When rain gardens release too much pollution, engineers go back to the drawing board.
In the stormwater world, if a rain garden is releasing more pollution into the environment than it’s capturing, word gets around.
So when the city of Redmond crunched its first flush of data from a new roadside rain garden and discovered the water coming out of it was tainted with alarming levels of phosphorus, nitrates, and copper, the stormwater community took notice. Washington State regulators went on the record to say that they would be studying the data and possibly revising their rain garden recommendations. Proponents of the technology fear that the results will be overblown and exploited by skeptics of so-called low-impact development solutions.
But even city officials in Redmond caution that they’re far from giving up on rain gardens.
“It definitely has not lost its merit in my mind,” said Andy Rheaume, Redmond’s senior watershed planner.
Indeed, there’s a decade worth of data showing that rain gardens and related “natural” technologies are effective at treating polluted stormwater runoff. They can do a terrific job soaking up the renegade rain water, diverting it from house basements and preventing it from scouring streams or causing overflows of sewage. And numerous studies demonstrate that rain gardens will filter out and capture a toxic mix of heavy metals, petroleum pollutants, particles and nutrients. In fact, the Redmond rain garden did treat some of the pollution gushing into it.
But rain gardens aren’t fool proof. Depending on the design of the system and the soil mix that’s used, a rain garden’s ability to remove pollutants can vary –– and vary dramatically.
So what is a city or county stormwater engineer to do? Don’t panic.
“We’ve been promoting the message ‘Don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater,’ ” Rheaume said. “We’re pretty sure that (low-impact development) is here to stay.” Read more »
Energy use in cars and trucks is declining at a surprising clip.
There’s been quite a bit in the news of late about the nationwide declines in driving and gasoline consumption. Take, for example, last week’s PIRG/Frontier Group report on what those declines mean for the nation’s transportation finances. The report generated some interesting press coverage.
And there’s also been quite a lot of attention to ethanol—particularly the fact that US ethanol consumption has grown so quickly that refiners are starting to bump against the so-called “blend wall,” the point at which no more ethanol can be added to highway fuel without running into legal and/or technical troubles. (For more on the blend wall, see this Congressional Research Service report.)
But the two issues—declining gas consumption, increasing ethanol consumption—actually interact in interesting ways. Ethanol has about one-third less energy per gallon than gasoline does. So as the amount of ethanol in the nation’s gas supply has grown even as sales volumes have dipped, the energy content of gasoline used on the nation’s roads has shrunk at a surprising clip. Take a look:
Read more »
New polling, including not-terrible support for a carbon pollution tax.
Today Yale and George Mason are releasing the third report from their latest national survey, Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in April 2013.
The takeaways? Well, for starters, big, fat majorities of voters want Congress and the president to get to work on American clean energy and climate solutions. Americans are increasingly looking to corporations and industry to take responsibility and do something about global warming (to lesser degrees they look to Congress, themselves, and the president to get to work).
A majority—61 percent—supports a carbon tax that would help pay down the national debt. But, as is typical, opposition to a carbon tax gains a majority (58 percent) when the specific cost to households is presented (in this case $180). Still, a large majority of Americans say they support a US effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
Happily, those who continue to favor doing nothing are seeing their numbers dwindle.
The numbers are strong; there are no big adjustments to speak of one way or another. But recent fluctuations—or trends—aren’t necessarily continuing in the right direction. For example, American priorities for clean energy and global warming action by the president and Congress have decreased slightly as has support for several climate and energy policies.
Here are the highlights in more detail:
- A large majority of Americans (87 percent, down 5 percentage points since Fall 2012) say the president and Congress should make developing sources of clean energy a “very high” (26 percent), “high” (32 percent), or medium priority (28 percent). Few say it should be a low priority (12 percent).
- Most Americans (70 percent, down 7 points since Fall 2012) say global warming should be a “very high” (16 percent), “high” (26 percent), or “medium priority” (29 percent) for the president and Congress. Three in ten (28 percent) say it should be a low priority.
- Six in ten Americans (59 percent) say the US should reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. Relatively few (10 percent) say the US should reduce its emissions only if other industrialized and/or developing countries do—and only 6 percent of Americans say the US should not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
- Americans say that corporations and industry (70 percent), citizens themselves (63 percent), the US Congress (57 percent), and the president (52 percent) should be doing more to address global warming. These numbers have held steady over the past few years.
A majority—55 percent—of Americans support setting strict CO2 emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase by $100.
Majorities of Americans support: Providing tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (71 percent—high, but down 15 points since 2008); funding more research into renewable energy sources (70 percent—a solid number, but down 21 percentage points from 2008); regulating CO2 as a pollutant (68 percent); requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to pay down the national debt (61 percent, 20 percent strongly); eliminating all subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry (59 percent); requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year (55 percent).
