• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 2, 2001

Air Date: March 2, 2001

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Florida Drought

(stream / mp3)

()

Great Lakes Water

(stream / mp3)

()

Letters

(stream / mp3)

()

Health Update

(stream / mp3)

()

New Zealand Possums

(stream / mp3)

()

The Living on Earth Almanac

(stream / mp3)

()

Salmon Escapees

(stream / mp3)

()

Tech Update

(stream / mp3)

()

Artificial Reef

(stream / mp3)

()

Sprawling Waistlines

(stream / mp3)

()

Elephant Band

(stream / mp3)

()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Back to top

 

Florida Drought

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In recent years wildfires have plagued Florida, a visible sign of drought. This year an exceedingly dry spell is shaping up as one of the worst droughts in Florida's history, and there have already been plenty of fires. Governor Jeb Bush is comparing the growing water crunch to California's energy crisis. Recently, he called a special meeting of state officials to address the problem. Neil Santaniello covers water issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He says Governor Bush and his cabinet were somber as they stood up one after the other to describe the severity of the problem.

SANTANIELLO: They talked about houses cracking because of the soil underneath them drying and shrinking. They told of rivers with their flow capacities dwindling so much that some parts of the rivers are now dry. They talk about farmers whose grassy pasture lands have withered so badly that they're importing hay to feed their animals. They also talked about one of the most serious concerns of the whole drought situation: the threat of saltwater creeping into the freshwater vacuum around municipal wells and ruining those wells.

CURWOOD: What did officials say about the history of Florida with water and drought and what guide that might be for action now?

SANTANIELLO: Officials said that in the 50s and 60s and 70s, that Florida had not had as many frequent bouts of serious drought. But then in the 80s and 90s we seem to have these tighter cycles of drought starting to return. One of the worst ones we ever had in modern history was in 1981. We saw the last one in 1989-1990. Now a decade later, almost on cue, we're seeing another drought kick in, one that could last for two years, maybe three years. And that doesn't bode well for South Florida or the rest of Florida right now because the population has increased about 17 percent from 1990 to 1999. We went from some 13 million people to nearly 60 million people right now. That's exacerbating the drought because the water supply we had ten years ago has that many more straws dipped into it.

CURWOOD: The governor unveiled a sort of drought action plan. What's it look like?

SANTANIELLO: In general, the plan says up front that the best way to get us through this situation is to encourage people to conserve water more. But the plan includes some interesting measures. One proposal, for instance, would be to give state water managers, state agencies, more authority to require utilities to use recycled wastewater or gray water to sprinkle lawns and landscapes. Medium-term, the program calls for maybe restructuring water rates to reflect market conditions, which means essentially that maybe water rates should be more expensive, which would encourage people to use less water in Florida.

CURWOOD: You're based in South Florida.

SANTANIELLO: That's right.

CURWOOD: What kind of impact has the drought had on daily life there?

SANTANIELLO: People are feeling this in the sense that they're seeing their lawns turn brown. Water restrictions were first declared in December, and then they were tightened, stepped up, in January. We're under what's called Phase II restrictions. Essentially, the average person can only water their lawn twice a week, can only wash the car twice a week. More than 50 percent of the water consumption in South Florida goes to its landscapes, and that's why the focus is there.

CURWOOD: Where will South Florida look for more water if the drought continues as expected?

SANTANIELLO: Well, that's going to be difficult. South Florida generally gets most of its water from underground. It's pulled out of subterranean reservoirs called aquifers. Those are recharged by rainfall. When that water runs low, South Florida taps the Everglades. The Everglades basically were modified years ago with levees and canals to become these huge sort of bathtubs. When that starts to fall, then South Florida can reach out to Lake Okeechobee, 730 square miles, a vast, flat pan of water. Unfortunately right now, water tables are low, the Everglades are starting to fall to their floor, which in the parlance of water managers means if we take water out of them, we're going to hurt the Everglades. Water can only be taken out when that happens if water's brought into the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee. Well, Lake Okeechobee is at a record low level, and water managers are expecting it to drop lower than it has ever been in modern history some time shortly. When the lake gets down to nine feet, which there's no doubt it's going to get to, they can no longer gravity-flow water out of the lake. At that point, they're going to set up a series of temporary pumps to suck water out of the lake. They can take two more feet of water off the lake until it gets down to seven feet. At that point, those temporary pumps run dry and begin siphoning out air. No one is quite sure what happens after that.

CURWOOD: As all this is going on, of course, I'm thinking of the long-term Everglades restoration plan and it's kicking into full gear. How will the increased pumping fit into that plan?

