Briefly

Stuff that matters


slash and burn

Proposed NOAA cuts would make predicting extreme weather even harder.

The Trump administration reportedly plans to make deep cuts to the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, a key provider of information about the climate and weather.

All told, the proposed cuts amount to a full 17 percent of the agency’s budget, according to various reports. But the deepest would slash money for NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which operates a squad of satellites monitoring the environment. These satellites tell scientists about climate variability, weather, oceans, and much else.

Roughly 90 percent of weather data in the United States comes from NOAA. So the cuts would stymie efforts by scientists and meteorologists to measure and predict not just everyday weather patterns, but also tornadoes, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms.

Predicting hurricanes is already challenging enough, but it’s increasingly important as climate change adds fuel to big storms.

The administration would also scrap federal money for NOAA’s Sea Grant, a program that supports university research to assess the vitality of coastlines and their ecosystems.

Over the weekend, scientists and climate realists took to Twitter to vent their outrage.

Apart from accurate climate data, there’s another thing we’ll certainly miss if satellites wind up on the chopping block:


paper trail

The Dutch are building bike lanes from used toilet paper.

When it comes to crazy, world-saving initiatives, the Netherlands just can’t stop won’t stop.

Here’s how the two-year pilot project works, as reported by the Guardian. A Dutch wastewater treatment plant uses an industrial sieve to sift through sewage and collect soiled toilet paper, extracting nearly 900 pounds of cellulose from the TP each day. That cellulose is then sterilized and turned into “fluffy material or pellets” that are used to make insulation or bottles — or, you know, bike lanes.

In the past, the wastewater treatment plant incinerated dirty toilet paper. Because the Dutch enjoy using fine bath tissue, that meant high-quality fibers often went to waste.

The toilet paper scheme isn’t the only way the Netherlands is using sewage for good. One company, AquaMinerals, turns wastewater into calcite pellets, which are great for water softening and producing paints and ceramics.

Next time you flush the toilet, just consider the possibilities!


dry spell

Rome, once known for flowing water, is now running dry.

The Eternal City’s water utility, Acea, had proposed cutting off water to 1.5 million residents for eight hours a day starting on Monday. The city avoided that fate on Friday when the central government allowed the city to keep drawing from a drought-ravaged lake.

The summer heat is partly to blame for the water shortage. Much of Western Europe has been sweltering, with heatwaves stoking fires in Portugal and setting record temperatures in France. Italy is suffering through one of its hottest, driest, wildfiriest times in history. Several regions have declared a state of emergency or asked for relief from the climate change–fueled drought, which has already taken a $2.3 billion toll on the country’s farming industry.

Rome’s other problems are making things worse. The city’s aqueducts are chronically leaking. Diminished snowpack on nearby mountains means less meltwater to replenish its aquifers. Rome had planned to stop drawing from one of its big sources of fresh water, Lake Bracciano, which has sunk nearly six feet in the last two years.

City officials have switched off iconic fountains and lowered water pressure, causing residents to lug buckets up the stairs to their apartments. Nearby small towns have already resorted to rationing, the New York Times reports.

Minus a drought in the Dark Ages, clean drinking water has been constantly flowing through Rome for millennia. Now, it looks like things are changing (the climate certainly is).


Next Flint Watch

Pittsburgh’s tap water might not be safe to drink.

A recent audit by the Allegheny County Controller’s office criticizes the county’s health department for inaction in the face of high lead levels in the city’s drinking water. The report says blood-lead levels in the region are some of the highest in the country, and that health officials are downplaying concerns to residents.

The county’s health director called the report a “potentially dangerous use of public health information.”

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech engineer who helped discover the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s water, encouraged authorities to take action. “The road to Flint was paved with this nexus of complacency,” he warned. Edwards suggested that the city stop its practice of partially replacing aging water lines — and instead offer filters and better inform residents of the risks.

But on Tuesday, the city council voted to help customers of Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority replace private lines that run from their homes to public water mains — a proposal that could mean some residents get cleaner water more quickly than others.

“It might be easy for someone rich to be able to change their lines,” Councilmember Darlene Harris told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But it isn’t for those who are low- and moderate-income.”


DO-oy vey

After a threatening call from Trump admin, Lisa Murkowski’s got backup.

The Alaska Republican seems relatively unfazed about the phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke regarding her healthcare vote. In the wee hours of Friday morning, hours after news of the call broke, Murkowski once again voted against a Republican healthcare repeal bill.

“The president wants to get a healthcare bill. He’s gonna make calls,” Murkowski told the Alaska Dispatch News. “I don’t have heartburn with that at all.”

Others, though, certainly do. Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone and Raúl Grijalva called for independent investigations of the calls to Murkowski and Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan. Grijalva called it “political blackmail.” The conservation group Western Values Project, citing the “disturbing calls,” also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records of calls between Zinke and Senators Murkowski, Sullivan, Dean Heller, John McCain, Susan Collins, and Mike Lee as well as any July DOI correspondence mentioning several of those senators and healthcare.

Although Democrats and conservationists condemned the threats, they may bring some good news for the planet. As Rebecca Leber notes in Mother Jones, Trump’s “penchant for revenge could potentially make him do something good for the environment.” Murkowski and Sullivan both want to expand oil and gas drilling in Alaska, a priority they shared with the administration — at least until yesterday.


windfall

One of the biggest wind farms in the U.S. is coming to Oklahoma.

Located in prime oil and gas country, American Electric Power’s proposed $4.5 billion Wind Catcher project would serve more than 1 million customers in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

The project will continue the utility’s transition away from coal, which was its main electricity source only a decade ago. We can take AEP’s wind investment as a sign that renewables make economic sense even in conservative areas.

Several major utilities have embarked on billion-dollar U.S. wind energy projects in the past year, the Wall Street Journal points out. A few of them:

Let’s face it: No matter what Trump wants, wind power isn’t going away.


big gulp

Chicago drinking fountains have been running nonstop for months.

Officials disabled the push buttons on more than 100 drinking fountains in the city’s parks earlier this year, claiming that continuously flowing water significantly reduces hazardous lead levels.

About 450 Chicago park fountains registered “dangerously high” lead levels when tested in 2016. Some were spouting water with levels 80 times higher than the EPA limit. (It’s worth noting that health officials say no amount of lead exposure is safe.)

This year, most of those 450 fountains met EPA standards, but 107 were still spewing tainted water. Officials plan to keep those fountains on continuous flow until mid-fall. An additional hundred-plus drinking fountains have been running round-the-clock for “spring flushing,” an annual process of conditioning water pipes after turning them on once winter passes.

Nearly 600 gallons of drinking water are wasted each day that a fountain spigot is left on, according to a report from Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. In 2003, the Windy City spent hundreds of thousands of dollars retrofitting fountains with on-and-off buttons to preserve water.

Park officials plan to keep monitoring the lead problem in their fountains. But for now, Chicagoans should consider bringing a full water bottle along on their lakeside runs.