SAGE is a leading voice for a healthy and environmentally sustainable community.
Radon Risks in your Home
As winter has arrived and we shut in for another COVID-19 lockdown, it is timely to consider the health of your indoor environment. An emerging health concern in our homes is a high level of radon.
You may not have ever heard of radon, but it is an invisible, odourless, tasteless, radioactive gas formed by the disintegration of radium, which is a decay product of uranium found in the soil. Radon can enter a home from the surrounding soil and accumulate over time, particularly in spaces that are not well ventilated.
Radon is considered the second leading cause of lung cancer in Canada. The Canadian Lung Association states: “As radon breaks down it forms radioactive particles that can get lodged into your lung tissue as you breathe. The radon particles release energy that can damage the cells in your lungs. When the cells in your lungs are damaged, there is the possibility of developing lung cancer. If you smoke and you live in a home with a high level of radon, you are at an even higher risk for lung cancer.” Radon is a long-term health hazard in your home.
Lethbridge is in a zone with a high potential for radon, though the actual levels can vary widely between areas and even from home to home. The amount of radon accumulating in a home will also depend on how much fresh air moves through. Some older, leakier homes and those with mechanical ventilation systems may have lower radon levels compared to newer, tightly built homes that trap the air better. The thing is, new or old, tight or leaky, you can’t really know until your home is tested.
In the latest version of the National Building Code of Canada, new homes are to be designed for future radon mitigation, if required. Testing for radon levels is also becoming more common in real estate transactions. And that is the good news: through the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program (C-NRPP) there are more trained professionals in the region, and radon has never been easier to test for and to mitigate.
A trained technician can conduct a short-term test for a current indication of radon levels in your living space, but it is important to know that a long-term test of three to five months is required for accurate results. These long-term tests involve a small device that is left in your living space for the duration of the test. If your radon levels are above the current health safety guidelines of 200 becquerels you would be wise to plan for mitigation with the advice of a trained professional. The winter season is an optimum time to test for radon because it is the period when windows and doors stay closed – consider a professional test as the ultimate present for your friends and families!
For more information, click here
December 14, 2020
To: Nathan Neudorf, MLA Lethbridge-East
cc: Shannon Phillips, MLA Lethbridge-West
Joint Review Panel: Grassy Lake Coal Mine
RE: Coal Mining in the Oldman River Headwaters & Water Abstraction
The Southern Alberta Group for the Environment (SAGE) is greatly disappointed with the UCP government’s unilateral decision to open another 2000 hectares of land in our headwaters for coal extraction. It defies comprehension that this lease offering would be advanced just after the public hearing on the Grassy Mountain Coal Project concluded and prior to the Joint Review Panel making its recommendations.
Proceedings of the Joint Review Panel hearing for the proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Mine include serious, deeply concerning issues regarding impacts on water and air quality, human health, adjacent residents and local communities, indigenous traditions, wildlife habitat and migration corridors, species-at-risk, a nascent ecosystem-based tourism industry, as well as the availability of water for the ecosystem and downstream users. There are lessons to be learned from over two dozen sound scientific studies in the Appalachians which found that mountaintop removal mining devastates ecosystems, pollutes water and air, and negatively impacts public health including statistically significant increases in rates of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, chronic lung disease, cancer, birth defects and death.
The UCP government has recently indicated its intention to bypass established water transfer markets in the Oldman River Basin to make allocations freely available to coal companies. Bypassing established processes and expectations for water allocation and abstraction in order to expedite coal mining, without public consultation, undermines trust in fair dealings with the government. In economic terms, perceived unfairness and an additional degree of uncertainty in the equity of exchange practices increase transaction costs to industry.
The UCP machinations around water policy and allocation appear to be motivated by the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mining application: one wonders what this government has in mind to provide the required water for another 840 square kilometers of open-pit coal mining operations currently being offered? It raises questions on what other accommodations have been promised to potential bidders, which may do more to inflame rather than reduce the existing climate of concern and uncertainty about coal mining in our headwaters. As with the decision to rescind the coal policy it shows a flagrant disregard for public opinion, due consultation processes and outcomes of regional land use and water management planning.
Finally, and of most concern, significant water pollution has been measured in the Elk and Fording rivers downstream of extant coal mining operations, with evidence of negative impacts on aquatic ecology and sources of drinking water. There is no indication that there is the long-term will or the technology for the coal operators to cost-effectively remove contaminants from the water before they enter our river systems. Some of these contaminants will threaten species-at-risk and may cause enduring, bio-accumulative impacts on downstream use, including natural ecosystems, municipal drinking water, irrigation and intensive livestock operations. In other words, there is no point trading temporary gains for permanent losses for a livable future in the region.
In summary, the unilateral decision to promote coal mining on the Eastern Slopes and in our headwaters risks the long-term welfare of our economy, our wildlife, our ecosystem and our own health.
