Articles worth reading: August 8, 2022
Unproductive efforts for water savings mean an uncertain future for the Colorado River’s users; a legal challenge to a proposal to thin Yosemite’s forests to cut wildfire risks; the Newsom administration’s a plan for a single Delta tunnel; warming waters mean historic highs and lows for Alaska salmon runs; and more environmental news from around the West.
Negotiations unproductive as states using the Colorado River try to answer federal demands for major cuts. The four Upper Basin states have laid out the cuts they prefer, but say further efforts are stymied without a new plan from California and Arizona, the Lower Basin’s two biggest users. With an Aug. 16 deadline approaching, California’s water barons at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District are discussing cuts of perhaps a quarter the size of the federal demand. Lake Powell and Lake Mead may lose the ability to generate electricity — hitting “dead pool” water levels — without big cuts. Denver Post Desert Sun John Fleck
Mono Lake, a water body dating back millennia, is slowly disappearing. Alkali flats are emerging around the edges of the salty waters of the lake. Wind drives dust storms creating some of the worst air pollution in California. An emerging land bridge is connecting the mainland to an island refuge for migrating birds, which could enable coyotes to prey on the young of gulls nesting there. “It affects everybody, that lake, we all live around it,” said Marianne Denny, a 40-year resident. San Francisco Chronicle
Examining the present and future of the Los Angeles River, partially encased in concrete. What happens to the river between the beginning of the 51-mile-long waterway, where restoration is underway, and its channelized, polluted terminus in the city of Long Beach? Circle Of Blue
A plan to restore Yosemite National Park’s forests by chainsaw is in its early stages. Park officials believe that thinning the park’s forests — the project would cover less than one percent of them — is one of the best ways to save them. Over a decade, drought and beetle infestations have killed more than 140 million trees in California, including 2.4 million in Yosemite. The New York Times The environmental group that has sued to block the tree-cutting calls it a logging project. The Fresno Bee
South Dakota’s Ogalala Sioux Tribal Council bans a Baptist preacher and suspends missionary work done without explicit permission. The unanimous vote by the council in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, came after the preacher, Matthew Monfore, distributed pamphlets that allegedly demonized Lakota culture. Tyler Yellow Boy, a council member, said, “This preacher has come to our homeland to attack our way of life…. He’s calling our spirituality devil worship.” Native News Online
A long-lived pine’s immunity to marauding beetles is ending. The Great Basin bristlecone pine, traditionally resistant to beetles that kill other conifers, is now suffering from insect ravages. A scientist is observing the unusual deaths of bristlecones, including a 1,500-year-old tree in Utah’s Wah Wah mountains. Salt Lake Tribune
New plan lays out details for a single tunnel to funnel Sacramento River water south to cities and farms. Versions of the project have been debated since the 1980s; the latest plan faces opposition from environmental groups, citing concerns about impacts on marine life. San Jose Mercury News Los Angeles Times
Salmon runs in Alaska are reaching record highs and lows due to climate change. Warming waters have led to smaller Pacific chinook and chum populations on the Yukon, whereas sockeye are getting more time to grow before entering the ocean, thanks to the reduced period of lakes freezing, This means they are better able to compete upon entering the ocean. High Country News
An Oregon senator has proposed a bill to conserve grasslands, the first-ever piece of legislation proposed to protect such an ecosystem. Grasslands are a carbon sink, storing carbon in their roots. They currently face numerous threats, including wildfires, drought, and commercial development. The bill proposes incentive-based conservation projects and research initiatives. The Washington Post
Articles worth reading: July 20, 2022
A new report makes an argument for breaching Columbia River basin dams, but the White House in not on board yet; electric tractors make a debut on Oregon fields; Wyoming solar development impedes wildlife migration; wildfires give a new argument to housing development opponents and logging supporters; and other recent environmental news from around the West.
Breaching dams in the Columbia River basin may be necessary to restore salmon, a new Commerce Department report concludes. An accompanying White House statement stopped short of endorsing dam removal. Billions of dollars have been spent on unsuccessful salmon recovery efforts, but removing the dams would be costly and require replacement of thousands of megawatts of hydroelectric power. E&E News Also, any decrease in salmon populations cuts killer whale populations, though most of the arguments about dam removal center around the importance of the fish for tribal sustenance. Oregon Public Broadcasting
After years of warnings about an overused Colorado River, reality bites. “If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that humans are really reluctant to give things up to prevent a catastrophe,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “They’re willing to hang on to the very end and risk a calamity.” Los Angeles Times
Oregon farmers test drive electric tractors as the electic-vehicle industry moves into the agriculture sector. The companies producing these tractors are trying to attract farmers with low carbon footprints and affordability in the face of high gas prices. Though the climate benefits depend on the region’s mix of energy sources, the electric tractors reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all scenarios. Inside Climate News .
Despite damage of Yellowstone floods for people, ecosystem benefits occur from high-water events. Floods lead to growth of riverside vegetation, such as willow and cottonwood trees. Flooding also benefits trout, as surges of water deposit debris that can provide habitat for the fish and create spawning grounds. High Country News
Oregon companies sue over state rules for farm worker protection from extreme heat and wildfire smoke. These rules can require employers to provide cool water, rest breaks, and shade after a certain temperature thresholds. Despite protective laws now in force in California and Washington, farmworkers in most of the country remain unprotected against harsher conditions resulting from climate change. Grist
Wyoming weighs the competing needs for solar development and habitat conservation, after pronghorns were forced to migrate across Highway 372 when a large solar farm blocked their usual migration corridor. This raises questions about the impacts of sustainable energy and the role of state wildlife agencies in energy projects. E&E News
Game poachers on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation are seldom prosecuted, while Natives’ treaty hunting rights are often ignored. The rules on and off reservations are unequally enforced, a new investigation shows, reporting that “even when poachers are caught in the act, prosecution isn’t easy. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped tribal courts of jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands, leaving federal authorities to prosecute such offenses in most cases.” High Country News
California lawmakers support carbon-capture as one way to eliminate the state’s carbon footprint by 2045, raising environmental advocates’ concerns about the safety of underground carbon storage. Researchers have suggested that earthquakes could lead to leaks; they worry about the lack of specificity about this technology’s use. Los Angeles Times
Wildfires are the latest weapon for environmental groups opposing new housing. The competing needs for fire safety and affordable housing are pitted against each other. Associated Press At the same time, some lawmakers cite wildfire risk as an argument against designating wilderness areas rather than leaving them open to logging. High Country News
Articles worth reading: July 7, 2022
What the aridification of the Southwest could mean; a discussion of whether pay increases for firefighters battling wildfires are sufficient; tight restrictions on single-used plastics now the law in California; appeals court allows Arizona copper mine to proceed over Native objections, and more news from the West.
