Monday, March 29, 2010

Sustainable Garden Maintenance

First of all, I am not a gardener. I have no natural gift for it and limited inclination and experience. However, as time goes on, am developing a deep affection for my garden. I am attempting to develop a flourishing and sustainable organic ornamental garden surrounding my house. I am trying to concentrate on native species assuming they will be the most likely to flourish with my form of benign neglect. I did not originally start out to be organic, I actually never thought about it until faced with a nursery consultant wanting to sell me bags of chemicals the year I began planting my garden. The groundwater that I drink is very shallow with limited soil overburden to protect it. In addition, nutrient runoff is a major problem in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For the most part, the back seven acres of my property are part of the Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Protection Act. Anything that goes into my septic system, is spread on my lawn, or sprayed around my house could easily find its way into my water or the water shed (someone else’s water). My first reaction to the offer of fertilizer and weed killers was no. Since that time the more I read about pesticides, herbicides and insecticides derived from naturally occurring substances that are now commercially available, the less I am inclined to use any synthetic chemical products in the garden. Some of the more natural pesticides were introduced in the 19th century, and are derived from the roots of tropical vegetables. At the moment I am practicing a form of feeding the soil through composting. I try to always use the least toxic method to address any pest issues. This requires an integrated pest management approach that includes a series of methods for preventing and managing pest populations based on an ecological understanding of the problem. Time, patience and diligence are necessary for the success of any natural program of sustainable garden and pest management. Chemical annihilation of pest colonies and weeds are not an option.

These older, methods and naturally occurring chemicals are a step back, but believed to be safer than the new generation of pesticides and herbicides developed during last quarter century (encouraged by the US EPA to replace the first round of pesticides banned by the agency). The lower concentrations of the new chemicals and their breakdown products rendered them virtually invisible in water. We could not detect them and assumed they were not present. Now it seems that the degradation products of these new chemical herbicides are far more persistent in the environment that originally believed or hoped. Recent studies have documented endocrine disruption in a wide variety of marine gastropods, frogs, and fish associated with exposure to low levels of non specific endocrine disrupting chemicals of unknown sources. The current state of analysis only allowed the documentation of EDC presence. EDCs are a structurally diverse group that includes natural and synthetic estrogens, alkyl phenols surfactants, phthalates, bisphenol A, brominated flame retardants and some pesticides.

Pesticide' is a broad term, covering a range of products that are used to control pests. The slug pellets, ant powder, weed killers, and rat and mouse baits that you may use in your everyday life are all pesticides. Other pesticides you may have heard of including: insect killers (insecticides), mould and fungi killers (fungicides), weed killers (herbicides), slug pellets (molluscicides), plant growth regulators, bird and animal repellents, and rat and mouse killers (rodenticides). Often people only think of pesticides as chemicals, but they include a very large range of different types of products. Some as described above are natural, while many are altered versions of natural chemicals. I choose to stay away from the synthetic chemicals. My organic garden requires me to weed the beds on a regular basis, where spraying 2, 4-D, commonly found in household weed killers is certainly much easier. However the more chemical pesticides are investigated the more questions are raised. For example, in a 1991 National Cancer Institute study examined dogs whose owners' lawns were treated with 2,4-D four or more times per year. The study found those dogs had double the risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide. Our knowledge of the consequences of pesticide use is really so limited considering the widespread use of the substances. I think just doing without pesticides and weed killers in my garden are best. There is simply no justification for adding chemical contaminants to the earth and the watershed for a greener lawn and prettier flowers.

