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Flash flooding is the ugly face of stormwater that we see on the nightly news, but there are risks to clean water and fish when rain carries pollutants and plastics off sidewalks, parking lots, and rooftops
On Sunday evening, as a thunderstorm raged here in Maryland, my social media feed lit up with live videos and photos of massive flooding just 40 or so miles west of my home. Mere minutes from where I went to high school, the town’s historic Main Street became, for the second time in as many years, a furious torrent of water—bursting through shops and restaurants, carrying cars, and taking one man’s life. An Air Force veteran died helping to rescue people trapped in the flood.
This is the ugly face of stormwater. But it’s not just a safety concern for our communities as severe storms become the new normal—the deluge carries many dangerous pollutants into our fish and wildlife habitat, washing out our hunting and fishing opportunities.
So few conservation issues can be made as tangible as the raw power of this rainwater, unhinged and with the ability to upend lives. But you rarely see the images of destruction from storms connected with the consequence for sportsmen and women on the nightly news. Here’s why stormwater management should matter to anyone who depends on clean water for our best days afield.
Consider that water is often polluted by three main sources: The first, agricultural runoff, is exactly what it sounds like, and we’ve been over the consequences for fish and wildlife many times before. The second is wastewater, which leaves our sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and washing machines and is generally treated before reentering a watershed.
Stormwater is the third major source of pollution affecting fish and wildlife habitat—rain (or snow) runs down the street and off our sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, and roofs, all “impervious surfaces” that do not permit the absorption of water. This runoff is usually hot, fast, and dirty, and that’s a trifecta of bad news for waters and wetlands downstream.
Stormwater serves as a conveyor belt delivering the detritus of our daily lives to streams, rivers, and bays. The collection of stuff it carries varies wildly, but includes lawn fertilizers, motor oil, topsoil, and plastics of all kinds. And right now stormwater is contributing to problems with water quality and fish habitat in practically every watershed in the nation.
The pollution load increases as we develop more land and more impervious surfaces are built, and this is why stormwater runoff is the fastest-growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Stormwater carries nitrogen that feeds fish-killing algal blooms, which can also close our beaches. Stormwater runoff also fuels erosion that dumps sediment into our rivers, raising water temperatures and silting over the gravel beds that are critical fish spawning areas.
As sportsmen and other citizens continue to insist that our government—at all levels—takes clean water more seriously, stormwater regulation has become more and more common. Prevention involves building new roads or housing developments in ways that slow down, cool off, or block stormwater flows.
This can be done in several ways. Major highway and building projects often require expansive stormwater retention ponds that eventually come to serve as permanent functional wetlands that provide wildlife habitat while allowing sediment and nutrient pollution to filter out of the water before it goes downstream. Some public buildings around the Chesapeake Bay also boast porous paver parking lots that permit water to soak through instead of rushing off the dirty surface. And increasingly, we see the adoption of stormwater management around homes, with the installation of rain barrels and rain gardens.
These are largescale solutions requiring bulldozers and engineers and small projects that can be done on a DIY budget. But, either way, stormwater management has major benefits for fish and wildlife populations that may be far downstream of neighborhoods and roadways. Let’s not allow them to be out of sight and out of mind as we advocate for clean water solutions.
The Doppler radar will surely light up with severe storms again and again—we can’t afford to wait until a flash flood hits to recognize how much is at stake.
Top photo courtesy of Jan-Willem Reusink.
Abandoned mines have harmful effects on water quality and fish habitat across the country, but lawmakers can make it easier for volunteers to shoulder some of the cleanup effort without taking on big risks
Coal mining may be a major part of Pennsylvania’s cultural history, but groups like Trout Unlimited are concerned that abandoned mines could threaten the future of some of the state’s most popular trout streams.
Here are the numbers: There are roughly 500,000 abandoned mines across the country—46,000 of these are on public lands—where heavy metals and acidic runoff cause water quality issues on approximately 110,000 stream miles. With 20 percent of these waters serving as habitat for native trout or salmon, this should be of national concern to anglers.
But the backlog of abandoned mines really hits home in the Keystone State, where one-third of all derelict mining operations in the U.S. are located. As of 2006, this left the state with approximately 4,000 miles of streams that were essentially devoid of all aquatic life, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
The good news is that elected officials have an opportunity to let well-intentioned groups and volunteers get in on the daunting task of cleaning up the mess, with legislation that would remove a major hurdle.
These days, before a coal mine commences operations, a plan is created for its eventual shutdown—even if that may be decades down the road. Mining companies have to figure out how they will dispose of leftover waste and complete a full cleanup, but this wasn’t always the case.
While some states started regulating the coal industry in the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government didn’t begin regulating active coal mining until 1977. At that time, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to address concerns about the environmental effects of roughly two centuries of mining in the United States.
