Tag: Environment Texas

Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including It’s Carbon Footprint

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Khalil Elharam uses a shovel to turn his compost. Turning the compost introduces oxygen and speeds up production. “I produce enough compost for my entire yard,” he says. Photo by Erin MacInerney


Do you recycle? If not, you might want to pay attention to Austin’s new regulations regarding food diversion and waste recovery.

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

Austin, Texas: politically known as the little blue dot in a sea of red. Environmentally speaking, it could also be called the little green dot in a sea of brown.

Or black. Or gray. Or whatever color pollution can be deemed.

Or it could be known as the capital of a state ranking dead last for overall environmental quality.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the carbon boot prints Texas is leaving makes it the least green state overall. Yet Austin, ranks among the top ten sustainable cities in America

This month, the city entered the third phase in a five-year recycling and organics diversion program. The Universal Recycling Ordinance is part of the city’s goal of having Zero Waste by 2040, or keeping at least 90 percent of discarded materials out of landfills.What We Waste

By 2017, all properties will be required to provide access to recycling for tenants and employees and by 2018, all food enterprises must have a food diversion program in place.

Despite Austin’s ranking, there is still progress to be made in waste reduction to meet these goals, according to the Austin Resource Recovery Center’s Waste Characterization Study.

Some initiatives, like the plastic bag ban meant to decrease the amount of grocery store bags in landfills, have not had the intended outcomes.  Reusable bags designed to be used up to 100 times or more are being thrown out after a few uses.

So how can Austin businesses and individuals meet the new requirements?

Barr Mansion, the nation’s only certified organic event facility, is a prime example of a business with a working diversion plan already in place.

As a platinum member of Austin’s Green Business Leaders, Barr Mansion reaches 98% sustainability by growing their own produce, collecting rainwater, using solar panels and composting all organic materials.

“Brides and grooms book us because of our practices,” says Caroline Hunt, Sales Manager for Barr Mansion. “We do the grunt work and they get the good feeling that their wedding was sustainable and didn’t hurt the environment.”

Hunt believes that being considered an ethical company adds more depth to their brand which ultimately increases business.

One way the venue manages waste is by not providing trash cans on the grounds. Guests are encouraged to leave their trash on tables so that a staff member can properly deposit it into the correct bin. This saves visitors from the guesswork of figuring out what bin their waste should go in and saves the staff from having to sort through the trash after events.

“We are very serious about how we throw things away,” Hunt says. “It is a process, so it is something you have to sit down and discuss but setting up and researching how compost’s work is not that hard.”

Hunt says some businesses may be weary of the costs associated with implementing a new recycling plan but their company has actually saved money with their practices.

“We have the same amount of staff as most venues,” Hunt says. “We don’t have to pay the staff more, just instilling in them that it is important, so more training for the staff.”

Businesses will financially benefit from composting with a reduction in trash and associated fees according to Compost Coalition of Austin. The grass-roots network of volunteers is helping individuals and businesses connect to the resources they need to divert organic materials from landfills.

“In Austin, we have at least three different commercial compost contractors and are likely to see more which should help to keep pricing competitive,” says Heather-Nicole Hoffman, leader of Compost Coalition. “We also hope to see more and more decentralized composting efforts which will include on-site composting for some businesses and volunteer collective composting efforts such as the
Compost Coalition program Ground to Ground or the Austin Materials Marketplace.”

For smaller restaurants or those short on space, Hoffman assures there are still ways to meet the requirements.

“There are small systems such as bokashi or wormbins that work well indoors and can take up as little as a square foot of floor or counter space,” says Hoffman. “Or, store those kitchen scraps in your freezer until you are ready to transfer to a compost spot.”

A food diversion plan for an Austin restaurant could also mean using organizations like Keep Austin Fed to meet their requirements. The local group picks up surplus food and distributes it to area charities.

“The City of Austin, may not be the first [to implement this ordinance],” says Hoffman. “But they are working hard to be a role model for all the other cities which will soon realize the importance of recovering organics as a resource instead of forever managing them as liability.”

 

 

Zero Waste Plan-4

What Goes Down Must Come Up

How the city of Martindale–which has been largely ignored by the media and offered little organized help after the Memorial Day floods– struggles to pick up the pieces alone, even two months later.

By Anna Ali, Alayna Alvarez and Jaclyn Guzman

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Vivian Gonzalez still remembers the first day she opened her beauty shop in Martindale, Texas.

Having grown tired of traveling to work in San Marcos for three long years, she decided it was time to build a few extra rooms and, finally, bring her hair salon home.

That was nearly 44 years ago.

Today, due to the Memorial Day floods– said by Governor Abbott to be “the highest flood we’ve ever had recorded in the history of the state of Texas–” Vivian’s house and hair shop stand in ruin, hardly recognizable.

“I had all the customers from Martindale,” said Vivian with a soft, nostalgic smile. Now, she says, “my customers are without a beauty shop.”

