Category: Land use

How the giant trees got to New York’s new island park

Read the full story at Fast Company.

Little Island, the city’s newest park, is perched over the Hudson River. When it opened, it was full of large, mature trees. What does it take to fill a park out with foliage?

Before condo collapse, rising seas have long pressured Miami coastal properties

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

The 12-story condo tower that crashed down early Thursday near Miami Beach was built on reclaimed wetlands and is perched on a barrier island facing an ocean that has risen about a foot in the past century due to climate change.

Underneath its foundation, as with Miami Beach, is sand and organic fill —over a plateau of porous limestone — brought in from the bay after the mangroves were deforested. The fill sinks naturally and the subsidence worsens as the water table rises.

Investigators are just beginning to try to unravel what caused the Champlain Towers South to collapse into a heap of rubble and leave 99 people missing. Experts on sea level rise and climate change caution that it is too soon to speculate if rising seas helped destabilize the oceanfront condo. The 40-year-old building was relatively new compared with others on its stretch of beach in the town of Surfside.

But it’s already clear that South Florida has been on the front lines of sea level rise and that the impacts of climate change on the infrastructure of the region — from septic systems to aquifers to shoreline erosion — will be a management problem for years to come.

Dallas adopts its first urban forest master plan

Read the full story at Smart Cities Dive.

The Dallas City Council this week unanimously adopted the city’s first urban forest master plan, with 14 recommendations for a unified approach to build a resilient and equitable urban forest. They include ensuring city regulations support tree canopy preservation and growth, maximizing investment in urban forest programs and management, and creating a city storm response and recovery plan. Improved air quality and reduced temperatures are among the most sought-after benefits.

The plan, which the nonprofit Texas Trees Foundation created, notes that Dallas is already the nation’s ninth-most-populous city and is poised for further development. That development threatens to remove tree cover from Dallas’ southern neighborhoods, which could create new heat island effects that affect a significant number of economically and medically vulnerable residents, the authors wrote.

A key impetus for this plan was an earlier heat island management study by the foundation that found Dallas is heating up faster than every other U.S. city except for Phoenix, said Rachel McGregor, urban forestry manager at Texas Trees Foundation. The report cites data indicating that by 2050, Dallas could have 30 to 60 additional days over 100 degrees F per year.

America has eight parking spaces for every car. Here’s how cities are rethinking that land

Read the full story in Fast Company.

Cities like Buffalo are getting rid of parking minimums and changing zoning, which opens up valuable space.

Restoring land around abandoned oil and gas wells would free up millions of acres of forests, farmlands, and grasslands

A drilling pad for oil and gas in Robinson Township, Penn. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

by Matthew D. Moran (Hendrix College)

CC BY-ND

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan proposes to spend US$16 billion plugging old oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. But there’s no authoritative measure of how many of these sites exist across the nation.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I sought to account for every oil and gas well site in the lower 48 states that was eligible for restoration – meaning that the well no longer was producing oil or gas, and there were no other active wells using that site. We found more than 430,000 old well sites, with associated infrastructure such as access roads, storage areas and fluid tanks. They covered more than 2 million acres – an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

These sites are scattered across the country, concentrated mainly in forests, grassland and cropland. They could be put to good use. We estimated the value of crops that could be produced if these lands are restored at over $14 billion over the next 50 years.

We calculated that restoring these lands could remove millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere as vegetation regrows on them, providing an estimated $7 billion in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It also would provide habitat for wildlife and could produce timber for harvesting. And because healthy ecosystems filter air and water, returning these lands to a natural state could reduce air pollution and improve drinking water quality.

Retired oil and gas executive Curtis Shuck explains why his nonprofit is working to plug thousands of orphaned wells across the U.S.

In recent years, energy production has become the largest consumer of new land in the U.S., outpacing urban and residential development. The oil and gas industry has a particularly large footprint, occupying millions of acres, with big impacts on the environment. Energy development reduces biodiversity, increases carbon emissions, disrupts natural ecological processes and decreases ecosystem services – the numerous benefits that natural landscapes perform for humanity.

While active wells are producing oil and gas, they generate obvious economic benefits, along with direct and indirect costs. Eventually, however, all wells go dry. After that, their economic value is gone and only the costs remain.

Most states and the federal government require energy developers to plug old wells and reclaim the land, and to post bonds to help ensure that they do so. Often, however, companies either go bankrupt and abandon sites or assert that idled wells are still producing and maintain their leases indefinitely. Furthermore, the bond amounts are almost never enough to cover the complete costs of plugging wells and restoring the land.

Map of Pennsylvania with abandoned oil and gas wells marked.
Pennsylvania officials have identified thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells in the state (marked in blue) with no identifiable responsible party to complete plugging them. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Abandoned wells can sit idle for many years. Many leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, or other contaminants, damaging surrounding landscapes and threatening water supplies.

