The Ilisu Dam: Turkey, Iraq, and the Future of the Tigris

 

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Damn. Image from Global Water Blog

We interrupt the Daily Regreatening to bring news from Southeast Turkey, where the great rivers of yore are no longer yoked to nature

Turkey said Tuesday that Iraqis have nothing to fear from the filling of an upstream reservoir on the Tigris River, saying “sufficient quantities of water” would continue to flow to the neighboring country.

For decades now, in one of the slow-moving but earth-changing stories of our time, Turkey has been reinventing its power supply by building a series of dams and reservoirs along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, along which the first major civilizations in human history were watered and grown. This has made Iraq and Syria less than thrilled, needless to say.

The final dam, the Ilisu, has slowly started filling, after years of construction interrupted by local protests, international disputes, and Kurdish militancy (the three are not entirely unrelated). The reservoir won’t be completely filled for at least a year, but it is expected to drop the water level in the Tigris by 8 billion cubic meters, leaving it at 17 billion cubic meters.

I don’t know if that is enough (like, I literally have no idea). Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources says it will be fine, but then, I guess, he says a lot of things.

He said Iraq and Turkey reached a “fair” agreement whereby Turkey will release 75 percent of the river’s volume while keeping the rest to fill the dam over the next six months. He said the two sides are set to meet again on Nov. 1. However, when asked about it at the press conference, the Turkish ambassador denied any agreement had been reached.

That’s kind of awkward, and telling as well. Why would Turkey reach an agreement? An agreement means that both sides have power, and if Turkey were to break it, they’d be in the wrong. Without an agreement though, Turkey holds all the cards.

None of this is to say that Turkey won’t release “a sufficient amount of water”, a coldly clinical phrase which carries with it a sort of reluctant and patronizing oblige. It’s not actually in their best interest to have Iraq turn into a waterless hellscape, a nation of 37 million wracked by drought and finally broken. Turkey doesn’t need another Yemen on its border.

But…I mean, things change, man. Even if Erdogan’s government is 100% sincere about releasing a sufficient amount of water–and why wouldn’t you trust him??–who’s to say what the future could bring? Conflict between the nations could easily lead to a withholding. Climate change could make Turkey reluctant to give up any of the water it is storing for itself. Maybe Turkey would want Iraq to turn the vise a little more on its Kurdish population. Who knows?

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It’s actually OK to make a Batman joke

No matter what, though, Turkey has already changed the water in the region through their projects. In a great interview with the UVA Darden Global Water Blog, Julia Harte of Reuters talks about what Turkey’s vast modernization projects have meant in the region.

Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq and Syria by about 80 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1975. The Ilisu Dam is expected to open on December 31, 2017, but it will take several years for the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir to flood completely. When it has, Iraqi officials estimate it will reduce the downstream flow of the river by at least half, allowing more salty water to flood into the river from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq.

Together with a severe drought that has afflicted the region for the past decade, this decline in the quantity and quality of Tigris River water is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture and hobble the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes, vast wetlands in southern Iraq where Sumerian civilization began. The Arabs who live in the marshes were seen as security threats by Saddam Hussein, who accused them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He drained the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s by diverting the Tigris into a giant canal. Since the U.S. invasion, the marshes have been making a slow recovery, but the Ilisu Dam will place their survival in jeopardy once more, according to environmental scientists.

This has huge, regional-and-global changing impacts. Over the last 40 years, which is honestly nothing, the entire water ecosystem of three countries has entirely changed. It’s a vast experiment with real human lives at stake, and no one can really say how it will play out.

Dams and Damn Lies and Where Dams Lie

All of this gets to the insanity of national aspirations in a world built on geology. It’s maddening and impossible to think that a border that is drawn arbitrarily, based just on a war here or there or some dusty treaty or just because that’s where we decided, means that some people control the water, and some don’t. Water is real; borders are not. But if you are on one side of that border, if you are upstream, you make the decision.

The decision on what to do with water is true power politics, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We all need water, and whoever controls the headwaters somehow gets to decide who is sated and who is thirsty.