The proposal to greatly expand coal mining in our headwaters also requires much greater public consultation; it requires a comprehensive water allocation plan; and it requires greater consideration of long-term cumulative effects of water contamination to downstream users. It should also be emphasized that the decision to sell more coal mining leases prior to the recommendations from the Joint Review Panel is unutterably inappropriate.
Coal, Calcite and Cutthroats
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
26 November 2020
Calcite build-up on streambeds is an environmental hazard of open-pit mountaintop coal mining proposed in the headwaters of the Oldman River. As with selenium pollution, described in a previous article, water flowing through waste rock accumulated during the coal mining process dissolves calcium carbonate and carries it downstream. Unlike selenium, calcium carbonate is not considered a toxic pollutant in water. However, when calcium carbonate reaches a high enough concentration, it solidifies into calcite. The process is similar to the buildup that forms in tea kettles and humidifiers. Calcite coats the stream bottom and, in effect, turns it into concrete. In some cases streambed sands and gravels can only be broken free with hammer blows.
Where calcite accumulates, the stream bottom becomes uninhabitable to invertebrates that form the base of the aquatic food chain. Aquatic plants are smothered. Trout that use an undulating movement to flush sediment and excavate hollows in loose gravels for laying eggs, referred to as redds, can no longer spawn. This is especially devasting to native cutthroat and bull trout, both “threatened” species, federally and provincially.
In reaches where a stream bottom becomes cemented, bank erosion increases causing more sediment to be released and the stream to over-widen. This impact on streams has previously been observed in Eastern Slopes watersheds experiencing a high degree of surface disturbance from logging and other industrial development, including Racehorse Creek and Dutch Creek. Adverse effects on reproduction of native trout have been noted.
Calcite formation is occurring downstream of coal mines operated by Teck Resources Limited in southeastern BC in the Elk River valley. Monitoring has detected increase in calcite over time with 30% of the river and stream channels surveyed in 2018 impacted by calcite at levels higher than background. Recent studies to assess effects on Westslope Cutthroat Trout, a Species at Risk, found density of redds decreased as calcite concentration increased in stream reaches.
Teck, under its permit to operate, is required by Environment and Climate change Canada to reduce calcite levels in mine-affected streams in the Elk Valley. This direction is issued under the federal Fisheries Act. Since October, 2017 the company is experimenting with adding antiscalant (a chemical that inhibits formation and precipitation of crystallized mineral salts) to a stream to inhibit formation of calcite. A geo-synthetic cover over waste rock is also being tried to prevent water leaching of calcium carbonate. Cost of these mitigation measures is estimated to be several hundred million dollars.
The proposed Grassy Mountain Mine north of Blairmore straddles the valleys of two streams that are habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout – Blairmore Creek and Gold Creek, tributaries of the Crowsnest River. This native species once inhabited most streams in southwestern Alberta from the alpine to the prairies, but now occupies only a small fraction of its original distribution. A strategy for recovery of its habitat has been developed and is in the process of being implemented. If the mine is allowed to proceed, recovery efforts will be undercut and calcite build-up in spawning habitat would become one more risk pushing this threatened species to the brink of extinction.
More at: The Rockies and Coal Mining
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Selenium's Impact on the Environment
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
23 October 2020
As residents living along the Oldman River anticipate the impacts of open-pit coal mining in our headwaters, we should know more about the potential changes in water quality and their effects on river health and, therefore, our health.
Open-pit coal mining involves the removal of rock that sits above the coal seams that the mining company targets for extraction. This rock, or overburden, is typically dumped into the river valleys near the mine where it is exposed to weathering. It is the weathering process that releases pollutants like cadmium, nitrate, sulphate, iron, uranium and selenium into the environment over time – in the form of particulates in the air but, more significantly, into river systems.
Like some other elements, selenium is biphasic which means that it is necessary for life in small concentrations but becomes toxic to aquatic species in concentrations as low as 1.5 mg/l. Selenium ions are soluble in water, so they don’t settle in containment ponds. When released to the environment, selenium (as selenite and selenides) bioaccumulates in the aquatic system. That is, the selenium increases in concentration as it passes from plankton to aquatic invertebrates to fish that live higher in the food web. As such, fish are an important indicator species for water contamination of this type. Species that consume fish along the food chain, like birds and even humans, are also at risk of the health impacts resulting from higher selenium accumulating in their bodies.
Continue reading at: The Rockies and Coal Mining
How Does Your River Look Today?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
18 September 2020
The next time you cross the Whoop-up Drive bridge, glance over the edge and consider your Oldman River. What do you see? Ask yourself, 'is there too little or too much water?' and 'should I be concerned?' Take a moment to consider how the flow you see compares with flows during this and other years.
Seasonal and annual variability is the key to understanding river function.
