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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 29, 2005

Air Date: April 29, 2005



MTBE Rides Again / Jeff Young

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The gasoline additive MTBE has tainted water in 29 states. The energy bill before Congress would protect the companies that made MTBE from lawsuits. Water districts around the country fear they'll be left with the cost of cleaning up. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (05:30)

Saving Time

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Twice a year, much of the country changes its clocks, for the most part, without question. But, as writer Michael Downing finds, the reason we have daylight saving time is not for the farmers and schoolchildren, but for golf. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Downing about his new book, "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." (07:00)

Dustbowl Warning

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Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Ron Neilson, a bioclimatologist with the U.S. Forest Service about the on-going drought in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. Conditions in some parts of the region are as dry as they were during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, and some models predict the dry spell could last up to 20 years. (05:30)

Desert Thirst / Ky Plaskon

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In recent years, scientists have learned more about a huge body of ancient water deep below America's Great Basin in Utah and Nevada. Las Vegas says it needs the water but some wildlife officials worry that removing it will dry up springs on which desert life depends. Ky Plaskon reports. (06:30)

In New Jersey, A Whale of an Opportunity / Carole King

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A Canadian Beluga whale makes a surprise visit to the Delaware River and captures the imaginations of tourists and local entrepreneurs. Carole King has our story. (05:00)

Emerging Science Note/The Toll of Technology

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Living on Earth's Katie Zemtseff reports that incoming calls and emails could stunt IQ even more than marijuana use. (01:20)

This New House

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As our waistlines are expanding, so too are our houses. The trend in newly constructed homes is toward bigger is better, to the point that the average new home is too big for the occupants to clean themselves. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Clara Jeffrey, Deputy Editor of Mother Jones magazine, about the trend. (07:00)

This Green House

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Because our new homes are so much bigger, we need more wood to build them, and that is wreaking havoc on ecosystems around the world. Bruce Gellerman talks to Dan Imhoff, author of "Building With Vision," about the new home-building products available so we know when it’s necessary to use wood and when it’s better not to. (04:00)

Coral Talk

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An audio postcard from producer Allan Coukell of the sounds of a reef, and the way fish use sound to find their way around. (02:15)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Michael Downing, Ron Nielson, Clara Jeffrey, Daniel Imhoff
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ky Plaskon, Carole King, Allan Coukell
NOTE: Katie Zemtseff

GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. The additive MTBE was supposed to make gasoline burn cleaner. Instead, it's polluting drinking water all over the country and poisoning the political well. A measure protecting oil companies from MTBE lawsuits could undo the president's energy bill.

SCHUMER: The MTBE provision brought down the energy bill last time. It's likely to do it again. But these folks don't quit. They don't learn.

GELLERMAN: Also in the energy bill, a move to extend daylight saving time. But, does a stitch in time really save barrels of oil?

DOWNING: Moving the clock the way we do in the winter months tends to increase the demand for home heating oil. It also reliably increases the amount of gasoline people use because when you give more Americans more time of light at night, they get into their cars.

GELLERMAN: Spring forward with these stories and more–this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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MTBE Rides Again

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

President Bush is again asking Congress to pass an energy bill and again, the bill's fate could rest on the gasoline additive MTBE. The chemical makes gasoline burn cleaner but it also contaminates ground water. The smell and possibly hazardous chemical is in drinking water in 29 states and it could cost tens of billions of dollars to get it out.

The question before Congress is—who's going to pay for it? The current version of the energy bill protects the oil companies that make and use MTBE from some of the clean-up lawsuits. And, water companies and local governments fear that could leave them and their customers footing the bill. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: In Park City, Kansas, public works director Jack Whitson has a problem delivering water to the town's 7,000 residents--and it's not a broken water main kind of problem. The water is contaminated with MTBE.

WHITSON: We believe that it's not safe, first of all, and also, the MTBE makes the water smell like gasoline and even taste like gasoline. So people do not want that kind of a product delivered to their house.

YOUNG: On New York's Long Island, Plainview Water District Director Paul Granger keeps track of two MTBE spills heading toward the aquifer that supplies his 35,000 customers.

GRANGER: We're dealing with two plumes that are god-awfully close to our facility. It's of paramount concern because it's not a matter of if--it's when this contamination will come into our supply well.

YOUNG: And, in Indiana—a state that doesn't even use MTBE gas—Purdue University chemistry Professor Ray Barreto says traces of MTBE from gas delivered elsewhere was left behind in tanks and trucks later used in Indiana and that was enough to foul water in towns like Mishawaka.

BARRETO: I couldn't believe it. I like to say that MTBE is a slow motion disaster because it just keeps happening and it happens slowly and quietly and it doesn't go away.

YOUNG: These towns in Indiana, New York and Kansas are among the more than 1,800 water systems around the country tainted by MTBE. They have one other thing in common--all three towns are represented by Congressmen who want to protect the companies that make MTBE from lawsuits the towns are filing. National Petrochemical and Refineries Association President Bob Slaughter argues the companies deserve that protection because Congress instructed them to use additives to make gas burn cleaner and improve air quality.

SLAUGHTER: Having put billions of dollars into this program to comply with Congress, we think it's unfair now to be the subject of lawsuits simply because we made the gasoline that Congress required us to do.

