Humboldt County's Marijuana Boom Is Destroying Redwoods and Killing Rare Wildlife
By Todd Woody
Mark Harris banks the Cessna 182 over the blue expanse of Humboldt Bay and flies toward the redwood-studded hills beyond, to the now-quiet battlefields of the California timber wars. It's a flashback moment. Twenty-one years ago, Harris, then a ponytailed young attorney, took me, then a long-haired young reporter, up in Thumper, as he affectionately calls the 59-year-old prop plane, for an aerial view of the civil war raging in Humboldt County.
In the forests below, activists from the radical environmental group Earth First!—"No compromise in defense of Mother Earth"—were fighting a long and brutal battle to save the planet's largest groves of ancient redwood trees left in private ownership from a timber company determined to cut down every last one of them. Harris represented these "forest defenders"—who blockaded logging roads and chained themselves to chain saws—as well as their compatriots, who battled in the courts to stop the clear-cutting of trees that sprouted when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire.
The redwood forests of Humboldt County, California, have endured 150 years of logging.Mary Grace McKernan
On this bright and sunny March day in 2016, I can see the victories and defeats etched in the landscape framed by the snowcapped Trinity Alps. Vast tracts of stump-covered hillsides abut soaring stands of redwoods.
"Look, there's Owl Creek," said Harris over the din of the four-seater's engine. In 1995, he helped win a landmark court victory that blocked the Pacific Lumber Company from logging the grove of old-growth redwoods that is home to a rare and rarely seen seabird called the marbled murrelet. Then on our right appears the Headwaters Grove. From a thousand feet up, the 3,000 acres of densely packed, 2,000-year-old, 300-feet-tall trees appear as an island amid the clear-cuts, looking like nothing so much as gargantuan marijuana buds.
The Headwaters, which harbors northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers, Humboldt martens, coho salmon and other endangered wildlife, is Humboldt County's Gettysburg, a battleground where thousands of activists risked arrest, pepper spray and the wrath of angry loggers to protect a primeval world from Charles Hurwitz, a Texas corporate raider whose Maxxam Corporation took over Pacific Lumber in 1986 and began clear-cutting the ancient trees, each one worth as much as $150,000. In 1999, the federal and state governments paid Hurwitz $480 million to acquire the grove and the surrounding Headwaters Forest. Pacific Lumber went bankrupt eight years later, its assets scooped up by the Humboldt Redwood Company, which pledged to log sustainably and not harvest old-growth trees. The timber wars were, at long last, over.
Another fight for the forests, though, is just beginning.
We shadow the Eel River, swollen from El Niño rains, as it meanders past the county's last sawmill and then head into SoHum, as locals call southern Humboldt. Flying toward the Pacific Ocean, we pass over redwood-covered hills pockmarked by dozens of clearings hacked from the forest. This land is zoned for timber production, but loggers didn't cut down those trees. In just about every clearing, long white cylinder-shaped structures appear, resembling, some say, rolling papers. It's an apt observation. The buildings are greenhouses and inside, marijuana plants are grown for Humboldt County's multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.
Seen from the air are eight marijuana growing operations hacked from the redwood forests of Humboldt County.Mary Grace McKernan
With California poised to fully legalize marijuana, a "green rush" has hit Humboldt as outsiders—Bulgarians, Laotians, Texans—flood into the county and set up industrial-scale marijuana farms. The environmental impact from more than 4,000 pot "gardens" is ravaging the redwood ecosystem that Humboldt environmentalists have spent decades fighting to save and restore. And not just in Humboldt. The marijuana boom in the two other pot-growing counties that form California's Emerald Triangle threatens a wide swath of the state's woodlands. Like forests worldwide endangered by development, Humboldt County's redwoods absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, making them crucial to the fight against climate change.
Full Coverage: Fight for the Forests
"The single biggest threat to our environment right now has been unregulated cannabis," said Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a grassroots group that spearheaded the effort to protect the Headwaters and its wildlife. "In the last 20 years we've seen a massive exponential growth in cannabis production in the hills of Humboldt County and we've seen really devastating environmental effects."
Growers have fragmented forests by cutting trees to build greenhouses and roads on steep hillsides, choking creeks home to endangered salmon with sediment, fertilizers and pesticides and sucking streams dry during a record drought to irrigate marijuana crops. Once-still forests echo with the racket of hundreds of diesel generators. Rat poison and other toxic chemicals used by some growers to protect their plants are killing rare wildlife like the Pacific fisher.
"It's just been really sad, actually, really sad to see what's happened to the environment and a lot of work people have put into restoration efforts, to see those things unravel because people continue to bulldoze hillsides for clearings to grow more cannabis," DeLapp said.
In a community where there long has been a very thin green line between environmentalists and marijuana growers, DeLapp, 35, is leading a campaign to regulate an out-of-control industry. She's getting help from unlikely allies: a timber company and a group of marijuana farmers determined to create a truly green and sustainable cash crop.
