Posts tagged with Environment

KU considering — but won’t be revealing — 40 possible efficiency adjustments worth

An efficiency and effectiveness study at Kansas University is continuing to progress, but university officials aren’t saying much — at least for now — about how they will achieve those new efficiencies.

Huron Consulting Group is conducting the study, and is being paid with a contract for up to $2.28 million, using private dollars, if all of its initiatives are implemented.

The consulting group has already presented a list of about 40 options to KU, and an executive committee will pare that list to about eight to 10 “business cases,” which will be examined further.

KU officials said that while they would be releasing the list of about 10 areas they will examine further, they will not divulging the 40 or so initial options that Huron provided.

Jack Martin, a KU spokesman, said the university didn’t want to cause “unnecessary anxiety” by having people see a list of areas that were only suggested for review.

The same question came up at a town hall meeting on the consulting plan this week. An audience member asked if the list of about 40 initial items would be made public.

Jeff Vitter, KU’s provost, said university officials had no plans to do that.

“If something is put forward that we don’t really intend to pursue, especially if it’s somewhat problematic in really not fitting in with KU, it could cause all kinds of alarms, and get people concerned about something that is never going to happen anyway,” Vitter said.

Still, a few of the kinds of things KU is looking at are known. One audience member at the town hall identified herself as a student housing employee.

“We have heard that there is a consideration of us being absorbed by Facilities, and I was wondering how that would benefit me as an employee of student housing,” she said. “Our focus is on our students, and maintaining that they have good housing and they get the services that they need.”

John Curry, a managing director for Huron, confirmed that they had looked at that as an option.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion at all,” he said. “But it’s something that we will be thinking about today and maybe thinking about further.”

A facilities employee asked if there were plans for reductions in KU’s workforce. Diane Goddard, KU’s vice provost for administration and finance, said the university didn’t go into the process with the goal of fewer staff.

“Our hope is that if there are reductions in workforce, that those will be achieved either through attrition, or they will be achieved by retooling people and giving people the opportunity to learn new skills, and to step into new roles,” Goddard said.

Vitter said KU could be releasing more information on the 10 or so areas of focus within the next two weeks.

By Andy Hyland

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USDA to provide support for Kansas farmers growing crops for biofuels

More than 20,000 acres in southwest Kansas and a small piece of Oklahoma will be set aside for growing crops that will be turned into biofuels.

Kansas was among the six states the U.S. Department of Agriculture named in the latest round of Biomass Crop Assistance Program’s projects. The four projects announced Tuesday total more than $45 million and are intended to create 3,400 jobs and produce more than 2 million gallons of biofuels annually.

In Kansas and Oklahoma, 20,000 acres of switchgrass will be grown around a biomass conversion facility in Hugoton, which is in the southwest corner of Kansas. The plant is owned by Abengoa Biofuels.

For farmers who volunteer to enroll in the program, the contract with the USDA would cover 75 percent of the start-up costs and five years of annual maintenance payments.

The facility will be operating in 2013, according to a news release this spring from Abengoa. The company plans to begin harvesting biomass in the fall of this year. The plant will be able to convert 315,000 dry tons of crops into 25 million gallons of ethanol and generate 25 megawatts of electricity.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program was part of the 2008 Farm Bill and is intended to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil, improve domestic security, reduce carbon pollution and spur economic development and job growth in rural areas.

Earlier this year, Kansas and Missouri were part of the first project area for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. In that project, farmers are being asked to grow native grasses, forbs and legumes on 50,000 acres in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Douglas County is among the 39 counties in the two-state region where farmers would be eligible for the program.

Once harvested, those plants can be sold to any qualified biomass conversion facility.

By Christine Metz

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Operation WildLife looking for help providing animal rehabilitation assistance

Operation WildLife is seeking animal lovers to join the OWL family and provide rehab assistance for injured and orphaned wild animals. Volunteers are responsible for cage cleaning, dietary preparation, physical therapy, administering medications, habitat setup and general housekeeping duties at OWL’s main facility, a 4,000-square-foot veterinary clinic located at 23375 Guthrie Road in Linwood.

