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Archive for May, 2010

The American Power Act, the energy / climate bill unveiled yesterdayby Senators Kerry and Lieberman (and not Graham), is a complex 900+ page bill that will attract a lot of discussion in the coming months.  There are pros and cons, of course, but at this point, it is mostly some really difficult legal mumbo-jumbo to wade through. The excellent folks at NRDC posted an outstanding “first reading” summary that we found extremely helpful but also somewhat troubling.  One of the problems NRDC identified is one that is likely to seriously impact us in North Idaho.

As described by NRDC, one of the major flaws in the bill is the “biomass loophole” which gives entirely too much credit and not enough protections when it comes to burning biomaterials for energy.  Those materials around here, of course, are our forests.  Here are NRDC’s (and our) concerns:

Closing the biofuels loophole.  The draft bill creates a large loophole for the carbon emissions from producing and burning biomass, significantly eroding the bill’s carbon pollution reductions. Covered firms are allowed to ignore carbon emissions from burning “renewable biomass” on the assumption that they are completely counterbalanced by carbon uptake when biomass is grown (Sec. 722).  In fact, carbon uptake falls short of combustion emissions for many fuel sources defined as renewable biomass, resulting in net carbon pollution. Not requiring allowances for this carbon pollution gives covered sources an economic incentive to switch to biomass, thus seriously degrading the bill’s stated carbon pollution reductions. Closing the biomass loophole is necessary to ensure the integrity of the bill’s emissions targets.   The bill’s definition of “renewable biomass” also lacks critical environmental sourcing guidelines to protect forests and other sensitive ecosystems (Sec. 700).  The definition provides absolutely no protection for private lands, inviting clearing or converting of sensitive wildlife habitat, old growth forests, and our last remaining native prairies.  Partial protections are included for some federal lands, including roadless areas, and wilderness study areas.  But many of the nation’s public forests remain exposed.  A proper definition would protect areas that are high in biodiversity and that serve as large carbon storehouses, such as mature and old growth forests.  It would also provide strong sustainability guidelines to ensure that bioenergy incentives do not drive increased carbon emissions, deforestation, forest degradation, or loss of wildlife habitat.    

We’ll be watching as the debate progresses, but plugging this loophole needs to be a priority.

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We have a very busy office.  We also have a unique patchwork of staff — in addition to myself and full-time Outreach and Development Director Cathleen O’Connor, we have six part-time staffers at the moment.  That’s right, a KEA world record of SIX part-time staff.

The fact that everyone works on different schedules and different hours on different projects makes it somewhat manageable in the tiny office. But today, purely by conicidence, and only for a few minutes, everyone was here in the office.  Here’s the amazing proof — all the non-Executive Director staff in the same room at the same moment:

KEA Staff on 5/11/2010 (via KEA BlackberryCam) From L to R: Cathleen O'Connor, Amber Crane, Korrine Kreilkamp, Julie Van Middlesworth (seated), interns Jordin Jacobs and Grace Bothfeld, and Forest Watch Coordinator Mike Mihelich

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After 12 long years of talking about it, the Clean Water Act might start having an impact on Spokane River water quality soon. Well, within the next decade or two. The Washington Department of Ecology has finally moved forward on a basic legal requirement to budget pollution loads in the Spokane River.  All this time, nutrient pollution has continued to choke the oxygen out of the Spokane River in Long Lake, and has fed nasty toxic algae blooms in the summers.

The Washington Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for establishing a TMDL (total maximum daily load) under the Clean Water Act, issued a final version in February, calling for a 90% reduction of phosphorous into the river by the year 2020.  The tough TMDL, will require advanced wastewater treatment by all pollution dischargers, but will also require more water conservation measures, and difficult non-point source pollution reductions. There’s a 10-year compliance schedule for polluters, but in some cases it may extend for 20 years.

Idaho dischargers, on the one hand, and the Sierra Club on the other, filed formal protests with the Department. In an internal administrative dispute resolution process which was resolved last week, the Department of Ecology decided to stand by its previous decision.  EPA is expected to issue a final approval soon.

In a recent opinion piece in the Spokesman Review, the Idaho dischargers remain upset about the decision, pointing out some distinct unfairness in the way dischargers are being treated by the TMDL on either side of the border. The Sierra Club also remains disturbed by the decision.

In truth, we are quite sympathetic with both sides.

In a simplified analysis, it is a little unfair.  Idaho’s sewage treatment phosphorous effluent standards under the TMDL are 36 ppb (parts per billion).  Washington’s are allowed at 42 ppb. Also, the TMDL may or may not allow “trading” of pollutants on the Washington side to provide more breathing room in water pollution permits for Spokane dischargers.  We’re not sure that such trading will be appropriate or even possible. Idaho, meanwhile, has no such opportunity because it has no regulatory authority to even attempt it.

Meanwhile, Spokane County has plans for a brand new water treatment plant, which will request to be permitted under the TMDL for future discharge into the already polluted River.  We’re completely unconvinced that the proposed phosphorus budgeting on the Washington side of the border adds up, so we remain skeptical that Spokane County’s sewage plant can ever be legally permitted. 

But some of Idaho’s problems are somewhat of Idaho’s own making.  For years, Idaho has consciously chosen to be one of the few states to abdicate all responsibility for water quality permitting issues to the federal EPA.  And the Idaho state legislature has proven it is entirely unwilling to properly regulate septic systems, which are a major threat to water quality in North Idaho.  With such little leverage for negotiation, Boise is as much of a problem for the Idaho dischargers as Spokane.

