Papyrus and Phragmites: Invasive Species

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and Economics. Her research this summer is on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. Her earlier NWNL blogs were: Wild Salmon v Hatchery Salmon and Buffalo, Bison & Water.

 

My 3rd NWNL blog on biodiversity compares papyrus in Africa and phragmites in North America. I will highlight both flora’s ecological benefits, ecological threats and impacts to water, as well as solutions to prevent their uncontrollable spread.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a tall, aquatic perennial shrub, ranging from 8 to 10 feet in height. This invasive species rooted into the ground, bearing simple brown fruit with brown/cream/green colored flowers, forms floating islands in tropical African swamps, rivers and lakes. In non-native habitats, papyrus will spread and invade the space of other native plants unless pruned. Commonly known as the “Paper Reed,” papyrus is native to Egypt and Sudan along the Nile River in North Africa, a NWNL case-study watershed. Papyrus is now also found in two other NWNL case-study watersheds: along Ethiopia’s Omo River (where damming has stabilized water levels allowing roots to take hold) and Tanzania’s Mara River Estuary.

Papyrus in Uganda .jpgPapyrus in Uganda (Creative Commons)

Once a well-known resource for paper making, today papyrus has potential for biofuel production. Papyrus also has many ecological benefits. Its value ranges from assimilating significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to providing breeding grounds for fish species, and feeding grounds for grazing herbivores.

In its native habitat, papyrus lines bodies of water, serving as a filtration system for removing sediments, sewage, and heavy metals that pollute the water. However, papyrus poses ecological threats to introduced environments, such as Italy and the United States, after being imported for ornamental use. Since it is invasive, papyrus disrupts ecosystems, threatens the growth of the native species, and impedes the flow of waterways. Papyrus will continue to expand problematically in introduced ecosystems if temperature warming continues to increase.

Jones_091003_TZ_1505.jpgPapyrus blooms in the Mara River Basin, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Major impacts papyrus has on non-native water ecosystems include: reducing native biodiversity by altering habitat; threatening the loss of native species; altering trophic levels; modifying hydrology; modifying natural benthic communities; and negatively impacting aquaculture and fisheries.

Solutions to prevent further papyrus spread into other ecosystems are the use of  physical, biological, and chemical controls. Physically, we could cut down and rake up the shrub. Biologically, we could use a novel fungal isolate that releases a phytotoxin to inhibit the growth of papyrus. And chemically, herbicides are a successful method to control papyrus spread.

Jones_091002_TZ_1209.jpgWoman collecting water in the Masurua Swamp with Papyrus in the background, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is a tall perennial grass that can grow up to 15 feet or more in height, with dense clusters of purple fluffy flower heads. Referred to as the “Common Reed,” this species is native to Eurasia and Africa. Our focus is on its impact in North America. Outside of its native habitat, phragmites is “cryptic invasive,” meaning that as this non-native species spreads within another native species’ range, it will typically go unnoticed due to its misidentification for the native species. Phragmites ideal habitat is marsh communities bordering lakes, ponds and rivers. Phragmites are present in the Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin, and Raritan River Basin, the three North American NWNL case-study watersheds.

Jones_160414_NJ_3373.jpgPhragmites on the Raritan Bay, NJ (© Alison Jones)

The ecological benefits phragmites provide include improving habitat and water quality by filtration and nutrient removal, serving as shelter for birds and insects, as well as providing food for sparrows. Phragmites also help to stabilize soil against erosion. In light of climate change, this species is beneficial because its accretion rate keeps up with rising sea levels for protection.

Phragmites benefit marsh lands because of their ability to take up 3x more carbon than other native plants. When there is excessive carbon in the atmosphere sea level rises and allows for more frequent and intense storms, so keeping phragmites could help better protect marshes from rising sea levels and erosion. Phragmites also help build up more soil below the ground compared to native plants.

CT-NWK-514.jpgPhragmites at sunrise in Norwalk, CT (© Alison Jones)

Some ecological threats phragmites pose are as follows. Since phragmites grow in thickets by shallow water, they can displace native wetland plants, alter hydrology, and block sunlight from reaching aquatic communities. Phragmites decrease plant biodiversity, causing declines in habitat quality for fish and wildlife. This tall grass can also pose a driving hazard, as it blocks road signs and views around curves. Phragmites can also be a fire hazard when dry biomass is high during its dormant season.

The Neshanic River, a tributary of the Raritan River Basin, provides an example of the threats of non-native invasive phragmites. Here, it grows without regard to competition by suppressing regeneration of native vegetation and limiting biodiversity in the area.