The changes aridification is likely to bring to California and the Southwest are akin to those that ended the Puebloan culture in the Southwest 850 years ago. The ancient Puebloans in the Four Corners area were a dominant, prosperous culture until they suddenly abandoned their homes. Evidence now accumulating indicates a great drought led them to go. Los Angeles Times
Meanwhile, outside Scottsdale, Arizona, a suburban community is running out of water. Will it be an object lesson that will slow home development or simply spiral into endless fights over whose water is whose? New Yorker
Wildfire fighters receive increased pay, but is it enough? Two podcasts – The Landscape and NPR’s InHospitable – put wildfire fighters on the air to discuss the recent increases to firefighter wages, proposed policies that could further benefit wildfire fighters, the historic issues around firefighter pay and benefits, what it’s like to fight wildfires, the mental and physical challenges associated with the profession, and what the government can do to attract new people to the profession. The Landscape Podcast Inhospitable Podcast
A fisherman sues for access to a Colorado stream. Under federal law, the underlying beds of navigable rivers that were once used as commercial thoroughfares, are state property. Colorado, however, argues that its waterways – “steep, rushing, canyon-bound” – are all “‘non navigable within its territorial limits.’” This means major river beds are private property. A fisherman is suing the state of Colorado to make its riverbeds accessible for recreation. High Country News
Apache tribal members’ claims rejected by federal appeals panel. A 2-1 ruling by an federal appeals panel for the 9th Circuit denied the claims of a nonprofit group of San Carlos Apache tribal members and allowed the transfer of thousands of acres in Arizona to a copper mine. The nonprofit group, Apache Stronghold, had argued that the land holds religious and cultural importance to tribal members. Reuters E&E News
More oil drilling in Alaska? The Biden administration is weighing a bid by ConocoPhillips to move forward with an Arctic oil exploration project. A federal judge blocked the project last year, on the grounds that the government failed to adequately assess the environmental harms of the project. Washington Post
Does a stiff quota system for California oil rig inspectors harm their work? The well-inspection quota set for inspectors for California’s oil and gas regulatory agency was 5,000 a month across a 25,000-square-mile area, according to an investigation by The Desert Sun. Management’s goal: drive up reporting numbers. The nearly undoable obligation was a factor, staff members believe, in the belated discovery of gas leaks in Bakersfield. The Desert Sun
Restrictions imposed on single-used plastics in California. In an effort to end plastic pollution from the omnipresent plastic packaging that can degrade into toxic particles, Gov, Gavin Newsom signed a bill over the opposition of both industry manufacturers and environmentalists who called the measure too weak. Los Angeles Times
Low-income communities throughout the West endure a disproportionate share of pollution. It’s true in Wilmington, California, a South Los Angeles community which has the largest concentration of oil refineries in California, with residents experiencing a rise in deaths caused by Alzheimer’s, liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and diabetes. High Country News
Articles worth reading: June 21, 2022
Floods wreak havoc in Yellowstone National Park; a look at the potential catastrophe if the Great Salt Lake dries up; sequoia trees were resistant to older fires; now more intense new ones are killing them; will industrial solar facilities harm sage grouse; a profile of Wilma Mankiller, the new face on the quarter; and more news of the West’s energy, people and environment.
Historic floods upended everything at Yellowstone National Park. All four park entrances closed. A Park County commissioner noted, “it’s a little bit ironic that this spectacular landscape was created by violent geologic and hydrologic events, and it’s just not very handy when it happens while we’re all here settled on it.” Rebuilding could take years. KTVQ The WASHINGTON POST Associated Press
As the Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah confronts “an environmental nuclear bomb.” As the lake disappears, “flies and brine shrimp would die off … threatening the 10 million migratory birds that stop at the lake annually to feed on the tiny creatures…. Most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous” as nearby residents inhale blowing dust containing arsenic from the lake bed. The New York Times
Decades of connecting western waterways mean droughts spill over. “There are enough connections that the water supply consequences of a drying American West are not felt in isolation. They are exported to neighboring watersheds.” Circle Of Blue
Sequoias, the world’s oldest and largest trees, are struggling to survive climate change. The trees are used to old wildfires. But recent fires are far more intense; the trees can’t handle them. Since 2020, three fires have killed up to 19 percent of them. Washington Post
New fires ignite from Alaska to Arizona and threats multiply. Alaska Daily News
Flagstaff residents offered pictures of their latest blaze. Arizona Daily Sun
So did photographers near New Mexico’s Calf Creek/Hermits Peak Fire Albuquerque Journal
Pay low, stress off the charts: reckoning with firefighter morale. Forest Service morale has plummeted. Firefighting is backbreaking; an average starting wage is $15 an hour. Promised raises are in limbo. How can the Forest Service hire and keep employees? Los Angeles Times
Conflicts arise with big solar power buildouts planned in Washington State, many of them in areas with sensitive wildlife, like sage grouse. Proposals for more than 40 proposed projects covering 80,000 acres were reported by the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Seattle Times
Sheepherders’ pay has become a big issue in California, whose overtime pay rules now cover this once-excluded subset of agricultural workers. Sheep ranchers, whose industry has long been in decline, have filed a lawsuit arguing the rule will cripple them. The sheepherders — almost all immigrants on temporary visas — filed their own lawsuit against the agency that hires them. The dispute comes as a new appetite for targeted sheep grazing, a form of ecosystem service, is giving new life to a declining industry. Civil Eats
To protect oceans, the Interior Department is phasing out single-use plastics on public lands. The policy could reduce ocean-bound plastic by limiting the agency’s willingness to get, sell, and distribute single-use plastic products on hundreds of millions of acres of federal land in national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges. Interior is the source of nearly 80,000 tons of solid waste annually. Grist
Two Navajo policemen are the focus of the new AMC television series “Dark Winds,” based on the mystery novels by the late Tony Hillerman. While HIllerman was not Native, Indigenous talent handled much of the show’s development. Native America Calling interviews the writers Billy Luther (Navajo, Hopi and Laguna) and Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota and Diné) and two leading Native actors. Native America Calling
Erica Geis, author of the book “Water Always Wins,” talks about listening to water. KQED says of its new interview, “She argues that our water system here in the state and around the world is not going to hold for much longer. What comes after will require us to live and work with water’s desires.” KQED
Articles worth reading: June 7, 2022
Drought impacts keep on coming, including sinking California towns, disappearing crops, and a future with half as much Colorado snow and a dry Rio Grande river; an appeals panel rules that under California’s endangered species act, bees qualify for coverage; appointment of an Indigenous federal judge is a reminder how few there are; a 400-mile power line will carry Wyoming wind energy to states further west, and other news about the West’s energy, people, and environment.