We see this in North America, where the US has essentially cut off the flow of the Colorado River into Mexico. There are treaties to restore it, and technical experts have been working their best to stay away from the heated politics of the moment, and many (though not all) are working in good faith, but it essentially comes down to: we have the river, you can pound (and maybe eat) sand.

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Pictured: not a healthy delta

When you think of the history of the US and Mexico, and the stolen land, and the cheap and phony wars, and the racism and xenophobia that follows, and the idea that those sentiments and actions can control a river, you start to see the ridiculousness of it.

When you reflect on just how recent these activities were (about 170 years), and then think of how recent these enormous dams were built, and think about the endless power of the Colorado River, which over countless eons carved out the goddamn Grand Canyon, you see how absurd this whole thing is. Mexico and the United States? Eyeblinks. That border? Sand. The idea that one country “owns” the Colorado? Mind-boggling arrogance. An insult not just to nature, but to the very concept of time.

And dams, ultimately, remind us what time and human life really mean.

Le Deluge: The Past and The Future

One of the effects of a dam is that the reservoir built by the dam is, well, a reservoir, and therefore underwater. Anyone around there has to leave or drown. Towns get submerged, drowned in the depths. There’s something haunting and ghostly about the idea, full cities suddenly made into Atlantis, being eaten away by our attempts to control the very agents of their deliquesence.

But these are real lives that the slow flood will ruin. Harte estimates 25,000-30,000 people will be displaced, with one of the towns being a true gasping tragedy.

Hasankeyf is one of the towns along the Tigris that will be completely submerged by the Ilisu Dam. Unlike most of the other towns, however, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years. From Neolithic settlements to medieval tombs and temples, the town is a living museum where some people alive today grew up in caves built into cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Archeologists are still discovering new artifacts in the town – the most recent Neolithic settlement was unearthed in September – and they estimate that most of Hasankeyf’s archeological sites will be flooded before they can be excavated.

But flooded they will be, and gone under will be that seemingly-endless chapter of human history, in which people lived thousands of years before we started to decide that civilization meant cities and borders and power.

That’s an inevitable side effect of dams, of course: the submergence of history. It happened when the Aswan High Dam flooded the site of the ancient and enormous Abu Simbel temples, forcing Egypt to pick them up and move them, block by block, away from the drowning waters.

It’s really the damnedest thing

It happens in the United States too. Many communities were drowned when the TVA filled the valleys, and the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed thousands of years of Native history and sacred sites under the waters of Lake Powell.

But flooding, when looked at this way, is inevitable. While changing the flow of a river demonstrates an awesome power, it also is a temporary and transient one. Those ancient sites are not so ancient. They only seem so because of our graspingly desperate misapprehension of Deep Time. The rivers will, ultimately, win.

The Ilisu will one day erode and burst. So will the Hoover and the Aswan. It’s not just that dams are faulty and sometimes, like with the Oroville, can’t handle the weather. It’s that they are impermanent. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon. It eroded mile-thick volcanic dams over a dozen times during the Pleistocene. It always wins.

No matter how responsible the government of Turkey is, it will one day fall. Human habituations will change. We might flee a region altogether, or disease may wipe out a huge chunk of the population. None of this may happen soon, but it will happen. That none of the megadams have burst yet doesn’t mean they won’t; it is just a reminder of how impossibly new an idea these actually are.

Humans will stop tending them, or lose the knowledge, or just leave altogether. It may be war, but most likely, it will just be time and its insistence. The water will start finding cracks, and will grow them a forceful laziness, and persistent path of least resistance. These towering structures, which need a word beyond Pharaonic, will weaken and crumble and burst, and the water will burst forth. Ancient cities onces submerged may be see in outlines, while existing cities, themselves now ancient, beaten and strangled by the floodtide.

And the rivers will run again, unconcerned. Looking downhill. Glimmering toward the shining sea.

 

 

 

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Weekend Reads and Quick Hits, Mostly Bleak

Hey, remember on Wednesday, when we had sort-of good news about things? A post that wasn’t super bleak? Well, don’t get used to it, chumps.

Let’s hit some things, quickly! How about we start with…the death of the planet?