It used to be that businesses would simply pack up and leave when mines were no longer productive, forcing the surrounding community to deal with the negative repercussions on water resources and the local economy. In many cases, these abandoned mines were “orphaned,” meaning that the government cannot find the original mine owner, which puts taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup. The surface mining legislation of the 70s required that mining companies abide by a set of environmental standards and create plans for the reclamation of land after mining was complete.
People who live near abandoned mine sites can be exposed to serious health hazards from the toxic runoff, so it’s easy to see how bad this can be for fish. Sediment runoff can carry contaminated silt and debris downstream, clogging waterways and altering river flows that keep water at a steady temperature for coldwater fish. Highly acidic waters that come out of abandoned coal mines can decimate fish populations and make some streams completely uninhabitable for any aquatic life, including food sources important to fish we love to catch.
Some of the Pennsylvania’s severely impaired streams are dangerously close to highly productive fisheries. For example, the headwaters of Kettle Creek are Class A wild trout waters popular with fly fishermen, but fifteen miles of the main stem were virtually lifeless by the 1950s because of past mining activity.
That’s where Trout Unlimited stepped in to help. They partnered with Kettle Creek Watershed Association in 1998 to install passive treatment systems that help normalize highly acidic water and, utilizing traditional remediation techniques, they’ve been able to clean up almost the entire creek, which has reopened fishing access in places like Twomile Run.
But even well-intentioned groups like TU have to overcome two major hurdles to help with cleanup efforts that are critical to ensuring that the next generation has quality places to hunt and fish.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act also created a means of paying for the cleanup of abandoned mines by assessing a small fee on every ton of coal produced. Since the creation of this trust fund, more than $5 billion has been distributed to states in the form of grants to help clean up abandoned mining lands.
But funding for this program expires in 2021. It might not seem urgent, but the last reauthorization took nearly a decade, and opponents of the trust fund are already advocating for the immediate end of the program and fees on the production of coal.
Even if we secure this important funding, there’s an urgent need for “Good Samaritan” legislation that will allow non-federal entities, like TU, to help clean up abandoned mine sites.
Under current legislation, if a nonprofit steps in to help clean up an abandoned mine site, they are legally liable for any issues with the site in perpetuity, even if they had no prior connection to the project. This limits the opportunities for volunteer groups or organizations to shoulder some of the burden of cleaning up and helping to restore fish and wildlife habitat for the next generation, because they cannot take on the incredible risks.
Pennsylvania has provided reasonable liability protection for groups that want to help clean up abandoned mines, and many organizations have stepped up. We’re supportive of TU’s efforts to educate sportsmen and women about Good Samaritan legislation and the ongoing risks abandoned mines pose to fish, wildlife, and clean water in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Watch their video to learn more.
First and last photo by Peter and Laila via flickr.
Revision of BLM land-use plan offers an opportunity for policymakers to support sportsmen’s efforts and follow through on the administration’s commitment to access and habitat
On a Saturday morning last month, more than fifty volunteers and several Nevada Department of Wildlife employees assembled at a desert camp in Mineral County for a safety meeting. Several Nevada Bighorns Unlimited board members and NDOW staff went over the plan for the day and cautioned everyone to stay hydrated and work safely.
The job at hand was to repair a wildlife water source called the Lower Paymaster Guzzler in the Gillis Mountain Range east of Hawthorne, Nevada, and to install a second guzzler adjacent to the original. Constructed more than a decade ago to retain water for the local desert bighorn population, Lower Paymaster could no longer support the number of sheep that had come to depend on it, and the structure had been damaged by excessive runoff in recent years. Even though this part of Nevada receives less than six inches of precipitation annually, it often comes as torrential thunder showers.
The Gillis Mountains are one of many important ranges in the 5.3 million acres of public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City Field Office, where new land-use plans are being finalized right now. Decisions about public land access, habitat management, and development will be made through this process, and the resulting Resource Management Plan will have an impact on Nevada sportsmen and bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn populations for the next twenty years or more.
Fortunately, Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered Interior agencies to expand hunting opportunities and sportsmen’s access on federal lands and improve habitat for big-game populations. If these orders are taken seriously by the Carson City BLM field office, hunters and anglers should be confident that we will be heard in the land-use planning process.
And we’ve sent a clear message: Since 2012, numerous conservation groups have called for the BLM to safeguard important hunting destinations in the Carson City BLM Field Office, including the Excelsior Range, Gillis Mountains, and Gabbs Valley Range. For these areas, Silver State sportsmen have requested that officials maintain public access, prioritize habitat restoration, secure traditional uses, and conserve the best wildlife habitats from future development.
Sportsmen’s groups have also backed conserving key habitat as Backcountry Conservation Areas to achieve these goals and Zinke’s mission. This balanced management tool was included in the draft version of the resource management plan for Carson City, but it is not yet clear if the Backcountry Conservation Area approach will be adopted in the final plan.