YOUNG: That argument makes sense to Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas whose district includes Park City. Tiahrt joined fellow Republicans at a Washington Exxon station a few blocks from the Capitol to explain why companies like Exxon-Mobil aren't to blame for MTBE.

TIAHRT: It was a policy put in place by past Congresses so can we blame them? It was the only technology that was available in that part of the country.

YOUNG: Campaign finance records show Tiahrt took a little more than a quarter million dollars from the oil and gas industry over his past four elections. And back in Park City, that leaves Jack Whitson worrying that the protection for the companies will leave his city and its ratepayers in the lurch.

WHITSON: Well, I would hope Mr. Tiahrt would look at his constituents and what's good for them more so than what's good for the bottom line of an oil company.

YOUNG: That's an example of how contentious an issue the MTBE liability is. And it leaves some wondering why this item keeps showing up in the House versions of the energy bill. Ken Cook, whose Washington-based Environmental Working Group is fighting the provision, says he knows why.

COOK: The only real explanation is that there's one member of Congress, in particular, who has this as his very top priority because companies in his district, and near his district, stand to lose billions of dollars if he doesn't get this provision into law. And that's Tom DeLay.

YOUNG: Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and a spokesperson declined to comment for this story. The largest MTBE makers are based in DeLay's state of Texas and several are among his top campaign contributors. As House Majority Leader, Delay had the power to write in MTBE liability protection. But DeLay's name is a bit of a liability itself these days. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and now faces charges that lobbyists paid for his travel. No wonder Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seize every opportunity to link DeLay with MTBE.

PELOSI: The MTBE producers and the big oil companies want to be protected from liability from contaminating our drinking water supplies and, not surprisingly, Tom DeLay and House Republicans are happy to oblige.

YOUNG: An amendment to strip MTBE protection failed in the House by six votes. Now, the energy bill moves to the Senate, where New York Democrat Charles Schumer fought a similar measure two years ago.

SCHUMER: The MTBE provision brought down the energy bill last time. It's likely to do it again. But these folks don't quit. They don't learn.

YOUNG: Schumer pledges to lead another bipartisan charge against the MTBE protection. It's unclear if he has enough votes this time around to pull it off. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

GELLERMAN: Well, while the energy bill is bogged down in controversies over MTBE, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and subsidies to oil producers, there is one item in the bill getting broad political support—the expansion of daylight saving time. There's a bipartisan effort to extend daylight saving from March to November; that's two months more than what we get now in order to save on energy. It's a far cry from the rancorous Congressional history that saving daylight has had. From Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, changing the clock has pitted religious fundamentalists and farmers against retailers and pork barrel congressmen.

Back to top


Saving Time

GELLERMAN: Joining me to discuss saving time is Michael Downing. He teaches creative writing at Tufts University and his new book is named for that memorable mnemonic. It's called "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." Michael, hello!

DOWNING: Hello. I'm happy to be here, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: It's not "daylight savings time." I've been saying it wrong all these many years.

DOWNING: You're in very good company. It tells us something that even the name of the idea confuses us. People confuse it with a savings account, as if we're actually saving something. But the truth is, if daylight saving is anything, it's a tremendously effective spending account.

GELLERMAN: How's that?

DOWNING: Well, it turns out that the one thing daylight saving does do is it forces people out of their houses and when Americans go out of their houses, as the golf and barbecue industry know, they spend money.

GELLERMAN: And, this was or became about money. It wasn't until, basically, just before World War I that the United States adopts daylight saving time.

DOWNING: That's right. The idea comes from 1907 in London with William Willet who is an architect, but importantly to this story, he's a golfer. And, he's riding through town and notices that at sunrise people have their curtains closed. He thinks if instead of that hour coming in the morning of daylight, you gave it to people in the evening they wouldn't block it out, they'd spend it. This idea gets really popular, however, right around the beginning of World War I. And, the British think they can maybe use it to save some energy. That's the beginning of the confusion. That's how it comes to America; World War I trying to save some energy.

GELLERMAN: And, does it do that?

DOWNING: It doesn't probably do much of that. Here's what it does tremendously effectively: it shifts the time people ask for energy, so it alters peak load demand and that's very useful during a wartime economy. But, in truth, for about five years before World War I, the Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of big department stores in the cities, were pressing President Wilson to give us daylight saving.

GELLERMAN: Well, in Boston, actually, Filenes, Filenes Basement, he says "save an hour of light and spend an hour at night," something like that?

DOWNING: That was exactly the deal. Lincoln Filene understood that if workers left work while it was still bright outside, they would walk past his department store, see the windows lit up with daylight, walk in and spend something on the retail goods inside. He was right. He was one of the principle proponents in America.

GELLERMAN: So, what's the beef that farmers have with it?

DOWNING: Well, you know, farmers got stuck with this one problem--they actually used morning sunlight, unlike any other Americans. They weren't blocking it out. Let's say they had three hours to get their eggs, milk and produce to market in the cities. You turn the clocks ahead, the next year they have two hours to do the exact same amount of work. It's a terrible problem for farmers.

GELLERMAN: But it wasn't because the cows got up early and they couldn't give milk.