Hiding in the Hills
Pot has been grown in these hills since the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early '70s brought hippies to Humboldt, a sparsely populated 4,052-square-mile rural county in Northern California. That a remote region known as the Lost Coast would become a haven for marijuana growers was no accident. "Humboldt County may not be the best place to grow marijuana from an environmental standpoint, but it's the best place to hide growing cannabis," noted DeLapp.
For decades, it was mostly grown by locals like Stephen Dillon, who comes from a fourth-generation Humboldt logging family that arrived in the county by schooner in the 1880s. His grandfather worked in the mills until he died, but when the timber wars erupted, Dillon sided with Earth First! after a foray into the Headwaters Grove in 1991. It was the year after "Redwood Summer," the first of a decade of mass protests against logging that would bring thousands of demonstrators and celebrities such as Bonnie Raitt and Woody Harrelson to Humboldt County.
"We could barely penetrate it," Dillon said of the Headwaters. "All we could do is find an old growth tree, walk along it, jump down into 20 feet of ferns, find another one, walk along it. There's nothing like it in the world. Jurassic Park is the closest you can describe." Dodging Pacific Lumber security guards, Dillon and his buddies found a way out of the forest. "We walked to the edge of Headwaters, then tried to get across a clear-cut. It was just like death and destruction outside the grove."
Still in college, with a new baby, he began to grow marijuana while attending Earth First! rallies. "We were taught by the old hippies to grow under the shade of the trees," said Dillon, a sandy-haired 43-year-old sporting a goatee. "It really dovetailed with the Earth First! activist scene—they're both really antiestablishment; they're both in direct contact with nature in the woods, being free and working."
"Back then, it was the old hippies and the Vietnam vets who pretty much controlled the whole marijuana scene," he said. "They supported the volunteer fire departments, built the community centers." At environmental groups like EPIC, veteran activists tell stories, perhaps apocryphal, of bags of cash and weed appearing on office doorsteps to fund their good works.
"This was back in the day when weed was very expensive—$4,000 a pound," said Dillon. "A family could get by on 20, 30, 40 pounds a year and be happy." Today, prices have dropped below $2,000 a pound and as farmers grow more marijuana to make up the shortfall, the environmental impact grows too.
Mom-and-pop backyard pot gardens got bigger after 1996 when California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use. After spending decades trying to eradicate marijuana in Humboldt County, the state started treating the business as quasi-legal, at least if growers were supplying the medical marijuana market. People like Dillon came out of the woods and started growing pot in greenhouses. "I was the first greenhouse in my valley since the '80s," he said. "Now I'd say there are over 200. Mine are the smaller ones."
"New people came and got money signs in their eyes," added Dillon, executive director of the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, a cooperative of local farmers who promote organic, sustainably grown marijuana. "They were like, 'Screw that hippie down the road—he's a wuss. Let's throw up five of these things in a row.' A lot of the new people coming in have absolutely no understanding of the creeks and the roads and the ecosystem they're in."
Video: Up in Smoke: Humboldt County's Green Rush
Ironically, the decline of the timber industry helped spur the rise of an environmentally destructive marijuana industry. As the sawmills closed, out-of-work loggers began growing pot, while Humboldt's old logging families began to sell off their timberlands to outsiders who would subdivide the property and sell to other marijuana growers. "The old-timers are up against a rock and a hard place as they've got taxes to pay on their land but it's not economically feasible for them to log it anymore," Dillon said. "So they sell and the only person sitting on the other side of the table is a pot grower with a lot of cash."
I'm talking to Dillon not on his farm but at the "Marijuana Investor Summit" in San Francisco. The March event at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square has attracted 1,300 attendees paying $750 a pop and Dillon has come to see what the future holds. The hotel reeks of weed, but the conversations of the suits sitting around us are about money and market share.
"These guys are literally stockbrokers and hedge fund people, trying to figure out how to get into the business," said Dillon, uncharacteristically attired in a sports jacket and a button-down shirt, glancing over his shoulder. "They have no regard for the environment, the culture, the land, the communities involved. They have absolutely no stake in any of those things. It's all about the money."
By any measure, enormous sums of money are flowing through Humboldt County, such as the $500,000 police officers found stashed in a false compartment in a 61-year-old Humboldt man's pickup truck during a routine traffic stop in Utah.
"He obviously had just transported marijuana from Humboldt to that state and was on his way back—the scent of marijuana was very strong," said Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, noting that his office typically seizes $1 million to $2 million in cash a year from growers. When Humboldt sheriff's deputies subsequently raided the man's home in a remote corner of the county, they found 1,200 pot plants growing in five greenhouses, along with 230 pounds of dried marijuana.