- While a carbon tax with revenue going toward reducing the national debt gets majority support, Americans still don’t buy the idea of a tax swap or rebate. Carbon tax support drops for proposals that would reduce the federal income tax (45 percent support); reduce the payroll tax (44 percent support); or give a tax refund to every American household (43 percent). However, many Americans—around a third—simply say they don’t know if they would support or oppose such proposals.
Courtesy Yale and George Mason University.
- Majorities of Americans oppose increasing gas taxes by 25 cents a gallon and returning the revenue by reducing the federal income tax (66 percent oppose, 36 percent strongly); the elimination of federal subsidies for the renewable energy industry (58 percent oppose, 21 percent strongly); requiring companies that produce or import fossil fuels to pay a carbon tax that could cost the average American household $180 a year (56 percent oppose, 24 percent strongly).
- A majority—58 percent—supports expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the US coast. However, support for drilling is down 7 points from 2008.
- Surprisingly, half of Americans (50 percent) have never heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. Only 18 percent say they are following the issue closely. And among those Americans who have heard of the Keystone pipeline, about two in three support the project (63 percent).
Revenue has fallen far short of expectations.
We’ve written before about the “high occupancy/toll” lane experiment on Washington’s SR-167. But for those unfamiliar with the concept: HOT lanes are special highway lanes that transit and carpools can travel in for free, but are also available to solo drivers who are willing to pay a toll. When the regular lanes start to back up, the HOT lane tolls increase. That way, the HOT lanes never get clogged, even when the regular lanes are full.
Besides keeping carpools and transit moving, the SR-167 HOT lanes have an additional value: they give researchers more nuanced understanding of how much people are willing to pay for a quick trip. And when we took a look at the SR-167 HOT lane data last year, the numbers surprised us: apparently, drivers really aren’t willing to pay much for a faster commute. Few drivers on SR-167 opted to the free-flowing HOT lanes, so HOT lane traffic volumes typically stayed low.
University of Washington PhD students Austin Gross and Danny Brent have taken our initial research several steps further. I’ll probably mention more about their work in a subsequent post. But in the short term, I was struck by their data showing how badly WSDOT transportation planners misjudged demand for the HOT lanes:
That’s right: actual HOT lane revenue in 2012 was about one-third of the “low case” projection that WSDOT made before the lanes were opened. That was likely due to two separate effects: fewer cars than anticipated using the HOT lanes; and lower toll rates needed to keep HOT lanes from clogging up. Both effects flow from flawed early assumptions and beliefs about how much demand there would be for driving in general, and for the HOT lanes in particular.
These findings don’t prove that HOT lanes are a bad idea! But they clearly have a bearing on today’s transportation debates. For well over a decade, the Washington and Oregon departments of transportation been planning massive highway megaprojects—wider urban highways, higher-capacity bridges, expensive tunnels, and more. And they’ve pursued these plans in the belief that bigger highways will ease congestion—and that drivers put a high value on congestion-free trips.
But the SR-167 HOT lane experiment shows that most drivers on that stretch of road simply aren’t willing to pay much for a fast commute. Which raises a question: given that drivers may not be all that willing to pay for a quicker trip, does it really make sense for taxpayers to invest so much in trying to give them what they won’t pay for themselves?
Note: just to be clear, the interpretations of Gross’s and Brent’s numbers are my own, not theirs. And their research goes much, much deeper into the specifics of pricing and driver willingness to pay; the chart above is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m very much looking forward to diving into their findings! And hat tip to GoodMeasures.Biz for the graphic!
Only 97 percent of doctors say I have a drinking problem.
Of the 100 medical opinions I’ve gotten, 97 of them say that my liver damage is a result of binge drinking. Two of them weren’t sure if it was caused by the booze, and one actually disputed the idea.
My friends aren’t so sure though. I’ve asked ten of them, and only four think it’s mainly the liquor at fault. So although no one denies I’m in serious danger of liver failure, there’s some uncertainty over the cause, particularly among non-doctors.
Whatever. The point is: I’m heading out to happy hour soon.
Read more »
Hanford and eastern Idaho wastes at issue.
The US Senate Energy Committee in late April issued a “discussion draft” of comprehensive legislation on how atomic wastes will be managed. Legislators draft bills routinely, but this is an unusual case for several reasons. For one, it has bipartisan backing including Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Wyden (D-OR), Murkowski (R-AK) and Alexander (R-TN). (Senators Feinstein and Alexander also each issued alternative proposals.) For two, and more surprising, the senators are inviting public comments on their draft. The deadline is May 24, and comments may be submitted electronically, through the committee’s link.
Northwesterners should pay attention.