DOWNING: No, actually the farmers like to tell Congress that their animals couldn't actually tell time so this clock manipulation wasn't serving them in any way whatsoever.

GELLERMAN: But Wilson loves the idea. In fact, he gets it decided into law twice (laughter).

DOWNING: Wilson, like many presidents who followed him, was a big fan of the Chamber of Commerce because those department stores were the biggest economic force in America. But because the farmers were so opposed and they weren't alone, right after the war ends, two years of daylight saving, the Congress hates daylight saving so much it forces Wilson to repeal it.

GELLERMAN: And they hate it because?

DOWNING: Well, they hate it because the farmers hate it, the fundamentalist preachers and the religious right in this country consider it an offense against God. They feel they have taken the country off God's time onto clock time.

GELLERMAN: Now, God's time was standard time.

DOWNING: Well, that's the problem. God's time, in the mind of people who use that phrase, really is sun time but by 1883 most Americans were off of sun time because the railroads had put us on standard time. But, here's the funny story of standard time that dovetails here. Congress didn't enact standard time for 35 years, the railroads just imposed it as a commercial necessity on the country so people didn't think of it as a federal government involvement in time as they did with daylight saving.

GELLERMAN: And, in fact, today what we call standard time actually is not standard. Standard time is daylight saving time because there's more months of daylight saving time.

DOWNING: We right now, as a result of the 1986 extension, we have seven months of daylight saving in this country and Congress is now pressing to give us nine. Apparently, they can't get enough of it.

GELLERMAN: Why don't they just go to a whole year?

DOWNING: Well, you know, Richard Nixon tried that. Even though he was a tremendously famous opponent of daylight saving time, Nixon in '74 did to try to extend the effects of the OPEC oil embargo, put the country on all-year daylight saving and it was a total disaster. Within a week, here's what happened: places like, let's say Michigan, have sunrise times in the winter months which are about 7:30 in the morning. Well, if you turn the clocks ahead, now you've got an 8:30 sunrise time and you've got school children going out on dark, traffic-y streets. One or two bus accidents was enough to turn the country against all-year daylight saving. That's what Congress is essentially proposing now and I think that if it goes into effect, we're going to hear a big, hew and cry.

GELLERMAN: I thought this was a bipartisan bill and that it was a no-brainer and it was going to go through.

DOWNING: Well, the House has passed it and it is absolutely bipartisan, as was the extension in 1986. The idea is what we're now hearing from Congressmen is that it now saves as much as 10,000 barrels of oil a day. But moving the clock the way we do in the winter months tends to increase the demand for home heating oil. It also reliably increases the amount of gasoline people use because when you give more Americans more time of light at night, they get into their cars. So, the saving property is very, very debatable and, clearly, it does not cut down on traffic accidents.

GELLERMAN: So, it was about money?

DOWNING: Absolutely, it was about money. Who profited in 1986 when we went from six to seven months? Well, the barbecue industry figured it stood to make 100 to 150 million dollars extra by the extension of daylight saving. The golf industry--200 to 400 million dollars. Golf is the last sport that we cannot illuminate. Golf courses are too big to be lit up at night. So they really profit by having extra daylight saving at the end of the day. People can get in 18 holes after a day of work. I think the reason we see the extensions of daylight saving is really that money not only makes men bold, but it tends to make them bipartisan.

GELLERMAN: So, Einstein was correct.

DOWNING: (laughter) Everything's relative as long as we keep playing with our clocks.

GELLERMAN: Michael Downing's new book is called "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time." Thank you very much, Michael.

DOWNING: This was a pleasure, Bruce.

Related link:
Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time

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[MUSIC: Fontanelle "Niagra" Fontanelle (Kranky)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up—Las Vegas gambles on a controversial plan to quench its growing need for water. Keep listening to Living on Earth

[MUSIC: Beck "Peaches & Cream" MidniteVultures (Geffen) 1999]

Dustbowl Warning

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. And coming up—call me, Helis, a whale of a tale from New Jersey.

But first, much of the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies are in the fifth year of a drought. From Washington to Montana, Wyoming to Northern California, it's as dry as it was during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The U.S. Forest Service is warning that conditions are ripe for return of those blinding, choking dust storms in some parts of the region and for catastrophic wild fires in others.

Ron Nielson, a bioclimatologist with the Forest Service, joins me from Corvallis, Oregon. A Dust Bowl, Ron? Really?

NIELSON: Well, we're at that level of drought that was consistent with the 1930s Dust Bowl. We're still uncertain though. The Dust Bowl lasted an extremely long period of time, longer than we have before. If this persists, this level, then very much indeed we could see that level of drought. Now, mind you, dust comes from fields that are left fallow largely and have not been growing on them so if farmers maintain their fields with something on them you may not see quite that much dust.

GELLERMAN: So, what's happening? How did things get so bad in the Northwest? Is this a normal drought cycle or is something else going on?

NIELSON: You know, we, the whole concept of normal seems to have been tossed out the window. The last 30 years has seen the whole west swing through two extreme wet-dry cycles, with the wet cycles being pinioned by the '83 and '98 El Niños and then another dry cycle in '87, '88; that's when Yellowstone went up. And then a recent dry cycle. And if you were to compare this to say the period between the 1940s and the 1970s, there's nothing like it at all. There's no high amplitude climate variability that looks like this at all. So, it's extremely unusual.