Few signs remain of the timber industry, which in the 1950s employed half the Humboldt County workforce. Signs of the cannabis culture, though, are everywhere, from the highway billboard advertising a sale on gigantic inflatable water tanks favored by growers for irrigating their crops to the plaque in my hotel room advising, "For your comfort this is designated a non-smoking/non-medical Prop 215/non-pet friendly room." Conversations inevitably turn to drug-related topics. The next-door neighbor busted in Missouri for transporting marijuana. The young eastern European women arrested working at a grow operation. The barrel-chested, tattooed Bulgarian guy spotted in the hills carrying an AK-47 and talking on a satellite phone.
"The Bulgarian grows are horrendous!" wrote a commenter on Redheaded Blackbelt, a local news blog that reports on all things cannabis. "You said the 'B' word," another commenter replied. "They are taking over this county, buying land all over. Seems like every time I go to the mountain store the guy in front of me is wearing a track suit and speaking Eastern European."
Signs of the environmental devastation wrought by renegade cannabis cultivation, though, are largely out of sight. When I contact a local environmentalist to see if he can show me the damage, I get a curt reply: "You are aware that these are not friendly hills to drive around in, right?" Residents of those hills who have witnessed firsthand the destruction of streams and forests aren't eager to talk to the media, he said, mentioning a friend who is "afraid of winding up in a ditch, leaving his kids without a dad."
I'll hear the phrase "Snitches get stitches" more than once while I'm in Humboldt.
Heeding the warning, I decide the safe bet is to report from 1,000 feet up aboard Thumper with a guide familiar with the terrain. Since the timber wars, Mark Harris, a surfer turned attorney and now a youthful 54, has developed a thriving legal practice representing local marijuana farmers and groups like the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild.
As we fly toward SoHum's marijuana belt, we pass the last paved road we'll see, deserted but for a flatbed truck stacked with soil and fertilizer. "During growing season you'll see those trucks running back and forth all day long," said Harris, throttling back the engine to slow the plane as the photographer with me pushes open a window, sticks her head out and starts shooting the greenhouses sitting on patches of dirt carved from the redwood forest. "I'm surprised no one down there has called me yet saying, 'Hey Mark, is that you up there?' " he said, chuckling and glancing at his iPhone. Often, he said, the sight of a low-flying plane triggers alarm below as growers spread the word through the hills of a possible incursion by law enforcement. To avoid freaking growers out, Harris often posts a notice on the Redheaded Blackbelt blog that he'll be doing a flyover.
Attorney and pilot Mark Harris sits at the helm of his Cessna before takeoff. Mary Grace McKernan
Visible through the trees is a network of narrow dirt roads that snake through the redwoods to greenhouses. Some are old logging roads from the 1940s that growers have reopened; others they built themselves. Either way, the poor construction means that come the winter rains they erode, washing sediment into streams where endangered coho and chinook salmon spawn. Something catches Harris' eye and he swings over three greenhouses sitting on clearings that had been hacked from a hillside above a muddy creek. Redwoods have been cut down for two other grow sites just yards from the water. "In some watersheds you see a 100, 200 of these," said Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who went on 40 raids of marijuana grow operations last year. "So you see forest fragmentation; you see road building that's atrocious."
In places like the nearby Salmon Creek, he said, the state has spent millions of dollars decommissioning old timber roads while residents have worked to restore watersheds left damaged and devoid of salmon by decades of industrial logging. Then came the green rush. "There's hundreds of grow sites in there," said Bauer. "You go out there today and the creek runs chocolate. It's just puking sediment and you used to didn't see that. I saw chinook spawning there in 2009 and I've been back a number of times and it's just running like mud. Even if the salmon are spawning, you can imagine that survival isn't that great."
We fly over another clearing in the forest that is being prepared for the upcoming growing season. The metal frame of a greenhouse sits next to an empty inflatable water storage tank the size of a suburban swimming pool. Supersize versions of the water bladders you take camping, the tanks can hold 5,000 gallons and weigh 42,000 pounds when full. "If the grow site hasn't been properly graded, the tanks can get loose," said Harris. "They go crashing down the hill taking out trees until they hit the creek."
That some pot farmers are using such tanks to store water collected in the rainy season is a positive sign, given the devastation caused by the pumping of streams and creeks during the dry summer months to irrigate thirsty marijuana plants. A 2015 study coauthored by Bauer found that in the summer, growers were diverting as much as 100 percent of the water from some Humboldt County streams, including Salmon Creek.
That is jeopardizing the survival of salmon across the region, according to Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, an environmental group involved in the recovery of Humboldt County's watersheds. Take China Creek, a coho spawning stream that's a tributary of bigger creeks that flow to the ocean. "Ten years ago we had coho in China Creek," said Greacen, a ponytailed 51-year-old who formerly served as executive director of EPIC. "Now we have lost them completely because someone built a dam at the top of the creek and cut off the flow of water. When the wardens showed up, all they found was dead fish."