Water is essential for all life; ours and our ecosystems. Our prairie region is naturally treeless. Grasses and hardy shrubs are adapted to the semi-arid climate where regular droughts prevent trees from thriving. The exceptions are the natural woodlands rooted in the moist places next to rivers, streams and wetlands. These plants stabilize soils and support other species that can’t otherwise survive here. The waters themselves are home to diverse aquatic life dependent on the seasonal ebb and flow of precious moisture.
Seasonal water flow ranges are a critical part of the system. During the winter, snow accumulates at higher elevations. As spring arrives, meltwater and rains send a pulse of water downstream. This flow gradually lessens to a trickle as summer heats up. Repeated every year for millennia, this seasonal pattern has shaped life on the prairie and beyond. Daily snows, rains, and temperatures make every year slightly different within a natural range of variability. Occasionally, wet or dry periods set new records in the flow history. These events are often ecologically important as they physically shape riverbanks and encourage or limit dependent species.
The availability of water has likewise shaped human settlements and ingenuity. Our ever-increasing demand for reliable, clean water to supply cities, agriculture and industry has driven the race to capture, divert, and store flow whenever and wherever possible. There are three major dams and numerous other diversions upstream from us. A complex basin-wide model is constantly updated using flow gauges to maximize efficiencies. Under the Alberta Water Act, licenses are used to allocate every drop of water flowing through the system in order to meet downstream needs.
While moderated stream flows are convenient for us, river ecosystems can be profoundly affected by our tinkering. The 'natural flow regime' is fancy-talk for the pattern of quality, quantity, timing, and frequency of non-regulated stream flows. These characteristics are the foundation of river ecology (the relationships between organisms and their environment). Altering the flow regime will cause ripple effects through all dependent landscapes and organisms. Everything from channel movements and soil beds for plant seedlings, to spawning sites for fish and habitat for migratory birds, are all tied to these patterns of flow.
We think of this water as 'ours', but it’s just starting its journey and we are responsible to those downstream. We are at the top of a much larger watershed that eventually drains east into the Hudson’s Bay. In fact, we’re part of the Crown of the Continent where if you look west from Fernie the water heads off to the Pacific Ocean, North of Banff it ends up in the Arctic Ocean, and South of Milk River it flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Population growth, development expansion and climate warming are all growing threats to our limited water resources. We need to recognize the value in protecting our natural flows and variability to keep the whole watershed healthy.
So, 'should you be concerned?'
The answer is 'you bet!'
Continue reading at: Water, Water, Everywhere ... or is it?
See our Letter on Coal Policy and Southern Alberta @ Letters to Government.
Is Mountaintop Coal Mining in the Oldman headwaters worth the Risk?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
15 August 2020
For the first time in four decades, headwaters of the Oldman River are again under threat from open pit coal mining.
Expansive scars of coal mines on Tent Mountain south of Coleman and Grassy Mountain mine north of Blairmore, projects that fizzled out by 1980, remain stark reminders of companies that left without cleaning up their mess. The Alberta Coal Policy adopted by the Lougheed government in 1976 restricted coal exploration and development along the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains due to 'marginal economic benefits' and 'important environmental values, such as wildlife migration and headwaters areas'. With rescinding of that policy by the current government, coal companies are back proposing to reopen and expand surface mining on Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain and explore large areas of mountainous country west of the Livingstone Range north to the Highwood River.
Coal mining, particularly surface mining in mountains, is one of the most brutal assaults by humans on the Earth. The changes in natural landscapes and headwaters ecosystems are profound. Vegetation and soils that have evolved over millennia are stripped to reveal ancient bedrock. Using explosives and some of the largest machines on earth, mountaintops are shattered and removed to expose coal seams. 'Overburden' is dumped into adjacent valleys. Roads are carved into the diminishing mountain sides to haul extracted coal away in giant trucks to valley bottom processing plants. Water falling as rain and snow that was naturally absorbed by vegetation and soil rushes unchecked and unfiltered to valley-bottom streams that become seriously disrupted by altered flows and contaminants. Resident fish and wildlife are destroyed or displaced for untold generations.
John Prine captured for the 60’s generation the profound sense of destruction and loss that is wrought by mountaintop coal mining in his song Paradise – 'Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away'. To witness the loss of a mountain paradise by coal mining, southern Albertans don’t need to travel all the way to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky but rather can peer across the continental divide into the Elk River and its tributary valleys (including Fording River) in British Columbia. Five massive open-pit coal projects, operated by Teck Resources, have flattened mountains and filled valleys with piles of rubble. Biodiversity has been significantly impacted, including habitats for whitebark pine, Westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bear and bighorn sheep.
A more insidious impact is the selenium that leaches from the previously buried rock now exposed to air and water. Naturally occurring in soils and plants, selenium is an essential trace element in healthy diets of animals and humans. However at high concentrations selenium can cause neurological disorders in humans, liver damage and paralysis in other animals, and birth defects and reproductive failure in fish. Waterborne selenium can enter the food chain where it bio accumulates. Toxic effects of selenium on aquatic life, fish and birds have been documented in the mountaintop coal mining regions of the Appalachians and more recently the Elk Valley of BC, extending up to 200 kilometres downstream in Montana. Sparwood’s drinking water supply has become contaminated.