And Vivian–who has lived at the same address for more than 50 years and watched all of her grandchildren grow up there– is now without a home.

The Aftermath

Approximately 50 houses within Martindale city limits were struck by the flood, many of which were more than 50 percent destroyed.

A map of Martindale and the surrounding areas.

Vivian had been through this before, back in 1998. Heavy rains caused the San Marcos River to rise ruthlessly, and her house and hair shop stood in its way.

She not only remembers the great expense it was to repair and rebuild, but also how she was able to fix it and make it “really nice.”

“This flood,” however, “was different,” she said.

Unlike in ‘98, when the river water caused most of the damage directly, the destruction of her home in the 2015 floods resulted almost entirely from her nephew’s camping trailer, which was parked in the backyard when the water rose. The strength of the current was so immense, that it swiftly swept up the trailer and smashed it through the wall of Vivian’s back room, knocking it out completely.

“I think if that trailer hadn’t hit it, the house would have been okay,” she said. “The rest of the house was fine.”

Vivian–now 80 years old–knows well the challenges that lie ahead, but she believes they may just be too much to take on this time around.

“This time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fix it again because it was too much of an expense,” she said. “And, now, since we have to raise the houses up, I can’t fix my shop.”

Tensions Rise

It had been just two weeks before the floods began when Mayor Randy Bunker was sworn into office.

Although a former floodplain administrator for the city, those close to the mayor said, still, “It wasn’t something he was prepared for.”

Mayor Randy Bunker stands out front of Martindale City Hall (Austin American-Statesman).

Mayor Randy Bunker stands out front of Martindale City Hall (Austin American-Statesman).

Mayor Bunker was likely also unprepared for the reaction he would receive from city council back in July, when he proposed the use of emergency funds to waive fees for affected families needing residential building permits, which are required to obtain before rebuilding.

In an interview with KXAN, Mayor Bunker said these permit fees are particularly expensive in Martindale and, in some cases, exceed three times what someone would pay for the same permit in San Marcos, a city that has stepped up to help its flood victims by waiving the permit fees.

“We have to raise the houses ourselves because we are in the flood zone,” said Vivian. “That costs money having to tear the house down and build it back up– and I’m sure it has to come out of our pocket.”

Unsure it could absorb the cost any better, Martindale City Council voted against the mayor’s proposition and, instead, is now depending on the help of FEMA. If the agency does not help out, however, council says it will review on a case-by-case basis.

Hope Across the River

Tanya Thornhill just wanted to help.

Not even a resident of Martindale (living across the San Marcos River in Guadalupe County), she went out early the morning following the flood–after being tired, worried and up all night–to see if everyone was okay, if there was anything she could do.

Flash forward two months later, and Tanya is still working tirelessly to help others in need– without much help of her own.

Almost single-handedly, she must lead the restoration efforts because there is no organized reception center, such as in Wimberley or San Marcos.

She also takes care of the areas outside Martindale city limits.

“They’re not getting a whole lot of representation, so they’re kind of out on their own,” she said.

“I’ve been going out there, going door to door, bringing sandwiches.” She says she also takes flyers with resources and information, such as where to access fresh water or find financial assistance.

“There’s so much to learn as far as working with the government, like the FEMA organization,” said Tanya.

“I’m still going door to door because some people haven’t even filed or applied yet with FEMA,” she said. They don’t understand that they should, that there’s help for them.”

Still, she says that even folks that do get money from FEMA don’t receive enough. Nevertheless, she encourages flood victims to file, as the agency can help the city record the data it needs to better prepare for natural disasters in the future.

Glimmers in the Water

Despite the turbulent two-month journey, Tanya says “things are looking up–” even outside of Martindale.

Take McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, for instance.

“We have been breaking records here in terms of the amount of people that have been visiting,” said Jenn Menge, a ranger for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “The water has been so much higher, so we’ve seen a lot more people here for swimming and for fishing.”

The park has even noted a few fish species unseen for some time that likely made their way down in higher flood waters.

“We’re really excited when we see people, especially families and young people, come out to enjoy their Texas state park,” she said. “That means a lot for the health and the future of Texas state parks.”

And the good news doesn’t stop there.

A pond of catfish swarm during feeding time at A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery.

A pond of catfish swarm during feeding time at A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery.

The heavy rains and flooding in May and June not only ended the drought and raised both lakes and reservoirs to extraordinary levels, but also provided TPWD freshwater fish hatcheries with a better-than-expected production year, allowing them to stock more lakes and the number of fish in them.

Because reservoir levels have remained low for several years, vegetation grew across the dry lake bottom. When levels rise, however, the flooded vegetation gives small fish a place to hide from predators and, as it decays, releases essential nutrients into the lake–ultimately jumpstarting the food chain.

With the rising water levels benefiting all species of fish, fishing– a $90 billion industry– is expected to see significant improvement in the coming years, as predator species like bass, striped bass and hybrid bass grow quickly with plenty to eat.