More commonly, he notes, a group of growers will fire up their diesel generators at the same time and pump dry a pool where salmon are swimming. The water will percolate back into the creek when they turn off their pumps, but the pool only has to be dry for a minute for the fish to die. "It's a death by a thousand cuts," said Greacen. "In the timber-wars era, we could take you to these massive clear-cuts and the impact on the forest was obvious for anyone to see. Now it's not the greenhouse itself or the pot plants themselves that are the harm, but it's the land use associated with it and the cumulative impact of hundreds of these grow sites."
What we can't see from the air are the animals dying in the forests from rat poison and other toxic chemicals some growers use to protect their plants. The threat has become so dire that when the federal government proposed listing the Pacific fisher as a threatened species, it cited cannabis cultivation as a risk to the mammal's survival.
Death by Cannabis
Seven years ago, wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel was a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, where he tracked the behavior of a group of radio-collared fishers, elusive cat-size carnivores that resemble wolverines, only cuter. Fishers, whose numbers have fallen as low as 500 in Northern California, prefer the same mix of old-growth forest and riparian habitat favored by the northern spotted owl—and, increasingly, outlaw marijuana growers.
After a radio-collared fisher was found dead in a remote forest in 2009, an autopsy revealed it had died from poisoning by a rodenticide commonly used on illegal grow sites to kill rats and other animals that like to eat sugar-laden young pot plants and that fishers prey on in turn. As the green rush brought more of these "trespass grows" into state and national forests and parks and onto private timberlands, the fisher death toll rose. In a 2012 study, Gabriel and his colleagues found that 79 percent of 58 fishers they examined had been exposed to rodenticides, four had died and a nursing female had passed the poison on to her offspring. By late last year, the death rate from poisoning hit 18 percent of the radio-collared population.
Wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel. Mary Grace McKernan
Gabriel began to accompany law enforcement officers on raids of grow sites, finding anywhere from five to 120 pounds of rodenticides—some banned in the U.S.—spread around every one. "You can feel the death in the air," he told me as we walked along the Mad River, which borders a forest that is prime Humboldt County fisher habitat. There's also a marijuana grow site nearby. "They were intentionally and maliciously poisoning wildlife, putting out rodenticides in tuna cans. As little as an eighth or a sixteenth of a teaspoon of some of these poisons can kill an American black bear. Three ounces of another will kill one-and-a-half spotted owls."
Last year, two endangered northern spotted owls found near grow sites had rodenticides in their system, as did 80 percent of barred owls that had been culled to stop them from competing with their endangered cousin. The federal government in the 1990s put much of the Pacific Northwest off-limits to logging and has spent millions of dollars to save the spotted owl. Gabriel also came across dead bears, foxes, birds and vultures near marijuana grow sites last year. Each tested positive for rodenticides and other poisons. Also at risk is the Humboldt marten, a weasel-like carnivore that lives in old-growth redwood forests and that was thought extinct until a camera trap captured a photo of one in 1996. The marten and the spotted owl hunt the same prey as fishers.
"Think of all the folks who were galvanized to protect the Headwaters and the unique ecosystem that supports this wildlife," said Gabriel, who is executive director of the nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, a hamlet of 1,200 people east of Eureka. "It doesn't matter how good-quality the habitat is if you have these new threats from marijuana grow sites."
At one site, growers had strung a line of fishing hooks baited with hot dogs laced with methomyl, an extremely toxic pesticide. Gabriel discovered a dead two-year-old male fisher 30 feet from the camp, poisoned meat lodged in its esophagus. The pesticide had killed the fisher before it could swallow the hot dog. "I'm disheartened. It's heartbreaking," says Gabriel, who had just returned from conducting an autopsy on yet another fisher. Cause of death: rodenticide.
It has also gotten personal. Some marijuana growers apparently were not happy when Gabriel's 2012 study attracted widespread media attention. People threatened Gabriel at the supermarket and the gas station, he said. His office was broken into. He woke one morning to find one of his Labradors writhing in agony. An autopsy would show that the dog had been poisoned with the same rodenticide Gabriel had linked to fisher deaths. "The harassment has dissipated, but it still goes on," he said. "I let law enforcement handle it."
Headwaters Forest Reserve
Old-growth redwood trees in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, can reach heights of 300 feet or more. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Humboldt County's Last Sawmill
The decline of the timber industry in Humboldt Country, California, has left only one operating mill, owned by the Humboldt Redwood Company. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
This 1,000-year-old redwood tree in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, bears a slash of blue paint that once marked it for the sawmill. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Ancient Redwood trees like these in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, continue growing and absorbing carbon dioxide even after 1,000 years. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Greenhouses in Humboldt County, California, where marijuana is grown, sit on a clearing carved from a grove of trees. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Sitting on a Fallen Giant
Local Kristi Wrigley (left) and Julie Clark, a Headwaters Forest Reserve park ranger, perch on a redwood tree that has fallen across the trail in the Headwaters. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Growing Marijuana Responsibly
A marijuana farm uses a storage pond to irrigate plants rather than draw water from depleted creeks that are home to endangered salmon. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
The environmental threat from cannabis cultivation hit too close to home last year. A hunter, Gabriel shot a quail in Humboldt County and prepared the bird for his family for dinner. After the bird was eaten, a thought struck him. "I saved some meat and said to myself that if we're getting material from the same areas as grow sites, I should have it tested." The lab results showed that the meat was contaminated with a highly lethal rodenticide, the same poison Gabriel routinely found at marijuana grow sites. How the bird became contaminated is unknown, but to Gabriel it's a worrying sign that such poisons are spreading through the food chain.