The West led the charge to legalize marijuana. As it becomes big business in many cities and towns, some others view it with distaste grounded in moral qualms or concerns about criminal cartels. Will growing revenues help sweeten the pot
The Rio Grande is steadily receding, and if the aridification that the Southwest is now seeing becomes permanent, researchers fear that, beyond the current impacts of the megadrought, like the destruction of worsening wildfires — the current Calf Creek Fire has burned 315,000 acres — a bigger disaster awaits: the disappearance of a major river. This year the Rio Grande is expected to go dry all the way up to Albuquerque. “We’re past the point of easy answers,” said an environmental expert. Yale Environment 360
Towns in the San Joaquin Valley are sinking as much as a foot a year; researchers examine how to make it stop. The new drought and the decades of excessive groundwater pumping that preceded it have accelerated the phenomenon of subsidence torquing canals, pipes, and buildings. Between October 2020 and September 2021, towns in Kings and Tulare counties sank by almost a foot, according to estimates from satellite observations. Researchers at Stanford University have used a new remote sensing apparatus to conclude that stopping groundwater overdrafts won’t be enough to end subsidence; groundwater levels must rise. San Francisco Chronicle Stanford News Service
Drought’s impact on California agriculture: probable food shortages, since as many as 690,000 acres could be fallowed in 2022. An executive of the California Farm Water Coalition predicted that “as much as 691,000 acres taken out of production this year, a 75 percent increase over last year and 151,000 acres more than the previous high in 2015.” The kinds of crops that could be quickest to be abandoned are annuals like broccoli and tomatoes. Now, “for every acre that is left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, there is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that will not be available,” said another Farm Water Coalition executive. The Packer
Is almond production headed downhill? California is the world’s biggest almond producer, and almonds are the state’s most lucrative crop. But the difficulty of keeping trees watered is discouraging new plantings and prompting some farmers to uproot existing trees. One grower said payments of $1,000 per acre-foot of water during droughts that come every three years could make continued almond growing untenable. Politico
Colorado will lose half its snow by 2080, Los Alamos researchers have found. They used artificial intelligence and machine learning, accelerating the gathering and processing of data. “We’re not saying Colorado is going to become a desert. But we see increased aridity moving forward,” said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist at the national laboratory. Denver Post
Something’s fishy: when endangerment is the issue, bees, like fish, deserve protection. A Californis state appeals court found some invertebrate species, like bees, come under the same umbrella species designation as fish, in the state’s own endangered species act. The iummediate impact could be protections for four bumblebee species that are in grouble. Citrus and almond farmers, among other agricultural groups, argued that insects don’t qualify for the law’s protections. But three appeals judges said they do. Law And Crime
Lands returned to tribal governments in Montana. A bison range on more than 18,000 acres of undeveloped land in northwest Montana — land taken by the U.S. Government without the consent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – is now under their control. In 2020, Congress passed a law that gradually moves management of the land from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the tribes U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who signed off on the law last year. National Public Radio
A dearth of Indigenous federal judges remains, despite the recent appointment of Sunshine Sykes in the Central District of California. Now seven of more than 4,200 federal judges identify as American Indian, all at the lowest level of federal courts. None have ever served on an appeals court or the Supreme Court. Justice Neil Gorsuch appointed the first Native Supreme Court clerk in 2018. And a new report indicates most state supreme courts in the mountain states lack many judges of color. Balls And Strikes Boise State Public Radio
Interior approves big power line for renewables across the West. The Interior Department just gave final approval for a 416-mile electric transmission line PacifiCorp seeks to build to let renewable energy travel across three states. The Gateway South project is designed to get wind energy from Wyoming into the grid of more westerly states. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management argues that up to 600,000 average homes could be powered by up to 2,000 megawatts of new renewable resources. E&E News
Wyoming utilities balk at the cost of Wyoming’s law mandating carbon capture. For the state’s support of coal-burning utilities to continue, they must work to keep climate-warming carbon from their emissions. Wyoming produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal; selling it generates nearly 60 percent of state and local revenues. The state plans to remove carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and store it, to keep the coal industry in business. But in March, the utilities covered by the new state law requiring capturing carbon submitted filings telling regulators it couldn’t be done, and they didn’t plan to try. Inside Climate News
Alaska hatcheries sending many – maybe too many — pink salmon into the Pacific. Some 50 years ago, the population of pink salmon in the north Pacific Ocean was one-third of what it is today. Hatcheries are part of the reason. Hatchery pinks help support the fishing industry, but when they interbreed with wild fish, the result is a less fertile salmon population. So experts wonder: are the hatchery pinks, which helped rescue the crippled salmon runs six decades ago, too much of a good thing? Hakai
Articles worth reading: May 24, 2022
As the megadrought presides over the aridification of the West, its consequences are felt everywhere, from a weakened power grid to unwatered lawns to unbuilt homes; a federal report recounts decades of abuse of Native children forcibly sent to boarding schools; a small Utah town transforming its coal-fired power plant; Idaho farm workers harvest food but have little to eat; and other news from the lands of the West.