Training is provided and the approximate time requirement is four to eight hours per week. Visit OWL’s website, owl-online.org, for more information and to fill out an online volunteer application, or contact Diane Johnson at opwildlife@aol.com if you have questions. Volunteers must be at least 14 years old with a parent, or 16 without a parent, and must have reliable transportation and commit to a set time each week.

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Fruit failure: Mother Nature deals area farmers and eaters a blow — few apples and even fewer peaches

This time of year, Frank Gieringer’s peach trees are usually dripping with fruit.

This year, there’s hardly a drop in the bucket.

“We’re short of fruit. On the tree fruit, I would say we have maybe a 10 percent crop. Like 90 percent loss,” says Gieringer, owner of Gieringers Orchard in Edgerton. “And we have mostly peaches, I’m not sure about apples or other tree fruit, but the peach end of it was hurt pretty hard by the cold winter.”

Just east of Lawrence, David Vertacnik of Vertacnik Orchard believes his apple crop will be down 60 percent compared to last year. His younger peach trees look just about like Gieringer’s — barren.

“The trees are beautiful,” he says, “but they just don’t have any fruit in them.”

This isn’t anything Jennifer Smith hasn’t heard. The past month, the Douglas County Kansas State extension agent’s phone and email have been overwhelmed with stories of missing fruit.

“I didn’t hear anything until maybe three weeks ago,” she says. “And then I started hearing a lot of reports of fruit not setting on. It’s primarily apples, from what I’ve heard and some people said their fruit didn’t set any fruit at all and some have said the amount they’ve set is very minimal.”

Yes, ask around the local fruit growers both commercial and homegrown and you’ll find a stunning lack of fruit, especially tree fruit. That’s because of a bizarre weather pattern that left us with February temperatures several digits below zero. It mostly affected tree fruit like apples, peaches, pears and cherries, though some bush fruits such as raspberries, blueberries and blackberries are also a bit low on fruit this year.

Gieringer says the phenomenon is called “winter kill” — it wasn’t the vegetable farmers’ dreaded late frost that caused it, it was the brutal winter itself. He’s been growing peaches since 2001 and this is the first time he’s seen it. He points to those days in February when area temperatures dropped double digits below zero.

“The rule of thumb on stone fruit is that you’ll lose about 10 percent of your blossom buds for every degree below zero,” he says. “And so, when you get below minus 10 that’s getting up there to virtually a total loss.”

He knew well in advance of spring that his trees were goners, thanks to a peek into the tree’s reproductive system.

“You can bring those buds in within a couple of weeks after the freeze event, cut them open with a razor blade and look at them with a magnifying glass and you’ll see the very inside, you can look at that and see the actual ovary of that flower and you can see that it’s turned black,” Gieringer says.

Smith says she’d expect that because of the blossoming pattern with pears and apples, if the apples aren’t setting, the pears probably aren’t either. She’s also heard of damage to raspberries and blueberries this year. During strawberry season, she heard of an opposite problem to the loads of winter-kill casualties — fruit that had been scorched by early heat.

“It stayed cool and wet for the strawberries, and then we had a really hot day, right when the fruits were ripening,” she says. “So, the plants were in shock from the heat and losing so much water that some of the berries shriveled on the plant and others didn’t ripen or didn’t taste good when they did.”

The only fruit she hasn’t heard horror stories about this year? Blackberries. Her guess is it’s because those fruits tend to bloom later.

“It seems funny to me because we have weather fluctuations every year, but it’s just all a matter of timing of when the plants are flowering or what specific things they’re doing,” she says of this year’s major fail in local fruit.

For now, local fruit farmers — and fruit lovers — will just have to enjoy what they can and then wait for next year. In the world of fruit, an off season tends to signal a big crop the next time around.

Vertacnik, though disappointed in his lack of peaches, is counting his lucky stars that at least a bit of his apple crop was spared.

“It’s always lucky to have apples. Anytime we have fruit, that’s a blessing, for sure,” he says. “We’re working with Mother Nature here and she throws off a lot of curve balls.”

By Sarah Henning

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Economic summit to focus on threat of shrinking Ogallala Aquifer

In 17th century Boston, long before it became home to millions of people and the Boston Red Sox, a 50-acre piece of land was opened for families to graze cattle.

The families had an incentive to graze as many cows as they could and have the livestock eat as much as they wanted. The situation soon led to over-grazing and a field that was useful to no one.