Jones_120430_NY_1751.jpgPhragmites with redwings blackbirds on Long Island, NY (© Alison Jones)

Some solutions to combat the threats phragmites pose are similar to the methods used to control papyrus. Methods used include cutting or mowing the tall grass, applying herbicides (such as Glyphosate or Imazapyr), and controlling the spread of this invasive plant with molecular tools and fungal pathogens. Additional solutions would be to burn the plant, excavate the area, cover the area with plastic causing suffocation, increase plant competition in the area, increase grazing by herbivores, or use of biocontrol organisms (such as insect herbivores) to combat the spread of phragmites.

Whether in Africa or North America, we can see how detrimental non-native invasive plant species can be to the health of an ecosystem. Although papyrus and phragmites both have some positive benefits, they overwhelmingly impact aquatic habitats negatively with their spread. Thus many have concluded that the best thing to do is limit spread with the solutions suggested above, rather than attempt complete eradication. In some cases, they can become “guest invasives,” welcomed for the services they do supply, especially for wetlands and riverbank stabilization which minimizes storm damage.

 

Bibliography:
Morais, P. PubMed, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Saltonstall, Kristin. PNAS, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Swearingen, J. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link
National Parks Flora & Fauna Web, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link
Plants & Flowers, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Popay, Ian. CABI, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Hazelton, Eric. Annals of Botany Company, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Sturtevant, R. Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, accessed June 14, 2018, via link.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018, via link.
Oregon Department of Agriculture. Plant Pest Risk Assessment, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Hauber, Donald P. Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Gaudet, John. Papyrus, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Jackson, Harrison. Phragmites invasion: Detrimental or beneficial? Accessed on July 25, 2018, via link.

Wild and Scenic River: Deschutes River

In 1988, sections of the Deschutes River in Oregon were added to the Wild and Scenic River System. From Wikiup Dam to the Bend Urban Growth boundary; from Odin Falls to the upper end of Lake Billy Chinook; and from the Pelton Reregulating Dam to the confluence with the Columbia River: all are designated segments. A total of 174.4 miles of the Deschutes River are designated: 31 miles are designated as Scenic and 143.4 miles are Recreational. No Water No Life visited the Deschutes River during a Columbia River Basin expedition to Oregon in October of 2017. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series.

More about the Deschutes River

Historically, the Deschutes provided an important resource for Native Americans as well as the pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century.  Today, the river is heavily used for recreational purposes like camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting, wildlife observation and especially fishing. The Lower Deschutes provides spawning habitat for fish such as rainbow trout and chinook salmon. The river also provides riparian habitat for other wildlife like bald eagle, osprey, heron, falcon, mule deer, as well as many amphibians and reptiles. The riparian vegetation is dominated by alder trees.

The following are photographs taken during the 2017 expedition to the Deschutes River.

Jones_171024_OR_5595

Jones_171024_OR_5636

Jones_171026_OR_6326

Jones_171024_OR_5611

Jones_171024_OR_5840

 

Sources:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/deschutes.php

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

SOIL AND WATER: BIOCHAR

By Alice LeBlanc for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

This is the second blog in a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Alice LeBlanc is an economist and independent consultant who lives in NYC.   For more than 25 years, she has worked in both corporate and NGO settings to promote market-based and land-use sector solutions to the problem of climate change.

P1020965.jpg

PAYING ATTENTION TO SOIL

Soil has an indisputably important role in producing much of the food we eat and supporting trees and vegetation that provide wood, fiber, habitat, natural beauty and other ecological services.  However, the direct relationship between healthy soil and clean, plentiful water is perhaps less known. Often overlooked is the role healthy soils play in ameliorating environmental problems that include water pollution, water scarcity and climate change.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, aggressive tillage, heavy machinery and wasteful irrigation. These practices often degrade soils by their reduction of soil carbon and compaction. Resulting erosion and chemical run-off pollutes waterways and groundwater. Further, their greenhouse gas emissions become significant contributors to climate change.  Although increasing and stabilizing food production, modern agricultural practices hurt our soil and water – two of the most basic elements essential to life on earth,

“Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA) is a current buzzword of hope among environmentally-conscious agricultural experts, especially in developing countries. CSA combines cost-effective practices to increase soil health and crop productivity, use water more efficiently, decrease the use of inorganic fertilizers, and reduce or even sequester COand other greenhouse gases. CSA practices include low-tillage or no-tillage of soils; contour tillage; drip irrigation; terracing of sloping fields; and organic or custom-made (precision) fertilizer. Last in this list is biochar – a substance used successfully centuries ago by Amazon farmers.

