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WMEAC report sizes up climate resiliency in Grand Rapids

A photo from West Michigan went semi-viral last April because the scene it depicted was so novel: Why was a fish swimming past the window of a Grand Rapids office building?

The fish was exploring new territory opened up by a record-setting flood that battered the city. Days of heavy rain drove the Grand River so high that it nearly breached floodwalls and inundated the downtown area. The flood inflicted $10 million in damage throughout Kent County, drove some 1,700 people from their homes and led Grand Rapids to ask residents to help protect the city with sandbags.

More worrisome than the flood itself are projections that such volatile weather-heavy downpours, extreme heat, freeze-thaw cycles -will become more common in the Great Lakes region as climate change becomes more pronounced. Officials in many cities recognize that infrastructure upgrades and other initiatives will be essential for adapting to new weather patterns.

A report released in December by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council aims to get a conversation going in greater Grand Rapids about how to build a city that can withstand the slings and arrows of a changing climate.

The project arose when the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell for his leadership on climate change issues and granted the city $25,000 for new climate-related projects. Heartwell gave half the money to the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks for tree planting. The rest went to WMEAC-an MEC member group-to prepare a report on the city’s climate resiliency.

You can read the report online here.

We checked in with Nick Occhipinti, WMEAC’s director of policy and community activism, to learn more about the report’s findings and its recommendations for Grand Rapids.

MEC: What, to you, are the take-home points from the report? Read more

Tuesday linkaround: Solar soars while fossil fuels wither without water

Tuesday linkaround!

If it’s links-(not lynx)-you’re after, a good place to start is this piece from Grist, which will connect you to a host of stories about how the solar energy industry is making serious headway.

That’s good news because-as the deepening drought emergency in California attests-the continued availability of the massive amounts of water required for conventional electricity is no sure thing. The Golden State is far from alone in experiencing water scarcity, and a column in Forbes makes a strong case that the water intensity of fuels must be a consideration when planning our energy future:

Recent media coverage has been quick to pin the challenge of reliability as one that only applies to renewables. The logic goes something like this: if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, we won’t have electricity, making these energy sources unreliable. But if we don’t have reliable access to abundant water resources to produce, move and manage energy that comes from water-intensive energy resources like fossil fuels, this argument against the intermittency of renewables becomes moot.

Of course, the cost of pollution also must be part of the conversation when making decisions about our energy system. Here in Michigan, where we don’t have any coal to mine, we tend to focus on the pollution that leaves power-plant smokestacks. But as a new Associated Press analysis makes clear, the coal industry has inflicted staggering damage to waterways in mining country: Read more

State of the State: Scant mention of critical “Pure Michigan” natural resource issues

Gov. Rick Snyder

Governor Rick Snyder’s fourth State of the State speech Thursday lasted just over an hour. The first two-thirds highlighted what he saw as his accomplishments, leaving only the last third of his time to discuss future initiatives.  In those few minutes, Gov. Snyder made disappointingly sparse mention of the “Pure Michigan” natural resource and public health issues that are so critical to our quality of life.

 What we liked:

1. Snyder vowed stronger action on combating invasive species, promising money in his proposed budget for same. That’s good. Michigan needs to continue to pressure Washington to protect the great lakes. Michigan also needs strong stewardship of the biodiversity that protects our natural assets from invaders. He cited both aquatic and terrestrial invasive species, which is important. Everyone has seen the loathsome Asian carp. But land-based species like the Asian longhorned beetle, which has an appetite for maple and hardwood trees, puts a huge portion of our forests at risk.

2. He applauded the restructuring of Michigan’s hunting and fishing license fees. The fees were increased for the first time in decades and simplified. MEC supported the changes. The bill raises about $20 million for natural resource conservation and management by increasing fees for hunting and fishing licenses. The money will help hires dozens more conservation officers, increasing protection for Michigan’s splendid flora and fauna.

What we had hoped to hear more on:

1. Following a year of public dialogue on energy – which the governor himself initiated – he made only the briefest mention that the discussion would go forward in 2014 and possibly 2015. The state’s hugely successful energy efficiency initiative and renewable energy standard plateaus in 2015. The lack of urgency in the governor’s address was discouraging.  Michigan needs to keep the momentum moving forward. Delay in setting new goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy will potentially cost our state a loss of jobs and much needed investment in our economy.

2. He cited progress, but a lack of “comprehensive reform” to our transportation funding system. He might have been more expansive in reiterating his call for a truly connected transportation system that includes buses, trains, trails and other non-motor vehicle options. Since he has been a leader on public transportation, so we’re not overly concerned with that omission.

3. He suggested that “metal recycling” would be a priority this year, but offered no details. He’s previously called for significant improvements to Michigan’s abysmal recycling rate. We look forward to hearing more about metal recycling and how it might fit in to a comprehensive plan.



