Sunday, October 14, 2007

Urban Water Supplies and Mountain Top Removal

Monday October 15, 2007 is Blog Action Day on the Environment. Bloggers all over the world are all writing and posting today on one issue - the environment. That's a pretty big, and varied topic.

One environmental issue on the minds of millions of people in the U.S. southeast is water. The drought monitor report released Thursday October 11, by NOAA, shows that 59 percent of the contiguous U.S. (the "lower 48") has some degree of drought. Three and a half percent of the contiguous U.S. suffers from "exceptional drought" meaning that the rainfall deficit is greater than ever recorded. The area of exceptional drought spread from my own region of eastern Kentucky southward through most of Tennessee, parts of North Carolina, northern Georgia, and most of Alabama. These exceptional drought conditions are creating severe water shortages for many municipalities within the region, including major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Georgia and Lexington, Kentucky.

Lexington, Kentucky a city of a quarter-million, sits at the center of a five county Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Jessamine, Scott, and Woodford counties that has a population of nearly a half million. Municipal water for Lexington is drawn from the dammed pools on the Kentucky River, rather than from reservoirs. So Lexington is utterly dependent on the flow of water from Eastern Kentucky where the Kentucky river originates.

The exceptional drought has affected that flow of water in the Kentucky river. The drought owes its existence to a confluence of global climate factors, including global warming, and the La Nina event in the southern Pacific. But something else, closer at hand, and which we have more control over also impacts the flow of water into the Kentucky River -- strip-mining, and especially mountain top removal mining.

Friday October 12 Lexington Herald-Leader had an interesting juxtaposition of two articles on page B6-- one on the water restrictions imposed in Lexington, the other just below it about protests against the valley fills that inevitably accompany mountain top removal mining. I'd like to think that someone in the Lexington-Herald Leader composing room knew what they were doing, and put these stories together on purpose, because they certainly are connected.

Mountain top removal strip-mining, which does exactly what it sounds like, can only occur because of exemptions given to existing laws designed to protect water flows. The twenty year old rules restrict mining near streams, but exemptions have been made to allow "valley fills" of rubble taken off mountain top mine sites that affect seasonal and ephemeral streams. According to the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) surface mining permits from October 2001 to June 2005 affected 367 miles of streams in the Appalachian coalfields.

Mountain top removal strip-mining and "valley fills" affect the amount and flow of water in rivers like the Kentucky and the availability availability of urban water supplies in two ways.

First, mountain top removal like all strip-mining denudes the mountainsides of trees and shrubbery. Even when reclamation is done (often many years after the initial removal of vegetation) the site is compacted and covered with grass, not trees. The loss of forest has dramatic consequences for the flow of water. Forests moderate the effect of heavy rains, acting like sponges that absorb the brunt of the rain, and then slowly release the water over days and even weeks, preventing local flooding and providing long term rises in downstream river flow. Rain flows instantly off the treeless mountainsides and swells creeks and streams creating first flash flooding in the mountains, and then huge "slugs" of water that move downstream all at one time. Only a small portion of such slugs can be captured by dams and urban water systems, the rest passes on downstream.

Second, the "valley fills" of mountain top removal cover existing stream beds and water courses. When rain comes, water rushing off the bald mountain sides finds new channels, which may not lead to the streams that feed the Kentucky River. Rain runoff that should be going to feeding the creeks that feed the streams that feed the river, that supplies the drinking water downstream, end up going off in new directions and creating flooding conditions locally.

Now the U. S. Office of Surface Mining is proposing a permanent change to the rules that would relax the rules regarding mining near bodies of water. The new regulations would allow mining that alters stream flows. Special exemptions would no longer have to be sought.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will be holding hearings on the rule change October 24, in Hazard, Kentucky, Charleston, West Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Washington, Pennsylvania. There is the tendency for urban folk to considerr issues like mountain top removal of little relevance to themselves. They don't have to watch the hills around their homes be destroyed, be rocked by daily blasting, or live with the noise and dust of the mining. (Photo shows the mountain top removal strip mine that is within 2500 feet of my home). It is time that residents of the cities downstream from the coalfields, like Lexington, recognize that what happens in the mountains is of crucial importance to them. The future of their water supply is at risk.

For more information about Mountain Top Removal in my area, and links to action sites visit: Mountain Top Removal Page

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