Rebecca Williams

Reporter/Producer - The Environment Report

Rebecca has a natural science degree from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment, where she had close encounters with escaped boars and poison sumac. Before getting into radio, Rebecca snapped photos of Mongolian diatoms and published a few papers in obscure scientific journals.

Now she spends her days reporting on everything from hungry watersnakes to heritage turkeys to people who live in 300 square foot houses.

She’s won several national awards for her work including a first place National Headliner Award at the network level for her stories on the uber-destructive emerald ash borer.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We spend about $21 million a year keeping invasive sea lampreys in check in the Great Lakes.

But they’re resilient creatures. Even after we spend all that money, we still can’t get rid of them.

Scientists now suspect lampreys are getting a little too comfortable up north.

R. Greaves / NOAA GLERL

It might seem a little counterintuitive, but right now, a bunch of scientists are thinking about how high the water at Great Lakes beaches will be this summer.

Early last year, the Lake Michigan-Lake Huron system hit record low water levels.

It made life tougher for the shipping industry, and it’s hard on people who run Great Lakes ports.

Russell Dzuba is the harbor master in Leland.

“For us, it’s shallow. When we went to dredge this year we had to go a foot deeper and the world was a foot shorter, if you will,” he says.

Enbridge

Enbridge Energy is still cleaning up oil left over from its pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River.  

The company has already recovered most of the oil, but it's still working to comply with an order from the federal regulators, who say they need to clean up another 180,000 gallons. 

According to Enbridge's new plan, they can start that cleanup March 15. But that's all dependent on this crazy weather. Right now, everything is frozen. But, if spring warms things up and there's flooding, that can also be problematic for the dredging process. 

Farm in rural Michigan
user acrylicartist / MorgueFile.com

The farm bill has about $57 billion for conservation.

Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition Todd Ambs says a lot of people don't realize the farm bill is where we find the largest source of conservation money from the federal government.

"That’s because there are so many activities that happen on the land that bring us our food, that if done improperly can have a very adverse impact on the soil and also to surrounding waterways," he says.

If you haven't seen it yet, the Google Doodle is all about love today. This American Life's Ira Glass narrates a candy heart collection of bite-size love stories.

Middle school love. Married love. Love and loss.

The stories are short and sweet and might make you have a little Story Corps moment right at your desk.

And if you haven't gotten a Valentine's card yet, there's always the NPR valentine option:

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Life could soon get a little harder for backyard farmers.

A law passed in 1981 protects Michigan farmers from nuisance lawsuits. It’s called the Right to Farm Act.  It was created to protect farmers from angry neighbors who were moving out into rural areas from cities.

At the moment, the law also protects people who raise chickens and other animals in their backyards.

Wendy Banka lives in Ann Arbor.  She has seven chickens with orange feathers living in a coop in her backyard.

Most metal food cans are lined with a chemical called bisphenol-A.
(Photo courtesy of Sun Ladder at Wikimedia Commons)

We’re all regularly exposed to the chemical Bisphenol A or BPA. Companies have taken it out of baby bottles, and many kinds of those hard plastic water bottles no longer have BPA in them.

But it’s still used on paper receipts and to line most food and drink cans.

Dana Dolinoy is a Searle Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“There is mounting evidence that BPA has negative health effects in both animal models and humans,” says Dolinoy.

Mark Brush

Maybe you think this is the best winter ever.  Or maybe you’ve had some choice words for Punxsatawney Phil.

So, just how bad - or how fabulous - is this winter? There’s a scientist in Nebraska who has put a number on it.

Brian Murphy

Let's call today Throwback Tuesday, and go way, way back to the 1920s.

That's when Sir Alexander Fleming stumbled on a mold that stopped bacteria from growing in a petri dish. He called it penicillin.

Ever since that huge discovery, people have been looking all over the Earth for more organisms that can fight disease.

Brian Murphy has been searching at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

flickr Kate Gardiner

There’s a lot of time, money and effort being spent to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

To keep them out, we first have to know where the carp are.

Biologists often go out and sample water from rivers and lakes to look for carp. They test the water for genetic material, and some of those tests have turned up positive for Asian carp.

Last year, 20 samples turned up positive hits in Lake Erie. The positive DNA hits raise alarm bells that an invasive carp species might be establishing a population in the Great Lakes.

But the presence of carp DNA does not mean an actual fish was swimming in that area.

Allen Chartier / Great Lakes Hummernet

With the chill in the air now, you might guess that most hummingbirds would have ditched Michigan for a more tropical place.

The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the bird you’re most likely to see in Michigan, and it has flown south, for the most part.

But Allen Chartier still wants you to keep an eye out on your backyard feeders.

He studies hummingbirds and he’s the project director for Great Lakes Hummernet.

“The chances that what you’re looking at is a Ruby-throat is about 50/50, because there are western species that start showing up.”

He says you might get a chance to see a Rufous hummingbird.