The dilemma has become one of the best known examples of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” And a 21st century version of this tale of rapidly depleting natural resources is occurring underneath western Kansas in the High Plains Aquifer.

Millions of years old and hundreds of feet deep, the High Plains Aquifer, which is also called the Ogallala Aquifer, runs from South Dakota to Texas and supplies much of the country’s breadbasket with irrigation.

For decades, farmers in the western part of the state have been pulling from the aquifer to irrigate crops, rapidly depleting the water source. While the rate of depletion had historically slowed, the last 10 years of drought have reversed the trend, said Brownie Wilson, GIS support services manager with the Kansas Geological Survey.

“With what was once deemed a full tank of gas, we now have got a quarter of a tank. We’ve got to address the situation in certain areas,” said Wilson, who measures 1,400 wells every year along the aquifer.

Today, a summit hosted by Gov. Sam Brownback will be held at Colby Community College to discuss the economic impact of the future of the Ogallala Aquifer. Brownback will be joined by other state agencies and those whose livelihoods and businesses depend on the water.

The summit is the first of its kind, said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor and interim dean of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University.

“It has been discussed, but not nearly in such a significant way,” Aistrup said.

Among Aistrup’s research projects is a National Science Foundation study examining the sustainability and long-term viability of the Ogallala Aquifer.

To preserve the aquifer, Aistrup isn’t advocating for government intervention.

“It’s pretty clear that top-down government solutions don’t work for solving common pool problems,” he said. “The solution really does have to come from the farmers.”

Even with a healthy replenishing rate of a half an inch a year (which hasn’t occurred during the dry years), it would take “several lifetimes” for the aquifer to be fully replenished, Wilson said.

The aquifer won’t technically dry up. The main concern is that farmers won’t be able to pump enough water to irrigate crops. Without the water, farmers would be forced to change their operations and perhaps what crops they grow.

Aistrup isn’t sure what that solution is, but he is among those who hope the beginnings of one will be unearthed at Thursday’s summit.

“There are some people who have up to a hundred years of water left to use if they kept on using it. And others have less than five years,” he said. “So we are talking bout a pretty big variation. Finding a solution for all that variation is not always easy. And, it won’t be easy.”

By Christine Metz

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KU's guide for a greener campus set to go before Chancellor

On Friday, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little will receive what has been described as a road map in the university's quest to become a more sustainable campus.

For the past year, a group of more than 150 administrators, faculty, staff and students has been working on the university's first Campus Sustainability Plan.

The plan comes with a host of action steps and recommendations that, if followed, will build a more sustainable community over the next 40 years.

"It provides a guide for everyone from the single individual to do more to recycle to departments to adopt more sustainable purchasing practices," said Jeff Severin, who spearheaded the plan as director of the Center for Sustainability.

Gray-Little commissioned the sustainability plan and is eager to see it, said Jack Martin, the deputy director of university communications.

"She'll review it and make decisions going forward from there," Martin said on the next step in the process.

The 56-page plan focuses on nine major areas: administration, built environment, campus grounds, curriculum and research, energy, procurement, student life, transportation and waste reduction. Specific strategies have been developed for each area.

The plan includes more than a dozen steps that should be tackled first. Some of them are:

Use the campus as a living laboratory. The plan suggests course work and research should be geared so students have more opportunities to gather data about systems on campus and to do projects that have an impact on the campus. "It's learning from the campus environment, but at the same time contributing more to sustainable operations," Severin said.

Increase the amount of data being collected on sustainability indicators. The university should identify what needs to be measured and then establish a matrix that can help monitor progress on sustainability projects.

Develop a comprehensive energy management plan that helps the university determine what investments translate into the biggest energy reductions. The plans should include strategies for increasing efficiency, conservation and renewable energy sources.

All new construction or major renovations should meet or exceed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver criteria, which is part of set of sustainable building standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The plan also urges the university to establish standards for environmentally and socially preferred purchasing practices, expand its recycling program and develop a more efficient fleet of vehicles. Severin sees the plan as a tool his office can use to spur others to do more.

"I think it is a really important step for our office to have this kind of guidance and as a campus to have some unified measurable goals to strive towards," Severin said. "I think it will be a very useful plan moving forward and something we can really learn from."