Here’s how we would spend $1 billion

You’ve likely heard that Michigan’s year-end financial housekeeping led to the happy conclusion that the state has a projected surplus of $971 million for the next budget year.

As lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder outline their 2015 budget proposals—and with the governor preparing to give his State of the State address tonight—there’s a lot of debate in Lansing about what the state should do with that money.

One Republican proposal would cut the personal income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent over four years. Since the money came from taxpayers like you and me, the logic goes, we should get it back in the form of tax relief. But as the Associated Press reported, the proposal would lead to only a $45 reduction in the average person’s tax bill in the first year. The surplus doesn’t look so big when it’s spread that thin.

But invested in the right programs, $971 million is a lot of cash that can create lasting benefits for Michigan.

And so, we humbly submit to the state’s leaders the Michigan Environmental Council’s proposal for several smart ways to invest the surplus. Readers, please share your ideas in the comments below. And to the Legislature and the Snyder administration: Let’s talk! Read more

Sarah Mullkoff hired to lead MEC’s energy policy work

Sarah Mullkoff

Sarah Mullkoff

Sarah Mullkoff has been hired as energy program director for the Michigan Environmental Council, the organization’s president, Chris Kolb, announced last week.

Mullkoff has worked in natural resource policy in a variety of capacities, most recently as energy & climate policy coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. There, she advanced clean energy policies and carbon reduction campaigns for NWF’s six-state Midwest region.

She previously worked for Clean Water Action as Michigan campaigns coordinator; serves on boards of directors for the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition; and volunteers for social and environmental justice causes. She also serves on the steering committee for RE-AMP, a 160-strong coalition of Midwest nonprofits and foundations working on energy policy and climate change.

Mullkoff is a graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison School of Public Policy with a major in International Relations and specialization in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy. Read more

A measured victory for the Au Sable

Deer on Au SableA pristine stretch of Michigan’s Au Sable River will keep its scenic character and is safer from pollution caused by oil and gas drilling, thanks to a decision last week from the Department of Natural Resources.

You can read MEC’s statement applauding the decision here.

As we wrote here previously, several parcels along the river’s “Holy Waters” stretch were leased to the Canadian energy company Encana in an October auction. Some of the land was designated for development, meaning Encana could put surface wells, storage tanks and heavy equipment right alongside the revered fly-fishing waters that gave rise to Trout Unlimited.

The Anglers of the Au Sable, an MEC member group, flagged the threat of oil and gas development along the river and enlisted members of the public to urge DNR Director Keith Creagh not to authorize the leases. MEC and other allies joined that effort.

The decision from DNR Director Keith Creagh means no surface drilling will be allowed in the river corridor, but it’s important to note that oil and gas beneath the leased parcels can still be accessed horizontally from wells drilled elsewhere. So, the river is better protected from the sights, sounds and smells of industrial activity and the threat of pollution from spilled or leaked fracking fluids. But there are still real threats to the groundwater resources that feed the Au Sable and provide its steady flow.

We look forward to continuing to work with the DNR and our allies to put in place the strongest possible protections  for the Au Sable and freshwater resources throughout Michigan.


Deer crossing Holy Waters photo courtesy David Smith via Flickr.

Michigan DNR poised to allow fracking along Au Sable’s ‘Holy Waters’

The Michigan Environmental Council and our allies are deeply concerned about pending mineral leases that would allow oil and gas drilling along a section of the Au Sable River so pristine and revered by trout anglers that it’s known as the Holy Waters.

The parcels were among those up for bid in an October auction of mineral leases on state land. The winning bidder on the leases was Encana, a Canadian company with plans to drill some 500 wells across northern Michigan using the controversial method called fracking.

You can see a map of the parcels in question here.

Leading the opposition to the leases are the Anglers of the Au Sable, an MEC member group. Here’s a brief video from the Anglers that provides a fuller understanding of the special place we’re talking about.

MEC has joined the Anglers, Grayling Township, local Realtors, business owners and fellow environmental groups in signing a letter to Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh asking him not to authorize the leases. He will announce his decision at Thursday’s meeting of the Natural Resources Commission. You can read the letter here.

Read more

100 Michigan tourist attractions: How many have you visited?

Trivia time! This quiz, gauging how many Michigan tourist attractions you’ve visited, is making the rounds on the intertubes this week. Our communications director scored a 69, then suffered the slings and arrows of lesser Michiganders who complained bitterly of the unfairness of it all.

Well, we tend to agree. Each of Detroit’s three casinos earn a point, while landmarks like Tahquamenon Falls and Beaver Island aren’t included? And no South Manitou Island or Seashell City? How about the Cross in the Woods? What’s your score? And what key spots were overlooked? Remember, it’s for fun. As long as you don’t beat our score.


The curious, quiet project to widen seven miles of U.S. 23 between A2 and I-96

The effects of additional stormwater runoff and other environmental impacts should be evaluated as part of the proposed highway widening.