Billions in potential federal dollars have led Gov. Gavin Newsom to pause the decommissioning of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant — source of one sixth of the state’s green energy.
The drivers of the West’s worst drought in a millennium are twofold: persistent coolness in tropical Pacific waters that nudges the jet stream – and many storms – out of reach, and an atmosphere made thirstier by climate change. The thirstier the atmosphere, the more moisture it sucks for the soils below. A climate scientist provides an up-close look at why the current dryness may be prolonged. The Conversation
The power grid’s reliability is threatened as hydropower declines. The North American Electric Reliability Corp suggests that the West is at risk of energy emergencies during summer heat waves. Reuters
Growth and development are kneecapped in communities from the central California coast to the mountains of Arizona and southwestern Utah. As a new report says, “As the Western United States endures an ongoing megadrought that has spanned more than two decades, an increasing number of cities, towns and water districts are being forced to say no to new growth. There’s just not enough water to go around.” Pew Charitable Trusts
Indian boarding schools were created to erase Native culture; hundreds were supported by the federal government, according to a new Interior Department report. Letters from parents were hidden, physical abuse was common, hundreds of students died. As the assistant Interior secretary of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, said during the press conference, “That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakup of families and tribal nations, to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives. We haven’t begun to explain the scope of this policy until now.” Native News Online Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, now seeks remedies and healing after boarding school cruelties. KSUT
A federal judge renews sage grouse protections for a subpopulation on the Arizona-Nevada border. Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley of California’s Northern District overruled the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2020 denial of continued protections for the bird, saying it had ignored the science that earlier had led the service to declare the birds in this group a threatened species. E&E News
Several ports in the Pacific Northwest seek to transform their cruise ship business, requiring cruise lines to plan for a time when vessels use no fossil fuels. Seattle Times
At the end of long workdays, Idaho farm workers find grocery shelves depleted – if they have access to any grocery stores. Sometimes, they have access only to the snacks at a local gas station. Big Pivots
The small town that’s set to reshape the West’s energy future. The town of Delta, population 3,600, is home to the coal-fired, 1,800-megawatt Intermountain Power plant that supplies more than 15 percent of Los Angeles’s electricity. It is also the site of a planned $1.9 billion transformation of that plant into the world’s largest hydrogen-fueled generating station. Los Angeles Times
Articles worth reading: May 11, 2022
Colorado river reservoirs at historic lows; southwestern cities adapt to water shortages; nearly 100% of California’s energy demand supplied by renewable energy for one day; Pacific native representatives call for a UN investigation into Hawaiian oil spill; and other recent environmental reads.
Colorado River reservoirs are at historic lows, causing federal regulators to withhold water to western states. The decision was a first, and will retain water in Lake Powell in Utah, rather than allow it to flow into Lake Mead on the border of Nevada and California. While regulators hope this will maintain hydropower generation at the reservoirs, it is unclear if this will be a sustainable plan to address a drought with no signs of ending. The New York Times Bloomberg Law
In spite of water supply issues, southwestern cities have managed to reduce use and sustainably source water. San Diego in particular has reduced per-capita water use by 43 percent, largely by encouraging low-water-use appliances, wastewater recycling, and payouts to homeowners to tear out their lawns. Phoenix and Las Vegas have pursued similar projects. While large cities have been able to thrive despite the ongoing drought, small towns and agricultural regions have continued to struggle with water access. Yale Environment 360
One day in April, renewable power provided over 99% of California’s energy demand for the first time. Two-thirds of the electicity demand on April 30 was met by solar, with the rest being generated by wind, geothermal, and other renewables. Some observers noted that energy demands remain variable and more work will be necessary to bring the state to 100% renewable energy year-round – and around the clock. Desert Sun
Indigenous representatives for Hawai’i have asked for a UN investigation into last year’s oil spill at Honolulu. The spill, which leaked 14,000 gallons of fuel into the city’s underground aquifer, originated at a Navy base. Calls for an investigation centered on native Hawaiians’ rights to clean water for both everyday life and ceremonies. Navy officials have pledged to close the base, but have not made any progress in doing so over the last six months. High Country News
Residents of Houston still struggle with the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, five years later. The federal government pledged more than $9 billion, yet state and local governments have not fully distributed these funds to communities hit by the hurricane. The distribution chain for these funds is politically fraught, leaving thousands of residents waiting while government agencies debate how to run recovery programs. Many fear that a future storm would wreak the same havoc on the city unless more restoration projects are done. Grist
Honey production by bees is down 14% nationwide. This decline is tied to many factors, including herbicides, pesticides, and ongoing drought. Reduced honey production can have massive impacts on the honey industry as well as on pollination. Civil Eats
Articles worth reading: April 25, 2022
Wetland restoration at the intersection of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers; foreign ownership of US cropland has tripled in the last decade; the Yup’ik people in Alaska forced to relocate due to sea level rise; American farmers are struggling with supply chain disruptions; San Diego proposes a pumped storage hydroelectric project; and other environmental reads from around the West.
Also this week: in a new Up Close, Felicity Barringer looks at how pandemic restrictions fed the rise of secessionist movements and political extremism in rural northern California.