Residents of the Oldman River Basin rely on plentiful, clean water flowing from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains for survival and economic well-being including food production. Southern Albertans value our headwaters region for its scenic natural landscapes, wildlife and unsurpassed outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities. Experience elsewhere confirms that mountaintop coal mining places all that at risk. Albertans in the 1970s, based on experience, decided it was not worth the risk.
Why does today’s government think it is?
Continue reading at: The Rockies and Coal Mining.
The Environmental Impact of Meat
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
22 July 2020
Have you ever eaten a “Beyond Meat” burger?
Is it better for the environment than the meat it replaces?
Livestock production for meat consumption is a huge topic, and the best choice for the environment depends a lot on the context: where the livestock was raised, how it was raised and what it was fed.
Livestock that is naturally grass-fed and raised in free-range conditions appropriate for the land use (like grazing lands in Alberta that previously sustained bison) provides meat with a low environmental impact. Unfortunately, we know that most animals for meat production are not raised under these conditions. We also know that as the standard of living for much of the world’s population rises, so does the consumption of meat.
Sustainability is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously maintaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The global increase in meat consumption is not sustainable. Part of the problem is the social and environmental impacts of industrial-scale agriculture; part of the problem is the inefficient conversion of plant crops to meat; and part of the problem is the environmental impact of intensive livestock operations.
Much of our meat is raised on soybeans, corn and barley as feed. The global increase in meat consumption has been accompanied by large increases in grain and soybean production. One-third of the world’s arable land grows industrial-scale crop monocultures dedicated to feed animals raised intensively for meat consumption. The conversion of rainforests and natural grasslands and the application of fertilizer and pesticides for animal feed is not environmentally friendly – it releases massive quantities of sequestered carbon to the atmosphere and it is wasteful of land, energy, water and clean air.
Meat consumption is mainly driven by culture, tradition and taste. The intermediate step of feeding plant crops to animals intended for human consumption is unnecessary and wasteful. Crops grown for meat production should instead be used to feed humans directly.
Based on calories, six units of feed will convert to one unit of pork, and 12 units of feed will convert to one unit of beef. For poultry, the conversion is 2:1, which makes it a lower-impact source of protein, in general. The inefficient conversion of food energy from plants to meat will make it difficult to feed the human population of 10 billion expected by mid-century.
On Aug. 8, 2019, more than 100 leading researchers released a summary report on climate change and land through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and includes policy recommendations to reduce meat consumption. The report states with high confidence that balanced diets featuring plant-based and sustainably produced sources of meat “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
In the last decade, plant-based foods have been developed to create alternatives for those accustomed to the taste of meat.
A “Beyond Meat” burger has 18 ingredients, including: pea protein isolate, canola and coconut oil, rice protein, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (to give the burger its meat-like “blood”).
Is this an environmentally friendly substitute for meat?
Can we make better choices with our meat consumption?
See More at, Animals & Environment.
Thinking With Animals
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
26 June 2020
In thoughtful times, what Canadian doesn’t turn to Leonard Cohen? Suzanne, the lyrics go, takes you down to her place by the river and ‘feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China’.
All the way from China? Yes, for this was written in 1966 when China was reasonably considered far away, both in imagination and geography. Now goods cross international borders, span what we once thought of as vast oceans, fly the (pre-pandemic) crowded skies and arrive in our stores at a fraction of the price of mandarin oranges in Cohen’s era.
But at what cost? What does it cost to curtail production here and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in other lands, to fly fresh produce around the world, and to truck pigs, cattle and poultry across borders as though they were no more sentient than crates of oranges?
If the world seems close and perhaps claustrophobic to us now, we are left to imagine how the walls of civilization close in on the ecosystems of other life forms. Species who once had the luxury of space separate from human exploration and exploitation.
Charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants and mountain goats have long felt the impact of human encroachment both territorially and as objects of cultural significance. Animals that are hunted not for meat but for what it means to have their hides or heads adorning our spaces. Others, like the pangolin are less famously centred in awareness but are of increasing importance as the most heavily trafficked wild mammal across the world today.
Working with the Lele of Central Africa (circa 1964), Douglas described the pangolin as a scaly anteater with the body and tail of a fish yet with four legs used to climb in trees. Pangolins do not fear people and reproduce like us, usually having only one child at a time. These anomalies suggested to the Lele a special link between humans and animals – a creature that could spiritually mediate between the two. Killing a pangolin, they said, would bring animals to hunters and babies to women.