P1020866.jpgKilns used for making biochar

BIOCHAR TODAY

Biochar is created by applying high heat to biomass (e.g. crop residues, otherwise burned or left to decay in the atmosphere) in enclosed, oxygen-free spaces.  This process, called pryolysis, differs from burning as it doesn’t use oxygen; produce combustion; or emit CO2.  Biochar can be produced anywhere inexpensively on a small scale by subsistence farmers with cook stoves or kilns, using on-hand materials.  It can also be produced on medium and larger commercial scales.

When used as a soil amendment, biochar alters the soil’s property, allowing it to retain more water and nutrients and enable some plants to more efficiently “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, thus attracting more microbes.  This improves plant growth and resilience.  Biochar’s effect is described as creating “microbe hotels” which draw microorganisms and bring additional carbon into the soil. To be most effective in increasing plant productivity, biochar can be mixed with organic fertilizer such as manure and ground animal bones.

P1020867.jpgBiochar production area

For the past year or so, I have been helping lay the foundation for the African Holistic Ecosystem Regeneration Initiative–HERI (a Swahili word for happiness).  HERI aims to scale up regenerative and climate smart agriculture, as well as better grazing practices across Africa. Our emphasis is specifically on smart use of biomass and nutrients, including using biochar as a soil amendment and planting of soil-enhancing trees with high-value crops, such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, shea butter, cashews and moringa.  This undertaking is being led by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), the leading non-profit dedicated to the promotion of biochar research and commercialization.

BIOCHAR BENEFITS

The agricultural benefits of biochar as a soil amendment include increased food security and crop productivity, greenhouse gas reductions, increased resilience to climate change impacts, and poverty alleviation.

Many African soils are losing soil’s organic matter at dramatic rates, which has degraded soil fertility to an extent that threatens livelihoods of subsistence farmers in entire regions.  Biochar combined with organic fertilizer has been demonstrated in many small pilot projects in Africa and around the world to significantly increase soil productivity; retain more water; and sequester carbon, especially in highly weathered tropical soil.

P1020868.jpgMilkiyas Ahmed, Lecturer, Jimma University, College of Agriculture, holding crop residue to be turned into biochar

While results vary depending on materials used to make the biochar, soil and crop type, fertilizer materials and climatic conditions, biochar increases productivity on average by 25% in tropical regions – and up to 80% if nutrient-rich feedstocks are used to make the biochar. If the soil is of extremely poor quality to begin with, productivity increase due to biochar can be significantly greater, yielding 100% to 500% increases.

Another benefit is improved soil fertility when biochar use, combined with planting perennial tree crops, pulls more CO2 out of the air.  That carbon is then stored in increased amounts in above-ground biomass and root systems.  Those trees’ root systems then further contribute to soil health.  Additionally, the ability to sell perennial crops with higher yields, gained when using biochar and natural fertilizer, will generate higher revenues.

P1020873.jpgBins used to compost biochar with different fertilizer materials

Biochar systems, when properly designed, aregreenhouse-gas neutral.  They even become greenhouse-gas negative when they sequester carbon in woody biomass, roots and soils, and more microbes increase soil carbon.  As well, heat or combustible gases can be recovered from the biochar production process to generate usable renewable energy or electricity. In Africa, biochar produced with individual “cook stoves” has been used to generate heat as a clean, renewable energy for cooking.  When biochar is produced on a larger scale in big machines, a combustible, renewable gas can be fed into an electric generator to serve a micro-grid. Energy production from biochar production in some cases in Africa could generate revenues.

As well as direct benefits to agricultural production, biochar combined with agroforestry can improve water use efficiency; protect watersheds, water quality and water quantity; and decrease deforestation pressures.Without these measures, the outlook for subsistence farmers and food security in Africa is grim, especially in the face of increasing duration and frequency of droughts due to climate change and explosive African population growth.

P1020884.jpgPlots for testing the impact of different biochar plus fertilizer combinations

IN THE FIELD

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I visited a biochar pilot project conducted at the University of Jimma in collaboration with Cornell University.  The project is evaluating the effectiveness of different formulas for co-composting biochar with natural fertilizers.  This work is being done in tandem with several dozen farmers incorporating biochar in their fields.

Jimma is on the Awetu River about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, not far from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley.  It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and my first visit to fields of small farmers there. Milkiyas Ahmed, a faculty member at the Agricultural College, gave me a tour of the biochar production machines.  I saw vats where the biochar co-composting is done, and plots where different crops are grown, with and without the biochar amendment.  In the trees around the experimental plots, black-and-white monkeys eyed the tender young plants.  A guard stood ready to scare them off if necessary.