"What does that mean for the local indigenous people who are almost 100 percent dependent on hunting for game species like deer and salmon?" he asked, referring to the nearby Hoopa community. "I would have never thought that if I hunted a wild animal out in a remote forest that I would have to have it tested for toxicants."
Gabriel estimates that only a fraction of trespass grow sites are detected. "There may be 10,000 to 20,000 sites that still need to be cleaned up," he said. "With the 300 to 500 grow sites law enforcement eradicates each year, you could just see the numbers just piling and piling up. What we worry about is that wildlife and their habitat are slowly drowning in these toxicants that will be in the environment for decades to come."
The Sustainable Solution
Mention rodenticides and Stephen Dillon just shakes his head. "I've never bought rat poison over 26 years of growing," he said. "We would set rat traps and tie them to trees and the foxes and bobcats would come by every night and clean the traps for us."
In 2014, Dillon and other local longtime marijuana farmers formed the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild as fears grew that the outsiders setting up industrial marijuana operations were destroying the environment and undermining the Humboldt cannabis economy, much as the unsustainable logging of the 1990s doomed the timber industry. The idea: If local growers banded together, they could use their collective market power to create a brand, True Humboldt, that would sell only organic, sustainably raised marijuana. In other words, the Whole Foods of pot. "True Humboldt cannabis is raised the good, old-fashioned way: under the California sun ... We believe in sustainability, organic cultivation techniques and conservation of water," reads a brochure from the group.
The Humboldt Sun Growers Guild growers then did something unthinkable for people who spent decades dodging government helicopters sent to eradicate their crops and throw them in jail: They asked the county to regulate their industry, setting standards for land, water, pesticide and energy use as well as banning the conversion of timber lands for marijuana farms.
"We're trying to prevent another extractive industry from rising and prevent another boom/bust cycle like fishing and logging," said Harris, the group's attorney. "Humboldt County cannot endure another couple of years of drought conditions with the level of resource extraction going on with these industrial-scale marijuana grows. It's horrible."
Humboldt County's back-to-the-landers helped form EPIC in 1977 in part to fight the government's spraying of marijuana crops with highly toxic herbicides. Now the environmental group has joined the fight to force marijuana farmers to stop using poisons and comply with environmental regulations. In October 2015, nearly 20 years after the legalization of medical marijuana, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that authorized counties to regulate marijuana cultivation. Humboldt County's board of supervisors in January approved the state's first ordinance to license marijuana farming, giving growers until the end of the year to register and obtain permits that govern their use of water, energy and rodenticides.
"Cannabis has been a completely unregulated industry in California," said DeLapp, EPIC's executive director. "If farmers agree to store water and other best practices, they don't have to hide in the woods and we can get them out of the deepest areas that impact wildlife."
She found a seemingly surprising ally in the Humboldt Redwood Company when timber executives company joined forces with their erstwhile antagonists to push for protections of timberlands from growers. In 2012, company security officers stumbled across a campsite and found more than 5,500 marijuana plants growing on Humboldt Redwood timberland. Last July, sheriff's deputies cut down 270 pot plants, some as tall as seven feet, on company property. Job requirements for Humboldt Redwood security officers include "planning of eradication activities and prosecution of people cultivating marijuana on company property," according to an advertisement.
Compliance with the ordinance will take cash. A lot of it. Outlaw growers are unlikely to seek permits and spend the money to repair roads, build water storage and take other environmental precautions, promoters of the ordinance acknowledge. Still, said Dillon, regulation of cannabis cultivation could free up law enforcement to focus on the worst offenders. "I'm not a big advocate of the government after spending my whole life in the pot wars, but there are people who are destroying the environment that need to be held accountable," he said. "For True Humboldt it's about protecting the small and mid-range farmer and creating a viable industry that's going to pass all the environmental scrutiny it needs to. We welcome environmental regulation."
During the flyover, Harris points out greenhouses built on land that has been properly graded and supplied by ponds that store water collected during the winter rains so depleted creeks aren't tapped in the hot, dry summers. "People are trying to do the right thing," he said. "We need to make that the norm."
