Highlights from the Week's News

This Week in Water™ airs on community and public radio stations nationwide and is available on podcast networks. Want environmental news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.

Supreme Court Guts Protecting Air and Water

June 30, 2024

Supreme Court Decision Undoes 40 Years of Regulatory Precedent

The Supreme Court has made it much harder for administrative agencies like the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to safeguard water and air quality and for other regulators to address problems from healthcare to banking. In a decision announced Friday, June 28, the high court struck down what’s become known as “Chevron deference,” a doctrine that said federal courts should defer to a federal agency’s reasonable action if Congress has not been clear about a law’s provisions.

Fishing boats in Maine  |  Credit: Mourial/Creative Commons

For 40 years, Chevron deference has been the basis for upholding thousands of rules and regulations imposed by government agencies to protect our food, water, health, and the environment. The doctrine allowed an agency to interpret a law because Congress cannot micromanage its day-to-day implementation.

Chevron deference was seen by some as giving too much power to what they call “the administrative state” and they wanted courts, instead of agencies, to decide what Congress meant. The court overruled any notion that federal regulators are better than federal judges at deciding what ambiguities in a law could mean, even those involving scientific or technical issues.

The recent case was brought by fishing companies who objected to a rule issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that required them to pay for a monitor on vessels to observe, among other things, bycatch—animals that are trapped but cannot be kept or sold. The companies had lost in the lower courts. The high court threw out Chevron deference saying that judges can discount or even disregard the expertise of an agency like the EPA that issued regulations and instead substitute their own judgment—even though they have no scientific or technical expertise.

In the words of the dissenting justice, Elena Kagan, the decision will now allow judges, and ultimately the Supreme Court, to be the final arbiter on regulatory matters in which they have no training or education. Sambhav Sankar, an executive at Earthjustice said in a statement that the court’s decision threatens the legitimacy of hundreds of regulations that keep us safe, protect our homes and environment, and create a level playing field for businesses.

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke with the Associated Press and said that the effect will be to weaken the government’s ability to meet real problems like COVID and climate change.

A Sixth Mass Extinction Could Be Avoided Under This Practical Plan

For some time now, scientists have been warning about a sixth mass extinction of animals and plants in which one million species (out of eight million) could die out within decades because of human-caused climate disruption and habitat destruction.

Male golden toad (Incilius periglenes) is now extinct (1989)  | Credit: Charles H. Smith/Creative Commons

But there is some good news. A new report published in the journal Frontiers in Science shows that it’s possible to protect Earth’s remaining biodiversity by conserving just a small portion of the planet’s surface. The authors, a group of conservationists and scientists, say their plan is affordable and achievable. They add that it’s practical because most species are rare and have either very narrow ranges or occur at very low densities or both. This means that only 1.2 percent of Earth’s surface is needed to avoid the sixth extinction of life.  

According to the researchers, there are about 17,000 sites around the world that need to be prioritized for conservation in the next five years to preserve plants and animals not found anywhere else. Many of them are already near protected areas. The report says that more than half of those sites were in the Philippines, Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Colombia. Protecting key sites would cost up around $45 billion and could be accomplished through land purchases, expansion of Indigenous areas, and preserving government-owned lands.

In 2022, more than 190 countries committed to protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans, lands, and inland waters by 2030—an initiative called 30x30. However, the scientists found that governments have been failing to protect the biodiverse areas most in need.

Why Hailstones Are Getting as Big as Grapefruits

This spring and summer have been remarkable for the size of hailstones that thunderstorms have produced with some as large as golf balls and others as wide as a grapefruit. So, is climate change to blame?

Changes in the number of days with favorable ingredients for very large hail. Areas shaded in red have had an increase since 1979, most notably in the Midwest.  |  Credit: Tang et al.

According to Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University at Albany, the answer is quite likely yes. He and his colleagues looked at four decades of data and found that the ingredients necessary to produce large hail have become more common in parts of the central and eastern U.S. since 1979.

Hail forms when thunderstorm updrafts send raindrops high in the atmosphere where they freeze and then grow by collecting supercooled water. The longer a hailstone spends in a cloud, the larger it can get, and the researchers say climate change is fueling conditions that keep the icy balls aloft.

One factor is an increase in warm, humid air as the planet warms, which supplies more energy to thunderstorms and makes supercooled water more plentiful for the stones to grow. Another contributor is snowpack disappearing earlier in the year over western U.S. mountains, which allows the sun to heat the land faster and create unstable air masses that can feed thunderstorms. Climate change could also lead to less small hail and more large hail because, as the atmosphere warms, the altitude at which water will freeze is higher. Small hail would likely melt before falling to the ground, whereas larger hail would fall faster and not thaw on its way down.

Although tornadoes get the public’s attention as fearsome, hail events are much more frequent, causing property damage and pummeling crops. Insured losses from severe weather, which are dominated by hail damage, have increased substantially over the past few decades, the researchers say, in part driven by the growing number of people living in hail-prone areas.

A Variety of Pollen Is the Bee’s Knees to Meeting Bees’ Needs

A new study from the Canadian Journal of Cardiology concludes that plant-based meat alternatives are healthier for your heart than regular meat, something to consider on your next trip to the grocery store. But humans aren’t the only creatures who thrive on plant-based diets. Many animals and insects do too—but according to new research the plants they choose matter.

Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens)  |  Credit: Ryan Hodnett/Creative Commons

Scientists looked at the diets of wild bees—critical pollinators that support agriculture and many ecosystems—to determine how farming, urbanization, and climate change have reduced plant choices on which the insects forage. Like humans, bees need a balanced diet. They get carbohydrates from nectar, and proteins, lipids, and other critical nutrients from pollen. Without this nourishment, they live shorter lives, have weaker immune systems, and are less able to cope with environmental stressors.

But not all pollen is the same. It contains varying amounts of nutrients, and that can affect bee health. For example, bees need amino acids for cognition and reproduction, but if they eat pollen with too much, they can become susceptible to certain parasites.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, analyzed the nutritional value of 57 flowers in North America and concluded that bees need to forage on a variety of them to stay healthy, but warned that human activities have limited what’s available. The researchers noted that roses, clover, raspberries, and buttercups were particularly beneficial. They hope their findings will guide conservation and restoration efforts to develop gardens and open spaces that will be the bee’s knees.