P1020922.jpgA farmer in the village who has seen gains from biochar

We walked through the village of farmers with whom Milkiyas worked.  We visited fields of the farmer who set the highest bar for producing and using the biochar.  His method for making biochar in a hole in the ground was a very low-cost method indeed. The multi-cropped fields, containing a variety of perennial trees, enhanced a beautiful landscape.  There were two young boys swimming in a stream that ran through the fields on that warm Sunday afternoon.  One could only hope and expect that the water quality was safe and swimmable — which it could be with the right set of agricultural practices.

P1030024.jpg

 

All photos © Alice LeBlanc.

Soil and Water: An Intro

By Jillian Madocs, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

 

This blog begins a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Our research intern Jillian Madocs is a Siena College senior studying  Environmental Studies & Community Development.  Her next NWNL focus will be on urban water issues. 

Jones_130521_IA_3205.jpgStewardship in Cedar Falls, Iowa – Mississippi River Basin

Soil is a critical element of our watersheds – and the hero of agriculture. As a holding pen for seeds and roots, soil gives life to the plants that dwell in it; provides nutrients to local flora; and is home to millions of organisms, from burrowing insects to grazing livestock. Now more than ever, the agricultural industry is booming. Yet we must carefully consider the impacts of today’s increasing demands by growing populations around the world for more food, water and farmland.

Over 70% of our freshwater usage is attributed to farming, per the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, et al.  As we face increasingly severe droughts, disappearing glaciers and groundwater depletion, farmers will need to find enough water to irrigate their crops and support livestock.  Soil quality and farming practices will play a highly critical role in ensuring water security for the future.  Farmers are critical to helping protect our finite water supplies, since they can creating greater water retention within our soils, plant more drought-tolerant crops, and change other agricultural practices that waste water.  

Jones_110729_NJ_0104.jpgCorn growing in New Jersey – Raritan River Basin

With proper care, soil can support farming with minimum degradation. To sustainably produce crop yields needed for future generations, soil must receive the same amount of scientific attention and protection as that given to crops or livestock. Taking over the remaining headwater forests that fill our rivers to create more fields and applying more chemicals are not sustainable answers.

To maintain prosperity, avoid famine and ensure long-term sustainability, the agricultural sector must reduce its consumption of water by reassessing its very foundation –  soil. Unfortunately, the pressure for greater profits and agricultural yields has led to unsustainable farming practices and water usage. Current practices also severely diminish biodiversity within the soil, as well as the variety of livestock and plants produced. As a result, farmers and consumers alike are suffering economic losses and our foods are less nutritious. Our global food security is being threatened.1

Jones_160211_K_0022.jpgPeter Kihui’s Kickstart pedal pump waters his veggies, Kenya – Mara River Basin

Endangerment of agronomy aside, it is clear these problems impact much larger systems –  the water cycle, global biodiversity, national economic health, and human livelihood. If unsustainable agricultural practices are continued, farmers will seriously limit their future options. Thus, farmers must study and reconsider their land-management and food production practices. Today’s preventive measures are tomorrow’s solutions.

A NWNL blog series this summer will share agricultural innovations that increase water retention in farming soils and promote sustainability.  Guest bloggers will contribute insights on how soil management and sustainable farming can protect the health of our rivers and availability of freshwater. These blogs will also discuss regenerative agriculture, no-till farming, biochar application, vegetation strips and and the use of rotating and cover crops. These practices and technologies are designed to improve water conservation, and simultaneously provide carbon sequestration, restoration of soil biodiversity and increased crop yields.

Jones_130519_IA_8444.jpgDairy cows on an Iowa farm – Mississippi River Basin

Topics to be addressed by future NWNL blogs:

Regenerative Agriculture: This holistic approach to farming maintains the integrity of the land, while  also promoting healthy soils, greater yields and environmental vitality.2 This organic approach can restore and enhance soil’s natural ability to store carbon.3 This can reverse the impacts of over-planting crops in diminishing natural carbon sequestration to minimal time for the soil to recuperate. Regenerative agriculture offers a multi-pronged solution to the ever-growing problems of climate change, water scarcity and increasing food needs.

No-Till Farming: This technique conserves nutrients in the soil without the use of chemicals. Traditional tilling repeatedly turns the earth at least 8 to 12 inches deep. Loosening the soil this way allows water and oxygen to reach difficult-to-access plant roots.4 However, tilling, or plowing, breaks up the soil structure, leaving a perforated top layer resting on a hard pan that becomes deeply compressed over time. As learned during the US Dust Bowl, that encourages wind erosion and loss of valuable soil. No-till farming prevents this by planting seeds a few inches into the soil and letting organic materials to do the work that a plow would otherwise do.5 By  not interfering with the soil prior to planting seeds, more nutrients and organic elements are available to the plants. Thus, chemical fertilizers need not be applied.

