Mississippi Falling: How Far?

It’s not easy being a Mississippi barge; 14 months ago they were being swept away by flood waters, now they’re running aground in low water. (Photo by Brad Jones/Flickr)

The Mississippi River is in some places running 53 feet below its level of last May. That’s not quite as alarming as it sounds because last May it was in an historic flood. But with little snow last winter in the mountains and no rain to speak of this year in the West and much of the Midwest, the lower river has fallen eight to 10 feet below normal. That is perilously close to shutting down one of the country’s principal arteries of commerce. Continue reading

How They Do Drought in Texas

Your Texas rice field looks like this? No problem, drill another well. (Photo by Terry Shuck/Flikr)

The next stop on our Last Chance Tour of a collapsing civilization: the Texas Panhandle.  The land is turning into  desert, the people are acting out the Tragedy of the Commons (a pretty way of describing the way humans fight for the last scrap of a vanishing resource),  the government is making things worse and almost everybody is pretending nothing is happening at all. Continue reading

Can You Say Infrastructure? Now Say Brace for Impact

A 24-inch water main spills its guts near the National Mall in Washington DC in October of 2010. Flooding reached the National Museum of Natural History. There is much more to come. (Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr)

It was a rare occasion and a good way to start the new year — a major American newspaper gave front-page coverage to a major American problem. This morning’s Washington Post features prominently a story detailing one reason why this country is about to crash: the machinery that delivers water to city dwellers, and treats their sewage has been neglected for nearly half a century. Like all neglected machinery, it is about to break down. And it’s the machinery that makes urban life possible.

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A Town in Texas: This is How it Ends

Once a thriving recreational lake and source of water for the town of Robert Lee, Texas, the E.V. Spence Reservoir is now a brackish puddle.

They are starting to think seriously about abandoning the west Texas town of Robert Lee because it is about to run out of water. Too strong? Okay, to be exact, some of Robert Lee’s 1,049 people have moved away, and more are thinking about leaving before the water runs out. Will that create a trend that gives us our first American town to be abandoned because of climate change? (I’m still betting on Las Vegas as the first city.) Will America’s first recognized climate refugees be Rick Perry’s Texans? We’ll report. You decide.

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Zombie Lake Erie is Dying Again

Algae blooms on Lake Erie, virtually covering its Eastern bay in this August photo from space, are killing the lake. Again. And we know who the killer is.

Declared dead in the 1970s, brought back to life by the environmental movement it did much to inspire, Lake Erie is once again expiring, killed by industrial agriculture. Specifically, phosphorous from synthetic fertilizers, which the aforementioned environmental movement never gained the clout to regulate. After having been reduced by two-thirds with various buffering and conservation practices, phosphorous levels in Lake Erie are, according to an Ohio State University expert, “back up to when it was considered a dead lake.” Continue reading

Water Scientists say Brace for Impact

A cow’s carcass in Northern Kenya, photographed last week, testifies to the reality of what happens when the water runs out. And it is running out. (Photo courtesy CIAT The International Center for Tropical Agriculture/Flickr)

The burgeoning world population, already grown far beyond the numbers the planet can sustain, is increasing its consumption of water twice as fast as it is growing, according to the World Resources Institute. In a world already profoundly short of clean water, where the number of people is ratcheting upward past seven billion, in which global climate change is spreading drought across vast areas, this means, in the words of a WRI expert, that “we have a significant challenge on our hands.” To translate from the scientese: her hair’s on fire and she’s screaming “Brace for Impact!”

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Report: Trawlers Scraping Last Life from Oceans

A new study details how factory trawlers such as the Northern Osprey are stripping the deep oceans of fish that cannot replace themselves. (Photo by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

A perfunctory article deep inside yesterday’s Washington Post paints a horrifying picture of exhausted oceans — described as “more akin to a watery desert” —  being scraped clean of the last traces of marine life by pitiless, gargantuan deep-water trawlers operating beyond the law and beyond sanity.  The story is based on a new study of the world’s fisheries published in the journal Marine Policy (“Scientists call for end to deep-sea fishing”). (The article upholds the new Standards of Fair and Balanced Journalism set by Fox News by somehow, somewhere finding an academic mooch who sees no problem with that.)

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Great Lakes Dying: Mussel-Bound Michigan

Beautiful, tranquil and nearly dead: Lake Michigan in the moonlight. (Photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr)

On Saturday, August 13, the last commercial fishing boat working Lake Michigan out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, passed the harbor breakwater outbound for the last time. Two hundred years of commercial fishing from Milwaukee was over, because Lake Michigan is virtually dead. It is not over-fishing that killed it — although the once-typical annual haul of 40 million pounds of fish would have done that before long —  it was an invasive clam that did it. Continue reading

Losing the War on Pond Scum

A satellite view released by NASA shows a blue-green algae bloom (the green part) taking over western Lake Erie (the blue part). And that's not all.

A legacy of industrial agriculture, energized by climate change, a continent-sized explosion of toxic algae blooms is besieging the freshwater lakes of North America, sickening people, killing animals and wrecking tourist- and recreation-based local economies. Although each eruption is big news in local papers, the unprecedented extent and severity of the epidemic has drawn no attention from national news media or political figurines. Continue reading

A New Tragedy of the Commons: Water Banks

The tragedy of the commons is that herdsmen will overgraze a common pasture unless constrained. The same, it seems, applies to water. (Photo by Srinivasa Krishna/Flickr)

If you liked what investment bankers and hedge-fund managers did to our economy in recent years, you’re going to love what water banks are doing to our ecosystem. The same, time-tested methods are in play: unleash unrestrained greed on a commodity that everyone needs in order to make obscene profits from it while destroying it. This new chapter in the Tragedy of the Commons sounds perfectly reasonable, with respectable water banks working to smooth out the vagaries of nature. But let’s try calling it by its proper name: hoarding. Continue reading