Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Community gardens could help curb flooding

A resident works at a community urban garden in the Madureira neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 1, 2022. The Madureira community garden, (with 110 thousand square meters) produces organic food that is distributed and marketed to residents. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

New York City’s expansive network of community gardens has long been giving cramped apartment dwellers a place to cultivate crops.  

But urban vegetable growers are now touting an added benefit of gardening: The ability to control flooding amid extreme weather conditions, according to The New York Times.  

Many gardens have incorporated trenches lined with vegetation to absorb water, while others are collecting rain from sheds, gazebos and rooftops of neighboring buildings, the Times reported.  

One such “rainwater harvesting system,” installed at community garden in Upper Manhattan, collects up to 2,000 gallons of storm water runoff annually, according to the newspaper. 

In total, about 165 million gallons of storm water are diverted from New York City’s streets and sewers each year due to community gardens, the Times reported, citing data from Earthjustice.   

“Community gardens are part of the solution because they are a permeable space in a city that is full of impermeable surfaces,” Mike Rezny, of the nonprofit GrowNYC, told the Times.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start with a Biden administration initiative to bring solar energy to low-income households, then we’ll see how Russian gas cuts mean a further escalation in Europe’s energy crisis. Plus: Russia pushes to leave the International Space Station.

Feds seek to open solar to low-income households

The Biden administration announced several programs on Wednesday that could help up to 4.5 million households gain access to solar energy, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported for The Hill. 

Of particular importance to the administration is helping low-income families secure access to the cost-saving technology, according to a White House fact sheet. 

Programs of note: One pilot project included in the White House package will experiment with helping households on federal low-income programs access community solar power, according to the Department of Energy. 

Another initiative would let families in government housing use solar programs without losing their rental assistance, per the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

Spreading the solar wealth: “For many reasons, certain segments of our society are unable to participate in the benefits of solar energy and the savings potentially that flow from that,” an Energy Department official told Politico.

European gas prices soar amid Russian gas cuts

After Russia decreased the flow of gas through Europe’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Wednesday, Western leaders “are bracing for a protracted economic confrontation” with Moscow, The Wall Street Journal reported.  

What happened? Russia slashed the flow of the pipeline — which supplies natural gas to the EU through Germany — to 20-percent capacity, fulfilling a promise made on Monday by state-controlled energy giant Gazprom.  

In anticipation of the cuts and ahead of winter, EU energy ministers approved a draft law on Tuesday aimed at lowering demand for gas by 15 percent, as we reported.  

  • Prices soar: European gas prices rose nearly 2 percent by Wednesday evening, trading at almost the record high that was set after Russia invaded Ukraine, the BBC reported.   
  • Wholesale prices closed at 204.85 euros ($207.69) per megawatt hour — the third highest price ever and a huge jump from the price at this time last year:
    37 euros ($37.50 today) per megawatt-hour, according to the BBC.  

Blame game: Moscow stressed on Wednesday that the supply cut was due to the “obstruction” of maintenance work on the pipeline by Western sanctions, Radio Free Europe reported.  

“We had counted on receiving one repaired engine from Siemens (Energy) as far back as May, but as of today we haven’t got this engine,” Vitaly Markelov of Gazprom told Rossiya 24 TV, according to Radio Free Europe. 

Import issues: But a spokesperson for Siemens, which had been servicing the turbine in Canada, told Reuters that “the transportation could start immediately” and that it had received export approvals from Germany.  

“What is missing, however, are the customs documents for import to Russia,” the spokesperson said. “Gazprom, as the customer, is required to provide those.”

Russia threatens to leave International Space Station

Russia says it plans to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) within several years in order to build its own outpost — ending a historic partnership that has spanned more than two decades. 

