Tag: Environment

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

Sweet New Law for Texas Honey Producers

September is National Honey Month and Texas bees are celebrating a new state law that will lighten the regulations placed on small scale beekeepers.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public. Photo by: Erin MacInerney

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

To bee or not to bee, won’t be a question anymore for bee hobbyists producing under 200 gallons of honey annually. The new Texas statute means they will be exempt from costly state health licensing requirements other larger manufacturers face.

The queen bee of honey, Hayden Wolf, thinks this will increase honey production around the state. As the 2015 American Honey Princess, Wolf represents Texas all around the nation advocating the importance of bees in keeping our ecosystem humming perfectly.

“This new law helps my family and I because we have always wanted to sell our honey,” Wolf says. “It’s a great opportunity for beekeepers.”

The 19-year-old manages 12 hives with her parents in East Texas but does not produce enough honey or have the time to make a business out of it.

The new law would allow beekeepers like Wolf and her family to sell their honey directly to consumers at farmers markets or small venues as long as proper labeling distinguishes their product from those bottled in inspection facilities.

Bee enthusiasts say the warm Texas climate is a haven for raising honey bees.  Many keepers from Northern states bring their hives to Texas during the winter months.

“It’s a lot easier than getting a pet,” Wolf says. “You don’t even have to take them on a leash and walk them everyday!”

If you are concerned with getting the proper vitamin bee from your honey, don’t let that adorable bear-shaped bottle at the supermarket fool you.

Pollen studies conducted by Professor Vaughn M. Bryant of Texas A&M University found that over 75 percent of honey sold at large chain stores and restaurants had the pollen removed making it impossible to trace the legitimate source or ingredients.

Take a look at a jar of honey and you might find ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners. What you won’t see on the label are antibiotics, heavy metals and other harsh chemicals that could have contaminated the honey throughout the process.

These honey bunches of lies make it easier for manufacturers to cut costs and extend shelf life consequently removing the health benefits completely

The honey sold at co-ops, farmers markets and “natural stores” yielded the full, expected amounts of pollen.

The new law encourages sales of local honey which means a higher chance of consuming 100 percent, organic honey without the cheap additives.

“There are many benefits of honey and if you are not getting the pure product, you might not be getting those benefits,” Wolf says. “The best way to know you are actually getting the best honey is to know your beekeeper personally and ask them questions.”

Texas ranks sixth in the nation for honey production, but our bees still face major threats of disease, negative effects of pesticide use and global warming.

“It’s a fairly simply hobby but it has become harder to keep our bees alive in the past years. Now we have to check the hives every two to three weeks,” Wolf says. “It used to be easier in the old days.”

Mystery syndromes not fully understood such as Colony Collapse Disorder have created quite a buzz in the last decade. Annual bee colony losses averaged around 42 percent this past year according to a study conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America.

“It is important we try to keep them alive, to keep ourselves alive,” says Melanie Brown, Founder of BEEVO, The University of Texas’ Beekeeping Society. “Bees pollinate a lot of our crops and without them, we would have a serious shortage of food.”

About 80 percent of the food on grocery store shelves are there thanks to bees according to the International Bee Research Association.

Brown says the BEEVO club has a substantial following since initiating this last spring.
The goal of the society is to engage students, faculty, and staff in urban beekeeping as part of an effort towards sustainable pollinator populations.

“I’m more passionate about the environmental impacts of beekeeping but there are a lot of people on campus who are just super into beekeeping,” Brown says. “I am happy they now have an outlet to share their knowledge.”

 

Bee Story-8

 

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

vivianhome

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.

Brown Anole Lizards Migrate to Texas

By: Alice Kozdemba, Elizabeth Williams and Maria Roque

A brown anole lizard suns itself in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, one of the areas in which this lizard, native to Cuba,  is now present.

A brown anole lizard suns itself in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, one of the areas in which this lizard, native to Cuba, is now present. (Photo by Maria Roque)

 

The Carolina Anole, referred to as the green anole lizard, has an unexpected guest in town, and it might be here to stay. 