Curious as is the pangolin, neither its threatened status nor its presumed medicinal qualities are unique. Many animals perform a similar role as anomalous creatures believed to bridge the worlds of spiritual and secular. Many believe we can incorporate the special qualities of an animal in a number of ways but most usually by hunting and eating. Science may well prove otherwise (such as pangolin meat having no liver enhancing qualities), yet humans persist in making the animal a way to gain favour or think about ourselves within the infinite.
Many of us are anxious to get back to normal after the lockdown lifts - but what version of 'normal'? Can we develop a more harmonious relationship with nature? Admire animals not for the way they help us think about us, but for what they intrinsically are? Can we set aside tracts of wild land like the Yellowstone to Yukon where we tread lightly, sacrificing some of our freedom for their very survivability?
Cohen has passed on to whatever lies beyond, but his songs remain for us to ponder and enjoy. Like animals in traditional Lele cosmology, his music is good to think with. Like animals worldwide, life is not only analogies and poetry, but the reality of a warm beating heart – good to think and good to respect.
See More at Animals & Environment.
What to do with doggie poo?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
15 May 2020
After snow melts and before grass grows, a stark sign of spring is the appearance of dog poo along sidewalks and trails in public spaces. Walking our pets hasn’t stopped during the COVID-19 virus pandemic, in fact for many it has increased as daily exercise benefits both dogs and their human companions.
There is an estimated population of 12,000 pet dogs in Lethbridge. Together they generate approximately 1.4 million kilograms of waste each year.
Like human faeces, dog waste contains bacteria, protozoa, viruses and parasites that can pose risk to the health of people, other pets, and the environment.
Many studies have traced bacteria in urban watersheds back to dog waste. The monitoring of Lethbridge storm water outfalls has found fecal coliform concentrations far exceeding acceptable standards for recreational and irrigation water. Pet waste was identified as a potential source (as well as wild birds, humans and livestock).
Managing dog waste is a challenge. Lethbridge has a Dog Control Bylaw requiring removal of your dog’s defecates from public property. Enforcement in Lethbridge, however, is minimal. The large amount of dog waste collected from a river valley dog park during recent volunteer “doggy doo-doo pick-up” events suggests some dog walkers knowingly flout this bylaw.
Responsible dog walkers understand the need to pick up their dog’s waste and making it a habit to carry plastic bags for that purpose.
The City of Lethbridge effectively eliminates excuses by maintaining 203 doggie bag dispensers stocked with approximately 600,000 doggie bags per year.
Garbage receptacles are provided at dog parks and signs are posted reminding users to scoop the poop.
Most of the 1.4 million kilograms dog waste generated annually ends up in the municipal landfill, much of it individually packaged in plastic bags. As it decomposes the dog poo contributes to landfill methane, which are a significant local source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, pet waste has significant health and environmental impacts when left unscooped in the environment, and even when disposed of in the landfill.
Municipalities across Canada are looking at responsible ways to keep doggie doo out of their landfills. In Vancouver, residents are encouraged to flush poo (unbagged) down the toilet, to build a backyard composter for only pet poo (using the resulting compost on shrubs), or to use curbside bins picked up by private companies who separate the poo from the bag, sending the plastic to an incinerator and the poo to the wastewater treatment plant. Innovative municipalities with curbside organic waste pick-up programs accept pet waste in paper or certified compostable plastic bags and compost it in facilities designed to reach temperatures high enough to eliminate pathogens. Waterloo is also working with a local company to install underground storage tanks in parks that convert the collected dog waste into fertilizer and electricity via anaerobic digestion.
In Lethbridge, the current conversation about implementing a residential green cart curbside pick-up program needs to include a holistic consideration of what to do with dog poo.
The current practice of depositing thousands of tonnes of dog waste into our landfill wrapped in plastic bags is unsustainable and will become even more so as our population grows, as restrictions on methane emissions increase, and as single-use plastic bags become increasingly unacceptable. Furthermore, the public health issue of unscooped pet waste and its contribution to water pollution begs investigation and enforcement. The health benefits provided by our canine companions, especially evident during this pandemic, must not translate into unacceptable community costs.
See an expanded version with links at, All Things Waste.
1 June 2020
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FoodScaping Our Yards
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
27 April 2020
As we journey through these difficult times, SAGE would like to thank doctors, nurses, pharmacists, grocery, retail, transit and all essential service people helping us cope with Covid19. Your efforts are remarkable and very much appreciated. Previously, in trying times we coped by growing our own food, enabling resilience in our shared environment. From Victory Gardens to Food Forests, may the spirit endure.
A ‘foodscape’ is a designed, site-specific and high-yielding plant system for supporting human needs. A well-designed food forest provides nutritious food and medicinal plants while saving its steward, money. Foodscapes also provide beautiful urban spaces, enrich and protect the environment, build community, and help pollinators. Environmental pressures negatively impacting pollinators include pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss. Among the most affected are bees, which are responsible for pollinating 1/3 of the food we eat. If we want to be sure of healthy crops, pollinators need as much help as we can give.