  • Flying solo: Yuri Borisov, the new leader of the Roscosmos space agency, said Tuesday that “the decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” The Associated Press reported.
  • “I think that by that time we will start forming a Russian orbiting station,” Borisov added, speaking at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • However: A senior NASA official told Reuters on Wednesday that Russian officials have said Moscow plans to stay part of the space station until at least 2028.

A difficult decade: The AP noted that Russia’s initial announcement about quickly exiting the ISS “throws into question the future of the 24-year-old space station,” which experts say could be difficult to maintain without Russia. 

Still, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying that the agency was “committed to the safe operation” of the station through 2030, the AP reported.  

Any details about the new station? Borisov, the Roscosmos chief, said a new Russian station would “raise the bar” and provide the Russian economy with services like navigation, communication and data transmission, according to The Moscow Times.

  • Roscosmos thus far has only revealed a model of Russia’s orbital platform through the Telegram messaging app, according to the Times.    

What happens going forward? An analysis from The Guardian questioned whether Russia’s withdrawal could end up “killing off the International Space Station,” noting that the hub has survived past threats.

Russia previously threatened to leave ISS programs over U.S. sanctions.

An uncertain future: NASA’s current plan is to de-orbit the station in 2031, sending any remnants into a remote region of the South Pacific Ocean. But until then, activities under consideration had included ventures like commercial tourism and moviemaking, The Guardian reported.  

But amid ongoing uncertainty about Russia, space agencies will now need to both “plan for the country’s departure while hoping it stays on,” the analysis added.

Predicting deadly debris flows

Communities living downhill from fire-prone forests could soon have a more accurate picture of their risk posed by deadly landslides. 

Scientists from Northwestern University have devised a new blueprint that could help engineers design early warning systems for deadly “debris flows,” according to a statement from the team.

The findings, published on Wednesday in Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, could also inform the design of infrastructure that could prevent landslides from occurring, the authors said.  

What is a debris flow? It’s fast-moving mudslide dislodged from steep hillsides by heavy rains, according to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS). 

  • Debris flows can travel at speeds above 35 miles per hour “and can carry large items such as boulders trees, and cars,” per USGS. 
  • In 2021, for example, a debris flow near Big Sur, Calif., ripped out a section of Highway 1, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  

Anatomy of a failure: In the Big Sur case, the mud, debris and logs clogged up the concrete channels that would usually allow water to pass underneath — creating a natural dam that forced the slide up onto the road, Gary Griggs of University of California Santa Cruz told ASCE. 

As heavy debris covered the road and erosion washed out its supports, the result was “collapse,” Griggs added. 

Wildfires increase this risk: Even minor rain events following wildfires can lead to flash floods due to the post-fire absence of vegetation that otherwise absorbs rain, according to USGS. 

The exposed soil in naked “burn scars” is also more easily dislodged. 

  • In Big Sur, for example, debris flows were caused by the one-two punch of the 128,000-acre Dolan Fire and the 16 inches of rainfall that followed it, per ASCE. 
  • Fires can also spread melted waxes from the bodies of burned plants across hillsides — creating an impermeable layer that water and debris run right over, according to the Northwestern team. 

New tools for rising risk: With human-caused climate change increasing the risk of debris flows, “developing models to better understand past events and predict future events is essential,” lead author Chuxuan Li of Northwestern said.

Weather Wednesday

State of emergency in Oregon, new heat tracker provides real-time insight and floodwaters deluge Missouri. 

Oregon governor declares state of emergency amid scorching heat 

  • Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) declared a state of emergency in 25 counties on Tuesday amid a brutal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, local ABC affiliation KATU reported. The declaration served to “ensure additional resources are available to respond to forecasted excessively high temperatures,” according to KATU. 

New tracker shows heat waves as they happen

Record rainfall floods out St. Louis residents 

  • At least 400 residents of St. Louis had to be rescued after a record-shattering  9 inches of rain fell across the city on Tuesday, leading to widespread flooding, AccuWeather reported. More rain fell in 24 hours than is normal for July and August combined, according to AccuWeather.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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