Planetary Forcast Is Hot and Dead

 

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Earth, 2075. (Note: POSSIBLE exaggeration)

 

At Inverse, which is really a wonderful site, Mary van Aue reports that we’ve had our 400th consecutive month of above-average temperatures. We’re also pretty much guaranteed to have a temperature change of at least 2 degrees, Celsius. This is: bad.

With these new records behind us, scientists are now forecasting that the “worst case scenario,” one in which the planet heats up more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century, is more likely.

That number isn’t arbitrary. Limiting global warming to just 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures would limit the carnage that climate change has on the Earth’s biodiversity. A new study published in Science on Friday found that keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius would preserve tens of thousands of land-based species of plants, vertebrates, and insects living on the planet.

For anyone who thinks “biodiversity” is just something liberals like, remember that we all eat plants and animals! And they eat other things, and get nutrients from other things, and keep other plants and animals alive, and often work in complex, symbiotic ways.  When species start dying, whole ecosystems can collapse. We live in a bunch of overlapping ecosystems. This is a catastrophe, and honestly, I don’t think we’re going to make it.

Congressman Has Odd Ideas About Rising Sea Levels

You probably saw this earlier, but Mo Brooks (R- Alabama, the least surprising parenthetical ever) made maybe the dumbest comments ever uttered in the House of Representatives, a place that employs Louis Gohmert. It was about climate change and the rising seas.

Now, the official GOP position is that global warming doesn’t exist, and that it is all a hoax made up for some reason, most likely to make scientists rich. This is enshrined in our nation’s highest office.

But on the other hand, there are things like “facts” that make it super hard to pretend this isn’t happening. One fact is that we just passed 410ppm of CO2. That’s not a record, probably, since there have been times when it was higher, like when the Deccan Flats or Siberian Traps were coming damn near to extinguishing life on the planet, but it is the highest we have in about 800,000 years. (I linked to Business Insider there because I don’t think they’re known for their raving liberalism.) This keeps going up, according to the dangerous radicals at NASA.

There’s also the fact of rising oceans which threatens a lot of the world’s population, and which is getting considerably worse. One of the reasons it is getting worse is because of all that CO2 floating around, and warming the oceans, which is melting Antartica from beneath, which we just discovered, and is genuinely terrifying.

So it is the job of Republicans to wave away these facts, and they showed their tactics in full at a hearing this week. As Science explains:

The purpose of the hearing was to focus on how technology could be deployed for climate change adaptation. But the hearing frequently turned to the basics of climate science. Many of the questions by Republicans and Democrats alike were directed to Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said he was bothered that established climate science has not been questioned more by the committee, which has accused federal climate scientists of fraudulently manipulating climate data and subpoenaed their records.

“I’m a little bit disturbed by, No. 1, over and over again, I hear, ‘Don’t ever talk about whether mankind is the main cause of the temperature changing and the climate changing,'” he said. “That’s a little disturbing to hear constantly beaten into our heads in a Science Committee meeting, when basically we should all be open to different points of view.”

That’s the most common Republican tactic…allege that the scientists aren’t open to other points of view, that it is a conspiracy, and that they just want to get the truth. It’s a very hard-to-fight cynicism, because overwhelming consensus is whistled away as proof that everyone is in on it. It’s a real mob mentality! That this is being put forward by bought Russian stooge Rohrabacher is the real icing here.

But it is up to Mo Brooks to not just counter the idea of rising seas, but to find alternate ideas. These are…interesting.

Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

“What about the white cliffs of Dover, California, where time and time again you’re having the waves crash against the shorelines, and time and time again, you’re having the cliffs crash into the sea. All that displaces water, which forces it to rise, does it not?”

Duffy responded: “I’m pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects.”

It’s really the “does it not”, that sells this, like Brooks just check and mated the eggy egghead liar. There’s no doubt that on a grand geologic timeframe the land all washes into the sea and the world is remade, but it doesn’t actually happen this quickly. Brooks could also possibly be surprised by the fact that, as the earth is currently constituted, there is more ocean than land.

At least this was a nice exchange.

Brooks added that Antarctic ice is growing. That was true a few years ago, and scientists say it does not disprove the theory of global warming because different factors affect the Arctic and Antarctic rates of melting.