SANTANIELLO: The Everglades restoration plan is the long-term solution that is mentioned in the governor's chart response plan. All eyes are upon the restoration as an attempt to restore the Everglades, but it also doubles as a water supply plan. And that was partly how it was sold to the federal government which approved it. Basically, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is behind this plan with South Florida water managers, said "Listen, we can't restore the Everglades, we can't give the Everglades water, without giving water to farmers and developers. To restore the Everglades, we still have to feed the beast of urban development." And so, what this plan does is it takes away things in the Everglades, mechanisms, canals, levees, that compartmentalized the Everglades and damaged it, but at the same time it's going to capture huge volumes of water that are now flushed into the ocean, that are lost to tide. Essentially, the flood control system that we strapped across the southern part of the peninsula does such a great job, it is so efficient at draining the landscape, that it just ejects all this wonderful storm water that we get from our 60 inches of rain, just whisks it out to the sea permanently, for good.

CURWOOD: How soon will people in South Florida be able to see water from this Everglades restoration plan?

SANTANIELLO: We're expecting to see some early results by 2010, in about ten years from now. And the entire plan won't be done until 2038 to 2040. So we're not going to get relief any time soon from it. But, in the long run, this idea of creating reservoirs and water storage areas underground is the best hope that South Florida has for solving part of its water supply crunch.

CURWOOD: Neil Santaniello is a reporter with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Thanks for joining us, Neil.

SANTANIELLO: Thank you, Steve.

Back to top

 

Great Lakes Water

CURWOOD: If you live in a place where fresh water supplies are limited, you might think about importing water from places where it's plentiful. For example, some folks see the Great Lakes as huge reservoirs that could help slake the thirst of the drier parts of the world. And there are rising commercial and political pressures to do just that. But commentator Mike VanBuren says water from the majestic inland seas ought to stay right where it is.

VANBUREN: When I was a boy, my grandmother sent me a postcard from Arizona. It was covered with pictures of desert plants and animals. There were cacti, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes, each well adapted to the harsh climate. My grandmother was well adapted, too, having lived in Phoenix for many years. But her needs were different from the coyotes and roadrunners that populated the countryside. They'd learned to get by on less. She depended on generous supplies of clean, fresh water.

The Southwest, you see, is a thirsty place. The sun is bright and hot and the land is dry. It's enough to send a Gila monster off for a tall glass of cold sarsaparilla, and it's made many misguided public servants cast greedy eyes on the Great Lakes. The reasons are simple. Water is critical to life and to many social and economic activities. In some areas, such as Arizona, water is in short supply. The Great Lakes Basin contains about 20 percent of the fresh water on the surface of the Earth. Why not just redistribute it so everyone has enough?

Some profiteers--and politicians with dry tongues--like this idea. But I don't. Water is already being pumped in and out of the Great Lakes on a relatively small scale. Thankfully, no major diversions are currently planned. But some public officials and environmental leaders say it's just a matter of time. The population is expanding in many parts of the country where water is scarce. Census results show that some of the fastest-growing states--Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas--are also among those most in need of water. The Census also shows that those states will gain seats in Congress while the Great Lakes region loses seats. That means it could be harder to win a Congressional vote to restrict the sale of Great Lakes water.

Siphoning lake water makes perfect sense to those who don't know or care about ecosystems. But scientists say such activity could harm plants and animals. It could upset the balance of nature, lower groundwater levels, reduce water quality, and even change the climate. And what happens if you have to shut the spigot off for some reason? Who's going to tell the folks in Sun City that the well is dry?

My home state of Michigan is almost entirely within the Great Lakes Basin. We have everything to lose and very little to gain if water is taken. Our economy is tied to shipping, fishing, agriculture, recreation, and tourism. These activities depend on the Great Lakes being healthy and vibrant. That's why we all need to conserve water and develop strong policies to prevent raids on the resource. Now, I love Arizona, and I'm pleased my grandmother could live there. But if she wanted to drink from the Great Lakes, she probably should have moved back to Michigan.

CURWOOD: Mike VanBuren is a writer who lives near Richland, Michigan. He comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Letters

CURWOOD: Time now for comments from our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Daniel Stewart, who hears us on KUNM out of Albuquerque, caught our story on industrial hog farms. He says we failed to point out an obvious solution to the problem of hog manure. "More than a century ago," he writes, "American farmers were using anaerobic digesters to turn manure into clean-burning methane, that's natural gas, and pathogen-free compost. You quote Robert Kennedy, Jr., as saying that industrial hog farms will have to pay tens of millions of dollars for sewage treatment plants for their operations. In fact, a state-of-the-art anaerobic digester could be put into operation for a tiny fraction of that amount. The resulting methane could be sold at a profit by the hog farms, or used anywhere on the farm that gasoline or natural gas is now used."