Restoring the Redwoods
The high stakes for the redwood ecosystem are driven home when I visit the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve, which includes the Headwaters Grove and which was nearly lost to another unsustainable industry. Park ranger Julie Clark and David LaFever, Headwaters' forest ecologist, lead me down the Salmon Creek trail through a fern-covered woodland of redwood, Douglas fir, and red alder. Seventeen years ago, when Pacific Lumber turned over Headwaters to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Clark recalls, this was a wasteland, the old-growth redwoods leveled to make room for logging roads. BLM hired a Pacific Lumber worker who helped build those roads to remove them, taking out 100,000 dump trucks' worth of sediment. The trees aren't the only thing that has returned. "A mountain lion's been here," said LaFever, bending down to examine an unmistakable paw print and scat peppered with the white bones of some creature. Farther up the trail, Clark points to a tree etched with long claw marks. "That's from a black bear." Sometimes she'll find an anchovy on the forest floor, dropped by a marbled murrelet as the seabird returns from the ocean with dinner for its chick nesting high on a mossy branch of an old-growth redwood.
As the trail starts to climb, the air cools and we enter a grove of redwoods soaring to heights of 300 feet amid newly flowering trillium, a delicate white plant with yellow stamens that blossoms but a few weeks a year in the shade of the 1,000-year-old trees. Nearly all the redwoods bear a slash of bright-blue paint that once marked them for the sawmill. "Either Pacific Lumber didn't make it this far or the company got tied up in litigation, but for whatever reason these trees survived until the Headwaters deal," said LaFever, standing next to what Clark calls the "family tree," a giant amid giants with three trunks sprouting from one root system.
Environmental activist Rob DiPerna stands in front of a 1,000-year-old redwood in the Headwaters Forest Reserve. The blue paint once marked it for the sawmill. Mary Grace McKernan
With us is Rob DiPerna, EPIC's forest and wildlife advocate. In the late '90s, DiPerna was an Earth First! activist, infiltrating these forests and lugging sacks of concrete to build barricades on logging roads and sitting in old-growth redwoods to prevent loggers from cutting them down. "We were trying to do anything we could to keep the trees standing," said DiPerna, 45, whose nearly waist-length hair shows a hint of gray. "To be in the forest under the cover of darkness, trying to avoid loggers, cops and security—it affects the individual more profoundly than people realize."
"The sobering part of it for me standing here is to realize that there isn't much old-growth redwood left, and the fact that these trees are still here is an actual miracle," he said as he strains to see the top of the family tree.
When we reach a ridgeline, we can see the core Headwaters Grove across a clear-cut valley that is regenerating. The grove is off-limits to the public to protect its unique ecosystem and wildlife. Along a path to the Headwaters visitor center is a grove of 50 redwood seedlings planted last year and "dedicated to the visionaries and activists who dedicated countless days, months, and years to protect the Headwaters Forest Reserve," according to a plaque. It feels a bit like a memorial to a long-ago struggle, but to DiPerna and other activists, the fight goes on. The government only acquired 7,500 acres of the 60,000 that activists wanted protected, and DiPerna continues to work to limit the impact of ongoing logging and restore a damaged ecosystem. Nor are the timber wars over for people like Kristi Wrigley, whose family settled on the Elk River in the 1880s outside what is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve. After Pacific Lumber's timber harvesting increased 10-fold in the 1980s, the Elk River began to regularly flood her property as a result of the dirt washed into the stream from the hills where logging continues to this day. "I no longer can farm my apple farm that's been in my family for generations," Wrigley said as we stand on the banks of the south fork of the Elk River, the water muddy with sediment. "We've already had five floods this year and it's only March."
For Scott Greacen, the environmental activist, the green rush is so dangerous because it threatens to push to the point of no return forests devastated by industrial logging. There is, he said, a far more critical use of redwood forests in an era of accelerating climate change: "My deepest hope for the redwood region is that we come to our senses as a society quick enough to say that the highest and best use for this landscape is putting carbon back in the bowels of these big fat organisms that are incredibly good at accumulating it."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Tara Lohan
A key part of the United States' clean energy transition has started to take shape, but you may need to squint to see it. About 2,000 wind turbines could be built far offshore, in federal waters off the Atlantic Coast, in the next 10 years. And more are expected.
