”
By Christine Metz
Kansas will more than double its production of wind energy in the next 18 months, but the status of federal energy policy could slow development by 2013, officials said Tuesday.
Eight announced projects totaling $2.7 billion in capital investment and producing 1,388 megawatts of power are coming online in the state.
“It has been a really exciting time, to say the least,” said Kimberly Svaty, of The Wind Coalition. Currently, 1,072 megawatts of wind energy is produced in Kansas.
Svaty told the House-Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy that there were dozens more potential projects. And Kansas has recently landed several large manufacturing facilities of wind turbine components.
But Svaty said that uncertainty about whether the federal government will continue a wind production tax credit will slow growth.
“It would be fair to say there is significant amount of uncertainty surrounding the production tax credit. We’re not sure what the direction is of the federal government on energy in general. There are so many question marks on where does the country want to go with energy policy,” Svaty said.
Wind developers were generally pleased with the pace of development of wind energy in Kansas and with state-approved tax breaks that are used as incentives.
But some county officials voiced concerns.
Elk County Commissioner Liz Hendricks said the Caney River Wind Project there was a major source of income for county government. But she added it was “unfortunate” that Gov. Sam Brownback expanded the “Tallgrass Heartland” area of the Flint Hills, which made the Elk County off limits to further wind-farm expansion.
“Due to Gov. Brownback’s recent decisions, we will not have Phase 2 or Phase 3. For a county like us, we will not see this kind of economic impact other than a wind farm,” Hendricks said.
Brownback expanded the protected area, saying the Flint Hills should be developed more for tourism.
By Scott Rothschild
Federal stimulus dollars that were supposed to go toward making thousands of Kansans’ homes more energy efficient will now fund two renewable energy projects because the state could not spend the money fast enough, state officials said Tuesday.
“I’m sure there are some people who will not receive money. I take all the blame right here. We did the best we could at the time,” Kansas Secretary of Commerce Pat George told the House-Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy.
The state received $38.3 million in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to set up a program that offered low-interest loans to Kansans to make their homes more energy efficient.
But the program started slowly. At first the interest rates weren’t competitive, and the requirements to qualify were relatively high.
During the 2011 session, the Kansas Legislature directed the KCC to work with the Kansas Board of Regents, and that resulted in nearly $7 million being used for energy projects on college campuses.
But with the clock ticking toward the April 1, 2012, deadline, and the bulk of the grant still unspent, Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration pulled funding from the program and received federal approval to spend $20 million on two renewable biofuels projects. In addition, $1.5 million has been set aside to take care of the home efficiency loans that had been in the process of approval when the state redirected the funding.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, and Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, expressed concern about the change in funding. “Business is now getting the benefit. The people we serve have been cut out of the loop,” Kuether said.
George said the two projects would create jobs and position Kansas as a leader in biofuels.
Some $15.6 million of the stimulus funds will go toward the purchase of biomethane digester equipment technology at an ethanol facility operated by Western Plains Energy near Oakley. The company’s power plant will be converted to use biomethane produced from cattle manure instead of natural gas to run the biofuel production process, according to the Commerce Department.
And $4.9 million will be used to support a biomass harvesting, handling and delivery demonstration project operated by the Kansas Alliance for Biorefining and Bioenergy.
By Scott Rothschild