Recently we ran an interview with Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council about her study on the elevated diesel levels in school buses. It prompted WBEZ-Chicago listener Barry Gardner to point out, what he termed, its numerous shortcomings, and wondered why it merited our attention. "A sample of four buses is so small," he writes. "Dr. Solomon hasn't controlled her study for the manufacture of the buses, the age of the exhaust system, the mileage of the buses, the maintenance program of that particular school district. The list goes on and on."

And many of you had a strong response about the proposal in Maine to make cigarette butts redeemable for a nickel. Web browser Patti Albee writes, "I'm tired of cleaning up after people who are inconsiderate enough to throw their trash on my lawn. But I feel that the appropriate response is to fine these people for littering, instead of rewarding them for simply cleaning up after themselves."

Mary Jane Newborn on the other hand likes the idea of the Maine deposit.

NEWBORN: As a smoker, and as a recycler, you know, it would be great if I could go around the pick up cigarette butts, which I've picked up many times, just, you know, for litter removal. I compost my own.

CURWOOD: Your comments light up our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Too much, way too much, of a good thing. Promoters of the possum fur trade in New Zealand got more than they bargained for. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Health Update

TOOMEY: When it comes to fish, leaner is not necessarily healthier. A new study has found that among the elderly, eating fatty fish lowers the risk of dying from a heart attack. The findings mirror studies done on middle-aged adults. For seven years researchers followed the eating habits of nearly 4,000 people over the age of 65. They found that folks who ate fatty fish at least once a week had a 44 percent lower risk of dying from a heart attack. The reason: Fatty fish contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and Omega-3s are thought to prevent irregular heart rhythms, which can lead to heart failure. Types of fatty fish include tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Researchers say lean fish, such as cod, catfish, and snapper, did not offer similar protection from heart attacks. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Jeff Fahey, "Steel Guitar Rag")

Back to top

 

New Zealand Possums

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For most of its history, New Zealand's ecosystems evolved in isolation in the South Pacific, cut off from the rest of the world. Then, less than a thousand years ago, humans arrived, bringing creatures against which the native birds and forests had few defenses. Among them, the Australian possum. It was brought to New Zealand in the 1800s by settlers hoping to establish a fur trade. The market collapsed in the 1980s but the possum population has grown, and now the marsupials occupy almost all of the island nation. As Allan Coukell reports, trapping and poisoning have failed to control their numbers, so scientists are looking at alternatives.

(Footfalls)

WAAYER: Around this time of night they'd be starting to come out of their burrows and hiding places. And they live off the nicest of foliage, which is why we're always after them.

COUKELL: It is dusk on this New Zealand farm near the town of Warkworth, about an hour north of the city of Auckland. Armed with a spotlight and 22-caliber rifle, Tom Waayer is preparing to defend his land against an alien invasion.

WAAYER: Here's our first one, see him in the tree there? See, here we go with this. (Shoots rifle) He's fallen partway. (Shoots)

COUKELL: The enemy he's targeting is the Australian brush-tailed possum. Over the next three hours Tom Waayer will shoot nine more possums on his small farm. These few animals no longer pose a problem, but there are still at least 70 million more possums in New Zealand. And tonight across the country, like every night, they will eat about 20,000 tons of vegetation.

COWAN: We've been looking at the interaction between possums and vegetation since the mid-1960s.

COUKELL: Phil Cowan is an ecologist at the government-owned company Land Care Research. He says that the possums have been in New Zealand for more than a century. Their environmental impact has far from stabilized.

COWAN: What we found over the last 30 years is that although possum numbers have basically remained constant, what we see is continuing degradation of the forest. Possums continuing to kill preferred tree species and changing the whole composition of the forest. And that, presumably, affects the whole way that the forest ecosystem operates.

(Bird calls)

COUKELL: Possums also snack on rare snails and insects, and prey on the eggs and young of critically endangered birds, such as kiwi and kokako. But just as important as the effect of possums on native forests is the risk to agriculture. At any given time, over 600 herds of cattle and farmed deer in New Zealand are infected with bovine tuberculosis, a disease passed on by the possums. In the course of a year about one-and-a-half percent of herds is infected, eight times the accepted international standard. New Zealand spends roughly $25 million a year on TB control in livestock. Cattle and deer are inspected, herds are quarantined, and infected animals killed. But fully half the money spent goes to trapping and poisoning possums. Morgan Williams is New Zealand's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. He says getting rid of possums with these methods is nearly impossible.

WILLIAMS: Possums in many parts of New Zealand are in very rugged country, so it's not a matter of wandering around easily and putting out a little bit of bait or bit of trapping. And you've got to keep going back every few years because you never get the last possum. And with the amount of food that's in our forests, possum populations recover again quite rapidly.