GELLERMAN: I can't imagine, Professor Nielson, that this is helping any of the animal life or plant life in the area. What is the toll on the ecology?

NIELSON: Well, there are areas in the west now in Nevada and Arizona that have experienced drought for upwards of seven or eight years and in the course of a single season we've seen whole ecosystems essentially die back. Pinion juniper ecosystems that just over broad areas of the landscape, you've seen the pinion trees die back very rapidly. There was a forest ecosystem up on the Kenai Peninsula system up in Alaska that underwent a series of seven or eight long years of drought and the entire ecosystem died back. Interestingly, when you get hit by drought, bugs also tend to come in and, essentially, produce the coup de grace on the ecosystem so whole regions can go out. Forests and ecosystems can die back almost in the wink of an eye under extraordinary, extreme drought conditions which we seem to be heading into now and so we are very concerned. They grow back, of course, much less rapidly, than they can die back.

GELLERMAN: So, how long can these drought conditions last?

NIELSON: Well, that's the question that we're all asking ourselves right now. I have colleagues who have published a paper recently and proceedings of National Academy of Science who are suggesting that we could be in the midst of one of these droughts that comes along every few centuries. They look at tree rings and see surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Pacific and concluded that the conditions are, essentially, ripe now for one of these long-term, multi-decade droughts that comes along just every few hundred years.

GELLERMAN: Multi-decade?

NIELSON: Multi-decade. Back in the period called the "medieval warm" period around 12 to 13, 1400, there were very prolonged droughts in the west. And we know that we're warming up and we're certainly at the level of temperature that was occurring back in that timeframe. And that level of drought could be returning. We really don't know for sure, but we're certainly very concerned about that.

GELLERMAN: What do we do?

NIELSON: Well, that's a very good question. I think one of the things you can do is simply keep your eye out for drought and think ahead about planning. How would you manage ecosystems, for example, if they were to go through prolonged catastrophic drought? One of the things you might consider doing both in your cropping and your ecosystems is to trim the wick. That is, keep less vegetation on the ground, pulling less moisture out of the soil. Now, that's a little difficult to do that in big, old forests that have been there for hundreds of years. So, caution is the watch-word here, I think.

GELLERMAN: Ron Nielson is a bioclimatologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Nielson, thank you very much.

NIELSON: It's my pleasure.

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Desert Thirst

GELLERMAN: Of course, droughts are nothing new in the vast deserts of Utah, Nevada and a good chunk of Southern California. It's where streams from hundreds of mountain ranges drain inland and seep into the ground. It's called America's Great Basin and the water underground has been there for thousands of years. But now, sprawling Las Vegas wants to tap into this subterranean reservoir to quench its growing demand for water. From Nevada Public Radio Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: The desert runs unchanged for hundreds of miles north of Las Vegas until White Pine County. This time of year, trees shade patches of snow.


PLASKON: The town of Elys is nestled in this forest near Great Basin National Park. On this day, protesters stand in the cold outside Elys Community Center.

CINDY: This is probably the most beautiful part of Nevada, right here. You're standing in it. Great Basin National Park. You ever been there? You start messing with the water, that's all going to change. It's pretty great just the way it is.

PLASKON: Las Vegas water representatives held an open house recently here to open a dialog about their plan--drill up to 190 wells and pipe millions of gallons of water to Las Vegas.

GARRETT: I am Jo Anne Garrett and I live out in Baker. And my feeling is that from knowing a lot of people who live in Las Vegas is that no one is in charge down there and they have ruined their own environment. And in order to keep on with no plan for curbing their growth, they are now going to ruin our environment by taking our water and so it's not a good idea.

PLASKON: While many would disagree that Las Vegas' environment is ruined, the city does pump groundwater faster than it is replenished, drying up springs including rare artesian wells. As a result, the ground has collapsed around some wells and in one place, a square mile near an orchard dropped six feet. To stop more of the city from sinking, Las Vegas now imports water and pumps it back into the earth in what it says is the largest injection program in the world. But officials eased restrictions on water use last year. Water use remains the highest in the nation, 230 gallons per person, per day, according to the group Western Resource Advocates. It's not a fair comparison though, say water officials because the average is driven up by Vegas' 30 million annual visitors. To serve an anticipated doubling of the population Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, says the city must have more water and the Great Basin is the best place to get it.

MULROY: The state of Nevada has a lot of groundwater basins that have never been explored and many of these basins have unused, unappropriated water in it. The way the west is exploding, the state of Nevada cannot afford any longer to not know how much water can safely be developed and until we drill wells and we stress the system we will not know.


PLASKON: At the meeting in Ely, a bearded man in a cowboy hat stands off to the side.

LEED: Taking it in.

PLASKON: Curt Leed watches a dozen Las Vegas water representatives surrounded by displays.

LEED: I wish they'd just halt growth down there in Vegas. I mean, back in 75 they knew it was really fast growing and it's the driest climate of any big city in the country. And its still growing like that they just need to limit the number of building permits. I mean there is no need to rape and pillage this country up here.

PLASKON: At a round table in the center of the room, Water Authority Deputy
General Manager Kay Brothers is trying to console worried residents.

