Friday, February 24, 2006

Desalination and the Environment

Whenever we hear the term "desalination", it conjures an image of a water factory turning an inexhaustible supply of seawater to an unlimited amount of drinking water. This idealized vision is something like modern alchemy, although the technology does exist and is not terribly complex. Still, the practical application of desalination is much more complicated, expensive, and energy-intensive than most alternatives almost anywhere in the United States.

In Narragansett Bay's watershed, we receive an average of about 42 inches of rain per year. With this much rain pouring into our rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater, it would seem that natural sources of fresh water would always be cheaper and more easily available than desalinated seawater. However, rising demand for fresh water has led communities and municpalities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to turn to desalination as a means of supplementing or replacing natural supplies.

Two desalination plants are presently proposed for the Bay: One on the
Taunton River, one on the Palmer. The first, Aquaria, is proposed for Dighton, MA, on the Taunton. Save The Bay, along with the Taunton River and Jones River Watershed Associations, fought the development of this plant for more than a decade. Proposed for a rare freshwater-tidal portion of the river, our groups were concerned that the facility would remove too much freshwater from the estuary and cause impacts to migratory fish and river habitat. We appealed state permits for the facility, and entered settlement negotiations with the applicants. Ultimately, we dropped our appeal in exchange for more stringent river protections, monitoring, and a stewardship funds. Our groups remain committed to watching over this project to ensure that the Taunton is adequately protected. It looks like this project will actually be constructed in the next two to three years.

The Swansea facility, proposed for the Palmer River, is presently under review by State and Federal environmental agencies. We are also reviewing the latest version, and comments are due for this on March 24th. See the MA Environmental Monitor for more details on that

Environmental impacts from desalination can include effects of brine discharge, entrainment of fish eggs and larvae, antifouling chemicals such as chlorine, corrosion by-products such as copper and other metals, and thermal pollution from warmer-than-natural discharges. Effects on salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and other paramters are possible.

When choosing locations for desalination plants, Save The Bay discourages siting plants on estuaries, critical fish habitats, or other designated marine sancturaries. They should be operated using the best available technology for minimizing impacts to fish and other river or marine life. Finally, they should be carefully monitored, and shut down if unexpected environmental impacts are discovered.

There is a bill in Congress now H 1071 that includes a $200 million subsidy for the development of desalination facilities, but the bill does not specify any of the environmental standards or safeguards described above. While desalination plants can be sited and operated to reduce environmental impacts and can be a safe and sustainable water supply, it is not automatically so just because a facilitiy uses desalination.

It's time for the States and the Federal Government to establish policies for desalination facilities to clarify the process and provide for environmental performance standards and other safeguards. As water resources become increasingly scarce, we need to make sure desalination really is an environmentally-sound and viable option. More to come on this... JT

Friday, February 17, 2006

River Herring Moratorium Proposed

About 30 people attended yesterday's public workshop to discuss the status of Rhode Island river herring stocks. RIDEM Biologists Mark Gibson, Phil Edwards, and Jason McNamee presented the most recent stock assessment, and it is grim.

Narragansett Bay's tributaries until recently supported hundreds of thousands of these fish, but populations region-wide are rapidly declining, and 2005 had some of the lowest counts ever recorded. The state's largest run, Gilbert Stuart, declined from 290,000 in 2000 to 17,000 in '04, a 95% decline in abundance. Other runs showed similar trends.

Most of the discussion was about why this is occurring, and no clear answers were evident. Theories such as climatic change, ocean-intercept fisheries, and changing predator/prey relationships were examined, but none has sufficient evidence to point to a primary cause.

The State of Rhode Island and Save The Bay have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years for herring restoration and water quality improvements. Apparently, fish that make it back to the Bay are spawning successfully. Many of the juveniles, however, are simply not returning.

Like Massachusetts and Connecticut, it is now all but certain that a total ban on possession of river herring will soon go into effect for Rhode Island's herring runs in both fresh and marine waters. Though recreational catches may seem insignificant in the big picture, any additional fishing pressure may drive river herring to extinction in the next 3 to 5 years.

DEM is proposing a total closure on the river herring fishery, and will be accepting comments on this up through a public hearing scheduled for Monday, March 13th. Save The Bay is working with the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association to develop a position and recommend a conservation strategy to RIDEM. Our goal is to conserve enough of these fish to allow them to be fished again sustainably. Unfortunately, that strategy will likely mean closing the fishery for at least a couple of years so the stocks can be better assessed and get a chance to spawn again. This may be our last chance to save this critical piece of the Narragansett Bay ecosystem.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Herring Meeting This Thursday February 16th

The Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife is hosting a public workshop to review the status of RI river herring stocks, and to discuss proposed regulations. The meeting will be at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus Corless Auditorium at 6PM, Thursday February 16th.