Threats to Birds<p>One of the gravest threats facing birds is climate change, according to Audubon, which found that rising temperatures threaten <a href="https://www.audubon.org/2019climateissue" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nearly two-thirds of North America's bird species</a>. That's why the impending development of offshore wind is a good thing, says Shilo Felton, a field manager in the organization's Clean Energy Initiative, but it also comes with dangers to birds that need to be better studied and mitigated.</p><p>The most obvious risk comes from birds colliding with spinning turbine blades. But offshore wind developments can also displace birds from foraging or roost sites, as well as migratory pathways.</p><p>Along the Atlantic Coast four imperiled species are of top concern to conservationists: the endangered piping plover, red knot, roseate tern and black-capped petrel, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.</p><p>"Those four species are of utmost importance to make sure that we understand the impacts," says Felton. "But beyond that there are many species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act that could potentially see more impacts from offshore wind."</p><p>Northern gannets, for example, are at risk not just for collision but <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308703197_Possible_impacts_of_offshore_wind_farms_on_seabirds_a_pilot_study_in_Northern_Gannets_in_the_southern_North_Sea" target="_blank">habitat displacement</a>.</p>
A northern gannet flying along Cape May, N.J. Ann Marie Morrison / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>"There's <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">some evidence</a> that they just won't use areas where turbines are, but that also excludes them from key foraging areas," says Felton. Researchers are still studying what this may mean for the birds. But a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0141113620305304" target="_blank">study</a> published in December 2020 conducted at Bass Rock, Scotland — home to the world's largest northern gannet colony — found that wind developments could reduce their growth rate, though not enough to cause a population decline.</p><p>Other birds, such as great cormorants and European shags, are <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716303196" target="_blank">attracted to wind developments</a> and use the infrastructure to rest while opening up new foraging areas farther from shore.</p><p>"There's plenty of potential for a bird to use a wind farm and still to avoid the turbines themselves," says Felton.</p><p>Birds like pelicans, however, are less versatile in their movements and are at particular risk of collision because of their flight pattern, she says.</p><p>But how disruptive or dangerous offshore turbines will be along the East Coast isn't yet known.</p><p>Federal and state agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations, says Felton, have done good research to try to better understand those potential impacts. "But these are all theoretical, because we don't have a lot of offshore wind yet in the United States."</p>
Threats to Ocean Life<p>Birds aren't the only wildlife of concern. More development in ocean waters could affect a litany of marine species, some of which are already facing other pressures from overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.</p><p>Scientists have found that marine mammals like whales and dolphins could be disturbed by the jarring sounds of construction, especially if pile driving is used to hammer the steel turbine platform into the seafloor.</p><p>The noises, though short-lived, could impede communication between animals, divert them from migration routes or cause them to seek less suitable areas for feeding or breeding. Research from Europe found that harbor porpoises, seals and dolphins may avoid development areas during construction. In most, but <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045101" target="_blank">not all cases</a>, the animals were believed to have returned to the area following construction.</p><p>The biggest concern for conservation groups in the United States is the critically endangered North American right whale. There are fewer than 400 remaining, and the species' habitat overlaps with a number of planned wind development areas along the East Coast.</p><p>"Offshore wind is in no way the cause of the challenges the whales face, but it's going to be another pressure point," says John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.</p><p>Researchers aren't sure how right whales will respond to the noise from pile driving.</p><p>"But we are concerned, based on what we know about how whales react to other noise sources, that they may avoid [wind development] areas," says Kershaw.</p><p>And if that displacement causes them to miss out on important food resources, it could be dangerous for a species already on the brink.</p><p>There are a few other potential threats, too.</p><p>Ships associated with the development — more plentiful during construction — also pose a danger. In the past few years cargo ships, fishing boats and other vessels have caused half of all deaths of North Atlantic right whales.</p>
A juvenile right whale breaches against the backdrop of a ship near the St. Johns River entrance. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA Research Permit #775-1600-10<p>And after construction, the noise from the spinning turbines will be present in the water at low decibels. "We don't quite know how the great whales will react to those sounds," says Jeremy Firestone, the director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware.</p><p>Other marine mammals may also perceive the noise, but at low decibels it's unlikely to be an impediment, <a href="http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v309/p279-295/" target="_blank">research has found</a>.</p><p>And it's possible that wind development could help some ocean life. Turbine foundations can attract fish and invertebrates for whom hard substrates create habitat complexity — known as the "reef effect," according to researchers from the University of Rhode Island's <a href="https://dosits.org/animals/effects-of-sound/anthropogenic-sources/wind-turbine/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Discovery of Sound in the Sea</a> program. Exclusion of commercial fishing nearby may also help shelter fish and protect marine mammals from entanglements in fishing gear.</p>