Jones_140517_ID_1824.jpgPlowing Idaho farmland – Snake River Basin

Biochar: For centuries, some of the world’s indigenous farmers understood that “fine-grained, highly-porous charcoal helps soils retain nutrients and water.”6 Carbon-rich and comprised of agricultural waste, biochar is highly resistant to decomposition, thus an ideal additive to soils. This product has many benefits from local to global scales. Biochar increases soil biodiversity, improves crop diversity, enhances food security in at-risk areas and increases water quality and quantity. Furthermore, biochar combats climate change by creating “pools” that sequester carbon in the soil from hundreds to thousands of years. Thus biochar has the capacity to make soil systems “carbon-negative” and ultimately help reduce excess carbon emissions into the atmosphere.7

Vegetation Strips:  Runoff pollution and soil loss can be controlled with buffering and filtering strips of land covered with permanent vegetation.8 These barriers prevent soil from being carried away, thereby reducing field, riverbank and shoreline erosion.  They also prevent excess sediment from collecting in bodies of water.  Vegetative strips also collect pollution, pathogens, and excessively-applied chemical nutrients before they reach and impair ditches, rivers, ponds and lakes.9 These filters are valuable water-quality improvement agents that maintain soil integrity, especially in regions with loess soil found in Iowa and Washington’s Palouse region. Dust Bowl analyses revealed the critical need for creating vegetation strips and trees as “windbreaks” to reduce erosion and drying winds.  Yet, modern agriculture  has removed many such “green” barriers, to gain a bit more acreage for planting their crops.  Hopefully this trend will be reversed.

Jones_030728_K_0339.jpgProtective vegetative strips in Kenya wheat fields – Mara River Basin

Crop Rotation: Even the simplest of vegetable gardens can be kept healthy through successive seasons if plants are switched around to different sections. Such rotation helps prevent disease and insect infestation, while also balancing and enhancing nutrients.10 For example, a plot with carrots, then cucumbers, and maybe lettuce planted in succeeding years deprive diseases and parasitic insects of long-term host sites. Additionally, soils dried out by particularly water-thirsty crops can regain their moisture balance with planned rotation.11

Cover Crops: Often called “green manure,” grasses, legumes, and herbs planted to control erosion can also increase moisture and nutrient content, improve soil structure, provide habitat for beneficial, bio-diverse organisms, and much more.12  Because vegetables so quickly deplete, dry out and otherwise stress the soil,13 restorative practices are essential to ensure the soil’s optimal performance.  Cover crops are used to improve soil health – and they also beautify gardens!14

Jones_170614_NE_3864-2.jpgPivot irrigation in Nebraska where it was invented – Platte River Basin

Agriculture is a major industry that ties together global needs for food and water. Thus, it is obvious that we must support the soil that produces our crops and consumes ¾ of our entire water supply.  Regenerative agricultural practices promise a balance between productive and healthy land, as well as between new technologies and common sense.  Robust soil means better produce, thriving organisms, less water consumption, and healthy watersheds. Without good soil, the food chain collapses and our ecosystems suffer. As more restorative farming practices are adopted, the future improves, especially for large-scale agriculture. This NWNL blog series will focus on how large- and small-scale agriculture can help solve global water scarcity by caring for the soil.

Jones_170616_NE_5022.jpgDouble rainbow over a Nebraska crop field – Missouri River Basin

Sources:

1. http://www.regenerationinternational.org/2015/10/16/linking-agricultural-biodiversity-and-food-security-the-valuable-role-of-agrobiodiversity-for-sustainable-agriculture/
2.  http://www.regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/
3. http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf
4.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/no-till-farming-zmaz84zloeck
5.  https://morningchores.com/no-till-gardening/
6.  http://www.biochar-international.org/biochar
7. http://biochar.pbworks.com/w/page/9748043/FrontPage
8.  http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/waters/buffer_strips.pdf
9. http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8195.pdf
10.  https://www.todayshomeowner.com/vegetable-garden-crop-rotation-made-easy/
11.  https://bonnieplants.com/library/rotating-vegetable-crops-for-garden-success/
12.  https://plants.usda.gov/about_cover_crops.html
13. http://covercrop.org/why-cover-crops
14.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/cover-crops-improve-soil-zmaz09onzraw

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Day Zero – A Water Warning

By Stephanie Sheng for No Water No Life (NWNL)
Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones

Stephanie Sheng is a passionate strategist for environmental and cultural conservation. Having worked in private and commercial sectors, she now uses her branding and communications expertise to drive behavior change that will help protect our natural resources. Inspired by conservation photographers, The Part We Play is her current project.  Her goal is to find how best to engage people and encourage them to take action. 