Repairing the intersection of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and restoring native wetlands. The two rivers, which drain the northern and southern halves, respectively, of California’s Central Valley, are considered major flood risks. California has spent $300 million so far on renovating the levee system that supplies surface water to farmers. Associated Press
Between 2010 and 2020, foreign ownership of U.S. cropland tripled, according to the Agriculture Department. This is largely due to increased international investment in wind farms, which have a very small footprint and therefore leave space for cropland. Foreign holdings in all agriculture in the U.S. (including forests and pastures) totals more than 37 million acres as of 2020 — an area larger than Illinois. Federal lawmakers have begun pushing for more strict review of foreign purchases of agricultural land in the United States. Civil Eats
The Yup’ik people of Alaska are facing displacement due to rising sea levels. The shoreline near Newtok– a Yup’ik village on the western coast of Alaska– has been eroding at a rate of 70 to 90 feet per year. Though the Biden administration pledged $46 million to address the impacts of climate change on Indigenous communities, tribal leaders doubt that these funds could be used in time to prevent damage to the Yup’ik village, if they are approved. Crosscut
Supply chain disruptions have had severe financial consequences for farmers across the West. Shipping carriers have increasingly sent empty containers directly back to Asia, rather than load them with crops and other goods from the United States in order to increase their profits. Farmers, exporters, and Washington officials have struggled to come up with a solution to the problem, which is leaving tons of agricultural products stalled in warehouses. The New York Times
San Diego has proposed a large-scale pumped storage hydroelectric project that could greatly expand the city’s energy storage capacity. Unlike typical hydropower projects, pumped storage uses water flowing between one high and one lower-elevation reservoir, and does not block an existing river’s flow. There has been an uptick in pumped storage project proposals, with proponents citing their superior energy storage capacity compared to current battery systems. Politico
A retrospective on the discovery of ‘murder hornets’ in the Northwest reveals the drama that unfolded in trying to study the species and its spread in North America. Though researchers in Washington retrieved the first known nest before dozens of queens escaped, a handful of nests have been found in the state since the original discovery. Scientists are still grappling with the implications that these massive hornets will have on bee species in the west and beyond. National Geographic
California state biologists argue that the Joshua Tree should not be listed as endangered, despite the concerns of some environmentalists. The Fish and Game Commission will issue a final decision on the species’ status in June. Los Angeles Times
Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico, Native American tribes are calculating the risk of growing the crop. Many tribes plan to use cannabis revenue to pay for infrastructure and elder care, but fear retribution from the federal government, which continues to designate marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. It is unclear whether or not the federal government would exercise authority over first nations producing and selling cannabis products. Native America Calling
Articles worth reading: April 13, 2022
The Clinton-era roadless rule didn’t prevent all timber harvesting in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest; the federal government awards $9 million to Native American communities for clean energy projects; snow crab catches decline in the Bering Sea; Cedar City, Utah, wants to take water from a nearby valley, prompting opposition from environmentalists, tribes and neighbors; and more environmental news from the West.
The Roadless Act did not prevent loggers in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from harvesting timber on thousands of acres. Thanks to land swaps between the federal government and private companies, swaths of the Tongass have been logged, despite ostensibly being protected by a Clinton-era act. The little-known practice of land swapping has stripped away large old-growth forests and affected small towns along Alaska’s coast. Grist
The Muwekma Ohlone tribe was falsely declared extinct a century ago, and later was dismissed as a relative newcomer to northern California. New scientific evidence supports tribal claims of an extended past in the region, to at least 2,000 years ago. This is likely to bolster their push for federal recognition. The authorship of the academic paper reporting the DNA findings includes members of the tribe. New York Times
In Wyoming, sage grouse breeding may mask the root causes of the species’ decline. The state has sponsored breeding programs in an attempt to reverse the sage grouse’s 81 percent decline in the last 53 years, with extremely limited success. While the oil industry has tacitly supported breeding programs, conservationists cite that few, if any, farmed birds survive to reproduce in the wild. Industry specialists fear that an endangered species listing would have dire consequences for the state’s economy. Wyofile
The federal government awarded nearly $9 million to 13 Native American communities for clean energy projects and to improve energy security on reservations. These projects will update existing infrastructure and power buildings that previously lacked energy. Native News Online Department Of Energy
Researchers in Texas believe they have found a way to get rid of invasive “crazy ants,” which have blinded birds with acid. University of Texas researchers and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have identified a pathogen that seems to only infect the invasive insects and cause colony collapse within two years. Despite some reservations, they have used it. It may be the first time the cause of collapse of an invasive species has been identified and then implemented to successfully eliminate the invader. Texas Monthly
Snow crab catches in the Bering Sea have been declining, thanks to climate change. The 2022 season has tallied a 90 percent decline in crab catches from 2021; this near-collapse has been caused by the decline of Arctic ice, which supports algae that are crucial to the Bering Sea food chains. The ice also and keeps water cool for the crustaceans. Climate warming is most concentrated at the poles, and could spell the end for local fisheries and severely disrupt key arctic ecosystems. Seattle Times
Cedar City, Utah plans to pull water from a nearby valley, sparking debate over the future of water security in the West. The proposal has snaked its way through court appeals for over a decade. City officials argue it is crucial to the survival of the city, but a broad coalition of environmentalists, ranchers, and local tribes have opposed the proposal as not only environmentally destructive, but uncertain to yield the water the city needs to survive. The Guardian
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland plans to reverse a nearly 50-year-old Bureau of Indian Affairs policy giving it veto power over tribal land use. Haaland, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, cited the policy as an obstacle to tribal sovereignty and a detriment to tribal-government relations. The Hill
Oregon’s Klamath Irrigation District has voted to pull water from the drought-stricken Klamath Basin, acknowledging this could limit their access to federal drought relief. Many area residents believe that the federal funding is only a small fraction of the income farmers could generate with the water that a federal contract keep them from taking. Federal regulators have restricted access to the basin’s water to protect endangered fish species that are culturally relevant to local Klamath tribes. The local representative has cautioned the residents against breaking the contract, citing legal repercussions and loss of federal funding. Jefferson Public Radio
Articles worth reading: March 29, 2022
Lake Powell’s hydropower future uncertain as its elevation drops near critical levels; California requires increased water conservation; a toad whose secretions used for psychedelic medicine is now threatened by overharvesting; a California proposal would give $100 million to Native Americans to buy back ancestral land; and more recent environmental news from the West.