Cascadia is home to federal atomic facilities at Hanford and eastern Idaho, where much work remains to be done. Each site is heavily contaminated with atomic and chemical wastes from past weapons-connected operations, and the US Department of Energy (DOE) is carrying out environmental cleanup in both locations. Previous Sightline posts have covered each site. At Hanford, state and local officials are most concerned about “high level” radioactive wastes, in the form of some 50 million gallons in huge underground tanks, wastes that remain in liquid form today. Among other contaminants, Idaho holds liquid and solid “transuranic” wastes containing plutonium or other elements of higher atomic numbers than uranium. Elected officials have been fighting the federal government for decades, trying to get those wastes stabilized and moved out of state.
Read more »
A world map of racism, lead wars, and more.
National Journal takes a look behind the scenes at what Republican leaders and activists are saying about climate change, and it includes some good news.
The best thing I read this week was this European history told the way we’re used to hearing about Native American history. It’s funny in that way that also makes you want to cry for shame.
The best thing I heard this week was Barbara Ehrenreich on Alternative Radio talking about how in this country we have a nasty practice of kicking people when they’re down. “Do we lend a helping hand to the poor? Barely. Let them eat op-eds about values and the virtues of hard work. There’s billions to fund the latest F-whatever fighter jet but scant little for people in distress. The pounding the needy are taking is particularly severe because much of the social safety net has been shredded. Can anyone say compassion and caring?” Read more »
New rules for nearly 100 cities on managing polluted runoff.
We recently updated you on the new stormwater permits that will soon dictate how Washington State’s most populated areas manage polluted runoff that damages
water quality and can flood low-lying property. Here we’ll tackle the new Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permit, which covers the next most populated areas and affects nearly 100 cities around the state.
These cities are legally obligated to try to control water that runs off pavements, roofs and streets in built areas every time it rains. Along the way, that water picks up toxic metals, motor oil, lawn fertilizers, animal droppings, and a cocktail of other pollutants before it washes into local waterways and oceans. The rules governing how cities and other jurisdictions manage this dirty runoff are contained in municipal permits, which were recently updated in Washington State and are about to kick in throughout much of the state.
There are actually two Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permits: one for western Washington and one for eastern Washington. That’s because each side of the state has very different climate conditions, soils, and geology, which are important considerations when thinking about how water moves around.
The Western Washington Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permit, which goes into effect on August 1, 2013, covers 80 medium and small cities and the urban portion of four counties. The Eastern Washington Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permit, which takes effect one year later, covers 18 cities and urban areas in six counties. Both will remain in effect for five years.
As you may imagine, there are significant differences between two region’s Phase II permits. In particular, the new low-impact development (LID) regulations are very different. So let’s take a look at each permit in turn.
Read more »
Thank you for an even GiveBIGGER year!
What else can we say?
HUGE THANKS to everyone who chipped in (and even chipped in extra!) to support Sightline during GiveBIG yesterday. All told, we raised $40,940 from 181 donors. From our first gift at 12:52 a.m. to our last at 11:42 p.m., you sent the message to us—over and over again—that you appreciate our work and want to see more of it.
More coal export research, more legalizing inexpensive housing, more stormwater and polluted runoff work—more of the transformative and innovative policy and communications research that will achieve a more sustainable Pacific Northwest for years to come.
So thank you. We are grateful, flattered… and full!
We upgraded this year and celebrated with platesful of homemade (well, office-made) waffles! Complete with butter, maple syrup, sliced bananas and strawberries, and the extra special topping of your generosity… well, it was a very rich breakfast.
Thank you for your support yesterday and throughout the year. A special thanks, too, to The Seattle Foundation for hosting and helping the entire community raise more this year than ever: $11.1 million. Way to GiveBIG, all!
What BC's election means for coal, oil, and gas plans.
In British Columbia’s provincial elections yesterday, the right-of-center Liberal party pulled off an astonishing upset to hang onto power. It was an election in which the politics of fossil fuel expansion played a meaningful role, particularly for the NDP, the major opposition party. With the Liberals forming another majority government, it makes sense now to reflect on the epic-scale fossil fuel exports planned for BC and its neighbors in the US Northwest.
Today, Sightline is releasing a new report in Canada, one that tallies the potential carbon emissions from fossil fuel export infrastructure planned throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Across British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington there are active proposals for seven new or expanded coal terminals, three new oil pipelines, and six new natural gas pipelines. The projects are distinct, but they can be denominated in a common currency: the tons of carbon dioxide emitted if the fossil fuels were burned. Taken together, these projects would be capable of delivering enough fuel to release an additional 761 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide.
The Northwest enjoys a reputation for leadership in clean energy and environmental policy. Yet the new fossil fuel infrastructure planned for British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington would eclipse the region’s green reputation, transforming the Northwest from an aspiring climate leader into a carbon export hub of global consequence.
You can find the full report here.
[Editor's note: At the Vancouver Sun, Pete McMartin devoted his May 18 column to Sightline's report. His piece is well worth reading.]
Sightline will be releasing a US version of this report soon, so American readers should keep their eyes peeled.