COUKELL: Ecologist Phil Cowan agrees that the current methods of control are inadequate. He says what's needed is a cheaper and more effective way to eradicate the animals.

COWAN: We need to look for new technologies so we can do things much more cost-effectively and do possum control, not just in the highest priority areas, but over the whole of New Zealand, if at all possible. So what we're working towards is developing some kind of biological control that, together with conventional control, we can use to achieve that goal. What we're trying to develop in effect is a form of contraception for possums.

(Possum calls)

ECKERY: This is our possum breeding facility. We've made quite an effort in the first years of our research into possums and gaining a basic understanding of possum biology.

COUKELL: Doug Eckery is a reproductive physiologist at AgResearch, another government organization. He spends his time figuring out how to manipulate the reproductive activities of the marsupials. It's part of the overall goal of a vaccine that will cause the possums to lead happy, but childless, lives.

(Possum calls; a door shuts)

ECKERY: So, these are sort of the spoiled possums here. We do monitor the reproductive activity from them. That entails just taking a urine sample from them every day, but they're on a reward system, so when they give their urine sample they get a little piece of bread with jam on it. So most of them are more interested in getting their jam sandwich than worrying about what we're up to.

(Possum calls)

COUKELL: The aim of the research is to sterilize as many possums as possible. So scientists are enlisting the animal's own immune system using proteins from possum sperm and egg to create a vaccine that will prevent fertilization. Initially, the plan is to introduce the vaccine in the form of genetically modified carrots. But such a bait-delivered vaccine will still only reach a small percentage of the entire possum population. So Joanne Meers, a virologist at Massey University, is working to find a virus that could be used to spread sterility from one possum to another.

MEERS: Viruses have an advantage over other delivery systems, in that it gives two chances or two hits at being specific for possums. Not only have we got a virus that will only infect possums, but we also have a bit of -- the protein is also specific for possums. So we have two prongs in the attack of being specific for possums.

COUKELL: Developing an infectious agent that spreads sterility requires a great deal of caution. The scientists will have to proceed carefully to ensure that the virus affects only possums and not humans or other animals. Even so, getting the public to accept the technology may not be easy. Parliamentary Commissioner Morgan Williams has been consulting with groups of ordinary New Zealanders, and asking them for their thoughts on possum control. He says they recognize the problem but they also have concerns.

WILLIAMS: New Zealanders, no matter where they are and whether they're deeply urban or deeply rural, have a pretty clear understanding about how big a threat possums are. When it came to focusing on delivery mechanisms, mechanisms that would only target the possum and prevent spread into the wider environment were the ones that were favored. So some form of bait delivery, using a genetically-modified carrot material, something like that, was the most favored option. Genetically modifying something like a virus was certainly not favored.

COUKELL: Farmer Tom Waayer shares the concerns, but he also recognizes that for effective possum control nationwide, there may be no other choice.

WEIR: There's a lot of worry with genetic engineering, whether or not it is safe. And sort of tests done every few years, whether or not that's adequate. I think in controlling the possums in New Zealand, that's about the only way to do it.

COUKELL: Scientists predict that a one-third reduction in possum numbers will safeguard New Zealand agriculture. But they also know they will have to do much, much better than that if the forests are to recover and birds such as the kokako are to sing again. For Living on Earth I'm Alan Coukell in Auckland, New Zealand.

(Bird song; fade to music up and under: Aphex Twin, "Didgeridoo")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Oak Foundation for coverage of marine issues; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. Just ahead: When 100,000 farm-raised salmon escaped into the Gulf of Maine, hungry seals were happy, but federal regulators were not. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Peter Gabriel and Massive Attack, "I Have The Touch")

SECOND HALF HOUR

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under: Tongtong, "Pedat")

Back to top

 

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Yap time in the western Pacific. Early each March, Yap Day kicks off a festival with competition and grass skirt dancing, canoe racing, and coconut tree climbing. Yap Island is the most traditional of the four federated states of Micronesia and has a history rich in, well, riches. Yap's claim to fame is its stone money, or rai, donut-shaped currency quarried from the limestone caves of Palau, an island 200 miles south of Yap. Although they can tower up to 12 feet in diameter, the value of each stone isn't determined by its size. Instead, it's the journey that makes or breaks a stone's value. Traditionally the men of Yap would brave the ocean in dugout canoes to bring the massive stones back. The more treacherous the journey, the more valuable the stone. Today, the Yapese use more contemporary currency, but if you walk through some villages you'll see stone money lining the footpaths. But you'll need more than cunning to loot the bank. The average stone weighs several tons. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Salmon Escapees

CURWOOD: For years, controversy has raged over the two types of genetically distinct salmon that live in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. On the one hand, biologists struggle to restore devastated stocks of wild Atlantic salmon to native spawning grounds. And on the other hand, fish farmers run a multi-million dollar industry raising specially-bred salmon in pens along the coast. The importance of saving wild Atlantic salmon was highlighted this past November when the federal government listed the fish as an endangered species. Then, in December, a storm released thousands of the farm fish, raising the possibility that they might mate with the endangered variety. The Boston Globe's Beth Daley describes what happened Down East in the waters of Machias Bay.

