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& the West

Published since 2016,  ‘& the West’ offers reporting, research, interviews, and analysis on the environmental future of California and western North America. It is produced by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.  More about us »

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What we’re reading: October 18, 2022

alifornia proposes reducing its intake of Colorado River water supply and also increases its water independence by approving a desalination plant; new technology offers the prospect of zero-emission iron for steelmaking; the Supreme Court debates a California law banning the sale of caged-pig pork; the United States.Navy’s reckoning with its pollution of Hawaiian waters, and more environmental news from the West.

By Caroline Reinhart

California says it will decrease its usage of the Colorado River by approximately 10 percent through 2026, amidst the state’s succession of historic droughts. The participating water agencies will be paid a portion of the $4 billion in drought relief funds from the federal Inflation Reduction Act. Upper Basin state officials have reacted positively, but say it is not enough. Cal Matters U.S. News & World Report Colorado Sun Maven’S Notebook

Like the Colorado River, another key source of California water is also losing ground to the worst drought in a millennium . Shasta Lake in northern California was created by a dam built across the Sacramento River in the 1930s and 1940s. It now holds just one third of its capacity, forcing farmers to cut back on crops and towns to truck in bottles of drinking water. The Wall Street Journal

To find an alternative source of water, California approved plans for a $140 million desalination plant . The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project in Dana Point, south of Los Angeles, is the first desal project to go into effect since the establishment of more restrictive regulations in 2019. The California Coastal Commission found that the resulting environmental impacts to be minimal, proving the project as a potential model for other small, drought-sensitive communities. Reuters

Electra, a Colorado startup that produces zero-emission iron, could provide a model for decarbonizing the steel industry, which accounts for seven percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. With the $85 million dollars invested in the company and a strong endorsement from Bill Gates, facilities will be up and running next year. Bloomberg Bloomberg Podcast

California’s voter-approved law prohibiting companies from selling pork if they crate their pigs, is under review in the Supreme Court. During oral arguments, both liberal and conservative justices raised questions about the impact of 2018’s Proposition 12 on surrounding states. While environmentalists and animal rights activists advocated for humane treatment of the animals, the pork industry argued that the legislation will interfere with interstate trade and hurt their profitability. Civil Eats Reuters Successful Farming

The U.S. Navy recently spilled 1,000 gallons of sewage into Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. It was the latest in a series of environmental incidents. Prior to the leakage, the Navy was fined $9 million for violating hundreds of safety regulations. Among these violations include the discharge of fuel tanks and fecal bacteria and explosions of toxic military waste. Environmentalists, local residents and military families joined together to raise awareness of the issue. Grist

A Los Angeles County homeowner has donated an acre of her land to the Tongva community, giving descendants of southern California’s original residents their first control over local land since the mission system was established. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to create opportunities for indigenous groups to co-manage or gain land ownership. Los Angeles Times

Gray whale populations along the Pacific Coast of North America have declined by 38 percent since 2016’s population peak. With approximately 16,650 gray whales left in the region, scientists found that the cause may be the historically low reproduction rates. Reuters

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California commuters face a squeeze

Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The final impact of the pandemic’s work-from-home requirements aren’t yet known; more offices are calling employees back to their old desks. But two things about the future of transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area are increasingly clear. Driving will cost more. And it will be a while longer before people are as willing to take buses, trains and subways. 

Driving has been Californians’ way of life. The San Francisco Bay area and adjacent cities like Stockton and Modesto have been home to more than 120,000 supercommuters – people who drive at least three hours round-trip to and from work, a 2019 study found. 

That’s the most in the country. For millions of commuters in the Bay Area, regional gas prices now top $5.69 a gallon. The Russian oil shutoff, caused by the Ukrainian invasion, is driving costs higher. 

And while a Bay Area Council survey indicates that 40 percent of employees could opt for work weeks with three days in the office going forward, cutting out 1.1 million daily commutes, there is no sign of a wide return to the close quarters of public transit systems. 

Ridership on Caltrain, which runs from Gilroy to San Jose to San Francisco, remains down sharply; last month’s report showed overall weekday travel activity was down 31 percent from pre-pandemic levels; it is now at about 20 percent of the levels of 2018 and 2019.

Like Caltrain, BART is starved for riders. Last month, directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System were told ridership is likely to remain well below pre-pandemic levels till 2029. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the pandemic cut ridership to 12 percent of BART’s pre-COVID level; more than 18 months later it is now not even at 30 percent of the old level of weekday passenger trips, according to the San Jose Mercury-News. The ridership drop could cost BART $1 billion when this fiscal year ends. ABC7News quoted the system’s director of financial planning saying, “Many commuters may not return to the transit community even when they return to work.” 

If all those commuters stay in their cars, the consequence will be not only bone-wearying commutes, but increased pollution — unless electric cars dominate the fleet. Eighteen months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order required that by 2035,  all news vehicles sold be  zero-emission vehicles. This would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 35 percent and smog-forming emissions 85 percent, state figures show. 

But 80 environmental groups just demanded tougher rules. Answering those who say the Ukraine crisis requires producing more fossil fuels, the environmentalists say it requires producing more electric cars. Sammy Roth’s Los Angeles Times newsletter argued, “accelerating the shift to electric cars and electric heat pumps, the U.S. and Europe could slash emissions while dealing a powerful blow to Vladimir Putin….” 

Roth reports that a Stanford research scholar, Michael Wara, proposes a trade: Increase oil and natural gas production in the U.S. in the short term, to cope with the Ukrainian war gas crisis, but only if Congress approves “a massive program to electrify the U.S. vehicle fleet.” 

Transportation systems, like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, have proven vulnerable to the two crises of the moment. Wara’s proposal is a reminder that another cataclysm, the results of a warming climate, should impact people’s decisions. Electric cars and public transit offer two ways to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis around the corner.

Stories by Topic

What we’re reading, Dec. 6, 2021

Disappearing snowpack in the West. Is the end of western mountain snowpacks in sight? San Francisco Chronicle Washington Post

Disappearing water in the West. Does groundwater have a future in California, or is its depletion inevitable? Stanford Earth Matters

Disappearing water, Part II. Water agencies serving 27 million Californians are on their own next year, getting nothing from state water projects. Los Angeles Times

Disappearing water, Part III. Small farmers in the Central Valley wonder: where is Kings County water going? SJV Water

Oregon’s proposed Jordan Cove liquified natural gas project abandoned. It was designed to include a liquified natural gas terminal and a 229-mile natural gas pipeline and send liquified natural gas to Asian markets. Oregon Public Broadcasting

Interior Secretary Haaland works to eliminate racist place names, like those using the word “squaw.” How names like “Chinaman Gulch” affected one Asian American. Grist KSUT

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

Past Contributors

Anna McNulty
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2021
Melina Walling
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2021
Benek Robertson
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2021
Maya Burke
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020
Kate Selig
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020

Francisco L. Nodarse
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2020
Devon R. Burger
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2020
Madison Pobis
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2019
Sierra Garcia
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2019

Danielle Nguyen
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2019
Carolyn P. Rice
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2019
Rebecca Nelson
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2018
Emily Wilder
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2018
Alessandro Hall
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2018 
Josh Lappen
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2017
Natasha Mmonatau
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2017
Alan Propp
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2017