As the Colorado River Compact reaches its 100th anniversary, its future is in doubt. A recent symposium highlighted the collision between the diminishing water supplies with the unrealistic promises of the past. Salt Lake Tribune
The elevation of Lake Powell just dropped below 3,525 feet. A drop of 35 more feet for the smaller of the Colorado’s two massive reservoirs would end hydropower used by 5.8 million customers in seven states. Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation tried to help by sharply increasing releases from upstream dams and reducing downstream flows to Lake Mead; the Western Area Power Agency bought 833,000 megawatts of expensive auxiliary power. Big Pivots Water Education Colorado
Water restrictions mandated in California as drought enters third year. But while Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order requires 400 water agencies around the state to tighten conservation rules — the most severe statewide restriction since 2016 — there are no universal mandates and no fines for districts that fail to adequately conserve. Instead, local providers set their own rules for conservation, including limits on the number of days of watering landscaping and an overall target of perhaps 10 to 20 percent in cutbacks. San Jose Mercury News
A new road cutting through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is more likely after a federal court appeals panel upheld a land exchange crucial to building the road, which would go through the 310,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge near the southern tip of Alaska’s peninsula. The King’s Cover Alaska Native village corporation wants a road to provide quicker access to medical emergency flights. Conservationists contend wildlife that depend on the refuge would be hurt. Anchorage Daily News
Resurgent interest in psychedelic medicines could hurt the Sonoran toad, whose secretions and the experiences they evoke may help conditions like depression and anxiety. But synthetic alternatives are available, and scientists warn that the widespread efforts to harvest toads could decimate the Sonoran Desert populations on the Arizona-Mexico border. Also of note: A portrait of Octavio Rettig, who has become one of the chief proselytizers of toad trips, who believes that “smoking toad” is a practice dating back to ancient Mayan and Incan societies. The New York Times The New Yorker
California utilities were given state safety approval despite their failure to prioritize wildfire mitigation in the areas at greatest risk, a state auditor’s report shows. With 600 unplanned “public service power shutoffs” in 2021 to prevent wildfires, the auditor said the utilities “failed to focus their [remediation] activities in high fire-threat areas.” Utility Dive
Plans for a series of massive solar arrays in a Nevada county near Death Valley are worrying people in small rural areas nearby. They fear that the industrial appearance of the new plants would discourage tourism and spoil the craggy outlines and delicate colors of Death Valley National Park. E&E News
The idea for a Chumash National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Santa Barbara County has a major new obstacle — the proposed construction of as many as eight wind power generators in the same region off California’s central coast. What the wind energy proponents say is an important clean-energy effort is seen by the Chumash people as an affront to the preservation of the offshore ecosystem. Los Angeles Times
Articles worth reading: March 14, 2022
California can once again set its own standards for vehicle emissions; the process if changing the offensive names of federal sites continues; Colorado tightens financial requirements on oil and gas producers, the better to ensure abandoned wells don’t continue to dot the landscape; Native Americans feel kinship with Ukraine; Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary prompts a reexamination of the history of tribal repression; and more.
But first, in this installment of Up Close, we explore the Bay Area’s halting return to the office, as commuters contemplate the hazards of Covid exposure and surging gas prices.
California commuters face a squeeze
The two cataclysms reordering the world — the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic — force us to recalibrate everyday decisions, such as how much gasoline we can use and how often we want to be close to a group of strangers. In other words, how we get to work.
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.
The best of recent reads from around the West:
California regains its prerogative to set vehicle pollution standards more stringent than the federal government’s. Reversing the Trump administration, which had stripped California of the tool that had made it a national leader in reining in smog-causing pollution from cars, the Biden administration renewed its independent power. As the nation’s leader in vehicle sales, California’s ability to set its pollution controls independently has a profound influence on the kind of cars produced nationwide. The state has mandated that only zero-emission vehicles will be sold after 2035. The New York Times
Can the legal structures controlling water allocation in the West survive climate-change-driven aridification? The United Nation’s latest dire report on climate change confirms that drought will be routine and “shows how clearly how our western U.S. water management institutions, developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, are ill-suited to the challenges posed by climate change,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. Bloomberg
An offensive term for Native American women is to be removed from more than 660 federal sites. “Words matter, particularly in our work to make our nation’s public lands and waters accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Consideration of these replacements is a big step forward in our efforts to remove derogatory terms whose expiration dates are long overdue,” read a statement from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. E&E Daily
Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary brings discussion of overlooked parts of its history, including a local massacre of 200 Blackfeet Indians directed by a U.S. Army lieutenant whose name now graces one of the park’s highest peaks, Mount Doane. And we learn that early commercial despoilment of the park, from hotel building to logging, so alarmed William “Buffalo Bill” Cody that he wrote a letter of protest to a New York newspaper in 1883, a year after the park was created. E&E News National Parks Conservation Association Washington Post
Some Native Americans see kinship with Ukraine. In both Canada and the United States, tribes have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reflecting their own history of conquest and the values of their ancestors who resisted colonialization. Axios
Offshore Wind Coming to Oregon and California. The California Energy Commission gave a $10 million grant for the Humboldt Wind Farm off the California coast. And the Oregon Energy Department recently published a draft study looking into the challenges and benefits of generating up to three gigawatts of energy each year from deep-water floating wind turbines off the state’s southwest coast by 2030. The turbines could be placed in waters from Astoria to Coos Bay. T&D World Utility Dive Capital Chronicle
Colorado oil and gas regulators approve ‘strongest in the nation’ financial rules. The rule will significantly increase the size of bonds that operators must present to the state to cover cleanup costs. As for the old wells left to rust when owners went bankrupt, new fees will raise millions to plug these orphan wells. Colorado Newsline
A Trojan Horse of a Brook Trout may, over time, spell an end to his own invasive population who are outcompeting native brook and bull trout, from New Mexico northward across the mountain West. Biographic
Articles worth reading: February 28, 2022
The worst megadrought in 1,200 years plagues the West; California forests are dying; a new study finds eagles poisoned by lead bullets; environmental justice issues tied to California sea level rise in San Mateo county; a $36 million damage award on a worker’s claim of asbestos poisoning in the mines of Libby, Montana, could herald big future costs for the company’s insurer, and other news from the West.