DALEY: There was a very, very fierce storm on December sixteenth, that weekend. I mean, winds were hitting, I called the Weather Service, winds were hitting about 88 miles per hour for gusts. Seas were huge. And the aquaculture company simply couldn't get to the site, and so we're sort of waiting anxiously on shore. When they finally got there the next morning, they found the steel cages had completely buckled. The moorings came loose, and about 100,000 of the 175,000 fish had escaped. Dave Fitzgerald, the owner of the company, called George LaPointe, the head of Maine's Division of Marine Resources. What happened since then, he said, holidays intervened, he got busy. And simply, he said very honestly, he forgot. It wasn't until February sixth or seventh that he wrote an e-mail to a federal official at NOAA.

CURWOOD: That's about seven weeks of delay. What are the repercussions for him?

DALEY: Because there's no law, there are no repercussions for him other than public scrutiny which is probably well-deserved at this point for him. To forget that 100,000 salmon escaped in Maine, when this is such a large, controversial issue there, is somewhat beyond comprehension to a lot of people. And the almost obvious thing that has to happen is that from now on there needs to be a system set up when there is an escape of salmon, that people have to learn about it.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the Maine regulator. How much do you think that his forgetfulness might be related to perhaps being rather close to the salmon industry, and maybe wanting to protect them from the embarrassment and the scrutiny that --

DALEY: I think that's an extraordinarily important question, and one that, again, needs much scrutiny. Right now, in November, the federal government, after five years, five long years of controversy, declared Atlantic salmon in seven Maine rivers as endangered. And it basically throws a big cog into the wheels of this burgeoning aquaculture industry in Maine. And what was interesting about this Endangered Species Act controversy is that the governor and the state of Maine came out adamantly against it, arguing that there's no such thing as wild salmon in Maine. Basically, the salmon had disappeared years ago, and officials had been stocking these Maine rivers with Canadian salmon from the St. Lawrence and other rivers. So there really was no such thing as genetically pure salmon, and what's the big deal? So, the government is extraordinarily, extraordinarily close to this situation. So it does raise questions in a lot of people's minds whether this forgetfulness was maybe more of a case of shielding some information from some people.

CURWOOD: What about this question of the significance of this release? Arguments that "yes, 100,000 fish, but hey, there's not really wild salmon left." Why is this so important? Why is this so controversial?

DALEY: It's on a twofold thing, why it's important. The first is that, just as people, we want to keep species living that we know that are still living. I mean, it's just a sort of fundamental pull we have, is that we don't know if these pure salmon somehow fit into our chain of ecosystem in some fundamental way that we're going to regret later on. So for that very reason. the feds want to keep these fish separate and distinct. The other part of it is that the idea that aquaculture fish, if they did mate with wild salmon--and for a lot of people that seems like a really bizarre concept -- why would two species of different fish mate with each other? But, in fact, they've done so in Norway and tainted the genetic pool in some fundamental way, environmentalists argue. A lot of aquaculture salmon got released in Norway over the years. Their industry is much further along than we are. We only got a decade old. And the salmon mated, they created a hybrid, and also they passed on diseases, which is another big fear federal officials have in Maine. So, those two reasons are sort of at the core of why everyone should be, or is, concerned about the salmon release in Maine.

CURWOOD: What's the mood in the communities around Maine, people who are both dependent on aquaculture for work and those who live there?

DALEY: Two moods. The ones who depend on aquaculture for work, which is a growing number, feel, you know, this is just one more slam to them. They're feeling really dejected. They're feeling like they have egg on their face because it looks clandestine that somehow these salmon escaped and no one wanted to tell them about it, tell the world about it. Now, the people who live along the coast of Maine, many environmentalists, are, I'd say they have a mixture of glee and horror, because this is what they've been predicting all along is coming true. That these salmon were not safe. They're going to harm our ecosystem in some unknown way that no one can predict or say. And, lo and behold, it's come true.

CURWOOD: What changes is Maine going to make in its regulations as a result of this incident, do you think?

DALEY: It's unclear what Maine is going to do. They say that they're going to require a way for the aquaculture industry to tell them about released salmon. Other than that, they're continuing along this long continuum with the federal government, figuring out what kind of fish do they allow in aquaculture sites? How far away should they be from these endangered river mouths? All those things are just sort of being, coming into play right now. And I'd say the next six months are really critical.