Without the need to spread fertilizer or weed controlling chemicals, my spring clean up of my garden involved, edging, weeding and mulching the beds, replacing the shrubbery that the deer pulled out and the snow crushed and replacing the snowplow damaged sections of the lawn with sod and calling it a day. (It was actually 5 man days and 50 bags of mulch.) For full disclosure purposes I still have one of the worst lawns in my neighborhood, I apply no chemicals to my lawn and never water. However, I do hope to improve the lawn by continuing my fall program of aerating and over seeding and applying my limited amount of compost. So far, not so good despite soil analysis that showed decent soil composition. I may not have a great garden, but at least it is a neat one. Next we are onto assessing the condition of my dozen hollies trees that appear to have been severely damaged by the harsh winter we just had. The arborist will be out to determine what can be saved and what needs to be replaced and I will plant some saplings on the forest edge to increase its footprint.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring Cleanup and Good Stewardship of my Resource Protected Area

It was a long harsh winter in this part of Virginia. Spring as always seems to arrive suddenly and I was faced will a garden that had been damaged by the severe winter storms and a few misses by the snow plow. The past week and a half have been warm and spring like and that is all it took for the first buds of spring to appear. It was time to assess the garden, the woods and do a spring cleanup. As I walked the few miles surrounding my house I watched homeowners take different approaches to the spring cleanup. There were lots of homes (mine included) where trees were downed by the storms. We maintain woods on most of our property an area larger than the mandated Resource Protected Area (RPA) under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and manage it as one riparian forest buffer. Our spring assessment began with the woods.

The Regulations of the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act require that a vegetated buffer area of at least 100-feet wide be located adjacent to of all tidal shores, tidal wetlands, certain associated non-tidal wetlands, and along both sides of all water bodies with perennial flow within the Tidewater region. These aquatic features, along with the 100-foot buffer area, are the RPAs and serve to protect water quality by reducing excess sediment, nutrients, and potentially harmful or toxic substances from groundwater and surface water entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In the RPA the roots of the woody vegetation helps to maintain the stability of the stream bed, minimizing bank erosion to limit sediment. A wooded buffer has porous soils from leaf litter, fungi, twigs, fallen branches and associated bacteria all help to enhance the infiltration of the rain water and snow runoff. The root mass and forest floor also retains nutrients, aids in denitrification and pollution degradation.

As an engineer, I do not truly understand the nuances of the forest ecosystem. It is a complex mix of trees, understory shrubs and groundcover. Over time the process of natural succession occurs. Small saplings develop and will become the next generation of trees as the older ones die out. I take on faith that understory trees are a necessary part of this ecosystem and that insects, disease, ice and wind are a normal part of the succession process. In a forested area the roots, twigs and leaf litter and detrius are important for slowing storm water runoff and trapping debris and sediment. The twigs and roots also trap blown litter. So, our spring clean up of the RPA is to walk the woods collecting plastic bottles, and other litter. We walked the woods to make sure that nothing is amiss, pick up litter and see the river. There is always something magical about flowing water. This year my husband made a little video of the river running.

Several trees had been downed in the woods along with many branches. Pretty much we don’t have to worry about those trees. Benign neglect is the rule for RPAs which appeals to my lazy heart. We did cut off a section of tree that had crushed our fence and fallen into our manicured garden. However, that tree was not in the RPA. We left the two parts of the tree in the woods. I am thinking of expanding the wooded border with some additional tree plantings. Our big cleanup in the RPA this year was finding an old tire and a part of an appliance (I would guess washing machine). We removed the trash from the woods and took a bunch of pictures of the river and called it a day after ensuring we had not picked up any ticks. (Lyme disease is not a joke.) Now we are done, so much for spring cleanup of the riparian buffer zone. Next up the manicured garden.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring, Time to Test Your Private Well

Private water wells provide drinking water to over 1,000,000 Virginians. If you have your own well, then the responsibility for ensuring that your family and friends are drinking safe water rests with you. Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. It is important to test your well at least once a year for bacteria, nitrates, pH and total dissolved solids. Testing is often the only way to detect possible contaminants in your water. Testing is not mandatory but should be done to ensure your family’s safety. First, make sure that no potential sources of pollution are located near the well, especially uphill and surface water drains away from the well. The best time to do this testing is in the late spring after the snow has melted and there has been a considerable amount of rain. Take your samples on a day after a good rain so that any infiltration problems will be detected. Testing is often the only way to detect possible contaminants in your water. Testing is not mandatory but should be done to ensure your family’s safety.