The most important factor in growing healthy food is healthy soil. A vigorous soil ecosystem is comprised of countless microorganisms, principally bacteria and fungi, that have developed complex symbiotic relationships to help them metabolize nutrients from the soil and resist disease. Bacteria, in general, feed on organic material high in nitrogen like fresh grass and vegetable scraps, while fungi prefer material high in carbon like dried leaves and the woody parts of plants. These are the ‘green’ and ‘brown’ components found in good compost. Incidentally, making compost at home is an easy way to use your food scraps instead of sending them to the landfill, where they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
There are many designs for a foodscape, but all aim to mimic a typical forest with its multiple levels and species. Mirroring the tallest trees in a forest are a variety of fruit-bearing trees. Bushes like chokecherries, currants, and even grapes can comprise the next level. Then, herbaceous perennials such as comfrey and anise hyssop are often planted for medicinal use or to attract pollinators. The root and ground cover layers are comprised of soil stabilizing and conditioning plants including rhubarb, strawberries, carrots, garlic, spinach, rosemary and mint.
Most of the plants in a foodscape are perennials, as the goal is for the food forest to recur annually with minimal labour, while providing food and medicine for people, animal habitat and the ambiance of abundance and health. All of the living structures in a food forest are comprised of carbon removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the soil, no longer contributing to the warming of the planet. The biomass in healthy soil is a massive carbon sink.
In choosing plants to foodscape your yard in Lethbridge, consider drought-tolerant species resistant to pests and diseases prevalent here. Other practical factors in the choice of plants include length of the growing season, tolerance for shade, nitrogen fixation and soil stabilization.
Foodscapes could become much more common in Lethbridge.
Because each site is different and unique, you may want to seek information and planning advice from sources such as LethbridgeSustainableLiving.org, UrbanFarmSchool.ca and ReGenerateDesign.ca.
This is an opportunity to think differently about our yards and shared spaces.
We can grow food and reap the rewards of a healthy body, environment – and pocketbook.
What is Renewable Energy?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
23 March 2020
The challenge is to reduce the enormous amount of fossil energy we use and replace it with cleaner energy. Pollution has an enormous impact on human health and the integrity of natural systems, so less of it is better for everyone. Renewable energy technologies convert energy from inexhaustible sources into electricity. The energy source in the case of solar panels (photovoltaics) is the sun, whereas the energy source for wind turbines is the velocity and mass of the wind.
Renewable energy technologies require fossil energy to manufacture (as 90% of world energy consumption is currently derived from fossil fuels), and these processes result in various forms of pollution. This is no different than conventional energy technologies: coal production, oil and natural gas refining, and electricity generation plants also produce pollution. As such, using less energy is always the best choice to reduce pollution.
The main reason for installing commercial-scale renewable energy technologies is to reduce pollution compared to conventional fossil-fuel technologies. To do this, the renewable technology must generate more energy when compared to the energy consumed in their manufacture (and to install and maintain). Every 1 unit of fossil energy invested up-front in the renewable energy technology permits more units of energy to be delivered from the sun or the wind.
Here are some examples: In the case of solar, the energy it takes to manufacture a square meter of panel is 1150 kWh. A kWh, or ‘kilowatt-hour’, is the same unit of energy in which you purchase your electricity. In Lethbridge, a square meter of solar panel will produce about 225 kWh of electricity each year. If the solar panel lasts its expected lifespan of 25 years, it will produce 5 times more energy than it took to manufacture it.
Similarly, the energy it takes to manufacture a common 2-megawatt wind turbine is 2.8 million kWh. The wind turbine will produce about 3.5 million kWh each year for an expected lifespan of 20 years. A wind turbine will produce roughly 25 times more energy than it took to manufacture it.
Today, it is a process of making fossil fuels more productive: Take one unit of energy from a fossil fuel, use it to make a renewable energy technology, and generate 5 to 25 times more energy over time.
Because you are increasing the efficiency of the original unit of fossil fuel, you are creating smaller amounts of pollution per kWh of electricity produced.
The caveat: renewable energy technologies have to be installed in locations that maximize sun or wind exposure, and all of the electricity generated must be used. This requires a well-designed and operated electricity system that will receive electricity when it is generated and provide electricity when it is needed.
In summary, when one wonders what renewable energy is today, think of it as improving efficiency (making more energy from each unit of fossil fuel energy invested), and think of it as a means of reducing pollution.
We live in a full world: renewable energy technologies are an existing way to do better and begin to reduce our environmental impact.
See an expanded version, with charts at, Renewables
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The Vital Role of Insects
Published in Lethbridge Herald
27 January 2020
I have a weakness for the little things of this planet. Insects, in all their variety, ability, and beauty. I especially love spiders. In fact, last summer my family adopted a gorgeous Cat Face Spider who had spread her web across my son’s window. We caught lunch for her and it was fabulous to watch her zip down from her hidey-hole to wrap up her prey in thick white silk. Her wrapping web was nearly invisible, like thin wool. Spiders produce seven types of silk for different jobs. To me, that’s fascinating and miraculous.