Restoring these sites starts with plugging the well to remove contamination hazards. Next, companies remove all infrastructure, such as well pads and roads. They replace topsoil, plant native plants – which may need extra care to become established over several years – and restore the site’s natural drainage patterns.

Thousands more active oil and gas wells will stop producing in the coming years. Energy companies installed over 150,000 wells on 500,000 acres of land during the initial oil and gas “fracking” boom from 2004 to 2015. These wells and older ones cover millions more acres of land that may someday become rural brownfields scattered across the American landscape.

How far would $16 billion go toward remediating inactive oil and gas sites? We estimated that the land around all currently nonproducing wells in the lower 48 states could be restored for about $7 billion, with additional costs for plugging wells.

We had only a few publicly available examples of actual restoration costs to develop our estimate, and costs likely vary widely across different types of ecosystems. But we carried out a detailed assessment and found that in every scenario we studied, the economic benefits from restored lands would be much greater than the costs.

In my view, this investment would produce returns that include crop production, better human health, cleaner air and water, and a more beautiful and ecologically sound landscape.

Matthew D. Moran, Professor of Biology, Hendrix College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can removing highways fix America’s cities?

Read the full story in the New York Times.

As midcentury highways reach the end of their life spans, cities across the country are having to choose whether to rebuild or reconsider them. And a growing number, like Rochester, are choosing to take them down.

Roads pose significant threat to bee movement and flower pollination

Read the full story from the University of Michigan.

Roads can be barriers to wildlife of all sorts, and scientists have studied road impacts on animals ranging from Florida panthers and grizzly bears to box turtles, mice, rattlesnakes and salamanders.

But much less is known about the impact of roads on pollinating insects such as bees and to what extent these structures disrupt insect pollination, which is essential to reproduction in many plant species.

In a paper published online May 10 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, University of Michigan researchers describe how they used fluorescent pigment as an analog for pollen. They applied the luminous pigment to the flowers of roadside plants to study how roads affected the movement of pollen between plants at 47 sites in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Seeking inclusive strategies to help coastal communities adjust, plan for sea-level rise

Read the full story from North Carolina State University.

Recurring flood damage to homes and powerful storms that threaten infrastructure are realities facing many coastal North Carolina communities. However, for three predominately African-American, rural communities near the coast, NC State researchers documented additional injustices that threaten the communities’ ability to adapt to a changing climate.

In their study, the researchers reported on efforts to help these communities think about how to adapt to sea-level rise, flooding and other climate change impacts. They found that inequalities, economic limitations and injustices facing these communities can make residents feel vulnerable to climate impacts, and unheard in local planning and recovery efforts.

Their findings, published in the journal Land Use Policy, highlight the need for policymakers and researchers to work with affected coastal communities using strategies that are racially and economically inclusive.

Installing solar panels over California’s canals could yield water, land, air and climate payoffs


The California Aqueduct, which carries water more than 400 miles south from the Sierra Nevada, splits as it enters Southern California at the border of Kern and Los Angeles counties. California DWR

by Roger Bales (University of California, Merced) and Brandi McKuin (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Climate change and water scarcity are front and center in the western U.S. The region’s climate is warming, a severe multi-year drought is underway and groundwater supplies are being overpumped in many locations.

Western states are pursuing many strategies to adapt to these stresses and prepare for the future. These include measures to promote renewable energy development, conserve water, and manage natural and working lands more sustainably.

As engineers working on climate-smart solutions, we’ve found an easy win-win for both water and climate in California with what we call the “solar canal solution.” About 4,000 miles of canals transport water to some 35 million Californians and 5.7 million acres of farmland across the state. Covering these canals with solar panels would reduce evaporation of precious water – one of California’s most critical resources – and help meet the state’s renewable energy goals, while also saving money.

Conserving water and land

California is prone to drought, and water is a constant concern. Now, the changing climate is bringing hotter, drier weather.

Severe droughts over the past 10 to 30 years dried up wells, caused officials to implement water restrictions and fueled massive wildfires. As of mid-April 2021, the entire state was officially experiencing drought conditions.

At the same time, California has ambitious conservation goals. The state has a mandate to reduce groundwater pumping while maintaining reliable supplies to farms, cities, wildlife and ecosystems. As part of a broad climate change initiative, in October 2020 Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the California Natural Resources Agency to spearhead efforts to conserve 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030.

Most of California’s rain and snow falls north of Sacramento during the winter, while 80% of its water use occurs in Southern California, mostly in summer. That’s why canals snake across the state – it’s the largest such system in the world. We estimate that about 1%-2% of the water they carry is lost to evaporation under the hot California sun.