The final draft of the plan can be downloaded here.

By Christine Metz

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Kansas Bioscience Authority recommends funding for KU Cancer Center, Deciphera

Kansas Bioscience Authority’s investment committee recommended several new investments to the authority’s full board Wednesday, including a proposal to spend just over $1 million on a new recruit for the KU Cancer Center and new funding for a Lawrence pharmaceutical company.

Bill Sanford, vice chairman of the investment committee, said the investment would be made through the KBA’s Rising Star program.

“This individual would be involved in Cancer Center activities and would be critical not only for the day-to-day operations, but also would play an important part of the overall proposal for (National Cancer Institute) designation,” Sanford said.

The investment committee reviewed the credentials of the recruit, who was not identified, and found them to be “outstanding,” Sanford said.

The committee also recommended that Lawrence-based Deciphera Pharmaceuticals receive a nearly $1.6 million research and development grant to fund drug development programs.

In many cases with the investments announced Wednesday, the committee released few details on the projects because of proprietary business matters.

Other recommendations made by the investment committee on Wednesday included:

• A $98,980 proof-of-concept investment with Phlogistics, a Lenexa-based company that is developing products that would help with the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

• A $140,000 proof-of-concept investment with Green Dot Holdings, a Cottonwood Falls company that is conducting research into bioplastics that would have potential connections with other projects in the state, Sanford said.

• A $600,000 equity investment with Novita Therapeutics, an Olathe-based company that is developing medical devices

• A $400,000 expansion and attraction proposal with an unspecified company looking to locate in the state. Kansas is in competition with two other geographic locations to attract the company, Sanford said. The company “fits very well within the mission of the KBA,” he said.

Each of the proposed investments still must be approved by the KBA’s full board, except the proof-of-concept investments.

By Andy Hyland

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Film examines disappearing bee phenomena

Vanishing of the Bees - Trailer from Bee The Change on Vimeo.

Since 2006, billions of honeybees have been disappearing from hives across the country.

It's a phenomena known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and its cause remains a mystery.

On July 21, the documentary "Vanishing of the Bees" narrated by actress Ellen Page, will be shown in Lawrence. Director George Langworthy, a Kansas native with ties to Lawrence, will be at the local screening to take questions after the film.

As pollinators of hundreds of our favorite fruits and vegetables, bees contribute to one out of every three bites of food on our tables, according to the film's website. Their disappearance has political, economical and ecological implications.

In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a 30 percent loss of managed honey bee colonies for the 2010-11 winter. The percentage is roughly similar to the losses reported in the past four years.

At that time, the USDA noted that while numbers were "marginally encouraging" because they weren't increasing, it still "put tremendous pressure on the economic sustainability of commercial beekeeping."

The 90-minute film focuses on two commercial beekeepers who struggle to keep their bees healthy and fulfill their pollination contracts. It follows them to Washington, D.C., as they plead for their cause and across the Pacific Ocean as they attempt to protect the bees.

The film also examines the different theories as to why the bees are dying, which is a question that remains unanswered.

Event info

A screening of "Vanishing of the Bees" will be July 21 at Pachamama's Alton Ballroom, 800 New Hampshire, Lawrence. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the movie starts at 7 p.m. The cost is $5. Pachamama's will have beer, wine and honey-laced movie snacks to purchase at the event.

Tickets can be purchased here.

By Christine Metz

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Green machine: Student brings a long-gone tractor back to life by converting it from gas to electric

It wasn’t exactly a thing of Frankenstein-type proportions, but Will Pendleton can say he brought an inanimate object to life.

This summer, the 20-year-old, who just finished his sophomore year at Kansas State, put the skills he’s learned while studying mechanical engineering to a very practical, yet modern, test. He converted a dead gas-powered tractor to electric and got it back into the fields.

“This has been my summer project so far,” he says from behind the steering wheel of a bright orange 1949 Allis Chalmers “G” tractor. “It’s been broken down for the last several years, and it’s nice to finally get it back and working for the farm.”

The tractor had been a hard worker on Pendleton’s family farm for more than 25 years, but eventually it wore down until it finally landed at the fix-it shop with a cracked engine block. But, because of its antique nature, the replacement parts for the tractor weren’t cost-effective.