It’s a most curious project, and a quiet one so far: The Michigan Department of Transportation wants to widen 7.3 miles of road shoulder along U.S. 23 near Ann Arbor. The ostensible goal is to make it safer and more comfortable for motorists.

We disagree. The proposed Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) project is much more than a benign “shoulder widening.” It is actually the addition of an extra lane with the potential to degrade nearby lakes and wetlands, impact air quality, create unsafe driving conditions and possibly worsen the congestion it is designed to alleviate.

Instead of trying to squeeze another too-narrow lane onto a high-speed freeway, MEC believes MDOT should be spending time and money getting commuter rail service – the so-called WALLY line between Ann Arbor and Howell – underway.

So MEC has formally asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for a more thorough review of the plan.  MDOT, by attempting to classify the endeavor as a series of multiple, smallish projects, has tried to skirt the environmental reviews that should be conducted.  It’s no small matter. We’re talking about 1.6 million square feet of new impervious pavement creating entirely new traffic patterns for drivers between Brighton and Ann Arbor.

If you’re into the details, our letter to MDOT is available here. You can get involved by writing your own letter, based on this draft template we’ve put together (it will ask you to open a Word document); or by attending the Dec. 12 public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Northfield Township Hall, 8350 Main St., Suite A, Whitmore Lake.


Michigan nonprofit goes to bat on behalf of incredible pollinators, mosquito killers

Big Brown bat

When thousands of bats overran the campus of Maryville College in Tennessee earlier this fall, the college needed help. Fast.

It was Michigan to the rescue. More precisely, experts from the internationally renowned Organization for Bat Conservation (OBC) based at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

Maryville’s plague of Big Brown bats was unleashed after the college tore down their home – the rafters of an iconic bell tower on a campus building. “They displaced them humanely, but the bats didn’t go far,” said OBC Executive Director Rob Mies. “So they were getting into buildings, flying around in classrooms ….” Even Bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs – performing on campus – contended with bats swooping through the stage spotlights during his show.

Mies executed an emergency relocation of the bats – providing temporary bat house homes. For a long-term solution, he will help the college build a clone of the original rafters that the bats will move into spring 2014.

Rob Mies

It’s all part the job for the little Michigan nonprofit that can, which travels across the globe to research, educate and protect the planet’s only flying mammals. Rob, his wife Eva Meade, and a band of loyal staffers and volunteers conduct educational programs, work with national and international conservation initiatives, and strive to protect bats from threats like the invasive white-nose syndrome fungus and poorly sited wind turbines. Rob has brought bats to visit Ellen Degeneres, Martha Stewart, Conan O’Brien, and shows from National Geographic specials to FOX Detroit television.  Hundreds of thousands of school kids, civic groups, and educators from dozens of states and nations have been introduced to bats through OBC’s work.

And then there’s the Bat Zone – hosting live programs on the Cranbrook campus with more than 100 rescued and injured bats including big brown bats, dog-faced fruit bats, straw-colored fruit bats, endangered golden (also known as Rodrigues) flying foxes, Malayan flying foxes (the largest bats in the world, with 6 foot wingspans), Egyptian fruit bats, short-tailed fruit bats, Jamaican fruit bats, Indian flying foxes, and vampire bats.

All this effort is not just for the bats’ sake. And not just because they are adorable (well, yes they are actually!)

Bats provide irreplaceable free labor for farmers and mosquito haters. They pollinate crops and plants and eat up to 5,000 mosquitoes and other insects nightly per bat! That displaces billions of dollars worth of toxic pesticides that might otherwise be used to control the bugs, numerous analyses have concluded. And the saliva of the vampire bat contains a powerful drug that is used for the treatment of blood-clotting diseases!

The OBC works tirelessly to spread these positive messages about bats to a public that too often buys into the many myths about the dangers of these fascinating creatures. At the same time, the observations and data gathered from the Organization for Bat Conservation is helping add to a growing body of research on bats.

Visiting researchers study bat behavior, social interactions, and how bats communicate, play, and react to stimuli. They even play music for the captive bats. “They react differently depending on the music,” explained one volunteer. “Country music, the Beatles … they have distinctly different reactions.”

For more information or to plan a visit to this unique and exciting Michigan organization, go here, or call (248) 645-3232.


Bat Facts

  •   There are 1,293 identified bat species worldwide
  •   Nine species live in Michigan
  • One bat can eat between 2,000 and 5,000 insects nightly
  • Agave plants – from which we get tequila – are pollinated almost exclusively by long-nosed bats.
  • Bats are quite clean, and groom themselves like cats do
  • Bats do not: Drink human blood, get tangled in hair or attack people
  • They are the only mammals that fly
  • Most bats live 20 years
  • Vampire bats only live in Mexico, Central and South America
  • Very few bats contract rabies
  • Most bat populations have declined in the last 20 years