Picking Up the Pieces

With little to no media attention, Tanya says there are still countless people, including her own colleagues, who remain unaware Martindale was ever flooded. Combining this with a recent drop-off of volunteers can be, in one word: “disheartening.”

But only a little, she said.

Despite their infrequencies, she nevertheless receives donations that she believes come “from heaven above.” For instance, a group in Pleasanton, Texas recently held a fundraiser and unexpectedly called Tanya asking the square footage of one of her adopted family’s houses. A few days later, the family had all the materials they needed and could begin rebuilding.

Another example is Mattress Firm, which currently offers a $700 voucher to anyone affected by the flood. Residents can sign up for the program through Aug. 31, and vouchers will be redeemable through Dec. 31. 

“Everyone lost their mattress, everyone lost their water heater, everyone lost things that you need everyday,” Tanya said.

Because all contractors in the area are “booked to their eyeballs” and unable to offer any more help until late September, residents of Martindale are still in need of labor.

“We’re relying on family or friends or anybody who knows anything about painting or hanging a light bulb,” she said. “We desperately need materials and skilled labor.”

As for Vivian’s home and beauty shop, she says, “We might have to use it as a shed, or maybe a little summer house where the kids can come and stay a couple days.”

Vivian is sure about one thing, though:

“All my grandkids grew up here, so I want to be here,” she said strongly with a smile as resilient as the river.

Researchers Buzz About ‘Bee-Friendly’ Plants

 

J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)

J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)

 

By Elizabeth Williams, Maria Roque, Katherine Recatto and Alice Kozdemba

Gardeners, beware—plants marketed as “bee-friendly” may be laced with pesticides that have been proven to harm the buzzing pollinators, according to a recent study.

The study, released by Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Pesticide Research Institute reported that 51 percent of plant samples advertised as “bee-friendly” contained harmful neonicotinoids, or neonic pesticides. The plant samples were purchased at major garden retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart from 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including stores in Austin.

The findings of the report fall in line with a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, which linked the pesticides as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

CCD is the phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from their hives. It has been reported in North America and Western Europe since 2006 after beekeepers were discovering their hives had been mysteriously emptied, with no trace of dead bees to be found.

“People are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees.” Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas 

The losses reported in 2006 ranged from 30 to 90 percent of beekeepers’ hives, according to the USDA. While some beekeepers are reporting a bounce-back from CCD in the last year, the causes still remain at large.

“We can use alternatives for these plants, and I think it’s especially concerning because, again, people are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees,” said Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas.

Without the bees’ pollination, foods like apples and onions would never make it to the dinner table. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of food crops rely on commercial pollinators, and more than 140 crops are grown with neonic pesticides, including corn, soy and wheat.

“When that happens to an entire hive, or happens to even hundreds or thousands of hives at one time, that causes a problem because that means that plants don’t get pollinated, fruit doesn’t result, and the entire food system can be compromised,” said Konrad Bouffard, owner of Round Rock Honey, a local beekeeper and honey producer.

Agrochemical businesses like Monsanto Co. and DuPont have said that neonic pesticides, which are used to soak seeds before planting, should not be present in levels that affect bees after the plant has flowered. The companies have cited mite infestations as a cause of dwindling bee populations.

While researchers have also noted habitat loss and disease as possible causes of CCD, neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior.

“It’s a combination of all these things coming together, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the one that stressed the environment to the point of breaking, is the neonicotinoids,” Bouffard said. “If you take out the neonicotinoids, then you don’t have the breaking point anymore.”

When crops are treated with neonics, the chemicals travel and are distributed throughout the entire plant, including areas like pollen and nectar. The pesticides can also be present in soil.

The pesticides are neurotoxins that can change the way bees behave, even when the pesticides are not at lethal levels said Nancy Moran, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Ingestion of these pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to disease and less able to fight off mite infestation.

“Bees have very complicated behavior,” Moran said. “They go to a flower, then they go back to the hive and do this special dance that tells the other bees where the flower is, and if they do the dance wrong because their brains are not working right, then the other bees will not find the flower.”

Neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior. 

Natural diversity provides bees with the healthiest pollinating opportunities.

“We don’t put our bees on the edge of farms, even organic farms,” Bouffard said. “There’s so much seed out there that has been touched by Monsanto and those places.”

In 2013, the European Union banned neonic pesticides until 2015 to see if honeybee populations increase. In the U.S., Congress proposed the Saving America’s Pollinators Act in 2013 and President Barack Obama called on the EPA and other federal agencies to create a strategy that would take steps to protect bee populations.Several states including Minnesota, Oregon, New York, California and New Jersey have also banned certain strains of the neonic pesticides.

Metzger said that the best way to get truly bee-friendly plant options is to talk to the staff of garden stores and let them know that consumers want neonicotinoid-free plants.

“I think that kind of direct consumer pressure, as the stores see the public demand for them to stop using it, they’ll respond to that,” Metzger said.