CURWOOD: Beth Daley covers the environment for the Boston Globe. Thanks for speaking with us today, Beth.

DALEY: Thank you.

(Music up and under: Irresistible Force, "Fish")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Sprawling communities can lead to sprawling waistlines. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Tech Update

GRABER: Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of electricity to turn on a lamp or power a computer for research. Until now, in really remote places, batteries supplied this power. A lot of batteries. Now, a company has designed the first portable solar power generator. It fits in a backpack, weighs about 24 pounds, and converts sunlight to electricity, and stores the power in a rechargeable battery pack. When fully charged, the battery pack can supply current for 14 hours of the attached light or three hours of computer time. A few hours of sunlight will recharge the unit. Researchers trekking off to Antarctica have purchased these portable power sources to juice up equipment like computers. And relief groups have expressed interest to help supply basic electricity needs and perform such vital tasks as powering water purifiers. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15

.(Music up and under: Jeff Fahey, "The Last Steam Engine Train")

Back to top

 

Artificial Reef

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up and coming soon, a new album of music from a band of pachyderms. But first, Acapulco was once the leader in Mexican tourism, but in recent years, the beach resort has lost out to places like Cancun and Cabo. The economic downturn is inspiring new schemes to attract tourists and their dollars. One plan involves the sinking of an old battleship. But, as Kent Paterson reports, the idea first has to get by some ecological concerns.

(Heavy metal music)

PATERSON: Mexican youth rock out to the heavy metal group Resorte at this recent festival held to celebrate the sinking of an old Canadian warship in Acapulco Bay. The idea was to open a new tourist attraction by sinking the boat and creating an artificial reef. Promoters contend that like other artificial reefs around the world, the one in Acapulco will benefit marine life by creating a new micro-environment in which organisms can flourish and attract other sea creatures. But things did not quite work out as planned.

(Traffic, music, voices)

PATERSON: Down the road from Metal Head Madness is Acapulco's Malecon, a waterfront area where tourists stroll amid loud music, departing bay cruises, and diving kids seeking spare change. Docked nearby is the Restigouche, a Canadian destroyer that once saw action in the Persian Gulf. Since arriving in Acapulco last November, the Restigouche has been the object of publicity and protest. Last December, scuttling work on the vessel was suspended by Mexico's Attorney General for Environmental Protection. The reason: the Restigouche's owners did not have an approved environmental impact statement.

BALLEZA: [Speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: In an Acapulco office, Miguel Balleza points to places on a map of the bay that show possible sites for the artificial reef. Balleza is the president of the College of Environmental Consultants of the state of Guerrero. He's acting as an advisor for the sinking of the Restigouche. Balleza says the proper site should have the following features.

BALLEZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The ideal depth should be between 90 and 108 feet. It should have a sandy ocean floor with light or minimal slopes. There shouldn't be any type of black coral or pebbles or any banks of oysters, sea snails, and starfish, among other things. There shouldn't be any marine life that is displaced when the ship is sunk. There should be a permanent underwater current so that the marine life attaches itself 100 percent to the walls and exterior parts of the ship in a period of a year and a half.

(Surf)

PATERSON: Marine scientists say artificial reefs can be beneficial for humans and marine life. Fast gaining in popularity, there are now thousands of artificial reefs across the globe, built with sunken ships, tires, and even beer cans. They are being used for everything from growing lobster habitat to serving as recreation sites for divers. Supporters of an artificial reef say it will be an economic boon to Acapulco, generating revenues of up to three million dollars a year from an estimated ten thousand visiting divers. While the projected income is a small fraction of some seven billion dollars Mexico brings in every year from tourism, it's enough to cause some local enthusiasm.

SIERRA: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: The prospect of extra money and jobs is attractive to long-time residents like beachfront worker Jesus Sierra, who have watched Acapulco's number one Mexican tourist status get snatched away by Cancun and other trendy destinations. Sierra says the Restigouche could be a new maritime wonderland of eye-grabbing sea life.

ESCOBAR: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: But because public money from an anti-poverty program was used by a private Acapulco association called APROMAR to purchase the Restigouche , the ship itself has become a long-running controversy. Lawsuits, embezzlement charges, and press polemics have accompanied the boat to Acapulco. Some, like Nellie Escobar, say the money is ill-spent.

ESCOBAR: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There are many families here that don't have any income, houses, or paved streets. They can't make it with reefs.