My love of insects gives me joy, but many humans don’t share that joy.
Whatever our feelings, we are now aware that insect life is in serious peril.
A recent Guardian report notes the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles.
But maybe the insects in Canada are okay?
No. They’re not.
Do you recall the plethora of insects plastered across car windshields after a long summer trip? That doesn’t happen anymore. Agriculture Canada scientist Jeff Skevington, says “the country has lost a significant amount of its insect biodiversity in recent years based on the results of annual collection samples. That means a lot of the insects at the bottom of our food chain are dying out, which could have an unexpected, but noticeable impact on the lives of humans.”
In our region, 720 species of insects are at risk.
Insects are critical to the health of people. They pollinate our food, anchor entire food chains, break down plants and other organic matter, and control pest species that can decimate crops. Insects are such an important part of our planet’s ecosystems that biologist E.O. Wilson once called them ‘The little things that run the world.’
Why are insects threatened? There are multiple factors, including pesticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, intensive agriculture, light pollution and climate change. Skevington says climate change is “one of the most impactful reason bugs are dying out.” He cited recent temperature fluctuations in Spring that some bugs simply can’t endure. 'Quite often you’ll have really big warm spells so you get a flush of insects coming out, followed by a cold snap,' he said. Cold snaps can interrupt a bug’s lifecycle and severely impact their populations, and heat waves affect insect reproduction by severely decreasing male fertility.
What can we do to help insects bounce back? We can: stop using chemicals on our lawn and garden, get rid of the bug zapper (which kills beneficial insects) and buy organic food and cotton products that use fewer pesticides in production. In your garden, plant native species and leave little homes insects can shelter in, especially over the winter.
We’ll all be better off if insects can thrive again.
You don’t have to feed a spider, but you can give one a hidey-hole in your yard!
Extended version, with links at Issues & Projects.
What are your emissions?
Published in Lethbridge Herald
17 January 2020
We hear in the media a lot of talk about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but few of us know how we contribute or how to calculate them for our own lives. And since it was probably this New Year’s Resolution to learn, cut this out of The Herald and attach it to the fridge door.
Now, dig out your solar powered calculator and your utility bills (or phone your provider) and follow along:
Home heating (natural gas): Add up the GJs on your bill for the past year and multiply this number by 0.056 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house that uses 120 GJ of natural gas over a year:
120 x 0.056 = 6.7 tonnes of GHGs.
Electricity: Add up the kWh for the year and multiply by 0.000688 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house in Alberta that uses 7200 kWh of electricity over a year:
7200 x 0.000688 = 10.2 tonnes of GHGs.
Driving (gasoline): Multiply your gas mileage by the number of kilometers you drove in the past year and multiply by 0.0024 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a car that uses 12.1 litres per 100 kilometers driving 15,600 km last year:
12.1 x 15,600 / 100 = 1890 liters purchased. So, 1890 litres x 0.0024 = 4.5 tonnes.
For individual emissions, you can divide these numbers by the number of people living in the home or travelling in the car.
Food is tricky, but important.
Assume that you eat about 2600 calories a day, and according to Canadian statistics we waste about 40% from farm to fork. (Interestingly, one fifth of the total food produced is wasted in our homes). Our food is responsible for about 2.5 tonnes per person for a Canada Food Guide diet. This may be lower if you eat less meat or waste less food.
Now, what about your flying holiday?
Google the flying distance between your home and your destination. Let’s say Lethbridge to Madrid, which is a 15,700 km return flight. Multiply this total by 0.000111 for your individual GHG emissions. In this example, 15,700 x 0.000111 = 1.7 tonnes.
Adding it all up, with two people in the home, the personal GHG emission in our example is just about 15 tonnes per year. This number would actually be a little low, as it does not include all of our consumer items.
The published number for Canadians is 16.7 tonnes per year which includes everything we do inside and outside our homes. By comparison, the United States is 15.7 tonnes per person; China is 7.7 tonnes; European Union is 7.0 tonnes; and India is 1.8 tonnes.
For an expanded edition with links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
Ways to Waste Less Food
Published in Lethbridge Herald
17 December 2019
In Lethbridge, about half of the residential waste going to the landfill are organics, mainly food and lawn cuttings. Once disposed of in the landfill, organics contribute to methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and the accumulation of toxic fluids in the landfill called leachate. But even worse is that the food you throw away also wastes valuable resources, beginning in the sea or on the farm until it reaches your belly.