BROTHERS: Under the water law and under the way the state allocates water, there is considered to be, by the state, unappropriated water to be developed. And that is what we think we are doing. We certainly don't want to dry you up or take your water.

PLASKON: She lets them debate.

RESIDENT1: If they tap the water in Snake Valley, they don't know the source of that water that is feeding that valley.

BROTHERS: Okay, Now my question is, since you are saying that, what is the solution to it?

RESIDENT1: Get the hell out of here.

GROUP: (laughter)

BROTHERS: Now, that is not a realistic solution.

RESIDENT1: Why not?

BROTHERS: Because that's not gonna to happen. You're not living in the real world.

PLASKON: The perspective that there is extra water is based partly on United States Geologic Survey reports dating back 40 years. The USGS is respected for its science. Hydrologist Dan Bright of the Survey says back when the studies were done, water used by plants and animals at oases and springs was considered extra water.

BRIGHT: And there has been a paradigm shift. It's a different philosophy now.

PLASKON: Today, the agency believes water, once considered available, is actually being used by plants and animals at springs. Bright says water experts don't always know how groundwater pumping affects springs. To help others understand, they draw the image of a great bathtub called the "carbonate aquifer." It stretches from Utah, including all of Nevada and a slice of California.

BRIGHT: The bathtub, in a simplistic way, represents the carbonate aquifer. The water leaking over the edge of the tub represents discharge from the numerous springs in Nevada. If you lower the level of the water in the tub, what happens--you may potentially stop water from leaking over the edge of the tub.

PLASKON: Many of these leaks or oasis are protected in national parks and refuges across the basin. Refuge managers from California to Utah are keeping an eye on Las Vegas' plans.


PLASKON: At one of the refuges, 70 miles north of Las Vegas, clear tranquil pools bubble from the ground to form the gray waters of the Muddy River. The water's warm because it's old, having flowed deep in the earth for possibly millennia. Under the shade of a palm tree a translucent minnow with a little black spot on its tail darts through the water. The Moapa Dace survives only in this water. It's one of more than 80 species, including 16 endangered ones that depend on springs across the basin. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has pledged to protect the habitat.


PLASKON: But deep drilling has already begun upstream of the oasis. The water will be used to supply a new golf course. For Living on Earth, I'm Ky Plaskon.

[MUSIC: Esther "Little Dove" John "Ocean Bossa" The Elements Vol. II (Dove-Paloma) 1994]

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In New Jersey, A Whale of an Opportunity

Helis, the beluga whale, in the upper Delaware River near Burlington, New Jersey, weekend of April 16th, 2005 (Photo: NOAA)

GELLERMAN: Recently, a Canadian white beluga whale broke away from its pod in the St. Lawrence seaway. Then he showed up, in of all places, New Jersey. Since April 12th, he's captured imaginations up and down both sides of the Delaware River, changing the routines of residents, the paths of tourists, even the fortunes of local businesses. Carole King went looking for Helis the whale in Burlington, New Jersey and has our story.


KRUEGER: State Police, Burlington Station, Sergeant Krueger …

KING: From trailer turned whale-monitoring station on the banks of the Delaware, Sgt. Wayne Krueger of the New Jersey State Police Marine Patrol fields yet another call about Helis.

KRUEGER: Yes, we've had multiple sightings, all in the Burlington area, little bit north of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge. Stay on 541…

Helis, the beluga whale, in the upper Delaware River near Burlington, New Jersey, weekend of April 16th, 2005 (Photo: NOAA)

KING: He says when the 12-to-14 foot whale was first spotted in New Jersey's Delaware River, it caused a sensation.

KRUEGER: (laughs) This is adding to the confusion for the weekend, and you know, it's an interesting point for people who haven't seen whales before and it's creating a lot of additional boating traffic and a lot of interest on the Delaware.


KING: New Jersey State Police Marine Trooper Kenneth Minnes says he's gotten used to seeing Helis while out on patrol.

MINNES: He likes to hug either the Pennsylvania Channel or the New Jersey Channel, depending on which direction he heads. He doesn't allow us to get too close to him. All you basically see is him surfacing and then he dives again.


KING: Bill Lance and Kim Seba came in their boat from Mount Laurel, New Jersey, hoping they'll be lucky.

LANCE: We're out to see whether we can get a picture. We've got our cameras, everything else, ready to go, we've got our lunch. We're gonna stay out here all day until we see it! (Seba laughs).


KING: Also on the river is Jamison Smith, a marine biologist here from the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He says the whale was originally spotted in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1986. Wildlife officials there gave him the name "Helis," from the French word for propeller, after the propeller-shaped scar on his back.

SMITH: It's estimated that this animal is a minimum of 25-plus years old, which is getting up in age for a beluga. The life span, we think, is 40 or so years. So this is an adult animal.

KING: Smith says there are several theories about what might have prompted a beluga whale to travel from Canada to New Jersey.

SMITH: Getting older in age, he may not be maintaining his status in the pod that he once did and one theory is that he kind of got left behind from the pod or the group of animals and this is where he ended up. It's my observation here that he has no problem swimming against a very strong current, maintaining very good speeds, both against and with current. And, by no means has he been inactive here. He tends to pretty much pop up anywhere and everywhere around here.