Coliform bacteria are commonly found in soil, on vegetation, and in surface water. They also live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans. Some coliform bacteria strains can survive in soil and water for long periods of time. Coliform bacteria is not likely to cause illness, but coliform bacteria are most commonly associated with sewage or surface waters, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water indicates that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water system. There are three different groups of coliform bacteria; total coliform, fecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli) each has a different level of risk. Total coliform serves as a proxy for fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in the most basic water test. Coliform bacteria do not occur naturally in most aquifers. Fractured or creviced bedrock aquifers that are close to the surface are the exception and testing for e. coli and fecal coliform and nitrogen will help differentiate the naturally occurring coliform from contamination that might impact your health.

Bacteria can be introduced into a new well during construction and can remain if the water system is not thoroughly disinfected and flushed. Well construction defects such as insufficient well casing depth, improper sealing of the space between the well casing and the borehole, corroded or cracked well casings, and poor well seals or caps can allow sewage, surface water, or insects to carry coliform bacteria into the well. Unplugged abandoned wells can also carry coliform bacteria into deeper aquifers. In an existing well system that formerly was bacteria free look for defects, deterioration in the condition of the well. These include: openings at the top of the well; old, rusty, or damaged well casing; unprotected suction line; buried wellhead; and, close proximity of a well to septic tanks, drain fields, sewers, kitchen sinks, drains, privies, barnyards, animal feedlots, abandoned wells, and surface water.

A good place to get help and information is from the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) which consists of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) agents and screened volunteers trained in the proper design, management, and maintenance of private water supply systems (springs, wells, and cisterns). The trained VAMWON volunteers reach out to private water system owners in a variety of ways, ranging from speaking at local community groups, HOA meeting to informal discussions with friends and neighbors to inform Virginians dependent on private water systems about water testing, water treatment, and system maintenance. The training of these volunteers is made possible by a grant from USDA Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service (CSREES). This grant was made to revitalizing the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) to help the program improve the water quality of Virginians using private water wells.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Solar Photovoltaic Project Update

The renewable energy rebate in Virginia was limited by the $15 million in stimulus funds that the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated to the program. Applications to the Solar and Wind Incentive Program closed on November 18 because all the funds were allocated to projects. Though, I personally reserved only the 6 kilowatts that I estimated would fit on the main portion of my roof and my available funding (and ultimately went into contract for), I am sure that plenty of individuals signed up for the full 10 kilowatts and not all the rebate reservations will be used. There might be a second opportunity to sign up for rebates, so keep your eye on the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy website for updates.

I signed up for the renewable energy rebates two days before the cut-off, I did not complete my due diligence and select my contractor, sign the contract and make a good faith deposit until after Christmas having been delayed by the mid-December snow. My selected contractor is a local company employing local residents and is affiliated with a Virginia roofing company. I obtained three bids, reviewed references, checked the contractor licenses for complaints for both the solar company and the roofing company, and decided to go with American made solar photovoltaic panels. As the winter snow storms hammered northern Virginia over the winter my selected contractor struggled to prepare the engineering work and drawings necessary to obtain the permits. Weather delays and the usual contractor delays (always a couple of days later than the salesman promised) interfered with obtaining the completed engineering work and the permits.

You have 180 days to actually install the system and meet all the requirement of the program to obtain your rebate. Signing up only guarantees that there is still money available for your project not that you will receive the rebate, so the clock is ticking and there is 60 days left. The contractor has assured me that they are still on schedule to meet the deadline. I hope so since all the contractor’s projects need to be finished in virtually the same two week period, and the window grows tighter. I have received my HOA’s permission to continue with the project, so now I wait for the contractor.

We decided to go with Sharp Solar PV panels. Sharp has manufactured 25% of the world’s solar PV currently installed having been in the business for over 40 years. Sharp has continued to invest in the research and development of photovoltaic solar panels. Their newest panels put out almost 10% more wattage using the same square footage than many competitors and allowed me to fit the 6 kilowatt array on the main roof section avoiding any shadows from vents. The Sharp panel sold in the United States is manufactured in their Memphis Tennessee plant, which has produced over a million panels to date. The Sharp modules meet the intent for the “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill. In addition, the plant has achieved Green Factory Status.