Misc-Pollution.jpg

I was horrified when I first heard the news from South Africa of Cape Town’s water crisis and impending ‘Day Zero’ – the day their taps would run dry. Originally forecasted for April 16, then pushed out to May, the apocalyptic-sounding day has now successfully been pushed out to next year. Had Day Zero remained slated for April or May, Cape Town would have been the first major city to run out of water. Although postponed, the threat still remains, and thus restrictions on water usage to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per day for residents and visitors. Water rationing and a newly-heightened awareness around water use is now the new, legally-enforced normal in Cape Town.

Two things struck me as I read about this situation. First, the seemingly unthinkable felt very close. My visit to Cape Town a few years ago reminded me of San Francisco, my home before New York. Suddenly I was reading that this seemingly-similar city was on the brink of having no water coming out of their taps. As that hit me, I considered what modern, urban life would be like when water is scarce.

ClimateChange-ColumbiaBC.jpgCape Town’s restriction of 13.2 gal (50 L) per day is miniscule in comparison to the 39.6 gal (150 L) per day used by the average UK consumer[1] and the 79.3 to 99 gal (300 to 375 L) per day used by the average US consumer.[2] Unsurprisingly, Cape Town had to undergo drastic changes. It is now illegal to wash a car or fill a swimming pool. Hotel televisions blare messages to guests to take short 90-second showers. Washroom taps are shut off in restaurants and bars. Signs around bathroom stalls say, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Hand sanitizer is now the normal method of hand cleaning.WASH-Tanzania.jpgShocked by the harsh realities of what water shortage could look like here at home, I was inspired to walk through my day comparing my water habits to the new realities being faced by those in the Cape Town facing a severe crisis. I wanted to discover opportunities where I could cut back, even though I consider myself on the more conscious end of the usage spectrum.

Here is a breakdown of my average water usage per day while living and working in NY, based on faucets spewing 2.6 gal (10 L) per minute[3], and a toilet flush using 2.3 gal (9L).[4]

  • Faucet use for brushing teeth and washing face for 4 min/day: 6 gal (40L)
  • Faucet use for dish washing and rinsing food for 7 min/day:5 gal (70L)
  • Toilet flushes, 4/day: 5 gal (36 L)
  • Drinking water: 4 gal (1.5 L)
  • Showering for 9 min/day — 8 gal (90 L)

My water usage totaled roughly 62.8 gal (237.5 L) per day. That is lower than the average American’s usage, but still more than four times the new water rations for Capetonians!

Misc-NYC.jpg

Living in an urban city that isn’t facing an impending water shortage, it may be more difficult to control certain uses than others (e.g. not flushing the toilet at work). However, there are some simple, yet significant ways to lower our daily water use:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Only run it when full.
  • Only run the laundry with full loads.
  • When showering, shut off the water while you soap up and shave. Put a time in your shower to remind you not to linger.
  • Recycle water when possible. If you need to wait for hot water from the faucet, capture the cold water and use it for pets, plants, hand washing clothes, and such.

VWC-Beef.jpg

Water use discussed thus far includes obvious personal contributors to our water footprint. But the biggest contributor is actually our diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s freshwater consumption[5]. Different foods vary greatly in the amount of water consumed in their growth and production. Meat, especially from livestock with long life cycles, contains a high “virtural water” content per serving. For example, 792.5 gal (3,000 L) of water are required for a ⅓ lb. beef burger[6] – representing four times as much water as required for the same amount of chicken. That virtual water content ratio is even greater when red meat is compared to vegetables.

We don’t have to become vegetarians, but we can cut down on meat and choose meats other than beef and lamb. That change alone would save hundreds of thousands of gallons (or liters) consumed in a year, which is much greater than the 18,069.4 gal (68,400 L) I’d save by reducing my current water usage to that of a Capetonian. Consideration of virtual water content offers some food for thought!

Sources

[1] BBC News
[2] United States Geological Survey
[3] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[4] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[5] Food Matters Environment Reports
[6] National Geographic
All images/”hydrographics” are © Alison Jones, No Water No Life®.
For more “hydrographics” visit our
website.