“Being an antique, we really couldn’t find parts to replace it,” says Will’s mother, Karen Pendleton. “You’d have to buy another tractor that had a good engine put on it, but the antique value of them is so high that that really wasn’t feasible.”

The Internet turned up the tale of a farmer in New York who received a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant from the USDA to convert his “G” tractor from gas to electric. The farmer figured it out and posted the directions on the Web for other farmers to use.

The Pendleton family consulted with Roger Rieder at Automotive Electrical Service in Lawrence and ordered the parts needed to convert it. By the time Will Pendleton had returned home from school for the summer, the parts were ready, and so was he. It took him weeks, but, eventually, the tractor roared to life.

“This is really the first project that I’ve been able to apply (school knowledge to), other than just basic knowledge of physics and things like that in everyday life,” Pendleton says. “Most of the things I was able to apply (involved) the electrical aspects of it. Make sure things weren’t hooked up wrong — people would get hurt — and things like that. What seems to be common sense to me now may not have been earlier.”

Though, like with many projects, this one seems to be ongoing. Pendleton says he keeps making adjustments to up the tractor’s safety factor.

“We just installed this light recently because we noticed when you had it on, you couldn’t hear it, and so you turn it on and now we have a little light that indicates that it’s on,” he says, pointing to a red light mounted on the steering column. “It reminds us to turn it off.”

The tractor’s 48-volt system plugs into a charger that in turn plugs into a wall. It charges at night and then hits the fields in the day.

“It’s good to charge it every night. We work it enough to where it drains down the battery enough,” he says. “Every other night would be fine, but you don’t want to get stranded out in the field with it.”

Karen Pendleton says she’s not exactly sure what all that charging will do to the farm’s electric bill.

“I wouldn’t think it would be that much, though, because we’re charging stuff all the time,” she says.

And what the farm’s getting in return is pretty good — new life for a piece of equipment that had nearly been junked.

“What I’m amazed at with this electric tractor, though, is that I think of an electric tractor, run on just batteries, as kind of a wimpy little machine,” Karen Pendleton says. “And it has the same amount of power as it did when it was a gasoline engine. So, you don’t have to go out there and worry about (how) you can’t do much with this machine.”

By Sarah Henning

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Program encourages kids to leave electronics at home and head outdoors

One state organization is hoping an online program will give kids the push they need to turn off their computers and venture into nature.

From pitching a tent to catching a frog, the Kansas Wildscape Foundation is asking children to complete 15 of 20 tasks in nature as part of the Wildlifer Challenge.

Some of the challenges are as simple as catching a firefly and getting muddy from head to toe, while others take a little more planning, such as going boating or building a fort.

“Our mission for the Wildlifer Challenge is to really go beyond the playground, beyond the ball field and concrete sidewalks and for them to know it’s a blast out there,” said Lynn Gentine, the director of development at Kansas Wildscape Foundation.

As part of the program, a photo has to be taken of the child doing each particular challenge. The child then has to go online to answer questions about the challenge and upload the photo.

For families who don’t have online access or a digital camera, organizers will mail them a packet that can be filled out at home.

The program isn’t intended to be done in one day. It’s something that could take several seasons to complete.

“It’s a challenge. It’s not an easy quick, fix kind of project. We want you to think about it,” Gentine said.

So far, about 30 children from across Kansas have completed the program, which is in its second year.

The first 500 participates who complete 15 of the challenges will receive a Coleman gear pack that includes a water bottle and flashlight. And, everyone receives a T-shirt, certificate of completion and car decal.

The program doesn’t have an age limit. In fact, entire families are encouraged to participate together. The only requirement is that the participants live in Kansas and adult supervision is provided during the challenges.

The Wildlifer Challenge is a part of a growing nationwide movement that is urging more children to play outdoors, which many believe leads to a healthier and more active lifestyle.

Challenges such as covering yourself in leaves or climbing a tree reconnects kids to that “free range childhood experience” that was prevalent before video games and computers, Gentine said.

“If you ask kids if the want to go canoeing in a stream or a lake, they will almost always say yes,” Gentine said. “But they have been actively cut off from many (of those activities). We are here to motivate families to go outdoors.”

More information about the Wildlifer Challenge can be found online or by calling (785) 843-9453.

By Christine Metz

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