The standard warranty period for most PV solar panels is 25 years. Sharp has panels in operation since the 1960’s are still producing in most cases up to 85% of their original rating. When I viewed the various panels the Sharp panels had a more uniform appearance and finish. One of the reasons we choose our contractor was his use of Sharp panels.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rethinking Organic

Recently, I read “Organic Inc.” by Samuel Fromartz. The book did two things, first it allowed me to understand the origins of organic food and how the concept of organic food has evolved with the regulation of the market and industry. The insight Mr. Fromartz provided to the organic food industry and farming made me rethink my position on organic food. Though traditionally, before the government stepped in to regulate the market, organic foods were grown under natural conditions (without the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides; and either not processed, or processed without the use of additives). Now, under standards adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. (USDA) in 2000 and fully effective in 2002, organic food is food grown, raised and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods, in addition, the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. Food whose ingredients are at least 95% organic by weight may carry the "USDA ORGANIC" label; products containing only organic ingredients are labeled 100% organic.

However, under the government regulations the word "organic" refers strictly to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and raise organic meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. The USDA organic label means that the food was produced using organic methods sanctioned by the USDA. So far there has not been any hard evidence that organic food is more nutritious of better for you. Food health studies are exceedingly difficult to run long term. So to a large extent the health benefits of not eating fruits, vegetables and grains with pesticide residue and meat without antibiotics and feed grain or grass without pesticide residue has to be taken on faith.

In the past I have bought organic where I thought it mattered to protecting my family from exposure to chemicals. Like strawberries, lettuce, apples, vegetables especially root vegetables where the outside of the fruit and vegetable is eaten. Other than that, I tried to buy only American grown produce, vegetables, herbs, beans and grains (though occasionally I do buy a couple of bananas). In terms of meat, I purchase organic, grass fed and pastured beef, pork, lamb and free range chicken. We only eat wild caught fish. I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work that have resulted in me barely ever eating meat. However, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected. In addition grass fed beef (and other animals) is lower in saturated fat and better for you. This was confirmed by Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat” and Professor of nutrition at NYU School of Public Health. I asked her at a lecture I attended and she said that grass fed beef was as low in saturated fat as chicken.

Organic crop land is less productive than conventional farm land. Organic farming also requires more labor to keep weeds down. The average corn crop yield per acre in organic farming is 17 percent lower than down in traditional farming. Results range between 5 percent for corn to 35 percent for rye. For potatoes, root vegetables and turnips, crop yields are on average 14 percent lower than in traditional farming. In various fruits the yield was reported to be around 20% per acre lower with organic. That reduction in yield is basically why organic food sells for a premium. This loss of yield is an expense of organic farming, though there is a cost savings in not utilizing chemicals and in having soil retain its fertility through organic techniques of crop rotation. The chemical pesticides add to the cost of the crops in conventional farming, and conventional farming requires more irrigation water than organic farming.

Not only does conventional farming utilize more water, but the pesticide runoff impacts both surface and groundwater. The true cost of water is not expressed in the irrigation water charges in many places and the cost of the pesticide impact to water is not yet known and only recently have we begun to think about that impact. These days I am buying American grown organic to do my tiny part to protect the health of the soil, surface and groundwaters at least in my “neighborhood.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What is Organic Food?

Until recently, organic and natural were just claims growing out of a desire to balance human, animal and environmental health based on the principals of Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist. Organic and natural farming has been practiced in the United States since the late 1940s after the rise of the new generation of pesticides. Organic farming has grown from experimental garden plots to the emergence of the “organic industrial complex” selling its products under a special organic label. It was the government intervention and regulation of the organic food market that has given rise to the organic industrial complex.