Ensuring Safe Development<p>Despite the potential dangers, researchers have gathered a few best practices to help diminish and possibly eliminate some risks.</p><p>When it comes to ship strikes, the easiest thing is to slow boats down, mandating a speed of <a href="https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/vessel-speed-limits-sought-protect-endangered-north-atlantic-right-whales-2020-08-06/" target="_blank">10 knots</a> in wind development areas, and using visual and acoustic monitoring for whales.</p><p>Adjusting operations to reduce boat trips between the shore and the wind development will also help. A new series of service operating vessels can allow maintenance staff to spent multiple days onsite, says Kershaw, cutting down on boat traffic.</p><p>For construction noise concerns, developers can avoid pile driving during times of the year when whales are present. And, depending on the marine environment, developers could use "quiet foundations" that don't require pile driving. These include gravity-based or suction caisson platforms.</p><p>Floating turbines are also used in deep water, where they're effectively anchored in place — although that poses its own potential danger. "We have concerns that marine debris could potentially become entangled around the mooring cables of the floating arrays and pose a secondarily entanglement risk to some species," says Felton, who thinks more research should be conducted before those become operational in U.S. waters — a process that's already underway in Maine, where a <a href="https://composites.umaine.edu/2020/08/05/diamond-offshore-wind-rwe-renewables-join-the-university-of-maine-to-lead-development-of-maine-floating-offshore-wind-demonstration-project/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">demonstration project is being built</a>.</p><p>If loud noises are unavoidable during construction, noise-reducing technologies such as bubble curtains can help dampen the sound. And scheduling adjacent projects to conduct similar work at the same time could limit the duration of disturbances.</p>
The foundation installation of the off shore wind farm Sandbank using a bubble curtain. Vattenfall / Ulrich Wirrwa / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>Once turbines become operational, reducing the amount of light on wind platforms or using flashing lights could help deter some seabirds, NRDC <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/harnessing-wind-advance-wind-power-offshore-ib.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers reported</a>. And scientists are exploring using ultrasonic noises and ultraviolet lighting to keep bats away. "Feathering," or shutting down the turbine blades during key migration times, could also help prevent fatalities.</p><p>"We need to make sure that offshore wind is the best steward it can be of the marine ecosystem, because we want and expect it to be a significant part of the clean energy picture in some parts of the country," says Rogers. "We also have to recognize that we're going to learn by doing, and that some of these things we're going to figure out best once we have more turbines in the water."</p><p>That's why environmental groups say it's important to establish baseline information on species before projects begin, and then require developers to conduct monitoring during construction and for years after projects are operational.</p><p>Employing an "adaptive management framework" will ensure that developers can adjust their management practices as they go when new information becomes available, and that those best practices are incorporated into the requirements for future projects.</p>
Putting Research Into Action<p>Advancing these conversations at the federal level during the Trump administration, though, has been slow going.</p><p>"We didn't really have any productive discussions with the administration in the last four years," says Kershaw.</p><p>And when it comes to birds, Felton says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's recently completed "draft cumulative environmental impact statement" covering offshore wind developments had a lot of good environmental research, but little focus on birds.</p><p>"Part of that comes from the current administration's interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," she says.</p><p>President Trump has been hostile to both wind energy <em>and</em> birds, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/climate/trump-migratory-bird-protections.html" target="_blank">and finished gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> in his administration's the final days, removing penalties for companies whose operations kill migratory birds.</p><p>There's hope that the Biden administration will take a different approach. But where the federal government has been lacking lately, Kershaw says, they've seen states step up.</p><p>New York, for example, has established an <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Technical Working Group</a> composed of stakeholders to advise on environmentally responsible development of offshore wind.</p><p>The group is led by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, but it isn't limited to the Empire State. It's regional in focus and includes representatives from wind developers with leases between Massachusetts and North Carolina; state agencies from Massachusetts to Virginia; federal agencies; and science-based environmental NGOs.</p><p>New York's latest solicitation for clean energy projects includes up to 2,500 megawatts of offshore wind and <a href="https://www.nyetwg.com/announcements" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">requires developers</a> to contribute at least $10,000 per megawatt for regional monitoring of fisheries and other wildlife.</p><p>Environmental groups have also worked directly with developers, including an agreement with Vineyard Wind — an 800-megawatt project off the Massachusetts coast that could be the first utility-scale wind development in federal waters — to help protect North Atlantic right whales.</p><p>The agreement includes no pile driving from Jan. 1 to April 30, ceasing activities at other times when whales are visually or acoustically identified in the area, speed restrictions on vessels, and the use of noise reduction technology, such as a bubble curtain during pile driving.</p><p>"The developers signed the agreement with us, and then they incorporated, most, if not all of those measures into the federal permitting documents," says Kershaw. "The developers really did a lot of bottom up work to make sure that they were being very protective of right whales."</p><p>Environmental groups are in talks with other developers on agreements too, but Felton wants to see best practices being mandated at the federal level.</p><p>"It's the sort of a role that should be being played by the federal government, and without that it makes the permitting and regulation process less stable and less transparent," she says." And that in turn slows down the build out of projects, which is also bad for birds because it doesn't help us address and mitigate for climate change."</p><p>Kershaw agrees there's a lot more work to be done, especially at the federal level, but thinks we're moving in the right direction.</p><p>"I think the work that's been done so far in the United States has really laid the groundwork for advancing this in the right way and in a way that's protective of species and the environment," she says. "At the same time, it's important that offshore wind does advance quickly. We really need it to help us combat the worst effects of climate change."</p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/offshore-wind-wildlife" target="_blank" style="">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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One city in New Zealand knows what its priorities are.
Dunedin, the second largest city on New Zealand's South Island, has closed a popular road to protect a mother sea lion and her pup, The Guardian reported.