“I kind of think of these little birds as each one has certain superpowers, and the Ruby-throat’s superpower is that it’s the smallest bird that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico nonstop. Now the Rufous hummingbird’s superpower is that it’s very cold tolerant. So there are many of these birds that have stayed around in Michigan and Ohio until January and then they move on.”

He says the males are a reddish-brown color with a glowing orange throat and a white breast. But the females look a lot like Ruby-throats.

So if you see one, take a picture of it and e-mail to Chartier. He says he’ll identify the bird and use your sighting in his research.

Here’s his e-mail address: amazilia3 at gmail.com

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) are reappearing in the western basin (and sometimes the central basin) of Lake Erie.

The blooms happen when excess nutrients – mostly phosphorus – run off into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

Some of these kinds of cyanobacteria produce toxins that are among the most powerful natural poisons on Earth.

Over the past decade, these cyanobacteria blooms have been common in Lake Erie. And scientists predict climate change could make the problem worse.

Sara DeLeon, PhD / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Chemicals called PCBs - or polychlorinated biphenyls - are toxic to people and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency says they can cause cancer and other adverse health effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. PCBs were banned in the 1970s, but they’re still in the environment.

Researchers at Cornell University have previously found that PCBs can change the song centers in the brains of songbirds.

Now – a new study suggests that PCBs could be altering the songs some birds sing.

Michael Dority

Anyone who had to pay a lot of money to cut down dead ash trees in their yard remembers a pest called the emerald ash borer.  In our region we’ve had a lot of pests and diseases that kill trees, and now experts have their eye on a disease that kills black walnut trees. This disease is called Thousand Cankers Disease and it’s caused by a fungus. The fungus is carted around by a bug called the walnut twig beetle.

You might have a black walnut tree in your yard. The lumber is beautiful and the trees are also important to people who grow them for the nut.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

It looks like food for salmon will continue to be scarce in Lake Michigan. Researchers say it appears not many alewives were born in the lake this year - and salmon eat almost nothing else.

Neither salmon nor alewives are native to the Great Lakes, but it's bad news for people trying to keep the billion-dollar sport fishery alive in Lake Michigan.

Peter Payette is with our partners at Interlochen Public Radio and he's been covering this story. He explains that every year researchers go out on the lakes to see what’s happening.

"One of the important surveys is of prey fish, the little feeder fish that big fish like salmon like to eat, and in Lake Michigan this year they found very few newborn alewives. There are alewives in the lake, ones that were born in years past. But the young of the year, the new class of alewives; they found very few," he says.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This week, the Department of Natural Resources went through a big training drill that’s a first of its kind in Michigan. The drill is supposed to prepare the agency for what to do if the Asian carp makes its way into Michigan’s rivers.

A dozen boats stamped with the DNR logo line the shores of the St. Joseph River. Some of them are normal fishing boats.

But a few have these metal poles sticking out about three feet in front of the boat. At the end of each pole are these long pieces of metal cable that hang down in the water.

The DNR’s Todd Somers is the foreman of one of these homemade boats. He points out a 240-volt generator near the back of the boat. It can deliver up to 16 amps through the metal poles at the front of the boat; sending electric shocks through the cables into the river. That’ll stun any fish nearby.

C. Anela Choy

There are a lot of health benefits from eating fish. But some kinds of fish contain high levels of mercury. A form of mercury called methylmercury is toxic to people, and the main way that gets into our bodies is from eating fish. It can cause damage to the nervous system, the heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system.

Robin Adams Photography

When was the last time you were someplace so remote, you didn’t see another person, or even a road for miles?

Getting that far away from civilization can be hard to do in the U.S. But a husband and wife team from Florida is setting out to do that. Rebecca and Ryan Means are both wildlife ecologists, and they started Project Remote. They’re mapping and visiting the most remote spots in all 50 states. They're preparing to go remote along the Canadian border in a few weeks, visiting Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho.

Ryan Means says they got started on their mission a few years ago.

“We’ve always been interested in remote areas and as biologists and outdoor enthusiasts in general. Then about three years ago, we realized that with the advent of GIS computer software capabilities, coupled with Rebecca’s, my wife’s, great proficiency using this kind of technology, we could actually calculate remote areas,” he says.

Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities

Cities in the Great Lakes region are trying to adapt to our changing climate.

Megan Hunter is the chief planning officer for the City of Flint.

“You know, we have to sort of think about how we can make ourselves more resilient for storms and unusual weather occurrences,” she says.

“We’re a city that is really stretched thin, we have very limited resources, so when we have an extreme weather event, it’s really hard for us to adapt with our limited finances.”

She says one of the things they have to think about is how to support vulnerable people in the city. That means things like creating more cooling centers during heat waves.

People like Megan Hunter are getting help from a project based at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. It’s called the Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities (GLAA-C).

That group teamed up with Headwaters Economics to create an interactive map. It shows how 225 counties in the Great Lakes region are being impacted by changes in the climate that have already happened. It draws on data about economics, infrastructure and vulnerable populations.

John Vucetich/Rolf Peterson / Michigan Tech

The wolves of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park have not been doing well, but there’s some unexpected good news.