KING: Fly fishers call the upper Delaware the best wild trout stream east of the Rockies. It's the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, running 375 miles from the great Jersey Skylands to the river's mouth at Cape May Point. In spring, shad make their annual run up the river to spawn and that could be another reason why Helis made the trip.


KING: And while Helis's enjoyed the local river catch, his visit's also brought a rare influx of tourists to tiny Burlington, New Jersey. At "Ummm" ice cream parlor on High Street, a line of customers flows out of the door and onto the street. Owner Matt Garwood hardly has a moment to talk as he scoops and rings up ice cream cones.

GARWOOD: It's keeping us busy. Sellin' it this way and makin' it in the back at the same time. Right now we have "beluga" ice cream, which is basically a rename of our vanilla ice cream for the whale.


KING: Down the street at JB Bakery, Steven Simon and his brother Paul fashioned a whale-shaped cookie cutter and say they've sold hundreds of the two dollar whale cookies since Helis's arrival.

SIMON: The minute that we put it out it just started flyin' off the shelves. Everybody was really excited to have one. We've sold over 2,500 cookies. Probably by the end of the day it might be close to 3,500.

KING: The cookies are a big hit out on the Burlington river promenade where tourists and residents have flocked to catch a glimpse of Helis, the white beluga whale.


KING: But marine biologist Jamison Smith says the best thing to do is leave Helis alone to enjoy his time on the Delaware.

SMITH: We're taking a standoffish approach that if you see it, let us know where it is, let us know how it's behaving, but just give it its space. And, when it feels it needs to leave, it'll go on its own accord.

KING: And, apparently, that's just what Helis has done. A tugboat reported seeing Helis headed toward the Delaware Bay, about 40 miles from the Atlantic. And the National Fisheries Service believes Helis has made it safely back to the ocean.

That's not stopping some people from coming to Burlington's river promenade, and the scenic overlook on Route 295, still hoping to catch a glimpse of the white beluga whale. They're keeping close watch over the stretch of river where the whale was seen swimming back and forth for days and wondering if Helis might change his mind and come back this way yet again.


KING: For Living on Earth, I'm Carole King in Burlington, New Jersey.

[MUSIC: Teisco Del Ray "Hermanos Alou" Plays Music for Lovers (Upstart Sounds) 1996]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead—McMansions. If big is better, is huge best? Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Verizon, providing 411 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: "Iris" Miles Davis: E.S.P. (Sony) 1991]

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Emerging Science Note/The Toll of Technology

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. And coming up—talking coral. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Zemtseff.

ZEMTSEFF: Although marijuana is known to stunt memory retention, new research shows there's something that's more addictive and a bigger threat to our productivity: technology.

In a study sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and conducted in Great Britain, researchers studied the IQ performance of 80 volunteer workers. Each worker was given a problem-solving task to complete, both in a quiet environment and in one in which they were bombarded with phone and e-mail messages.

Turns out, the subjects were so distracted by the incoming messages that their average IQ dropped ten points. This ten-point loss is equivalent to missing a night's sleep and is more than double the four-point fall experienced after smoking pot.

The study also polled 1,100 British employees and found many were addicted to their communication technology. Sixty-two percent of workers respond to e-mail within 60 minutes of receiving one and three out of ten believed answering electronic messages during meetings was okay. Interestingly, 89 percent of those polled say colleagues who answer messages during meetings annoy them. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Katie Zemtseff.

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This New House

GELLERMAN: This is Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Not only are Americans expanding and getting bigger but apparently, so are our houses. Since 1970, the average size of a new home in the United States has grown by 50 percent, a trend that's fueling the ratings for ABC TVs program "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." That reality show recently transformed a modest home into a colossal six-bedroom, seven bath, seven television set house for a family of four. And, that inspired Clara Jeffrey, deputy editor at Mother Jones magazine, to compile a fascinating list of facts about this growing trend. She joins me from San Francisco and Clara, thank you very much for coming in.

JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Well, I'm going to just read some of the statistics on your list that appear in the April issue of Mother Jones and you call the annotation, "This New House." You write, since 1950 the average new house has increased by 1,247 square feet.

JEFFREY: That's right and meanwhile the average household has shrunk by one person. So, basically, we're getting a lot more house for a smaller family.

GELLERMAN: But 1,247 square feet--that's an increase, if you've got a ten by 12 room, 120 square feet, that's ten, ten by 12 square foot rooms?

JEFFREY: Uh, I'll leave the math to you, but what I will say is that an extra 1,200 square feet is you know quite a generous apartment size in a city like San Francisco or New York. I mean, you're considered pretty lucky if you have an apartment that size. So it's basically taking the house of old and adding an apartment-sized addition of rooms to it.

GELLERMAN: You have this item, the National Association of Homebuilders showcase home for 2005 is 5,950 square feet and that's 15 percent bigger than last year.

JEFFREY: That's right and, actually, the one for next year is scheduled to be something over 8,000 square feet. So, you know, this is really, those are sort of the aspirational homes, but it's also a trend that they recognize that more and more people are building that big and certainly more and more people would like to fantasize that they could have a house that big.