In the 1990, after an attempt to develop a consensus of production and certification standards during the late 1980’s, Congress drafted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, adopted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, which required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. This process took twelve years. This resulted in the labeling you have seen on fruit and vegetables in the form of those little stickers on your fruit and vegetables. Any number beginning with a 9 is organic. The Act also requires USDA to establish an organic certification program. These standards were loose enough to allow for the manufacture of organic junk food

To be certified organic food must be grown without the use of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides (there is some allowance to use controlled amounts of pesticides as a last resort). Fruits, legumes, vegetables, herbs and grains are produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except nitrogen, lime and potash from approved sources. The food is produced on land that has not had synthetic chemicals applied in the past three years. There are reportedly more than 400 chemical pesticides routinely used in conventional farming and residues remain on non-organic food even after washing. One class of pesticides, endocrine disruptors have recently become and area of investigation for the EPA. Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides and in compliance with an approved organic plan that specifies amongst other things treatment of compost and biological waste.

For livestock and dairy, Organic animals aren't given drugs. Organic farming standards prohibit the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified vaccines in farm animals Organic animals aren't fed slaughterhouse waste, blood, or manure. Organic animals are either pastured in organic pastures or gain feed organic feed. Organic crops and feed are supposed to be free of genetically modified species. Recent questions have arisen regarding the cross pollination of genetically modified perennial crops such as alfalfa contaminating organic pastures. Note that there is no US standard for organic fish. Any fish labeled as organic is a farm raised fish feed an organic diet (probably grain) and certified by another entity. I prefer wild fish.

The organic label is now conferred on processed foods. The creation of this “value added” category has encouraged the entry into the organic category of large food manufacturing companies. The organic standards differentiate between single ingredient foods discussed above like produce, milk and multi-ingredient foods like cookies and yogurt. Under the government regulations processed food can now be certified as organic. Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods are classified in different ways to indicate how much of their ingredients are organic. Processed foods are labeled; 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients. Only food with at least 95% organic ingredients by weight may display the USDA Organic seal.

100% Organic—Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients* and may display the USDA Organic seal.

Organic—These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the NOP. These products may display the USDA Organic seal. These are typically foods that require baking soda, ascorbic acid to retain their color when packaged and other processing ingredients, food additives and flavor.

Made With Organic Ingredients—Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What Is the Product Carbon Content and is it Useful

The recent announcement of the partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and Wal-Mart has once more raised the issue of product carbon content. Lately, it has been popular to measure sustainability by the individual and national carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is a by product of combustion, all combustion. Human beings exhale it at over 3 pounds per day for the average sedentary adult. Carbon dioxide is also released when we burn fossil fuels such as gas, coal or oil to produce electricity, move vehicles, manufacture products etc. In a natural carbon cycle, carbon dioxide is used by plants and trees. However, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising. Carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere has risen from approximately 250 parts per million (0.025%) to 386 part per million (0.039%) in the past 100 years. This increase has been attributed by many to human activity. The belief is that we are producing more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by the plants and trees because we are burning too much fuel. The certainty of the direct relationship between global temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations has been called into question in the most recent revelations of manipulated data from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and the revelations of unsubstantiated claims from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The popular belief is that this increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has caused the 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperature since 1900. It was postulated that burning fossil fuels for industry and power was the direct cause of this increase, though other contributing causes might exist. The methods used to determine global average temperature has come into question with the data manipulation disclosures from the CRU at the University of East Anglia, so currently, there is no consensus on what the global average temperature actually is. Nonetheless, the popular climate change theory postulates that the overall temperature of the planet is increasing (global warming) at a faster rate now and causing the earth’s climate to change in unpredictable ways (from floods and hurricanes to heat waves and droughts). The strongest adherents to this belief hold that the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced immediately. The belief is that if we could reduce our carbon dioxide emissions enough we could stop the climate of the earth from changing.

