The fight for floodplains

Before Hurricane Sandy struck this fall, the National Flood Insurance Program was already about $17.8 billion in debt — an amount that will surely grow as Sandy-related claims are settled.

But floodplain development has ecological consequences, too, which are the crux of lawsuits that have been filed against the EPA up and down the West Coast.

Lisa Stiffler reports for InvestigateWest in the current issue of High Country News:

“Every time it rains,” she says, “you’re stressing.” At least five times since she and her husband, Brian, moved here, heavy rains have sent the river raging over its banks. After a 1995 flood, they raised the house on a 9-foot-tall concrete foundation. Then a 2003 flood dumped enough mud in their basement to fill 60 wheelbarrows. “Goopy, gloppy, sticky stuff,” she says. “It’s horrible.”

Many of her neighbors’ houses are also perched on stacked foundations, and attempts have been made to barricade the river with levees. But the most effective flood-protection measures have proven to be strict rules on reconstruction and a ban on new building enacted by the state decades ago, restrictions that apply only to a handful of the state’s most flood-prone areas.

Now the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups want to see stronger development controls for more Western floodplains. It’s increasingly clear that construction in floodplains is not only dangerous for people, it also harms habitat for salmon and other animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including orca, Mexican spotted owls, jaguar and two species of springsnails. And the anxiety over floodplain construction is likely to rise as climate change raises flood risks.

Read Lisa's full story at High Country News.

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Multiple sclerosis research in the Northwest could lead to new treatments

The mystery of why the Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world is as enduring as the mystery of the D.B. Cooper hijacking. And has proven about as difficult to crack.

Recently, however, scientists have been closing in on some likely triggers that may be causing the body to hijack its own immune system and turn on itself. Those new findings could lead to new treatment strategies in the future.

MS is a sneaky, unpredictable autoimmune disease that damages nerves and can impair vision and mobility as well as thinking and memory. The prevalence of MS here is about triple the level in the lower part of the United States, and many more times higher than elsewhere in the world. In King County, there are 9,000 known patients, and a growing number of them are children.

The prevalence is so high here that the Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has posted giant billboards around the city for the past several years asking questions like these:  Is it the trees? Is it the rain?

The questions may have been rhetorical, but the billboards were a reminder of the need to keep digging for answers about what causes MS.

On a macro scale, scientists actually do know why the rate appears elevated here.

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Pediatric MS cases rise in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world, yet the reasons why remain elusive. It’s an old mystery, but one that now has a new face. Today, doctors are seeing a growing number of cases in kids. They hope these young patients will yield more clues to what causes the disease.

MS is an autoimmune disease that causes nerve damage over time. It’s more common at higher latitudes, and tends to affect more women than men. Eventually, it can impair someone’s mobility, their vision – even their thinking and memory. It’s always been known as a “prime-of-life” disease, one that typically strikes in young adulthood.

For Allexis, now a senior at Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, that wasn’t the case. She was diagnosed when she was 14 years old.

It started one Friday during the summer two years ago.

“I couldn’t sleep because I had the worst headache,” she said. “Out of a scale of one to 10, it was a 15.” She tried to go for her regular morning run the next day, and things got worse.

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A map of multiple sclerosis by latitude

Multiple Sclerosis has long been known as an autoimmune disorder that affects more people living in the Pacific Northwest than in most other parts of the country, and the world. Scientists still don't have a firm answer why that is.

But researchers have begun unraveling some new theories about the disease from a set of intriguing clues. They know, for example, that the farther you live from the equator, the higher your risk. The map below is based on data collected by the National MS Society.

Click here for the full-size image.

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How Reporters Can Cover the Clean Water Act

After a summer working on Clean Water: The Next Act -- and the better part of a career reporting on water issues -- our executive director Robert McClure went down to the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Lubbock, Tex., to talk to other reporters about how to find stories in their own communities. Robert serves on the SEJ board of directors.

He put together this tip sheet as a handout (PDF), and we want to publish it here, too. Without further ado...

The Clean Water Act: How to cover it back home

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, a bedrock environmental statute that resulted in dramatic increases in the health of America’s waterways. But the law has not accomplished its goals of making America’s waterways uniformly fishable and swimmable.

Some ways you can cover this story in your community or state:

  • A great way to get your feet wet with the Clean Water Act is to simply document the locations and discharges of all the sewage treatment plants, factories and other facilities that dump waste into waterways under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES, pronouced NIP-deez). Usually this can be obtained as a data file from the state agency delegated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act. (Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Mexico do not have this delegation; in those states the EPA enforces the law and will have the data.) Who’s dumping the most? What’s in there? Map ‘em, know ‘em, love ‘em.  You can use this as a reporting tool. Or you could publish to put yourself on the map as a reporter who’s looking into the story.
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'Center of Detention' now available for Kindle

Big (for us) news. We've published our first Kindle book — Center of Detention, by Carol Smith and The News Tribune's Lewis Kamb.

The book is a collection of the reporting that Carol and Lewis did for a series of stories that ran in The News Tribune in September.

Here's something very nice that was said about it in Bender's Immigration Bulletin:

"This extraordinary in-depth investigation reveals the hard truths about the Northwest Detention Center."

- Daniel M. Kowalski, Editor-in-Chief

You can download Center of Detention from Amazon to read on your Kindle, or on a Kindle app for your phone or computer.

If you read it and like it, we'd surely appreciate you leaving a nice review over on Amazon so that other readers who stumble upon the book page have a reason to click Buy. Thanks!

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If Green Roofs And Rain Gardens Are So Great, Why Aren’t There More?

Grants helped pay for this rain garden to be built in West Seattle. Property owners
who choose to build rain gardens see it as a way to beautify their property, increase property values
and reduce pollution through stormwater runoff.
Katie Campbell/EarthFix

The most pervasive water pollution source in American cities and suburbs is the contaminant-laced rainwater that sloughs off hard surfaces like streets and parking lots after a heavy rain, carrying with it the toxic debris of modern life.

Clean Water: The Next Act

This little-noticed form of pollution kills fish and other aquatic creatures, pollutes drinking-water supplies and scours away streambeds that fish such as salmon need to lay eggs. At least since the 1970s, scientists and engineers have been devising methods to intercept –- or better yet, never generate –- this so-called stormwater.

Yet these methods still are not widely mandated, making stormwater one of the leading reasons the Clean Water Act –- passed into law 40 years ago today -– has failed to meet its goal of making all American waterways fishable and swimmable.

Experts’ modern consensus: Handling stormwater is all about building our cities differently, with more greenery to slurp up the rainwater. Techniques to accomplish this include specially designed swales, green roofs, rain gardens and porous pavement that allows the water to soak into the ground instead of gurgling into a stream.

So why are these techniques – part of a new building approach commonly dubbed low-impact development or green stormwater infrastructure – not more widely required in the Pacific Northwest when a developer plunks down building plans at City Hall today?

The explanation differs according to the state:

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How Stormwater Pollution Became A Clean Water Concern

Stormwater runoff carries an assortment of litter and unseen pollutants into
rivers, lakes, and marine waters, including Puget Sound.
Credit: Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Work to develop solutions to the stormwater problem dates at least to the 1970s. Scientists, government officials and others woke up to the problem in a big way in the 1980s.

Clean Water: The Next Act

Fifteen years after adopting the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress in 1987 amended the statute with directions for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to go after stormwater. But changing the law didn’t fix the problem.

Congress’ action prompted the EPA and its proxies at the state level to begin requiring cities to obtain government permits to operate the systems of gutters, pipes and so forth that dump the polluted stormwater into streams, rivers, lakes and bays. The local governments were required to:

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