About one fifth of the food you buy at the grocery store ends up in the trash. This costs you about $1700 each year, but it also costs our environment: wasting agricultural land to grow the food that ends up being thrown out; using fresh water to grow the food; over-use of fertilizers that end up in the rivers creating huge aquatic dead zones worldwide; herbicides and pesticides that disrupt soil ecosystems as well as negatively affecting insects, birds and animals; and waste of the energy used to package, transport and refrigerate the food before it arrives in your home.
It is roughly seven times better for the environment to use all the food you buy than composting the food you do throw away. But composting is the next best thing, as there are portions of the food you buy that simply cannot be used. Backyard composting is good, but municipal collection and industrial composting can compost many things that are not suitable for backyard technologies. Reduce first, compost as a last resort.
There are a number of things you can to do reduce food waste in your home. For those who have shopped while hungry, you will know that planning your meals and buying only what you need for those meals is a good start. You can improve by planning to use what you already have in the refrigerator. Use more of the plant, from root to stem. And all of those scraps you generate can be saved to make soup stock for another meal.
Organize your fridge so that you can see the food that will spoil more quickly. Freeze food that you may not use right away or, when you have an abundance, you can preserve or dehydrate food to be used later. Best before and expiry dates are general suggestions from the food manufacturer - do a sniff test, as it may still be good to use. If you are going to use a product right away, help your grocery store by buying the items on the shelf closer to the ‘best before’ date. Encourage your grocer to discount food that would otherwise be thrown away. If you have purchased or grown too much food, consider donating it to a food charity while it is still good.
Most people are pretty good at eating what they buy, but it is amazing how much goes to the trash anyway. For a lot of good tips, tools, and resources, visit wasteless.ca (a project of Environment Lethbridge).
For an expanded edition with links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
The Paradox of Plenty
Published in Lethbridge Herald as,
'Tale of the Resource Curse'
21 November 2019
The ‘paradox of plenty’ (or the ‘resource curse’) has been observed in regions that have an abundance of a non-renewable resource. The argument is that resource-rich regions are more likely to experience low economic growth in the long term. The International Monetary Fund considers a region ‘resource-rich’ when 20% of the fiscal revenue is derived from non-renewable resources.
The cycle goes like this: A resource is discovered and the demand for this resource is established. This draws private investment from early entrants into the industry. As the industry expands and the return on investments remains lucrative, more money is invested. Governments invest in infrastructure that benefits the dynamic industry. Both public and private investments are made at the expense of other potentially profitable industries seeking capital. In plain words, the eggs are placed in a single basket.
This is where the curse comes in. At some point in the resource cycle, the profits to industry begin to decline. This may be because the easily-extracted resources are diminished, and the resources that are more difficult to access or refine are needed to fill the gap. The government that relies on a single resource industry for revenue and for employing its workers responds by supporting the struggling and influential industry in the form of improved infrastructure, tax incentives, support for research & development, and reductions in royalty expectations. This is usually an honest attempt to sustain the industry (already vulnerable to boom/bust cycles in commodity markets), hoping that it will recover in the short term or within the next election cycle.
The ‘resource curse’ suggests that there will be a time when this recovery is weak, or simply non-existent. Nonetheless, out of desperation, even more money will be invested to prop up the industry – money that will never be recovered in revenues.
Since most of the available money has flowed to a single industry at the expense of other industries, the resource-rich region has not adequately diversified and it is unprepared for the loss in revenues and employment opportunities. It is not uncommon that the failing industries leave behind a legacy of obsolete infrastructure and environmental damage that become public liabilities. In many countries where this cycle has been observed, the results have included instability in democratic institutions and the rise of populism and demagoguery, a drastic reduction in public services, an increase in human desperation and a deficit of political leadership as manifested in growing corruption, violence, crime, scapegoating, and human rights violations.
The Paradox of Plenty is a cautionary tale. Indicators might include rising liabilities (like orphan wells and mining tailing ponds), increased public investments in infrastructure for the once-lucrative industry (often accompanied by declining private investment), lower transparency in government finances, and less civil and open public discussion. Good government leadership can mitigate many of the worst effects – by encouraging economic diversification, by adopting a long-term view in decision-making, by not relying on royalty revenues for core public services, or by saving revenues from this non-renewable inheritance for future needs.
It takes courage and foresight to recognize a faltering or uneconomic industry, and it takes wise leadership that seeks thoughtful input to avoid the worst consequences of the ‘paradox of plenty’.
For an expanded edition with graphs & links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
We are pleased to actively participate in the Alberta Narratives Project:
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The Project conducted 55 province-wide roundtable discussions with 482 Albertans run by 75 organizations and supported by 19 partners.
Download the Alberta Narratives Project reports I & II:
Alberta Narratives Project
Expansion of the Twin River Heritage Rangeland on the Milk River Ridge.
See our letter @ Letters to Government
SAGE commends the City of Lethbrige for leadership & commitment to managing municipal solid waste diversion & welcomes Community Curbside Recycling.
BILL C - 202 Canadian Environmental Bill Of Rights
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