The Great Giver: The Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 9th and final blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the human uses of the Nile River.  [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

The Nile River was vital to the lives and livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians and continues to play a significant role in modern Egyptian life. Egypt, as well as other countries in the Nile River Basin, rely entirely on this great river for fresh water. This reliance places great pressure on the river, especially Egypt’s extraction of the maximum amount of water it can according to international treaties.From aquaculture and fishing to drinking water and transport, Egypt uses the Nile for a wide variety of purposes. The Nile River also has considerable economic value since the Egyptian agriculture relies heavily on the Nile’s water. The human uses and values of the Nile River reflect its importance to the people who live along it.
Shaduf2

Illustration of a shaduf

A large portion of the water drawn from the Nile is for agriculture, a source of income for about 55% of the Egyptian population.2 In Ancient Egypt, farmers used a water-lifting device known as a “shaduf,” used to collect and disseminate water. This technology, developed around 1500 BCE, allowed farmers to irrigate their fields even during dry spells. It was so effective that the acreage of cultivable land expanded by 10-15%. Today, farmers use electric pumps and canals to transport water to their fields.3

Fish are a staple of the Egyptian diet and the fishing industry has thrived accordingly. However, unfortunately, overexploitation and high fishing pressures have stressed the natural fish populations. The river’s carrying capacity has been stretched to its limit and struggles to support the stocked fish. Such high stocking levels can result in poor water quality and an altered ecosystem.  To increase fish production, exotic species have been introduced to the Nile, but they have caused an imbalanced ecosystem and threatened native species. Illegal fishing continues to be a concern as well.4 

Compared to today, commercial fishing was of relative unimportance to the Ancient Egyptians. Although fish not consumed by the catcher were often sold for profit, trade of luxury goods and produce was a much more significant source of revenue. Nubia in particular was an important trading point as it provided ivory, slaves, incense, and gold, the riches that pharaohs and high society prized. Wadi al-Jarf was also a bustling trading town along the river. Since the Nile River flows to the north, boats could easily float downstream with their wares. At the same time, reliable southerly winds allowed vessels to sail upstream.5

Tile_from_the_palace_of_Ramesses_II;__Fish_in_a_Canal__MET_DT226146
Tile illustrating a fish in a canal c. 1279-1213 BCE Lower Egypt

For millions of years, the Nile River has continued steadily along its northward course. For thousands of years, it has given its people livelihoods and a precious source of water. Although excessive irrigation and overexploitation of fish threaten its flow, the Nile remains resilient. With proper care and environmental attention, the Nile can continue to thrive for years to come.

Sources

Turnbull, March. “Africa’s Mighty Dribble.” Africa Geographic. April 2005.
2 El-Nahrawy, Mohamed, A. “Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profile: Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Web.
Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web.
4 “The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
The ancient Egyptian economy.” The Saylor Foundation. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Lake Erie: A Solution to Vulnerability

By Judy Shaw, with Wil Hemker and John Blakeman for NWNL
(Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones)

Judy Shaw, professional planner and NWNL Advisor, and Wil Hemker, entrepreneurial chemist, are partnering with John Blakeman to promote prairie nutrient-retention strips as a proven way to protect Lake Erie’s water. They are encouraging schools and farmers in northwest Ohio to install demonstration strips and teach this effective means to stop harmful runoff from damaging our waterways. NWNL has documented this runoff problem in all its case-study watersheds and applauds this natural solution to chemical pollution of our waterways.

Untitled.jpgUpland prairie nutrient-retention strip. Photo by John Blakeman.

Imagine a very large body of fresh water supplying residents along 799 miles of shoreline with the very essence of their natural health. Lake Erie is such a vessel; carrying over 126 trillion gallons of precious water and serving millions of people in cities both in the USA and Canada. One such city is Toledo, Ohio. There, water from the Maumee River, which flows directly into the Western Basin of Lake Erie, provides fresh water to many in the region. Up to 80 million gallons of water is drawn from Lake Erie every day to supply Toledo and other municipalities with treated drinking water. 2

However, runoff from agricultural lands taints the water with phosphorous. In 2014 runoff caused extensive blooms of green algae, creating toxic microcystins – toxins produced by freshwater cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae.3 This rendered the water on which the city relied as undrinkable. Today, four years later, continued flows of phosphorus-laden water still make this treasured natural resource vulnerable.

So what can be done? 

Many scientists have studied the problem. They’ve universally agreed that rainfall runoff from row-crop fields, suburban and urban land, and roadways is the root of the problem. As the City of Toledo rushes into a $500 million upgrade to its water treatment plant, the source remains completely uncontrolled.4

Jones_130520_IL_8783.jpgRunoff from row-crop fields after rain, Illinois.

Fortunately, solutions to manage rainfall runoff pollution are at hand. 

