Thursday, December 31, 2009


This week I watched the 2007 film Up the Yangtze. The movie follows the trials of a poor family living along the shores of the river as the Three Gorges Dam nears completion and the water rises over their little home. The undercurrent running through the story is the way wealthier people skirt the obvious: the human, cultural and environmental toll the dam has wrought. The well-polished up-and-coming Chinese shake their heads at the ignorant country folk who don’t get that the dam is a sign of progress and strength for the country. Meanwhile, in what to me was the most moving scene in the movie, the father (ragged from spending days pounding away at boulders) carries his furniture on his back up the hillside, balancing precariously on the uneven rocks, to save his family’s possessions from the rising water. You think he’s going to fall, but he doesn’t.

Turns out China is working on another gargantuan public works project that rivals Three Gorges in cost and scope, an irrigation system intended to move water from the south of the country to the north. It should be completed in 2050 after displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Aquatic Nuisance"

At a pre-Christmas dinner last week in Michigan, pop’s childhood friend K. revealed, after a conversation about invasive species in the Great Lakes, that herbicides were applied to our neighborhood Elizabeth Lake this summer to control the weeds. According to an angry K., residents proposed this measure because they found the weeds “icky” and didn’t want to have to drive their fancy speedboats through them or feel them on their legs when swimming (my sister E. always hated swimming out to the platform when we were kids for that reason). K. told us people were to stay out of the lake for only a week after the application but the realization that my family and I had been swimming there in September made me feel a little queasy.

Does this kind of vegetation control happen often in inland lakes in the US? Is the decision made for aesthetic or environmental reasons or both? What kinds of environmental and health assessments are carried out beforehand? To me, the decision as K. described it seemed disturbingly nonchalant. But was it really?

According to the Waterford Township agenda from March 9, 2009, a company called “Lakeshore Environmental, Inc.” prepared an assessment entitled “Survey of Aquatic Vegetation in Elizabeth Lake” and was tasked with overseeing the herbicide application by the company awarded the bid, Professional Lake Management (“on the cutting edge of aquatic nuisance”). Judging by the websites, the application of aquatic herbicides is a fairly common occurrence regulated by the DEQ and EPA. Here’s a lengthy description from Purdue University Botany Dept. Prof. Carole Lembi on why such applications are safe for humans. Still, the report concludes that:

All pesticides are currently undergoing a reregistration process through the Environmental Protection Agency. What this means is that all of the gaps in the data that relate to carcinogenicity and other adverse effects have to be filled.

Can't say that's very comforting…