We feel the Carson City BLM field office has not publicly demonstrated a strong desire to prioritize sportsmen’s interests in the final land-use plan. If Zinke’s order will not persuade the local BLM to make changes to the plan, we need your help to persuade these local land managers to do right by hunters and anglers in the final RMP.
The volunteers who worked alongside me to build a critical new water source for bighorns and other Nevada wildlife have left their mark, quite literally, on this landscape and the health of these fabled herds. But a chorus of emails from concerned sportsmen is no less tangible when it comes to crafting strong policy measures for the next two decades of responsible public land management.
So please consider taking the time to speak up for Nevada’s public lands. We’ve made it easy to make your voice heard.
Top photo courtesy: BLM Nevada
Three fishing buddies land fish after fish on a stretch of shoreline that is significant to Louisiana sportsmen and conservationists—it was rebuilt with fines from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill after years of incremental habitat loss
I have been spoiled by the fishing in Louisiana for more than 40 years. Many days, my wrists have ached and my fingers have been scarred from landing countless speckled trout and redfish. There are times when, no matter how many fish I’ve caught, I can’t stand to walk out of the surf or point the boat back to the marina, because I know the next cast will mean another thump or topwater explosion.
But there are great days on the water and near-perfect ones, when the wind gods are merciful, the tide is just right, the company and camaraderie is unmatched, and the fish strike ferociously at just about anything cast their way.
I recently had one of these days in a place with particular significance to conservationists who have been following the Gulf Coast’s recovery from one of the worst ecological disasters in American history.
Perfection greeted me and two of my best fishing buddies, outdoor writer Todd Masson and Grand-Isle-area fishing guide Capt. Frank Dreher, on an early May trip to the Fourchon Beach, one of Louisiana’s most popular and renowned spring and summer fishing destinations. Two- to four-pound trout demolished a litany of lures—from topwater plugs and soft plastics to jerkbaits and minnow and shrimp lures—all morning long.
The backdrop for all this incredible fishing action just happened to be the largest coastal restoration project and the largest single investment in the recovery of the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, something that meant a lot to three lifelong Louisianans who have seen a lot of beaches, barrier islands, and marshes vanish over the last four decades.
The Fourchon Beach is the westernmost section of a stretch of shoreline known as the Caminada Headland, which, including Elmer’s Island, stretches 14 miles between Caminada Pass and the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, once a main artery from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico about 1,000 years ago. The headland was formed by sediment deposits delivered via the Mississippi and replenished by water-borne river silt until the bayou was dammed at the river around 1900.
For the last century, hurricanes, strong winter storms, subsidence, and tidal currents have eaten away at the headland, causing the beach to retreat about 35 feet per year and threatening the more fragile marshes to its north—not to mention the energy infrastructure of Port Fourchon and camps and homes on Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island.
This land loss has also threatened the tremendous fishery along the beach, which is popular with boaters as well as wade fishermen. As most seasoned surf fishermen know, the best action of the morning is often right off the sand, giving waders an opportunity to target fish that boat-bound anglers can’t reach. I grew up fishing the Elmer’s beach with my dad, catching stringers of beautiful speckled trout and redfish and dozens of fat blue crabs in the summer.
In 2010, oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill coated this beach. Many of the iconic pictures circulated in the media coverage of the spill, showing sheets of sticky, rust-colored tar mats and brown pelicans coated with oil, were taken at Elmer’s Island and the Fourchon Beach. In August of that year, not long after the Deepwater Horizon well was finally capped, I fished along Elmer’s by boat, catching trout and Spanish mackerel on topwater lures and gold spoons, just like I always have. Wading wasn’t allowed for more than two years after the spill.
Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority were back with more heavy equipment and personnel in August 2013, this time to restore the beaches and dunes, rather than drag and sift them for oil. Using fines paid by the oil company and directed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, more than $200 million was invested to bring in sand from an ancient, sunken headland of the Mississippi River about 35 miles west of the Fourchon.
The entire beach was extended back into the Gulf by about 500 feet, fencing was installed to capture sand and rebuild the dunes, and sea oats were planted to hold the beach together. We at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership joined a host of other conservation and sportsmen’s groups in championing the restoration effort because of the enormous benefit to wildlife and fish and boost to fishing access.
It is a quintessential example of the kind of project that deserves to move forward using oil spill penalties, especially considering that this funding has the potential to leave the Gulf of Mexico a better place than it was before that awful event.
So, it was a proud day to be able to cast just short of the sand on that newly restored beach and set the hook into fat, feisty speckled trout. We watched specks jump clear out of the water, while brown-and-white shrimp skipped across the surface and gulls and pelicans dove all around the boat—it’s a memory that will stay with me for a long time. And, thanks to a wise investment by the state of Louisiana with support from a broad coalition of sportsmen and environmental groups, memories will be made along that beach for decades to come.
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.Learn More