Through the work of many dedicated Midwest scientists, it has been determined that the presence of tallgrass prairies and seasonal, agricultural “cover crops”5 can arrest the phosphorous and nitrogen that historically has streamed directly into feeder streams and large watersheds like the Maumee River Basin.

On the matter of cover crops, it is important to note that wheat is planted in closely-spaced rows. Non-row crops include hay and alfalfa, planted en masse, not in rows. Alfalfa, because it is grown as a crop and is harvested, is not generally regarded as a cover crop. Cover crops are seldom, if ever, “cropped,” or harvested. Instead they are killed, or die, and left on the soil surface. Generally, cover crops are not true cash crops in the sense of harvesting and marketing.

Ohio prairie researcher John Blakeman found that edge-of-field strips of perennial tallgrass prairies can absorb algal nutrients in storm-water runoff, thus protecting the waterway while also enriching the prairie plants, or forbs. The tallgrasses and forbs (“wildflowers”) of native tallgrass prairies include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and a dozen or more species. All of these once grew naturally in northwest Ohio and exist today in a few “remnant prairie” ecosystems. Thus tallgrass prairies can be commercially planted with success in Ohio.

From John’s research with colleagues and published supportive findings from Iowa State University, he developed methods of planting a robust mix of native Ohio prairie species. He has planted them in several sites, including the NASA Glenn Research Center’s large Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio. Iowa State University has proved the ability of the prairie plants to absorb the renegade nutrients. The critical step is to persuade those engaged in Ohio agriculture to plant 30–60’ strips of tallgrass prairie species along the downslope edges of row-crop fields, where runoff water percolates before draining downstream to Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8937.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Criticality? High. 

With these strips, Iowa research shows that up to 84% of the nitrogen runoff and 90% of the phosphorous can be captured by the plants, and the water running into the river is virtually clean. The levels of nitrogen and phosphorus exiting the field can no longer foster blooms of toxic green algae, such as those that crippled Toledo’s water supply in 2014.

Vulnerability beyond Lake Erie?

Non-point source pollution (i.e. sediment and nutrient runoff from ever-more-intense rainfall events onto rural row-crop fields, suburban fertilized lawns, and massive expanses of roadway and urban pavement) lies at the root of Lake Erie’s problem. This problem however extends beyond harmful algal blooms in streams, lakes, and Toledo’s drinking water source. It is the cause of huge hypoxic zones in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico (from the Mississippi River drainage), and North American eastern coastal waters.

Some good news?

Several Ohio farmland stakeholders are listening and learning about prairie grass strips at field edges. They are considering how to research and demonstrate upland prairie nutrient-retention strips so more farmers, in time, might use this algal nutrient-suppression practice. Expansive adoption of these strips will reduce phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from agricultural lands, helping obviate harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Jones_130520_IA_8938.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

All communities need to reduce non-point source pollution. There are many ecological practices communities can practice, including:

  • decreasing suburban and urban pavement
  • increasing tallgrass and forb plantings
  • designing prairie and wetland drainage swales
  • conserving water use

If we all understand the sources of pollution and commit to take action, it will only be a matter of time before other watersheds in Ohio and across the country increase their water quality by using upland prairie nutrient-retention strips and thus also expand green spaces.

How can you be part of the solution?

First, become informed. Many US federal, state and community governments are measuring and attempting to act on non-point source pollution. Learn more about your state and community programs.

Second, take action by changing your and your family’s personal water use. Change your home and neighborhood water and rainwater practices. Here are some suggestions from The Nature Conservancy.

Jones_130520_IA_8935.jpgTallgrass Prairie, University of Southern Iowa.

Lastly, connect back with No Water No Life. Let us know how you and your neighbors outreach to community, state, and federal government leaders is changing infrastructure and community water resource practices.

The strongest governments on earth cannot clean up pollution by themselves. They must rely on each ordinary person, like you and me, on our choices, and on our will.  –2015 Chai Jing, Chinese investigative reporter, and documentary film maker.

 

Footnotes:

1The capacity, over 127 trillion gallons, is extrapolated from USEPA Lake Erie Water Quality report, which notes the water volume as 484 cm3.
2 Toledo Division of Water Treatment.
3 The Florida DEP states, “Microcystins are nerve toxins that may lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures and long-term liver disease if ingested in drinking water.”
4 US News.
5 Cover crops are quick-growing, short-lived, low-height plants planted to give full coverage of bare soil, in the dormant seasons, (fall, winter, early spring). They are short-lived; serve only to cover the soil to reduce erosion; and retard growth of weeds before row-crops are planted.

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise stated.