At the height of the Global Warming movement regulators and universities began to calculate the carbon dioxide released when making, shipping and using various products. These were only estimates, depending on some of the assumptions; drastically different totals could be reached. This concept was jumped on by merchants and manufacturers, to advertise a scheme to save the planet thought guided acquisition-purchase enough of the right things and save the planet. The makers of everything from milk to jackets to cars were estimating the carbon dioxide released when making, shipping and using of their products and advertising the results. These were called carbon content labels. For companies looking to get their products carbon labeled, three carbon labeling services are currently in the market. The labels are available in the UK and US and require a processed-based life-cycle analysis (LCA) to be carried out, usually in the price range of $10,000-$20,000 depending on the product. The methods of estimating the carbon content contained a large number of estimates, guesses and assumptions making this calculation easily manipulated and practically worthless for true allocation of resources because it only estimated the generalized cost of a product in terms of energy used in its life cycle. These labels at best are only broad generalizations and may not be particularly useful in evaluating choices for a sustainable life because of the underlying use assumptions as well. While it is very important to reduce the burning or fossil fuels and increase the planting of trees; we should approach this goal as only one aspect of sustainable living.

The fashion for carbon labels may simply fade away and soon be forgotten. Questions remain about how carbon footprints should be measured and whether putting such figures on the label is practical or something shoppers will even care about. Carbon labels beg for a recommended (or mandated) daily allowance for carbon. Building a bureaucracy to ensure that carbon dioxide in each product is measured at a cost of $10,000-$20,000, and potentially develop a recommended daily carbon allowance without a well documented connection between carbon allowance level and sustainable living is simply wasteful. Given the nature of the carbon cycle; how does one create a sustainable and accurate carbon budget?

Another method suggested has been to purchase carbon offsets for all products. The world's biggest carbon offset market, the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism (CDM), is run by the UN, administered by the World Bank, and is intended to reduce emissions by rewarding developing countries that invest in clean technologies. According to David Victor, of Stanford University, as many as two-thirds of the supposed "emission reduction" credits being produced by the CDM from projects in developing countries are not backed by real reductions in pollution. In fact, in the February 2010 Harpers’ Magazine spelled out inconsistencies, questionable practices, and potential fraud in the CDM market raising the possibility emission reductions credits are increasing CO2 emissions behind the guise of promoting sustainable development. Even when a CDM credit does represent an "emission reduction", there is no global benefit because offsetting is a "zero sum" game.

The approach currently underway at Wal-Mart may hold more promise. There is real benefit to increasing the efficiency in energy use by selecting efficient technologies in everyday life. There is tremendous benefit to improving insulation in buildings and homes, and passive use of solar and wind. Improving manufacturing practices and farming practice to reduce energy consumption and utilization of pesticides and protect water supplies will yield ecological benefits, but may or may not reduce CO2 emissions. Changes in how and where we live; urban dweller, rural dweller, suburban dweller; whether or not we commute or if we commute using public or private transportation, alone or in a groups, our purchasing and activity choices all will impact our carbon use. Carbon content labels do not give the individual tools to evaluate a purchase choice against not purchasing, which is an important aspect of any decision. However, carbon content only looks at one aspect of the carbon cycle and fails to consider the other resources of the earth. At this point it is unlikely that the labeling of carbon content in products will be mandated. Legislating the measurement of carbon dioxide release in all things will cost money and resources and of itself will not make our lives more sustainable, but will certainly add costs to all things.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Greening Wal-Mart’s Supply Chain

The Environmental Defense Fund is partnering with Wal-Mart to improve the environmental performance of its supply chain. Using Wal-Mart’s leverage to reduce carbon pollution throughout the life cycle of products and the supply chain for those products is a powerful way to change farm practices and other manufacturing behavior. Wal-Mart recently committed to reduce the carbon footprint from the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s products and supply chain by 20 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent from calendar year 2010 to 2015. In part this will be accomplished by having Wal-Mart use their leverage with their supply chain to influence the environmental practices, transportation, and storage of their supplying manufacturer. Part of this reduction will be accomplished by Wal-Mart’s customers who will be educated in more sustainable use of a product. A typical example of customer education is recommending that customers use cold water to wash laundry instead of hot. The Environmental Defense Fund team working on this project has developed a detailed guidance document about what can count towards Wal-Mart's goal, as well as how reductions should be quantified and confirmed if at all possible. That of course is the sticking point with CO2 reductions.