Earlier this year, researchers from Michigan Technological University who study the wolves reported there were just eight wolves left - and they reported they were unable to find any evidence of pups born to those wolves.

But now, that has changed. Michigan Tech researcher Rolf Peterson heard two or three wolf pups in July.

Eusko Jaurlaritza / Flickr

As the national debate around horizontal hydraulic fracturing continues, one of the central questions is: what does the practice do to our environment?

Abrahm Lustgarten is an energy reporter with ProPublica. He's covered fracking extensively, and he recently wrote a piece investigating the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to back away from several studies on fracking.

World Resources Institute

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is getting into the debate over horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open shale rock formations and extract natural gas. Vertical fracking has been done in Michigan for decades. But horizontal fracking is much newer, and it uses a larger amount of chemicals and millions of gallons of water per well. (For more information, check out Lester Graham's article, "Fracking for natural gas, the benefits and the risks.")

The Chamber of Commerce has launched a campaign they’re calling “Protect Michigan’s Energy Future.”

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The Center for Automotive Research (yeah, the acronym is CAR) is holding its Management Briefing Seminars this week in Traverse City. A big part of the conference focuses on how to make the auto industry more sustainable.

Brett Smith is the Co-Director of the Manufacturing, Engineering & Technology Group with CAR.

Sustainability can be such a squishy term - it's hard to define. I asked him what it means for the auto industry.

"I think it is really difficult, and if you look at sustainability, you can think about it for literally the viability, the sustainability of the company. 'Is the company going to be able to keep the factories open, keep the products moving?' - that simplistic," Smith says.

"It also obviously has much bigger connotations to most folks, being long term, the viability of the planet. I think the challenge for the auto industry is combining that sustainable short period with a sustainable long term view and it historically has been a great challenge for the auto industry and one I think is worth talking a lot about."

user kahle / MorgueFile.com

The main law that regulates chemicals in products we use every day is called the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Pretty much everyone says this law is outdated - including the chemical industry and environmental groups.

Rebecca Meuninck is the Environmental Health Campaign Director with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

“TSCA or the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 1976 and it’s never been reformed and unfortunately it’s sort of been broken from the start," she says. “This is a bill that didn’t actually have enough teeth for the EPA to ban asbestos for example. We have many thousands of chemicals; up to 80,000 have been approved at one point or another for use in consumer products or in the marketplace. Unfortunately there’s a lot of data EPA doesn’t have and that companies actually aren’t required to give EPA.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

In the United States, we’re using more renewable energy than we were a few years ago.

A.J. Simon is the group leader for energy with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab just released a chart outlining the nation’s energy use for the year 2012.

“We are significantly expanding our use of wind energy, the technology for wind turbines has come a long way in the past decade or so, and both federal and state policy in terms of renewable portfolio standards as well as financial incentives have encouraged a lot of utilities to install a lot of wind power so we’re seeing huge growth in the generation of electricity from wind," he says.

University of Michigan/S. Pipes

With all the heat and humidity we've been having, ice sounds pretty good right about now.

Sarah Aciego is going a long way for some ice this summer: she’s heading to Greenland to study glaciers. She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan.

She pioneered a new way to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice.

USGS

Federal scientists just wrapped up a look at the health of the nation’s streams and rivers. It was a big effort, looking at 20 years of data.

Daren Carlisle is an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author of the study.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The sea lamprey is an invasive fish with a round mouth like a suction cup.  It latches onto big fish like lake trout and salmon, drills its razor sharp tongue into them, and gets fat drinking their blood and body fluids. A single lamprey can kill up to 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime.

Scientists spend a lot of time trying to outsmart them, and they’ve just made a new discovery.

When you’re a male sea lamprey, with that slimy skin, and a suction cup full of teeth for a face: you’ve got to compensate for that somehow.

Hey baby, is it hot in here? Or is it just me?

It turns out male sea lampreys are hot. They grow a swollen ridge on their back when they’re sexually mature. Scientists at Michigan State University have discovered that ridge heats up when males get around a lady lamprey.

Wisconsin DNR

There are more than 11,000 inland lakes in Michigan, and a lot of us love to take boats out on them. But invasive species also like to catch a ride on boats, and that’s a major way they get from one lake to another.

You might see people wearing blue t-shirts when you go to a boat launch this summer. They’re with the program Clean Boats Clean Waters, and they want to show you a few things about where invasive species like to hide out.

Castle Dunes LLC

Castle Dunes LLC is proposing to develop more than 200 acres of reclaimed sand mining land in Norton Shores near Muskegon. The company has a purchase agreement to buy the land from the Nugent Sand Company.

A public hearing is being held today to begin the zoning process at the Norton Shores Planning Commission meeting (tonight at 5:30pm in the community room of the Norton Shores Branch Library at 705 Seminole).

The company wants to build single family properties and condominiums around a man-made lake.

That lake was created by mining the sand from the dunes. It turned out to be a major problem for a previous developer when the water levels in the lake rose.

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