In a recent study, we showed that covering all 4,000 miles of California’s canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually by reducing evaporation. That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. By concentrating solar installations on land that is already being used, instead of building them on undeveloped land, this approach would help California meet its sustainable management goals for both water and land resources.

Climate-friendly power

Shading California’s canals with solar panels would generate substantial amounts of electricity. Our estimates show that it could provide some 13 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity, which is about half of the new sources the state needs to add to meet its clean electricity goals: 60% from carbon-free sources by 2030 and 100% renewable by 2045.

Installing solar panels over the canals makes both systems more efficient. The solar panels would reduce evaporation from the canals, especially during hot California summers. And because water heats up more slowly than land, the canal water flowing beneath the panels could cool them by 10 F, boosting production of electricity by up to 3%.

These panels could also generate electricity locally in many parts of California, lowering both transmission losses and costs for consumers. Combining solar power with battery storage can help build microgrids in rural areas and underserved communities, making the power system more efficient and resilient. This would mitigate the risk of power losses due to extreme weather, human error and wildfires.

We estimate that the cost to span canals with solar panels is higher than building ground-mounted systems. But when we added in some of the co-benefits, such as avoided land costs, water savings, aquatic weed mitigation and enhanced PV efficiency, we found that solar canals were a better investment and provided electricity that cost less over the life of the solar installations.

Solar panels shade canals and canals cool the panels.
Solar panels installed over canals increase the efficiency of both systems. Brandi McKuin, CC BY-ND

Benefits to the land

Solar canals are about much more than just generating renewable energy and saving water. Building these long, thin solar arrays could prevent more than 80,000 acres of farmland or natural habitat from being converted for solar farms.

California grows food for an ever-increasing global population and produces more than 50% of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that U.S. consumers eat. However, up to 50% of new renewable energy capacity to meet decarbonization goals could be sited in agricultural areas, including large swaths of prime farmland.

Solar canal installations will also protect wildlife, ecosystems and culturally important land. Large-scale solar developments can result in habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, which can harm threatened species such as the Mojave Desert tortoise.

They also can harm desert scrub plant communities, including plants that are culturally important to indigenous tribes. As an example, construction of the Genesis Solar Energy Center in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in 2012-2014 destroyed trails and burial sites and damaged important cultural artifacts, spurring protracted legal conflict.

Clearing the air

By generating clean electricity, solar canals can improve air quality – a serious problem in central California, which has some of the dirtiest air in the U.S. Solar electricity could help retire particulate-spewing diesel engines that pump water through California’s agricultural valleys. It also could help charge growing numbers of electric light- and heavy-duty vehicles that move people and goods around the state.

Yet another benefit would be curbing aquatic weeds that choke canals. In India, where developers have been building solar canals since 2014, shade from the panels limits growth of weeds that block drains and restrict water flow.

Fighting these weeds with herbicide and mechanical equipment is expensive, and herbicides threaten human health and the environment. For large, 100-foot-wide canals in California, we estimate that shading canals would save about US$40,000 per mile. Statewide, savings could reach $69 million per year.

Solar panels would form a glass roof over canals.
Artist rendering of a solar canal system for California. Solar Aquagrid LLC, CC BY-ND

Bringing solar canals to California

While India has built solar arrays over canals and the U.S. is developing floating solar projects, California lacks prototypes to study locally.

Discussions are underway for both large and small demonstration projects in the Central Valley and Southern California. Building prototypes would help operators, developers and regulators refine designs, assess environmental impacts, measure project costs and benefits, and evaluate how these systems perform. With more data, planners can map out strategies for extending solar canals statewide, and potentially across the West.

It will take a dozen or more partners to plan, fund and carry out a solar canal project in California. Public-private partnerships will likely include federal, state and local government agencies, project developers and university researchers.

California’s aging power infrastructure has contributed to catastrophic wildfires and multi-day outages. Building smart solar developments on canals and other disturbed land can make power and water infrastructure more resilient while saving water, reducing costs and helping to fight climate change. We believe it’s a model that should be considered across the country – and the planet.

Roger Bales, Distinguished Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced and Brandi McKuin, Postdoctoral Researcher in Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why rivers need their floodplains

Floodplain

Read the full story at Eos.

Floodplains store materials moving downstream and, in doing so, provide habitat for a wide variety organisms. Water, dissolved materials, sediment, and organic matter move downstream, but individual water or solute molecules or sediment grains can be stored on floodplains for periods that range from a few minutes to 10,000 years for sediment on the floodplain of the Amazon River. Storage reflects the strongly three-dimensional movements of materials in a river corridor. Episodic exchanges of water, solutes, sediment, and organic matter between the channel, floodplain, and subsurface create a dynamic environment with diverse habitat. A recent article in Reviews of Geophysics examines the influencing factors and nature of floodplain storage. Here, the author answers our questions about floodplain storage.

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