“We have satellite records clearly documenting a shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheet and an acceleration of that shrinkage,” Duffy said.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but the data I have seen suggests — ” Brooks said.

Duffy answered: “The National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Your Reminder That The President Doesn’t Know Anything: North Korea and Libya Edition

Sigh…

The US president issued the threat at the White House when he was asked about the recent suggestion by his national security adviser, John Bolton, that the “Libyan model” be a template for dealing with North Korea at a summit between Trump and Kim planned for 12 June in Singapore.

“The model, if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy,” Trump said, suggesting that the regime’s survival could be assured if Kim agreed to disarm.

“This with Kim Jong-un would be something where he would be there. He would be running his country. His country would be very rich,” the president said.

I mean…that’s not what the Libya model is. It’s when, after the invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear power in exchange to be welcomed into the world community and keep getting rich. The problem is that after a while, the world helped him be overthrown and killed. So it is a weird precedent for Bolton to suggest, but I see the outline of coherence there.

But Trump doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care. He’s just making random threats, only remembering one thing, and using that as his “model”. If you wanted to argue that he was making a point, it is that he’s assuming Kim saw what happened to Gaddafi, so he knows the US could take him out, so he should make a deal. After all, Trump literally says that they’ll decimate the regime if a deal isn’t made, which now that I read it, should be the fucking headlines.

That’s terrifying and a horrible way to negotiate. I know he thinks it sounds tough. But combined with the “Libya model”, what reason is there for Kim to give up his weapons? The stability of the United States? The strength of our promises? It’s madness predicated by total ignorance and a half-cocked notion of how strongmen talk.

What 100 Miles In Means to Border Patrol

 

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The borderlands of Indianapolis

 

A year and change ago, we talked about how an aggressive CBP, who, along with ICE, is the spear end of Trump’s white nationalism, were using the full extent of their powers to harass people “100 air miles from any border“.

It’s a weird notion for those of us who don’t really have to worry about Border Patrol. We don’t really understand the extent of their jurisdiction. But Tanvi Misra and the great people at CityLab showed exactly what this means, in a tremendous piece of research and data-reporting.

In the “border zone,” different legal standards apply. Agents can enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.

That’s striking because the border zone is home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI. This zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It also includes all of Michigan and Florida, and half of Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to a prior rough analysis by Will Lowe, a data scientist at MIT.

Read the whole piece to understand the democratic dystopia that has been gaining steam for decades, and has now been shot into hyperspeed.

Finally, A Nice Thing About Rivers

 

Bluff Springs Fen, October 31

Bluff Springs Fens, Oct 31st. By the artist. I mean, this is just lovely, right? 

 

The Center for Humans and Nature has a nice interview with an artist named Joel Shessley. (Disclosure: the company I work for has the Center as a client, though I wasn’t there when we did their website.) He is painting the Fox River, and his work will be presented at Aurora University in September. Anyway, he has some lovely thoughts about rivers, and I’ll leave you with them, contemplatively.

How has painting from different perspectives and during various seasons transformed the way you view life on the river and the life of the river itself?

Since I’m dealing with the watershed, and not just the river itself, I’ve become much more aware that the river cannot be separated from the land that feeds it. The river is what it is by virtue of all the named and unnamed tributaries, all the little rivulets and the larger streams that flow together to become the Fox River. Working across the Fox River Valley, I’ve begun to feel the pull of gravity down the gentle slopes. I’ve begun to sense how the river and the land interact. A topographic map would show you this, but patient observation on the ground and moving with the current in a canoe puts this information into your bones in a visceral way.

More Good News! VIDA Blocked; Invasive Species Kept Away From Great Lakes

Pictured: Joe Manchin

It’s water Thursday, and hopefully we’ll get to the roundup after work tonight, but wanted to bring you a rare bit of good news: the Vessel Incident Discharge Act, which would have removed needed protections against invasive species in the Great Lakes, was actually defeated in the Senate yesterday!

We talked about this last year, and were officially Not Optimistic, saying it was part of the GOP’s mad desire for “letting industry control their own regulatory regimes.” That’s a big part of this, and something we need to keep fighting against.