GELLERMAN: Okay, I'm going to list a couple of more stats from "This New House," Okay?


GELLERMAN: More than 50 percent of ex-urban lots are ten acres or more. Wow.

JEFFREY: Yeah and ex-urban homes now account, since 1994, they account for 80 percent of new residential development. So, you know, we're going further and further out and I think to your question earlier, basically people can't afford a home that size in the city or the inner suburbs, so they go further and further out to sort of get the home that they want. And, you know, I think that they do so with sort of good intentions, wanting to provide a house for themselves and their family and all that, but I think that it has a lot of impacts that people don't calculate. I mean, first of all, the commutes are just getting ridiculously long. The number of Americans with commutes longer than 90 minutes each way has increased 95 percent since 1990. And I think there's also a sort of psychological effect. In the sort of suburbs of the '50s that we see on the sitcoms, people knew their neighbors and they, you know, they had a real community there, as many people do in the city. But in the ex-urbs because you're commuting so long because you're working longer hours to support the house basically, you're less likely to know your neighbors or have any sort of ties to the community in which you live.

GELLERMAN: Okay, here's some more stats, Okay? In 1950, one in one hundred homes had two and a half baths or more. Today, one in two.

JEFFREY: Right, you know, which I think people see as a big convenience. But what's interesting about those bathrooms is not just that there are more of them but, especially, in the sort of luxury homes that are being built now, you know, they have things like these multiple showerhead systems which while they feel lovely can drain a hot water tank in four minutes basically, there's so much water coming out of those things.

GELLERMAN: Here are a couple facts that I found really fascinating. You write that sales of subzero and other premium and super-premium refrigerators have been rising by 15 percent a year. So now we're eating more food and we've got fancy places to store it, but here's the one that gets me: the average cost of a luxury kitchen remodel is 57,000 dollars. And, that's ten thousand dollars more than it costs to build a typical habitat for humanity home. That's astonishing.

JEFFREY: Yeah, to me that's really the statistic that should really make us sort of rethink the way we're tending to live now because, you know, through these home improvement shows you definitely see people wanting to build these very elaborate kitchens. Some of these people, you know, actually are good cooks and really cook—a lot of people are probably just bring home takeout and sticking it in their Viking fridge.

GELLERMAN: I knew that people that lived in cities were much more fuel-efficient and energy efficient than suburbanites, but I didn't realize just how much.

JEFFREY: Yeah, it's pretty remarkable that people who live in cities use about half as much energy as suburbanites. Now, a lot of that is transportation.

GELLERMAN: But it seems that fewer and fewer people can actually afford to live where they work or work where they live. You're in San Francisco; you have a statistic here that on 2.7 percent of the city's teachers and 5.7 percent of its policemen can afford to buy a home there.

JEFFREY: Right, and San Francisco is, I think, about the worst in this regard, but the numbers are pretty startling for even, sort of, medium size cities in the Midwest. It's just, you know, we have a housing crisis going on; there is the housing bubble which everyone is preoccupied by but there is also just a lack of affordable housing.

GELLERMAN: You know, Clara, out here in the Boston area we have a lot of places that have these old Victorian houses and they're enormous. So, this is not a new phenomenon.

JEFFREY: That's right. There certainly were big houses built at the turn of the century and earlier. I think what's interesting to note is that A- the family sizes were much bigger, grandparents tended to still live with you and also that there were servants living in some of those houses. You know, it was a different style. There have always been wealthy people. I think what is interesting now is how many people are buying enormous houses who are by no means wealthy and, you know, maybe not even in the upper middle class. And part of that is having low interest rates on mortgages now and people doing things, like in California now, 50 percent of all new mortgages are interest only, which means people are not paying any principle and that could prove a real problem for them when interest rates rise.

GELLERMAN: Sure, when interest rates go south, you have got to wonder, what happens to "this new house."

JEFFREY: Yeah, and you know, I think that when that, when the housing market collapses as I'm sure it will at least in some areas, you know, are some of these suburban track mansions going to sit empty? I think, you know, as the tech bubble has taught us, nothing this crazy can last forever.

GELLERMAN: Clara, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

JEFFREY: Okay, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Clara Jeffrey is Deputy Editor of Mother Jones Magazine.

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This Green House

GELLERMAN: Well, I have another interesting statistic here from Mother Jones: to build the average new home, it takes 13,837 board feet of lumber. That's a lot of lumber. And lumber is something that's near and dear to author Daniel Imhoff. His new book is called "Building with Vision--Optimizing and Finding Alternatives to Wood." And Daniel Imhoff, joins me. Thank you very much.

IMHOFF: Thank you very much for having me.

GELLERMAN: So, how many trees does it take to build one of those big new houses?

IMHOFF: Well, back in 2000 when the average home was 2,080 square feet, I think the rule of thumb was it took 44 trees. Now, that 13,800 board feet of framing lumber is not all the wood that goes into a house. There's also sheathing, about 6,000 square feet of sheathing plywood, about 2,500 square feet of siding and an additional 3,000 square feet of roofing material and flooring as well.

GELLERMAN: Not to mention the cabinets and the decks.

