Thomas E. Drennen, associate professor of economics, was recently a featured speaker in the Centre for Livable Cities Inaugural Policy’s forum on “The Nexus between Water, Energy and Food Security: The Challenge Confronting Cities,” held in Singapore. The goal of the forum was to “identify the inter-linkages between water, energy and food security and explore the areas requiring further study for policy and decision-makers from the government, academia and industry.”
A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Drennen earned a B.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in resource economics from Cornell University. In 2006, he received the Hobart and William Smith Excellence in Teaching Award.
Drennen is the author of a book, “Pathways to a Hydrogen Future,” which seeks to untangle competing visions of a hydrogen economy, explain the trade-offs and obstacles, and offer recommendations for a path forward. The results are based on “The Hydrogen Futures Simulation Model,” developed at Sandia National Laboratories, where he is senior economist.
Drennen also gave the keynote address at the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Alliance’s 2008 annual meeting. Following his speech, “Avoiding the Tipping Point: How to Balance Development and Protection for Canandaigua Lake,” he was asked to pen an article elaborating on the topic for The Lake Reporter, the alliance’s newsletter. Full text of that article follows.
Is Canandaigua Lake at an Environmental Tipping Point?
Not yet. Here’s what you can do to prevent it.
At CLWA’s 2008 annual meeting Dr. Thomas Drennen, environmental economist at Hobart and William Smith offered a provocative keynote speech, “Avoiding the Tipping Point: How to Balance Development and Protection for Canandaigua Lake.” Attendees suggested Professor Drennen expand on his speech in the Lake Reporter.
Dr. Drennen, you’ve advised scientists all over the world and spoken at the White House about the intersection of energy, economics and environmental policies. When you come back to Canandaigua, the place you and your family call home, what do you think about when you drive down Main Street?
Drennen: I grew up in Auburn, spent my summers on Owasco Lake and am drawn to the beauty of the area. I think a lot about the need to balance development and preservation on Canandaigua Lake and how important this landscape is to our local economy. I think about ways to get people to do the very simple things that will keep the Lake’s water clean.
Is Canandaigua Lake reaching a tipping point?
Drennen: Not yet, thanks in large part to watchdog groups like CLWA, municipal institutions such as the Watershed Council and Ontario County Soil and Water, and others that are vigilant in monitoring the Lake’s vital signs. There are three key threats, however, that we should all heed.
What art those threats to the Lake?
Drennen: The first is ignorance and denial. Folks must view the larger picture. Here’s an example. At the Annual Meeting, I showed a slide of a weed in a lawn with the caption: We’ve met the enemy – it’s a common weed.
Everybody chuckled. The slide told this story: The Canandaigua School Board tested an organic approach to lawn maintenance. Bravo! But, as was reported in the Messenger, the test was stopped and regular maintenance resumed when a few weeds showed up on the football field and the Board thought they might be dangerous to athletes.
Does that make any sense? It’s okay for football players to roll around on turf treated with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers? But they can’t negotiate a weed? It’s okay for fertilizer runoff with nitrogen and phosphorous to flow into our storm sewers and ultimately harm the Lake? The Canandaigua School Board could set a good example for the community by reinstating their “grow green” policy.
Doesn’t that apply to individual homeowners too?
Drennen: Absolutely. Let’s get over our obsession with perfect lawns. The Lake pays a heavy price for them. Marketers have done a good job convincing us that we’re not keeping up appearances if we have a dandelion or an English daisy sprouting. So homeowners dump a ton of fertilizer to prompt growth, then complain about mowing, and add herbicides to avoid weeds – and then complain about weed growth in the lake!
There is a direct correlation between lawn fertilizer runoff and algae growth. The process is called eutrophication: this happens when excess nutrients flow into our streams and lakes and stimulate excessive plant growth, often called algal bloom. That reduces dissolved oxygen in the water when dead plant material decomposes and causes other organisms to die. Research shows that these excess nutrients most often come from fertilizers applied to agricultural fields, golf courses, and suburban lawns and sewage treatment plant discharges.
In the case of Canandaigua Lake, there has been a big effort, lead by CLWA and folks such as Ontario County Soil and Water’s Edith Davey, Watershed Manager Kevin Olvany and former CLWA Board Member Ken Naples to work with farmers to mitigate this. George Barden, the Watershed Inspector, is extremely vigilant in monitoring sewage discharge.
Where are the excess nutrients coming from that find their way into Canandaigua Lake?
Drennen: Those green lawns. The more housing developments, the more fertilized lawns. Turf care experts say we don’t need to fertilize our lawns as much as we do, that the region’s soils have enough nitrogen and phosphorous, yet we continue to buy bags and apply liberally each year.
Let’s learn lake-friendly lawn care: the local Cornell Cooperative Extension Service has tips. If you use a lawn service, insist that they use lake-friendly practices.
What about dishwasher detergent?
Drennen: Glad you brought up this threat. Unless you buy phosphorous free detergent, every time you run a dishwasher in the watershed, you add harmful phosphorous to the Lake. One pound of phosphorous leaching into the lake grows 500 pounds of algae.
This is an easy fix: stores carry phosphorous free dishwasher detergents, and the last time I bought some at Wegman’s it was cheaper than the harmful stuff and it works just as well.
What’s threat number two?
Drennen: The two-cycle engine. There are still many on Canandaigua Lake in boats and first generation jet skis. They are highly inefficient and polluting because so much of the fuel is spewed out unburned.
Just how bad are two-cycle emissions?
Drennen: I’m not an expert, but others have estimated that two-cycle outboards generate 70% to 90% more hydrocarbon pollution than four-stroke outboards of equal horsepower and 95% more pollution than automobiles of similar power. Two-cycle jet skis are even worse polluters. You can see the unburned fuel trail as water is sucked through and out to propel the jet ski. And you can smell them if you’re anywhere near them. And my thought is, if they smell bad and they leave a sheen on the water, they can’t be good. CLWA board member Jim Fralick provided great leadership on this problem a few years ago. If you’re committed to the health of the lake, and you own a two-cycle boat motor or jet ski, it’s time to ditch it.
And the third threat?
Drennen: Development. The goal isn’t to stop development. That’s not possible or advisable. The goal is to manage development so that appropriate and consistently applied protections for the lake and watershed are part of every proposal approved by any municipality around the Lake. Those protections need to be rigorous, reflect the latest science, anticipate trends, and be written clearly enough so that they don’t create loopholes.
The codes need to cover a range of protections: from preventing erosion from steep slopes, to maintaining adequate drainage flow, boat density control, even noise and visual pollution.
Gorham Town Supervisor Richard Calabrese is doing a good job balancing development with protections. The Finger Lakes Land Trust is doing great work with landowners who want to preserve watershed vistas for future generations. The Hicks Families’ recent decision to participate in the NYS Agricultural and Farmland Protection Program should inspire others to protect family lands through conservation easements.
Municipalities need to educate developers on why adherence to stricter codes is important: if nothing else is persuasive, there’s a pure economics argument. A healthy lake is good for business.
It is the quality of the Lake that draws people here. It is in everyone’s economic self-interest – and that includes developers and the planning and zoning boards – to enforce watershed protections. People come here, businesses locate here because of the recreational opportunities offered by the pure waters the scenic vistas, the quiet and calm. If those disappear, developers’ customers and tourists will decline.
So we need a blend of individual responsibility and public will to keep Canandaigua Lake from reaching a tipping point?
Drennen: Yes. The threat is real. Just look at some neighboring lakes.