It’s also an interesting story, because it is part of the larger geological and hydrological history of opening up the Great Lakes to the world. The Niagara Falls was an enormous barrier to any creatures trying to make their way to the Lakes, if they could even get past the punishing downstream currents of the St. Lawerence.

But the building of canals and the invention of steamboats changed all of that, in ways that transformed not just the economy of our country, but the basics of geology. Global trade, in which huge vessels picked up ballast water from the Bosporus, teeming with life perfectly suited for that environment, brought that life here, where it wasn’t suited (and obviously vice-versa, this isn’t an assault against America or anything).

Trade is good. Connecting the world is good. They’ve brought enormous benefits. But there are huge risks and downsides, which we need to work against so that everyone benefits. That “everyone” should also include ecosystems, which are where we, you know, live. That’s why regulations about ballast water were important, and why trying to remove them was insane.

I don’t have to tell you that nearly every Republican voted for VIDA, right? But they also had some Democratic help.

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp(N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) voted with Republicans to advance the bill. Everyone, besides Jones, is up for reelection in a state won by Trump in 2016.

Casey and Donnelly are Great Lakes senators, which is particularly maddening. But think about what that says: it says that red (or reddish) state senators feel that any environmental legislation is so toxic, even one as obvious and benign as this, that they are siding against it for cheap political points. Even though I doubt that there are many people in landlocked West Virginia too damn concerned with inconvenience to oceanic freight, Manchin sided against clean water.

That’s nuts. One of the consequences of opening up the Lakes to the world is that every river system that is connected to them can can be infested with invasives. And since Chicago reversed the river, that means the Mississippi watershed, which includes the Ohio and all its tributaries, which includes the Kanawha and the Monagahela, which are in West Virginia. And I think the Missouri runs through North Dakota and, well, Missouri.

The point is, that thanks to geology and our economic choices, we’re all connected. It’s our politics that suffers a vast disconnect, where even pointing out that we should make it slightly harder for oxygen-killing mussels to infect every waterway, the source of our country’s strength, is some kind of commie tree-hugging bullshit.

But that can change. We can get better. Rejecting VIDA is a hopeful sign that sometimes the good guys can win. It’s not un-American to protect America. As we learn more, and as voices speak up, we’ll expand that idea of America to our land, our water, and ultimately, the people who live here.

Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.

 

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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.

 

It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

Thursday Water News: Drugs in the Water, Messing up the Mississippi Basin, and Pruitt Takes Control

In last week’s water news, we ended on a sort of kind of happy note, raising a moderately-filled glass that Capetown’s Day Zero was pushed back until next year. It was nice to have a sort of kind of happy note! Water is good, and we should be happy when there is happy news!

This week will not have it. This week will end with Scott Pruitt, if that’s any indication.

Let’s get at it!

Drugs in the Water: Not The Good Kind

 

 

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Remember: drugs lead to jazz

 

Last year, I wrote a long piece about antidepressants in the Niagara River. It is one of my favorite posts on this blog, and won praise from a cousin who said “Brian, I love you, but you are pretty depressing.” It’s like a Pulitzer!

Anyway, the point was that antidepressants leeching into our waters were causing fish to not eat, not reproduce and to stop caring about avoiding predators. Really, it made them stop doing the only thing they were good at, which was: continue being fish. I thought the symbolism of it was a little on-the-nose.

 There is is something deeply wrong here. Our society drives people to medications, which can do good or ill, and the waste of our addictions and needs ultimately ends up pissing itself into the water, where it infects other species and drives them toward involuntary suicide.

Well, obviously, an enormous supply of antidepressants isn’t centered entirely around Buffalo, though you’d be forgiven for imagining that to be the case. As The Guardian reported this week, it is a global epidemic.

Continue reading

Friday Good Reads and Quick Hits

It’s been a busy sort of week at the homefront, but we’ve got some exciting articles in the hopper for next week. In the meantime, to slake the omniscient society-hurdling thirst percolating in your word-hungry oppressed and power-lusting eyes (ed note: I’ve been taking writing lessons from Mr. Sean Penn!), here are some quick hits and good reads.