Part of all of this is bureaucracy and public image, but if somehow out of this study comes a set of tools to quickly help business people and consumers make good and informed decisions about their environmental behavior it would be great. The environmental Defense Fund is not just focusing on carbon contained in the supply chain and life cycle of the products. They say that they are looking to identify the most serious environmental and social "hot spots" in the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s private brand food and grocery categories and working with designers and suppliers to improve overall product sustainability including water and pesticide usage. Encouraging and educating farmers and even the industrial farm complex on farming “best practices” is a proven way to reduce pesticide runoff and environmental impact at very little dollar cost.

In a pilot study performed on dairy suppliers, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed the costs and emissions associated with a gallon of milk, from dairy farm to distribution center. By gathering and looking at the data, the Environmental Defense Fund identified the easily achieved improvements that “best practices” farm management can have in energy used to produce milk. Simple changes in fertilizer and manure management, at dairy processing facilities can achieve significant improvements in energy efficiency and even in the product itself, such as making milk shelf-stable. Soil and Conservation Districts nationwide have been aware of the improvements in environmental stewardship that can be achieved though simple improvements in farm practices; however, these organizations have not had any leverage to encourage farmers and dairy operations to implement these practices or adequate budget to develop farm plans. Wal-Mart’s involvement in this area could really encourage the adoption of these programs. It is important that these efforts be couched in more than CO2 reduction, because carbon reduction is such a limited concept and this is truly environmental stewardship and sustainability improvement project.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Running on Empty II

It was announced on Friday by the California Department of Water Resources that customers who buy water from the state water project will get 15 percent of the water they have requested; that is up from an estimate in November of just five percent. In addition, also on Friday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said agricultural customers in the Central Valley would receive 30 percent of the water requested; up from the 10 percent they got last year. These actions have resulted in Senator Diane Feinstein placing her proposed amendment to the fast track jobs bill on hold.

The heavy rains and snow in the Sierras this winter allowed the Shasta Lake reservoir to reach 72% capacity before the snow melt for the first time in three years. Oroville reservoir is still at 38% but is expected to improve with the snow melt in the spring. This is certainly a respite, but in no way begins to address the water problems of the state. The truth is that California has been using more water than is renewably available to support the population, businesses and agriculture of the state for years. It looks as if the current three year drought has come to an end. Only in drought years is the true stress on the water supply system obvious. Precipitation varies widely from year to year in California where the system of reservoirs, canals, by passes and diversion was developed over decades to address the variability of muti-year droughts and flooding and provide more reliable water supplies year-round. The original intent to smooth the variations in annual precipitation was corrupted to divert water to the most powerful. There simply is not enough water. According to the USGS in non drought years California continues to mine its groundwater, but that problem remains predominately invisible because the groundwater basins are not monitored.

The rains have brought a small reprieve from the current crisis, but do not solve the problem of not enough water supplies. California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies, but the demand exceeds supply as evidenced by the groundwater usage. Year round agriculture has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. The limit to California’s agricultural is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. In 2006 before the beginning of the current drought, California used almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year and represents 80% of the water used in the state each year. While a portion of irrigated water is recharged to groundwater and surface water, some is lost and the real problem is that there is inadequate water flow in the state to support this level of irrigation. Period. California does not have enough water available annually to keep up this usage level and the largest user of water in the state is agriculture. In order to continue to supply water to the rest of the state, California needs to reduce the agricultural water usage in the state. In 2007 the USGS estimated the California the surface water agricultural deliveries of 13,000 cubic feet per second while groundwater irrigation deliveries were at 5,900 cubic feet per second.

The agricultural demand for water is too large for the state to carry and cannot continue. California can wait until the groundwater resources of the state have been depleted. The wealth of the giant agricultural ranches in California is based on the cheap water for irrigation and this agribusiness will fight to keep their wealth and the majority of the annual water flow of the state. The time has arrived for California to create a real water budget for the future. Pricing water at its true cost could push farmers towards more efficient use of the water. Unfortunately, the state has demonstrated that it is incapable of living within it means.