PATERSON: Environmental, fishermen, and civic groups, have helped stall the sinking on the grounds that there is not yet an approved environmental impact statement to address the Restigouche's effects on the local flora and fauna. Opinions have been divided over where and when the ship should be sunk. Complaints have been filed with Mexico's Attorney General for Environmental Protection, and letters have been sent to President Vicente Fox.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: Miguel Flores operates a local restaurant and is a member of a fishing cooperative.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Any foreign body that enters an ecosystem is not a good thing. It is not good for the ecology if everyone throws junk into the sea. Nevertheless, years later, the ship could have marine life and be an artificial reef.

PATERSON: But Flores is willing to support the project as long as environmental standards are upheld.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The majority of us who are engaged in fishing don't see the reef project as a bad thing per se. What's going on is that certain rules have to be followed.

STRAITH: One of the issues that was raised as under NAFTA, the deal between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, is we are to, on environmental issues, take the highest standard of the three of them, is what is acceptable.

PATERSON: Jay Straith is the president of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, the nonprofit group that brokered the sale of the Restigouche to APROMAR . Standing on the deck of the Restigouche , Straith says he is puzzled by the fuss, especially since he obtained the proper export permits from the Canadian government.

STRAITH: The Canadian government wanted written assurances and received the assurances from APROMAR and the people down here that the ship would, at the very least, meet the same environmental criteria for being free of all metals and pollutants, i.e., hydrocarbons and diesel fuel, things like that, that a ship being sunk in Canada would meet. So we want to work towards the highest possible standard among the three countries.

PATERSON: Straith says the Canadian navy removed all the PCBs before the Restigouche left Canada. And his own group drained much of the oil that could leak into the ocean. But a change in political climate in Mexico, including a new federal government and a growing environmental consciousness, contributed to the pressure for a thorough environmental impact statement approved by Mexican authorities.

(Surf)

PATERSON: While the Restigouche's owners await an approved environmental impact statement from Mexico's National Ecology Institute, they will also now have to seek permits from several other Mexican government agencies. Meanwhile, the sinking of the vessel is weeks behind schedule. For Living on Earth, I'm Kent Paterson reporting.

(Surf up and under)

Back to top

 

Sprawling Waistlines

CURWOOD: Obesity is a growing public health concern in the U.S. And now, scientists are looking to the suburbs as a factor in the fat epidemic. By driving almost everywhere, we cut easy opportunities for exercise out of our daily routines. Rich Killingsworth is a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He says that when we design communities without concern for pedestrians or bicyclists, we should not be surprised to see waistlines expanding.

KILLINGSWORTH: Currently we have approximately 61 percent of the adult population as overweight, and one in four is obese. And obesity is defined as approximately being 30 or more on the body mass index scale, which is roughly about 30 pounds or more overweight for the average person.

CURWOOD: How closely is that related to us getting into cars and not walking?

KILLINGSWORTH: Well, one recent study identified a direct correlation between the amount of trips that people took via foot or bicycle and being overweight. And as the amount of trips decreased over the last several decades, there was a correlation with the increase in obesity, as well.

CURWOOD: So, surprise, surprise, the data comes back and says people walk less, they get fatter. What would you then do with that data?

KILLINGSWORTH: Well, we're looking at various data sets from various federal agencies, from the Department of Transportation, Federal Highway, Environmental Protection Agency. And we view these types of studies as opportunities to clearly define how we're building our environments to be supportive of physical activity and improving the public health. Most Americans cannot access destinations of interest with their feet. If we can expand on opportunities for them to be active by accessing transit systems, by accessing stores or schools, we view this as an intervention that can be useful in controlling the epidemic of obesity and also integrating a more physically active lifestyle.

CURWOOD: If I go for a walk in many suburban areas, I'm risking my neck. There's not much of a sidewalk. People are often suspicious of walkers. How do you deal with these issues?

KILLINGSWORTH: You know, that's a perception that most Americans have, is that when they see someone walking the first thing that comes in mind is that the individual is either poor, they don't belong to the community, they're looking for trouble. That's an unfortunate perception.. And think about when we were growing up, just walking through the communities that we lived in. Many people walked. Many people engaged those environments. And that's how we come to know our community. Because we can't really pick up issues or challenges that are going on in a community when we drive through them at 40 and 50 miles an hour.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the initiatives you have going across the country to inspire people to put more activity into their days and -- I think you have a program called Walk to School and others.

KILLINGSWORTH: Yes, it's a national intervention that was disseminated in August. Less than ten percent of our children nationally are walking or bicycling to school, and I see that as a huge societal issue. California is the first, and only, state, still, that has legislation for safe routes to school programs. Many other states are following that path, designing legislation in which they can access transportation funding to build a safe infrastructure for children to do so. The opportunity through Kids Walk is that it's built upon many other concepts. Not only does it focus on physical activity, but it focuses on children being decision-makers in their community to identify what's wrong with their community. Groups of children walking together, supervised by adults, put eyes on the streets, which prevents crime. And, also, the presence of people calms traffic and it makes the environment safer for everyone.