  • The White Sox, now projected to be among the teams with a 162-0 record, are also on pace to hit over 900 home runs this year, a new MLB high mark! In a year that’s between rebuilding and contending, that was a fun start. Matt Davidson has been the forgotten man, going from a top prospect to bust to a steady player. I don’t really expect him to hit three dingers every game (which I think is generous and understanding of me), but he has undeniable raw power, and could become a genuine steadying surprise. As it is, this is the weirdest and worst off day in baseball history.
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Giancarlo Davidson

  • Sticking with baseball for one more second, read David Roth’s little piece on Rickey Henderson the Involved Landlord. He’s exactly how you’d expect Rickey to be, sweeping the floors with his own nutball perfectionism, even explaining, in the traditional third person, that ‘Rickey needs Rickey’s houses to be clean!” It’s a bit of fluff, but a fun brief look at one of the 10 greatest, and probably 10 weirdest, baseballers of all time. And while you’re at it, take a look at Rickey’s stats. Did you know he led the league in stolen bases in 1998, 18 years after the first time he did? That’s nuts. Granted, 66 wasn’t super high for him, but it still would have led the league last year. Actually, it’s only been surpassed 5 times in the last two decades. That’s partly because we’ve gotten smarter about the risk/reward of a stolen base, but to reiterate my earlier point: that’s nuts.
  • All right, slightly more serious: read Peter Salisbury’s latest in-depth report on Yemen for Chatham House, this time on the Southern Question. I don’t think there is any question that the south is key to all of Yemen, and it is being largely ignored in the Saudi/Houthi/US/GCC/Qaeda-ISIS mix. But the Southern Question is really asking “what is Yemen“, and the answer doesn’t seem to be reflected in anyone’s policy. This piece is comprehensive and important, and you should read it all.
  • As a side note, Salisbury’s piece and a maybe-poorly-worded tweet by me spurred a bunch of private conversations, some angry but mostly civil, with southern Yemenis. I’m working on a long piece about the Southern Question that was born of those conversations, and obviously influenced by Salisbury’s great paper.
  • Alana Semuels has a harrowing piece on poverty and segregation in Chicago, making the what-should-be-obvious-point, often completely ignored in our politics and punditry, that “people at the bottom are struggling as much as they always have, if not more—illustrating that it’s not just the white rural poor who are being left behind in today’s economy.” Chicago is vibrant and wealthy and beautiful, filled with fit and educated people biking along luxurious lakefront trails and eating at incredible restaurants, and it is a scuffling dangerous and violent city, where life can be snuffed out in a flash of an instant, the police are another gang, and opportunity is denied by dint of education, by the misery of geography, and by the willful neglect of history. Something as simple as a rail line means the difference between getting a job and staying poor. These two cities rarely intersect.
  • This was illustrated to me at the March for Our Lives on Chicago’s near west side last week. The rally was held in Union Square, now at the far end of one of the hottest restuarant-and-condo districts in the city, which until recently was a meat-packing district. Beyond it a few blocks, the city becomes the “other city”. The rally was filled with the Good Sign Crowd, as boisterous as we were at the women’s marches. But the students, who live in the forgotten Chicago, weren’t interested in the NRA or in Trump or even, really, in Parkland. They reminded us, without pulling any punches, that they were afraid for their lives every day, and that a vast system, in which the petty bloodmanship of the NRA only played a part, kept them oppressed and poor. Those were the two cities colliding; then half of us walked back east, back toward downtown, back toward the gleaming skyscrapers and cool brunch places and open suburbs. The other went back to their lives.
  • London could face water scarcity in 2040! As Circle of Blue points out,  “demand for water could outstrip London’s supply by 2040″, by as much as 20%. Maybe when the rich areas of the world start to run out of water, as opposed to just the poor hot places, we might take it seriously. Ah, but 2040 is a long time away, right? There’s no need for…for…
  • Unrelatedly, 2040 from 2018 is equidistant as 2018 is from 1996.
  • But of course, things don’t just get bad the year of projections. It’s steadily worse. Like, when they say the seas will rise X meters by 2100, it’s not like we’ll go to bed dry and wake up deluged. Climate change is already happening, and happening quickly. That’s the point of this Inverse article about the record rate of arctic ice disappearance. The ice disappears because the planet is getting warmer, and disappearing ice means less solar reflection, which means more heat trapped on the planet. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, which is why long-term projections might actually be optimistic.
  • Another stark reminder of that is Noah Sneider’s Letter from Siberia, in this month’s Harper’s. Titled “Cursed Fields”, it is about an anthrax outbreak that slaughtered reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where reindeer are the primary economic driver for the Nenet people. While there are some who think the anthrax (or some other poison) was spread by Gazprom to drive away the locals in order to access the sweet sweet oil and gas of the peninsula, the probable truth is even more terrifying. Global warming is melting the permafrost (as seen in vast sinkholes and methane explosions, another self-reinforcing cycles), and unleashing microbes dormant from earlier outbreaks. And maybe even earlier diseases to which we aren’t immune. It’s a gripping piece, and a great look at a life in a vast and difficult land, an old way of life uprooted, for ill and for good, by oil and gas in the last century. Sneider also points out that Russia stands to benefit enormously from the treasures unlocked by a melting permafrost, which go hand-in-hand with the diseases pouring forth.
  • Happy Easter and Passover to everyone celebrating. Easter isn’t my favorite holiday, per se, but it might be my favorite one to celebrate. We go to my Aunt Marilyn’s house, as we have every year since I was born. She, and my Uncle Leo while he was alive, lived in the same house for that entire time, raised a family, had us over every year. It is in Wheeling, which is now a booming suburb, but when they moved there was past the outskirts of Chicagoland. Even when we were going there when I was growing up, there was farmland all around their little pocket of houses. It struck me as odd and exotic then, and I felt a powerful nostalgia for it that I couldn’t place, even while it was still there. Maybe it was just being there once a year, every spring, in dewy and never-quite-warm days, but I always felt an intense and unspeakable loss for the day even while I was there, even while I was a kid. And every year the farmlands got smaller, subdivisions were built, and now those subdivisions are old, showing their age, part of the landscape. The slow flattening of America caught up to it, homogenized. But I still see parts of the openness I remember, in carved out fields filled with power lines, in old drainage ponds that used to be for irrigation, in cul-de-sacs that seemed designed for Spielbergian heroes in that 80s borderland of sameness and weirdness, of suburbia and the still-wild rural areas in which monsters lurked. That’s gone now. It was fleeting even while it existed. But you know what they say: you can’t stop progress.