For more information, call Jason McNamee at RIDEM (401) 423-1943. -JT

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Trouble Brewing for River Herring

In a recent blog, I wrote about Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and their presence in Narragansett Bay at this time of year. Since almost nobody fishes the Bay in mid-winter, few Rhode Islanders ever see these. Some may remember the Russian freezer boats that used to moor off Jamestown. These hulking boats would buy Atlantic herring and mackeral from local fishers and freeze them to be sold overseas. Atlantic herring are a "sea herring", meaning that they spend their lives at sea and never migrate into fresh water.

More familiar to most of us are the river herring or "buckies" that run into the tributaries and creeks of the Bay's watershed every spring. Buckies are really 2 different species that look alike, the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). These fish are anadromous, meaning they spend their lives at sea, but migrate up rivers into freshwater lakes and ponds to spawn and lay their eggs. These eggs develop and young fish hatch in fresh water, growing to a couple of inches in length before making the journey to the ocean in late fall. River herring typically arrive in the Bay in early May, swarming into narrow creeks and working their way upstream. A few weeks later, the adult fish drop back downstream and return to sea.

Historically, Narragansett Bay may have had as many as fifty herring "runs" or tributaries that supported river herring. Today that number is down to about 15, most of which are in serious decline. A few notable runs are still in decent shape: Gilbert Stuart at the head of Narrow River, Buckeye Brook in Warwick, and the Nemasket in the Taunton River watershed are all still good places to find fish swimming in this ancient ritual of the spring.

In recent years, river herring stocks have declined region-wide. Fish counts at the major runs have declined from hundreds of thousands in just 2002 to less than ten thousand in 2005. No one knows exactly why, but possible explanations include overfishing, habitat destruction, and ecological shifts such as warmer water temperatures and predator/prey relationships. For years, Save The Bay has advocated (and even built) dam removal and fish passage systems to reconnect and restore herring populations Bay-wide, but these efforts alone have not been enough to save the stock.

Fishing regulations are already strict in Rhode Island, and we expect river herring to be closed later this spring.
Connecticut and Massachusetts have already taken steps to end all taking of River Herring. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has been responsive to this issue, and is planning public hearings and possibly emergency rules soon. The Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and Save The Bay are working together on this problem to educate our members and gather all the scientific information we can. We will communicate the hearing dates and info, as well as background and facts to all of you in the next week or so. Save The Bay certainly support fishing when it is sustainable and are working to restore the habitat and fish stocks. Unfortunately, to save the last river herring, it appears a full moratorium will be needed in Rhode Island.

If the river herring fishery is closed, we should take the opportunity to do good scientific fish counts and all the restoration we can. Volunteer with Save The Bay, DEM, or your local rivers council to monitor herring runs. When the run gets going, we'll do a blog from Buckeye Brook with its Keeper, Steve Insana, and show you some pictures and unique local angles on this issue. Stay tuned for updates, and feel free to e-mail me at -JT

Thursday, February 02, 2006

EPA Upholds Limits on Brayton Point

Yesterday, the Environmental Appeals Board of EPA in Washington issued a decision that fundamentally upholds strict limits on the its use of Bay water for cooling. The decision remanded certain technical issues to EPA region I for reconsideration, but these should not affect the bottom line: A 95% reduction in heat and flow from the plant. See the story by Tim Barrman in today's Providence Journal here.

While not a complete victory, this is a strong step toward cleaning up and protecting Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River. Brayton Point uses nearly a billion gallons of Bay water every day to cool its generators. It then discharges that water at temperature of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. A major expansion of the plant in the mid-1980's has been implicated in the 87% decline of fish populations in Mount Hope Bay. It entrains and destroys billions of larval fish and eggs every year in its cooling system, and warms up the water, degrading habitat for coldwater native fish like winter flounder and tautog. See EPA's website for lots of good information on this topic

The important thing now is to put pressure on EPA and Dominion, Brayton Point's owners, to promptly resolve the remaining issues by agreement. Further appeals will be risky for all sides and will ultimately cost more money and cause more damage to the Bay. Save The Bay has been working on this issue since the mid-1990's and it remains the single worst point source of air and water pollution in New England. This new permit represents the best hope of restoring the ecological health and balance to Mount Hope Bay. Save The Bay, along with Conservation Law Foundation, many state and federal agencies, and the people from Brayton Point have worked hard on this for too long to allow it to languish in appeals while damage to the Bay continues.

It's time to finish the job and get Brayton into compliance with the Clean Water Act. We should not be the national posterchild for dirty coal technology. These new limits are way overdue. -JT