A new study finds it’s been at least 1,200 years since anything rivaling the West’s current megadrought. Tree ring data from thousands of sites across the southwest, which only provide data as far back as 800 AD, show no signs of a drought of this severity. Consequently, the most recent similar drought must have occurred sometime before that 1200 year period. The study, conducted by Park Williams of UCLA was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. 40 percent of the current drought is attributable to climate change. NPR
California forests are dying, losing an estimated 9.5 million trees to drought, beetle attacks and disease in the last year alone, aerial surveys by the U.S. Forest Service have found. The total loss was not as great as recorded two years ago, but since 2010, more than 172 million trees have died. San Francisco Chronicle
Bald and golden eagles are facing a new threat, scientists say, after discovering lead in nearly half of sampled birds. The lead is thought to have entered the ecosystem through spent ammunition of hunters that contaminates remains of their kill. Roughly a third of the birds showed signs of lead poisoning. It can cause death, slower reproduction and other health complications for the birds. Policies designed to prevent hunters from using lead bullets haven’t stopped the practice. Conservationists hope the new study will persuade more hunters to switch. The New York Times
San Mateo is the California county most at risk from sea level rise. About 100,000 people live within three feet of the high-tide line, and nearly half of these residents are people of color. Beyond flooding risk, rising groundwater levels may push contamination closer to the surface, creating health risks . Many of the low-lying communities located around the Bay Area are struggling financially and would be devastated by frequent and severe flooding. Sea level planners are hoping to minimize impacts by preparing for a 10-foot rise above today’s high tide. KQED
The Biden Administration is re-examining permits for the Spring Creek coal mine in eastern Montana to determine if the environmental cost outweighs the benefit to communities depending on mine jobs. Biden hopes to replace Trump-era carbon pricing mechanisms with stronger programs intended to incentivize emissions reductions. Associated Press
A $36.5 million damage award to former worker in W.R. Grace’s Libby, Montana vermiculite mine — where miners breathed in and were coated with asbestos dust — could herald large ongoing costs for the defunct company’s insurer, whose officials knew and failed to warn workers of their risks of deadly illness. Hundreds more lawsuits against Maryland Casualty Company are pending. It’s been about 28 years since the first suit against W.R. Grace, which overall paid several million dollars in claims by victims before filing for bankruptcy in 2001. The New York Times
Beavers are expanding their range northward into the Arctic as climate change frees up new habitat. The animals were virtually unheard of in northwest Alaska but have since established a stronghold in the region. Between 2002 and 2019 the number of beaver dams increased by 5000 percent over previous levels. Scientists worry that the animals are causing irreversible damage to the tundra ecosystems that evolved without beavers, which dam streams and cause floods. High Country News
Scientists are experimenting with adding genetically modified brook trout to streams in an effort to eradicate this invasive species. Brook trout are out-competing native trout, but eradicating just the invaders is no easy task. The team hopes introducing brook trout, which can only have male offspring will cause the invaders to die out over time Anglers and their supporters dispersed the brook trout across pristine waterways and alpine lakes in the West to expand fishing opportunities. Prior eradication strategies also killed native fish. Biographic
A Los Angeles resident describes the challenges that come with living alongside urban coyotes, a species that is now adapting and thriving in cities. Urban residents typically despise the animals which threaten their pets and the manicured image of suburban L.A. Getting rid of them is not an easy option, so people are learning to adapt to their continued presence in the neighborhood. The Los Angeles Times
The WGA’s argument for moderation
Almost invisible in the political rancor of 2022, one political organization is demonstrating, its boosters argue, that bipartisanship can work. It’s the Western Governors’ Association, including 22 states and territories, from Texas to the Dakotas and Kansas to Guam.
In a recent piece in The Hill newspaper, the group’s executive director, Jim Ogsbury, wrote, “defying the stereotype of American politicians and ineffective, feckless and self-interested, western governors are among the most collegial, respectful, and pragmatic leaders populating this country’s political landscape.” THE HILL
One would expect that the executive director would say positive things about his bosses. But it also appears that Ogsbury has some solid evidence of progress on such important western issues as land and water use and landscape management.
The bipartisanship shown among governors doesn’t translate in the legislative arena. The Western Caucus in Congress, E&E News reports, has “skewed Republican for years” and is doubling down on opposition to the environmental agenda favored by Democrats. POLITICO
Sure, the agreements WGA has achieved involve low-profile issues like controlling invasive species or improving telehealth, not culture-war fodder like transgender identity. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just made big news for endorsing legislation that could expose parents of transgender children to prosecution for child abuse. POLITICO
Instead, it is issues like land use where bipartisanship marks their approach. Most western states include a large portion of federal lands; all face intensifying wildfires. Drought and climate change deprive many of their accustomed water supplies. In 2020, after WGA pressure, the Army of Corps of Engineers backed off its effort to force holders of water rights to get the Corps’ permission to use their water stored in federal reservoirs. WGA
This month, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, the WGA’s outgoing chairman, wrapped up a series of discussions under the banner “Working Lands, Working Communities.” These examined issues from drought to wildfire to cross-boundary land management and restoring ecosystems. They received virtually no media coverage except in one avowedly conservative blog, The Western Way. THE WESTERN WAY
It may be easier to get the federal government to accept WGA land management strategies based on both science and experience. Right now, Gov. Little argues, WGA ideas can make a difference on how the money in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is spent. He said, “The states do have the good fortune of having a significant increase in resources, whether it be the infrastructure bill or the [$1.9 trillion] American Rescue Plan.
“…How do we get the money deployed and not waste it…?,” he asks. Perhaps by avoiding unnecessary public arguments.