IMHOFF: Yeah. When I did the research for building revision a few years ago, we were building six decks a minute and I mean a deck is, basically, as soon as you build it, it begins to weather and to take a lot of abuse. So a huge amount of materials go into it and you can make some good decisions.

GELLERMAN: But I did see some of those artificial woods that are made out of plastic bottles, you know, recycled bottles and that was very expensive.

IMHOFF: Well, I think the inherent logic in that, in the composite plastic materials and there's a number of them out there, they've been out for a while now so they're beginning to get a track record and I believe that they're beginning to evolve some of the inherent design challenges in that material. The thought with a plastic composite is that it's going to last a lot longer and it's going to require less maintenance, less staining or sanding or painting that decks require.

Actually, a new product that I learned about called Timbersill and it impregnates the wood with a silica, actually glass, so that nothing can get in. Insects can't get in and it won't rot. So, it kind of crystallizes the wood.

GELLERMAN: In your book, you talk about finding alternatives to wood. What could I use? I mean, could I build a home out of cement or bales of hay, I've heard that?

IMHOFF: Um, the wall systems. If you went for a wall system like you just described, let's say cement, for example, some kind of really, really well-insulated house, there are a number of interesting products out there. One that I particularly thought is interesting is called Rastra, recycled styrofoam planks that are ground into tiny beads and then they're mixed in a slurry of cement and they make these huge building blocks that fit together and then filled with cement and they create a really thick-walled, well-insulated, beautiful building that's stuccoes inside and out.

GELLERMAN: I have to build an extra bedroom to my house and I'd like to put in maple hardwood floor. My builder says, "you know, why don't you get one of these pre-fabricated floors." What do you think of that?

IMHOFF: Well, I think linoleum is a fantastic material that's pretty undervalued and they used to call it the 40-year floor. It's an agricultural product. It's a flax seed based product.

GELLERMAN: You mean there's no petroleum in linoleum?

IMHOFF: No, not that I know of. The Italians have fantastically beautiful designs for linoleum. There's a product called Marmoleum that people should look into for flooring or also for countertops. It comes in a really wide variety of colors and designs. It's really long lasting and so I would absolutely consider linoleum.

GELLERMAN: Daniel, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

IMHOFF: I really appreciate your interest.

GELLERMAN: Daniel Imhoff's new book is called "Building with Vision--Optimizing and Finding Alternatives to Wood."

[MUSIC: Richard Warner "Eagle Dance" Quiet Heart/Spirit Wind (Enso) 1996]

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Coral Talk

GELLERMAN: We've all seen pictures of an underwater coral reef, but do we know what it sounds like? Fish do and as producer Allan Coukell discovered, some baby fish use the sound to find their way home.

COUKELL: Nick Tolimieri is a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Standing by the bay where he did his post-doc research, he explains how he recorded and played back the sounds of an underwater reef.

TOLIMIERI: So, what we did was to go at night out and put a hydrophone in the water by a reef and record the noise that comes off a reef. And a reef can be incredibly noisy.


TOLIMIERI: This is just sound recorded off of a reef, about an hour or two after sunset, and the noise is mostly sea urchins and snapping shrimp–a lot of the pops are probably the snapping shrimp. And both of these things tend to come out at night and it's actually been called the evening chorus.

COUKELL: A lot of marine organisms, especially fish, spend their adult lives on a reef, but disperse to the open ocean as babies. Later these larval fish somehow find their way back to the reef.

TOLIMIERI: These little fish larvae that are only a centimeter or two centimeters long – they can actually locate a reef from as far away as a kilometer or two. They seem to know where they are and they'll avoid reefs during day, probably because they don't want to be eaten by the bigger fish.

COUKELL: To find out how the fish find their way back, Tolimieri went fishing at night, playing tapes of underwater reef sound and catching the fish larvae in an illuminated underwater net, called a light trap.

TOLIMIERI: And we put some light traps out with sound equipment and some light traps out without sound equipment and see how many are coming to the ones with sound and the ones without sound. And for the species we've done so far, we've gotten about five times as many reef fish in the ones with sound as we have in the ones without sound.


COUKELL: Not only can fish larvae hear extremely well, but they are also good swimmers. Scientists have found that some species, following the siren's call of the reef, can swim up 300 miles without eating or stopping. For Living on Earth, I'm Allan Coukell.

[MUSIC: Teisco Del Ray "Missterri Meat" Plays Music for Lovers (Upstart Sounds) 1996]

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GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth—removing lead from gasoline was a coup for public health but NASCAR drivers still use leaded gas to give them that racing edge.

O'DONNELL: It has been banned throughout the world even in far off long places like Kazakhstan. If Kazakhstan can get rid of lead in gasoline, why can't NASCAR?


GELLERMAN: Getting the lead out of NASCAR. A special edition on alternative fuels and the future of the car, next time on Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week ringing in the month of May. Steven Feld recorded the annual festivities in Oslo, Sweden, held to celebrate May Day, the international day of the world.

[EARTHEAR: Steven Feld "Oslo May Day" The Time of Bells, 2 (Voxlox) 2004]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory and Susan Shepherd--with help from Jennie Cecil Moore and Kelley Cronin.

Our interns are that Katies--Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is the executive producer of Living on Earth. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm Organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Oak Foundation, for coverage of marine issues.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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