CURWOOD: Suppose you are able to double the number of kids that walk to school in America. How much gasoline would you save? How much pollution would you save? How many pounds would come off of people's middles if you did that?

KILLINGSWORTH: It's a very good question, and one that we need to research because we just don't know at what level we're going to impact the traffic environment from this intervention. We do know that we will integrate more physical activity into their lives to control their weight. Because the weight issue is not only a problem for an adult, it's also a problem for children, as well. Because one in four of every children is overweight.

KILLINGSWORTH: Rich Killingsworth is a health scientist with the Active Community Environments Initiative at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Thanks for talking with me today.

KILLINGSWORTH: Thank you very much, Steve.

Music up and under: Tin Hat Trio, "Fire of Ada")

Back to top

 

Elephant Band

CURWOOD: In 1988, authorities in Thailand imposed a ban on logging to protect the country's dwindling forests. But the move also deprived elephants and their handlers of their traditional jobs of hauling logs for the timber industry. Once in domesticity, elephants can rarely go back to the wild. Today, many elephants and their owners wander the streets of Thai cities begging money from tourists and kind-hearted locals. But now, some elephants are trumpeting a new line of work: playing in the band. Gina Wilkinson traveled to in northern Thailand and has our story.

(Music, including elephants trumpeting)

WILKINSON: Reminiscent of Yoko Ono at her most avant-garde, the Thai Elephant Orchestra breaks new ground with this selection of jumbo tunes.

(Elephant music continues)

WILKINSON: The idea of having elephants play musical instruments is the brainchild of New York-based composer and producer David Soldier and pachyderm expert Richard Lair, who works at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. The duo chose scales used in traditional Thai music, a genre familiar to these 11 talented elephants, and then added a few blues notes before they began recording the album. Richard Lair says many of the elephants took to their new assignment with gusto.

(An elephant trumpets)

LAIR: I'd say for about half of the elephants playing in the orchestra is just a job. But several of them genuinely enjoy it. Particularly Luuk-Op, whose English name would be Tadpole, is a wonderful percussionist, keeps perfect time. If you give him something new to bang on, he'll figure out just where to hit it to get the nicest sound.

(Chimes)

WILKINSON: Some of the instruments in this unique orchestra were custom made for the elephants, including a gong fashioned from a circular saw that had been confiscated from an illegal logging operation. Lair says others are traditional folks instruments.

(Chimes)

LAIR: Our key instrument is modeled on a Thai instrument called the renat, which is basically a kind of xylophone with a totally gorgeous sound. But we also have big drums; a thunder sheet; harmonicas; and cane, which is a kind of traditional Thai pan pipe; angaloon, which is a traditional hill tribe instrument; and we're working on new instruments all the time.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: While the idea of an elephant orchestra may be highly unusual to many, those familiar with the Lampang elephants may not be so surprised. As Lair explains, these artistic elephants have already earned a worldwide reputation for their abstract paintings.

LAIR: It actually spread out of an earlier project, the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which is the elephants painting. Which comes from when two Russian conceptual artists came here last March. There was an auction; we sold 92,000 U.S. dollars worth of paintings. Some from Indonesia, some from India, but mainly from our center here in Lampang.

(Gongs)

WILKINSON: Charles Hyatt is the director of the Human-Elephant Learning Project based in Georgia in the United States. The project is a network of scientists who are studying elephant intelligence. Hyatt says his own experiments have backed up tests carried out by German scientist Bernard Rensch in the 1950s, which found elephants can distinguish 12 musical tones and remember simple melodies, even when played on different instruments at various pitches, timbres, and meters. Hyatt regularly travels to Lampang to further his research. He says far from exploiting these magnificent animals, their new musical job provides the pachyderms with a valuable creative outlet.

HYATT: In captivity, elephants don't have the natural curiosity enhancing activities of foraging for food and tromping about in the forest. So we need to provide them with things to do, and they seem to derive enrichment from the music they've been taught.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: The first 12 tracks on the CD have a very Thai flavor. They're followed by human and elephant collaborations, some of which could come in handy for your next rave or techno dance party.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: Richard Lair says the debut CD of the Thai Elephant Orchestra is selling well. Proceeds will go toward establishing a milk bank for orphaned baby elephants and provide training for elephant handlers.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Gina Wilkinson in Lampang, Thailand.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, we're off to Mexico's Baja California peninsula. We'll meet some people who study sea turtles, and meet some people who eat them. And hear what both groups are doing to save them.

MAN: Just watching the turtles that I was studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on: You know what? I can sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: Sea turtles of Mexico's Baja next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.