 

The Cuban brown anole, which first started invading South Florida in the 1950s, has made its way to Texas. Though similar in appearance, green and brown anoles are two separate species, and according ecologists, when large populations of both cohabitate in the same area, they compete for food and habitat. Today, the brown anoles are a firmly established lizard species in most urban areas of peninsular Florida, and they have continued to migrate to neighboring states in parts of Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

Since their presence has upwardly increased in the Southern United States, ecologists and evolutionary biologists have taken interest in how green anoles were interacting with the brown anoles, and if invasive competition was a threat to eventual extinction.

Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study on the presence of brown anoles in Florida and how they are affecting the green population.

“I was really excited at the time about how quickly evolution could proceed, and I wanted to know whether two species that are interacting with one another,” Stuart said. “Whether competitive interactions between two species could drive evolution at rates that we could see in our own lifetimes.”

After months of capturing and observing lizards, Stuart and his team found that green anoles had physically and behaviorally evolved to cope with the invasiveness of their brown cohabitors. After contact with the invasive species, green anoles began to climb higher into the trees, and within 15 years, the green species had developed larger toe pads, which give the anoles better gripping and climbing force. Stuart said he wasn’t surprised that the species evolved, but that the rate at which evolution was occurring was remarkable.

“The evolutionary response is pretty rapid,” he said. “If human height were evolving at .05 standard deviations per generation, in 20 generations we’d all be the size of NBA shooting guards.”

Besides their color, Stuart said green and brown anoles differ greatly in mating patterns and day-to-day habits. His study supports a more broad ecological theory called character displacement, the phenomenon of similar species competing and evolving to take advantage of ecological niches.

“They have different colored flaps of skin under their throat, the series of head bobs and push ups that they do is different. It’s likely that they don’t even recognize each other as potential mates,” Stuart said.

Though Stuart’s research is specific to anole populations in Florida, scientists and researchers are looking at the level of local invaders. According to Texas herpetologists who specifically study regional reptile populations, brown anoles are mostly seen in South Texas, primarily in Houston and San Antonio. They make their way to Texas by hatching eggs on imported soil from Florida that is distributed to local garden shop retailers, Stuart said.

“The best place to catch brown anoles in Texas was in the garden department of Home Depot,” Stuart said. “Potted plants are perfect for laying out anolus eggs, and then those plants get moved around.”

Anoles in Texas from Elizabeth Williams on Vimeo.

Hitching a ride to the states via plant and human transportation is something of an art form for the brown lizards. Ecologists suggest that their initial migration to Florida was possible in part by stowing away in agricultural shipments from Cuba.

But brown anoles aren’t the first critters to invade the Lone Star state. Texas is an ecological hotspot for invasive species to thrive due to its tropical-like temperatures. Randy Simpson, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos studies invasive wildlife in Central Texas. Though the brown anole population in Texas is low, he said it could have the potential to follow in patterns of other invasive populations, such as the Rio Grande chirping frog.

“As its name implies, it was found only in the Rio Grande Valley and now its found as far as the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It follows major highway systems and it’s found in major metropolitan areas,” Simpson said. “I suspect that the brown anole will probably follow the same pattern.”

However, Simpson said that it is not yet clear what impact the brown anole will have on green anole populations.

“Well, it remains to be seen as to how much of an impact the brown anole is going to have. It’s definitely had a big impact in Florida, but here in Texas so far it’s been minimal,” Simpson said. “People have noted that it has appeared … primarily in places like nurseries, garden centers.”

Some researchers who look at insect invaders have drawn a connection between non-native species and global climate change. Scientists who study biodiversity claim that  longer warm weather seasons are causing non-native plants to relocate and take over American soil. But whether there’s evidence that the same could case could be made for vertebrae and reptiles, Simpson said, is uncertain.

“Common sense will make you think, yeah if the temperature is changing and on the average getting warmer, then those animals that need warmer temperatures could move further north,” Simpson said. “That’s a possibility, but I don’t think anybody has definite information, particularly on the brown anole or anything like that.”

Regardless of its unforeseen future, the battle between green and brown anoles is catching the attention of local residents. Mike Tanis, a lifelong horticulturalist and wildlife enthusiast, said green lizards are a staple feature of his backyard garden.

“I’ll always spot a few [green anoles] when I’m gardening, just lounging on a leaf and getting some sun,” Tanis said. “I’ve actually seen brown lizards in Florida but I had no idea they were a different species. I hope the brown ones don’t take Austin over; the green guys are too much fun!”