Sierra Club ranks 3 watershed cities on list for worst urban sprawl

Three of the watershed’s largest cities — Washington, Baltimore and Hampton Roads — are among the nation’s worst for urban sprawl, according to a new report, which says sprawl is the fastest growing threat to the environment.

“In larger cities and small towns, sprawl is becoming inescapable,” the environmental group said in an analysis of population trends in more than 30 cities.

The long-held dream of a hassle-free lifestyle and home ownership in the suburbs “is turning into a nightmare of traffic, air pollution, lost open space and higher taxes,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “The story is the same all across America.”

The group ranked Atlanta as facing the worst urban sprawl problem among cities of more than 1 million in population. On average, 500 acres of green space, forests and farmland disappear in the Atlanta metropolitan area each week, the study said.

In Chicago, ranked 10th in urban sprawl, the population of the metropolitan area grew by 9 percent between 1990 and 1996, but developed land expanded by 40 percent, the study said.

Smaller cities such as Raleigh, NC, McAllen, TX, and Akron, OH, also are feeling the pressure because of growth and people moving farther into the countryside.

In Raleigh, people drive an average of 32.2 miles a day by car, more than any other city with a population of less than 500,000, the study said. The city’s metropolitan population increased by about a third from 1990 to 1996 and its land area jumped by nearly half as people moved farther from the city.

“We need a sea change in the way cities think about growth and plan their development,” Pope said. “We need a move away from outdated and destructive planning and management policies established 50 years ago.”

The trend toward ever-expanding urban areas focusing on low-density growth is costing billions of dollars for expanded roads, and sewer and water systems, while destroying needed wetlands, forests and open spaces for wildlife and adding to air and water pollution, the Sierra Club said.

“Between 1970 and 1990, more than 19 million acres of rural land were developed. Every year, 400,000 acres are being bulldozed under. And the rate of development is accelerating,” said the authors of the study.

Even cities that have been praised for environmentally sensitive urban planning have been overcome with sprawl problems.

In Seattle, population sprawl around Puget Sound is being blamed for water pollution and habitat destruction that in part is threatening the survival of the chinook salmon. The Seattle area’s suburban population grew by 17 percent, compared to a 2 percent growth in the city, from 1990 to 1996, the study said.

According to the Sierra Club, here are the cities with the worst urban sprawl:

Cities of 1 million or more people (20): Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Cincinnati, Kansas City, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa, Dallas, Hampton Roads, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Antonio, Riverside-St. Bernardino, CA

Cities of 500,000 to 1 million people (5): Orlando; Austin, TX; Las Vegas; West Palm Beach, FL; Akron, OH

Cities of 200,000 to 500,000 (5): McAllen, TX; Raleigh; Pensacola, FL; Daytona Beach, FL; Little Rock; AS

The Sierra Club did not include Los Angeles in its ranking, although it said the city is acknowledged to be “the granddaddy of sprawl.”

PA dam proposal under fire

Plans for a 40-foot-high dam to create a recreational lake in a Pennsylvania state park has drawn strong opposition from environmental groups, who say the project’s cost in lost wetlands is too high.

The state has been planning a dam at Swatara Creek in Lebanon County, northeast of Harrisburg, for more than three decades. Now, the proposal to create the 750-acre lake is to the point where the Army Corps of Engineers, which recently took comments on the proposal, could decide whether to permit the project by the end of the year.

“This project will destroy a variety of wetland and forest areas,” said Turner Odell, Pennsylvania staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We’re not opposed to the development of Swatara State Park for recreational purposes that highlight the natural, free-flowing Swatara Creek. We do not believe that the additional recreational benefits of the proposed dam justify the loss of more than 60 acres of forested wetlands and nearly 10 acres of scarce vernal pool wetlands.”

Proponents say the lake would improve recreation in a state that has few natural lakes. “If constructed, the reservoir would provide the only regionally significant water-based recreational opportunities between the Susquehanna and Blue Marsh Reservoir” near Reading, according to a flier supporting the plan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has raised concerns that flooding the area in Swatara State Park would destroy the habitat of a variety of amphibians and reptiles, potentially including some rare species.

Scientists say acid rain is threatening VA brook trout

Acid rain from power plants is jeopardizing Virginia’s brook trout population, say scientists at the University of Virginia. “Sulfur deposition from power plants to the west of us are the biggest components of acid rain in Virginia,” said Art Bulgur, a senior research scientist at U-VA.

The scientists’ study found that 6 percent of all trout streams in Virginia are chronically acidic, which means they cannot support brook trout or any other fish. The study was funded by the environmental group Trout Unlimited and state natural resource agencies.

By the 2041, the report predicted, the number of chronically acidic streams could increase to 35 percent if sulfur emissions aren’t reduced. The authors are calling for a 70 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide from 1990 emission levels to prevent further damage.

“There is a widespread belief that the Clean Air Act has done a lot,” said Steve Moyer, vice president of conservation programs for Trout Unlimited. “While that’s true, there are still a lot of areas having problems because of acid rain.”

Bulgur said sulfur deposits that fall directly in the water increase acid levels and damage the gills of fish. The deposits that fall to the earth cause aluminum to dissolve in the soil and leach into the streams, poisoning fish. The mountain regions, home to most of the state’s trout streams, are the most sensitive because of the soil’s limited ability to buffer the effects of acids.

He said the effect of acid rain on brook trout is particularly telling. “Brook trout is one of the most acid-tolerant of species,” he said. “By the time the acids have had an effect on brook trout, it has already eliminated other species.”

EPA research has shown that wind currents can transport sulfur dioxide into areas hundreds of miles from power plants. According to the EPA, Ohio power plants emitted the most sulfur dioxide in 1996, with more than 1 million tons. West Virginia ranked sixth in the nation that year with 600,000 tons. Virginia was 19th with nearly 200,000 tons.

Worth noting:

Marina to open: The first major marina to be built in the metropolitan Washington region in more than 15 years is slated to open next spring across a tidal bay from the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, despite opposition from citizens, the state and federal agencies. The marina is part of a 325-acre commercial and residential development along Belmont Bay. And Preston Caruthers, who owns the property, is hoping that the area will attract increased boat traffic and tourists. Until now, little development has taken place in the lowland forest marshes and bluffs along the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, because of fears that development will affect the Mason Neck Refuge, which serves as habitat for nesting bald eagles. The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service, the state and regional park agencies purchased two-thirds of the area's 8,000 acres in the 1960s after a developer’s unsuccessful attempt to build a planned community.

VA power plants blasted: A coalition of environmental and health groups in August called for new emissions controls at “grandfathered” coal-fired power plants in Virginia, saying they are the "single largest source of air pollution" in the state. Eight of Virginia’s 10 coal-fired power plants are exempt from the federal Clean Air Act. The groups blamed the plants for smog problems in northern Virginia, which has so far failed to meet the federal air-quality standard for ozone. Citing federal statistics, the groups said that Virginia farmers lost about $18 million to $28 million in reduced crop yields because of smog damage in 1996. Installing new pollution controls at the plants would reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide by 82 percent and nitrogen oxides by 70 percent, the equivalent of removing 4 million cars from Virginia roads, according to the report.

Farmland preservation: Pennsylvania and Maryland are each getting $1.4 million to buy development rights and preserve farmland through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Protection Program. Created in the 1996 Farm Bill, the money is used to leverage state and local funds to help protect farmland. The money is expected to help preserve 3,300 acres in Pennsylvania, and 4,215 acres in Maryland. In all, 19 states are getting money under the program in 1998.