Gadfly by Mort Malkin
The previous Gadfly column looked at the land for its potential to store carbon and as its source of nutrition in our food — if only we don’t abuse it. Today, we’ll look at water in similar positive and negative ways.
Presently, with atmospheric carbon dioxide climbing past 400 ppm — take that, 350.org — the oceans are absorbing so much CO2 they are becoming acidic. Now, acid water may be advertised as “carbonated” and is fine for tonic water or a 2¢ plain, but acid oceans wreak havoc with all life in the sea.
Getting down to ocean basics, coral reefs are made of minute living creatures with a structure rich in calcium. Dissolve the calcium and the reef will die. Reefs are not only beautiful to behold, they are the habitat of 25% of all marine life, even if you don’t count the bathers at Coney Island. Shellfish living in calcium houses are also starting to be affected — clams, mussels, and oysters. Oysters! Oh well, crabs and lobsters will survive for now.
The worst news concerns the very foundation of the entire food web of all marine life — phytoplankton (the plant forms) and zooplankton (the animal forms). In acid seas the plankton form toxic compounds, which are then eaten by the marine creatures that feed on plankton — sardines to herring to clams and hundreds of others. The small fish are then eaten by bigger fish, concentrating the toxins at each step, up to the top predator — us. Once in a while Mother Nature, acting on the principle of turnabout-is-fair-play, convinces a giant South Sea clam to develop a taste for curious humans.
Just because phytoplankton are microscopic one celled creatures, doesn’t mean they are insignificant. Even if you’re allergic to shellfish or just don’t like the taste of raw oysters, the phytoplankton are more than the base of the entire marine food chain. They also produce half the world’s oxygen supply. A little respect, please — we all ought to wear buttons that say “Save the Plankton.”
Another source of hope lies in wetlands. Coastal swamps must also be given respect. Mangroves and sea grasses are Nature’s front line of defense against storm surges. We’d best restore these swamps, re-label them as “marshes,” and put out welcome signs to attract shellfish, horseshoe crabs, and all manner of fish. Do that, and the wetlands will attract migrating birds, too. Best of all, such coastal wetlands can sequester enormous amounts of carbon, even more than the equivalent acreage of tropical rain forests can.
The self-same seas, whose diversity of life loves the coral reefs and the mangroves, offer two potentially enormous sources of energy — a) tides and b) waves. The sun and moon that produce the world’s tides give not a whit whether the seas are over-fished, or too acid to support life. They will continue to keep the tides flowing twice a day. Waves actually like the weather chaos we’re starting to experience. Larger storms increase the height of waves and can be the source of even more power — if we ever invest in the necessary technology [instead of F16 fighters and B2 bombers] to harness the incessant waves of the world. Let’s hear it for weather chaos.
Last, we will take a little liberty with the title of today’s essay, “Two By Water” — all forms of water.
Lately, solar power and wind power have taken over the few headlines the media allows for environmental matters. But water seems to be lots more versatile than mundane old sun or wind. Rivers are everywhere, all flowing down to the sea. We’ve already harnessed the water power in a number of them, witness the huge hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River (Grand Coulee and Bonneville) and the Colorado River (Hoover and Glen Canyon). In the Northeast, many smaller rivers have low dams dating to the 18th and 19th centuries that were used for power in the textile industry.
The dams of the Colorado River system and those of the Snake-Columbia River basin are currently producing considerable renewable energy. In the US we think big — always bigger and grander dams, and many other concrete things — but the larger dams and larger lakes formed behind them always result in lower water quality. Meanwhile, the smaller low-head dams of the Northeast are just sitting there as historical curios.
As well, no one has made much of the many thousands of dams built in the early 20th century that were never made for power. Rather, in the spirit of man’s lordship over Nature, they were intended for flood control, irrigation, and navigation. Of the 75,000 total number of dams in the US, only a tiny 3% of them are used for hydropower. Texas has a total of 6,798 dams, almost all of them courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, and few if any for power.
Lately, some environmentalists have colluded with a few capitalists and are looking at a few small dams on the upper Mississippi to retrofit with chutes and turbines to produce electricity while still serving their original purpose of flood control. Just imagine such projects at 30 or 40 thousand small dams. Texas, with its surpluficity of sun and open range winds with just-in-case backup of 6,000 dams, could give up its oil and slick politicians and lead the nation in clean, renewable energy production. Texas as Green Party Central? Aim high.
The CONG gang (coal, oil. nuclear, gas) tells us that the sun doesn’t shine every day and the wind doesn’t blow every hour — so we need fossil fuels to power our TV sets and other crucial appliances? Again, it’s water to the rescue. On the sunny days and windy spells that can produce more electricity than we use, we can pump water up to high reservoirs for storage. When solar and wind are not producing much, releasing such reserve water can spin turbines to make up the difference, and fast. In the Catskills, the Blenheim-Bilboa reservoirs can get going in two minutes flat and produce 1,000 megawatts of power.
We already have enough low dams to engineer into service for making electricity. Then, the Corp of Engineers must start to build wind farms, place solar panel on public buildings, and dig out high reservoirs for pumped storage. We can’t wait for private industry to figure out how to make a profit from clean, renewable energy. The need to switch out of the CONG industries is now.