Still, regardless of the real or perceived unfairness, there are some basic truths about the Spokane River cleanup that will remain.  Whether Idaho is allocated 36 ppb under the current TMDL or 42 ppb as is allocated to Spokane, expensive upgrades to Idaho sewage treatment plants will be needed. New technology will be necessary to meet the tough new standards either way, and sewer rates will go up.  

We are impressed with, and actually quite proud of our friends and colleagues at the City of Post Falls, the City of Coeur d’Alene, and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board for their commitment to clean water and their technical understanding of the difficult issues involved.  We are confident that they will have the skill and technological wherewithal to meet the tough standards, and we will support their efforts to raise awareness, and funds, needed to do so.

Now, though, can we all just get on with it?

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 Kootenai Environmental Alliance provided testimony last night at a hearing by the Idaho Department of Lands on whether to approve a proposal for up to 12 overnight mooring buoys in Cougar Bay and a string of buoys across the mouth of the Bay to demarcate a no wake zone. The proposal, sponsored by Kootenai County Parks and Waterways, purports to protect the sensitive Bay in advance of removal of the existing pilings and log booms that act as a barrier to boat traffic currently.

 Cougar Bay remains an amazing treasure. It is close to town, but offers rich wildlife and bird habitat, excellent fisheries, and a natural shoreline protected by public ownership and private conservation easements. It is also a refuge for quiet water recreation. Near the BLM boat launch and protected by pilings from the bustling big boat traffic at the busy north end of the Lake, the Bay is the perfect spot for kayaks and canoes and quiet small-boat fishing.

 Parks and Waterways defended its proposal with Director Nick Snyder saying that “change will come someday” and this proposal gets out in front of that change. Jim Aucutt from the Kootenai County Parks and Waterways Advisory Board also defended the proposal, saying that “a lot of boats” will come into the Bay when the pilings are removed, and the proposed “no wake zone” would help to protect the Bay. However, there are no plans (or funding) yet to remove the pilings, left over from long-closed lumber mills.

 There was little disagreement with the no wake zone, but the overnight mooring buoys, which would take up 10 acres of the Bay, attracted a great deal of opposition at the hearing. Citing concerns with noise, sewage, and enforcement issues, in addition to the impacts on the natural resources and quiet recreation, nearby residents, paddlers, and KEA expressed opposition to the intrusion.

 Both Snyder and Aucutt, however, said that the mooring buoys were a “package deal” with the no wake zone. Snyder commented that the Parks and Waterways’ customer “is motorized boaters,” and both Snyder and Acutt noted that because boater fees will pay for the buoys, motorized boaters should get the benefit of mooring buoys in the Bay.

 Notwithstanding the disturbingly narrow view of a County agency’s mission, we do think the Parks and Waterways proposal is well-intentioned. But it is maybe a bit premature. While the pilings are still in place, a better approach might have been a wider collaborative effort. It should have been possible in a more comprehensive effort, for example, to resolve the issue of pilings simultaneously with establishing the no-wake zone and to get more thoughtful and permanent protection for all of Cougar Bay.  With a broader set of stakeholders, not everything necessarily would need to be funded out of boater fees, so the “package deal” for overnight mooring would not be a necessary element.

 Hopefully the Department of Lands, which is due to make a decision on the proposals by June 7th, will reject this proposal so that a better one can be crafted.

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We’ve heard through the grapevine that the “dispute resolution” proceeding regarding the Spokane River TMDL will be resolved as soon as today, and that the Washington Department of Ecology will be affirming the TMDL that was released earlier this year

Idaho municipal dischargers had protested the TMDL as being unfair and overly restrictive.  KEA supplied detailed comments to the dispute resolution process, and you can read our take on the whole thing here. We’ll post more when we know more.

UPDATE 5/5 2:44 pm : The Spokesman Review has the story.

UPDATE 5/5 3:43 pm: Here’s the press release from Department of Ecology.  We’d say we wholeheartedly agree with the key quote from Ecology head Ted Sturdevant: “We need to move ahead, so we can finally get past process and actually start reducing phosphorous in the river.”

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As uncomfortable as we are using the word “finish” in the same sentence as “comp plan,” we think the Kootenai County Commissioners are approaching the big decisions they have been putting off for almost a year now.  At the conclusion of their most recent deliberations meeting last week, the Commissioners had only a page-and-a-half left to do in their line-by-line editing of the controversial land use chapter. The Commissioners will then, finally,  need to return to the controversial issue of what range of development density is appropriate in the County’s rural areas.  Only then will they be able to turn their attention to comp plan’s land use map. 

 A major sprawl-inducing flaw in the existing comp plan (which was approved back in the mid 1990s) is that rural areas are designated with a density of one house per five acres. But this density is too dense to maintain a rural character, but not dense enough to provide suburban-level services. This density does not allow for orderly annexation and development of our cities, it will threaten our lakes and other scenic resources, will drain tax dollars to fund roads and other services to sprawling development, and it will fundamentally result in a wasteful use of land.

 The draft comprehensive plan – the one delivered to the Commissioners more than a year ago from the Planning Commission – maintains that the rural areas should be less dense – with a maximum development density of one house per ten acres, ranging to as low as one house in twenty acres.

 The Commissioners have two more deliberations scheduled – May 10th at 4pm and May 13th at 5pm. Someday soon, the important decisions will need to be made.

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