Environment

October 13—Watershed officials learned at the Hudson River Watershed Alliance’s annual conference on October 7 that water quality, wastewater and stormwater are intricately connected and that current wastewater practices are  ineffectual when storms dump unusual amounts of water that our systems can’t handle. “Older systems use too much water to move small amounts of waste,” said Simon Gruber, president of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, at the conference, which was held at the F.D.R. Library Wallace Center.

Smaller, decentralized systems are better in some situations and easier to manage. Reusing water is going to become more important as sea levels rise and toxic algae blooms, said Gruber, adding, “We should be looking at nutrient recovery for agriculture.”

September 30, 2014

A few years ago the term was little more than a head-spinning neologism. Now, thanks to worries about population growth, resource depletion, and especially global warming, it’s common coin — at least among scientists. “Sustainability” today stands alongside century-old areas of inquiry such as biochemistry and physics.

What it means was a significant part of Steven Cohen’s talk at the Cary Institute September 12. A compact bundle of restrained energy, Cohen is executive director of Columbia University’s The Earth Institute (note definite article) under its head, the visionary scientist Jeffrey Sachs. He’s been mixing environmental science and policy since his first job fresh out of Harvard at Nixon’s fledging Environmental Protection Agency.

One way to define  “sustainability” is the way Çohen spends much of his time: thinking about how society can extend the benefits the developed world has identified as beneficial and rewarding to the emerging world without wrecking the planet. 

On August 15 the 12 students in this year’s Cary Institute’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program presented the results of the research they conducted during the ten weeks they spent at the Institute this summer. The program, under the guidance of Dr. Alan Berkowitz for the past 27 years, is the largest REU program in the United States, attracting college and university students from all around the country. 

Working under the guidance of a mentor, each participant crafted a project, carried out the research, and analyzed the data before presenting his or her findings in both a paper and a 15-minute talk at the symposium. In addition to their ten weeks of research, students were taught what Dr. William Schlesinger, the recently retired president of the Institute, called “translational ecology.” The goal is to describe the results of research in a way that people in the nonscientific world can understand. Done successfully, this creates a bridge from scientists to the public and decision makers. 

Larry Weaner, a landscape architect and frequent lecturer, specializes in managing native landscapes so they self-proliferate with minimal assistance from the gardener. He designs landscapes that require no maintenance and look totally natural.  His techniques involve a complex mix of plant-, earth and environmental science.  Weaner has taught classes on meadows at the Cary Institute and gave a Friday lecture there on August 8.

“If you do nothing, it will grow, so you need to ask yourself, where is it headed if I do nothing.  Then you need to ask, ‘What techniques can I perform to manage that landscape so that I enhance the desirable and eventually replace the invasives?’”

Weaner showed photographs of woodlands and meadows and areas around houses.  He tweaks both plants and landscape to get extraordinary effects, such as a lovely field of white blossoming amsonia among already-existing ferns under trees.  

The guard changes at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies on the first day of July, and it welcomes Dr. Joshua Ginsberg on September 1, who, as of this writing, is the president-elect.  We met with Bill Schlesinger, the outgoing president, on Saturday.

What challenges did you face when you arrived at Cary seven years ago? 

First, I had to overcome the problem of inertia, that is the idea that things are just fine the way they are.  I introduced some  changes, as my predecessor, Gene Likens, had been in office for 24 years, since the institute was repurposed  from a horticultural institution to a scientific research institution in 1983.  Second, I had to balance the budget. I did that by completing the changeover. We closed the gardens at the Gifford House and we closed the greenhouse.  That closed much of the hole in the budget, and let us concentrate on our mission, which is environmental science. 

Looking back, what do you feel were your main accomplishments? 

The June 30 decision by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to allow New York communities to ban hydraulic fracturing is a victory the whole spectrum of political opinion can celebrate. Conservatives can welcome a blow against big government’s ability to impose rules on localities. Liberals who tend to be environmentalists see an improved opportunity to ban fracking statewide. 

But the victory is only partial for anybody, and far less than total defeat for the fracking industry.  If a town can opt for fracking, it means adjacent towns – even if vehemently opposed – will still be forced to indulge the very real impacts of the fracking town.

The problem is identical to that of spot zoning, an evil to civic planners who know that exceptions to the rule leak and dilute it.  Or as a caller to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show noted, it’s like a smoking section on a plane or in a restaurant: unless it is an airtight chamber, second-hand smoke still permeates the space.

Zoning won a victory over fracking on Monday when the NY Court of Appeals decision in the Town of Dryden case was handed down. The court backed the two towns, Dryden and Middlefield, that had amended their zoning ordinance to impose a ban on fracking as a measure to “protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community”. Both towns held hearings in which evidence of the dangers of fracking was detailed.  Dryden first amended their comprehensive plan and then their zoning ordinance. Middlefield is in the Cooperstown area where tourism is an important economic activity. Both towns recognized the importance of preserving their rural communities. 

Kathleen Weathers is a biogeochemist and one of the senior scientists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. She studies the chemicals and living organisms in fog or mist, or what is called precipitation chemistry. She analyzes the water that drips off of trees in the forest and figures out how this fog water helps us understand how ecosystems function. By illuminating the chemical relationships among water, land, forests and the ocean, this work has major implications for our undertanding of the ecological importance of fog and air pollution.

The Housatonic Valley Association has installed a demonstration  of how to filter stormwater run-off through vegetation, a system called a rain garden, next to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in downtown Millerton. The design and installation of the garden is by Mark K. Morrison, Ltd., landscape architects. It is visible from the rail trail and will soon have interpretive signage explaining how it functions. 

 This rain garden will serve as a model for municipalities and developers coming into the area and will encourage planning boards and highway superintendants to propose such projects as well. The project will be a small step towards improving the water quality of the Webutuck Creek, part of the Tenmile River Watershed, which runs along the rail trail for much of its length.  

A large blue iGlobe is the centerpiece of the new Climate Change Gallery that was unveiled when Millbrook School’s Trevor Zoo reopened on Saturday after a year-long makeover. 

The installation is essentially a sophisticated projector that can display a selection of visuals relating to the state of the planet—from graphic illustrations of the 2011 tsunami to the tracks of hurricanes across the world’s oceans to corn farms in the Midwest. One of the more dramatic projections showed all the Facebook connections around the globe. Except perhaps for the Amazon jungle, almost every part of the world is linked. If the visual of the East Coast of America were an X-ray, it would be that of a terminally ill patient.

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