bloom

  • But, on the plus side, I can always say “I remember when this was all farmland”, and feel good and properly old.

Michigan Water Bill Sums Up War Against the Common Good in Great Lakes

Remember last week, when we had all those lovely pictures of the Great Lakes? And were happy? Well, that’s done with. There’s no more time for lazy beer-drinking bocce along a sun-kissed Lake Michigan shoreline*. The war against the lakes and against the common good as a whole continues apace.

 

Image result for dried aral sea

A sort-of-adorable reminder that enormous lakes can disappear.

 

(*There’s always time for that. Holy moly, I can’t wait for the summer.)

A bill has been working its way through the Michigan legislature the last couple of weeks, and is pending a vote. This is the sort of bill that pundits call “business friendly”, but the rest of us might call “an abdication of our natural rights to corporate overlords.” Let’s let the Petoeksy News explain:

House Bill 5638, introduced by state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, would eliminate current Department of Environmental Quality requirements for some large water withdrawals proposed by businesses and farms to be screened through an online assessment tool at the agency’s website. This tool is intended to be used prior to large-quantity withdrawals — those of 100,000 gallons or more per day — to determine the impact on local water resources.

Rather than using the current review process, the legislation would allow some applicants instead to seek approval based on hydrological analyses they submit, completed by a hydrologist of their choosing.

 Now, reader, I confess I don’t know exactly how onerous the Michigan DEQ is when approving withdrawals. It might be very costly and time-consuming, and may have an overall negative economic impact that (somehow) outweighs the good it does.
It’s a pretty simple public interface in which the farmer plugs in their needs, and an algorithm determines if it is approved or there needs to be more investigation.  Apparently, some farmers can wait months for an approval.  It was meant to be unbiased, but can obviusly be slow and unwieldly. Maybe it needs reform and streamlining.
This isn’t it.

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