According to WGA director Jim Ogsbury, that starts with keeping state leaders in the loop., “One of the things we’re really focused on,” he wrote, – “we want to improve the state-federal relationship. Want to be authentic partners, want to be consulted…. It’s going to result in better policy if states and governors have a part in authentic federal policy development.”
Articles worth reading: February 14, 2022
The Supreme Court examines whether intermittent streams are covered by the Clean Water Act; dwindling water on the Great Salt Lake spurs interest and investment from lawmakers; the Interior Secretary speaks out against Rocky Mountain states’ killing of wolves and considers restoring endangered species protections; an Indigenous tribe from Washington can reclaim its cultural history of whale hunts; and other news from the West.
The Clean Water Act’s definition of “Waters of the United States” is in the Supreme Court’s hands. The plaintiffs in the case an Idaho landowner filed against the Environmental Protection Agency seek to exclude from federal regulation all rivers and riverbeds that periodically go dry. Whether or not intermittent rivers and streams are protected has been debated for decades. If the Supreme Court accepts the proposed exclusion, three-quarters of streams in the Southwest would lose federal protections. High Country News
A federal court puts wolves back on the endangered species list, though not those in the Northern Rockies. A decade ago, Congress preempted the judiciary and removed federal protection for wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. The new ruling came at a time when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland published a condemnation of intensive wolf killing near Yellowstone National Park. In response to the highest amount of extermination since wolves were reintroduced there in 1995, Haaland’s op-ed took issue with the states’ approach and said: “The Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating whether a re-listing of the northern Rocky Mountains’ gray wolf population under the Endangered Species Act is necessary.” For two decades, state and federal regulators, along with westerners in Congress, have fought over who controls the wolves’ fate. Associated Press USA Today Mountain Journal
California’s drought outlook remains uncertain in the the final months of the rainy season. The deluge of fall rain met with a dry start to 2022 to make the coming weeks especially crucial. Whether or not the drought persists is unlikely to become clear until March. Even if large amounts of precipitation fall, the drought’s impact on groundwater stores will persist. California Water Blog
Dwindling water levels on the Great Salt Lake spurred Utah lawmakers to action, but it may be too little too late. Record lows in lake levels are a major threat to migrating birds, the mineral extraction industry, brine shrimp, and lake-based recreation. Arsenic-rich dust from the lakebed also threatens to pollute nearby air. If water levels drop too low, the lake could become too salty for its ecosystem to bounce back. Seeking to invest in solutions, lawmakers have proposed a mixture of ideas from rewriting incentives for farmers to conserve water to using pandemic funds from the government to install water meters in homes without them. Associated Press
The most wildfire-prone areas in the West have the fastest rate of population growth, particularly in California, Washington, Oregon and Texas. That is the finding of a new study from a team of climate researchers from Stanford, UCLA and the Australian National University. The team compared its maps of where vegetation creates the highest fire risks to population migration into the wildland-urban interface. Overall, migrants into these areas doubled between 1990 and 2010; but in the highest-hazard areas the growth was 160 percent. The Conversation
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe withdrew its cooperation from the Dakota Access Pipeline environmental assessment after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the pipeline’s operators failed to supply an adequate emergency preparedness response plan. The pipeline goes beneath Lake Oahe, the tribe’s main water source. Concerns have arisen over the pipeline operator Energy Transfer’s failure to address the difficulties of cleaning up an oil spill beneath the lake. Mongabay
For the first time in 25 years, the Makah Indigenous peoples in Washington might soon hunt gray whales. Subsistence whale hunting has been a part of the Makah culture for generations, though the Marine Mammal Protection Act stopped them from continuing this tradition. In October a federal judge recommended granting an exemption to the law for the Makah Tribe. An environmental assessment determined the hunt would have a negligible effect on the overall population of gray whales, which number around 21,000 to 25,000. Civil Eats
Highway wildlife crossings are proliferating, with the upcoming crossing of Highway 101 north of Los Angeles planned as the largest to date. Existing crossings that dot Utah, Wyoming, and Montana cut down on both animal death and human death and injury from collisions on the roads that crisscross old wildlife migration routes. About a thousand structures, from bridges like the one planned outside Los Angeles to culverts, underpasses and tunnels, help species navigate their road-divided world. NPR
The Biden administration invites new public comment on a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The ConocoPhillips Willow project was approved in the final days of the Trump administration. The Biden administration initially supported the project, but climate activists cite the newly announced comment period as a major test of Biden’s climate policy. The announcement may signal that the US is changing course. Inside Climate News
Articles worth reading: February 1, 2022
A redwood forest returned to its original indigenous inhabitants; an endangered wolf stopped by the border wall; extreme drought sparks collaboration in the lower Colorado river basin; electric vehicle battery demands spark a cobalt rush in southern Idaho, and other news from the West.
Shrinking water supplies in the lower Colorado River basin force western states to collaborate on new river policies. Sparked by the severity of drought conditions in the West last year, California, Nevada and Arizona signed the “500+ plan” which dedicates $200 million to increasing the water in Lake Mead by 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023. The plan aims to increase the basin’s reserves and improve preparedness for future drought conditions. Water levels in the lower Colorado River Basin have been dropping for two decades but sparse 2021 runoff led to the first shortage declaration on the river and “created an opening for the political will necessary for an innovative solution.” Aspen Times
A new report warns that California has too many vineyards to support sustainable farming practices and balanced water supply and demand. The report, “The State of the U.S. Wine Industry 2022,” cited the continued drought in California as increasing pressure on the industry with reservoirs still only 37.7 % full despite heavy December precipitation. Mixed with threats of wine oversupply, the report suggested hectares of vines must be removed to keep the industry and the environment in balance. The Drinks Business
A wet autumn brought hope of an end to California’s drought but January brought back dry weather. January is on track to be the driest on record for much of the already water-starved state. The winter months when precipitation is most likely is only halfway done, though hope for a rapid end to Cailifornia’s water problems may be in vain. Washington Post
In southern Idaho, increased demand for cobalt – an element crucial to the production of electric vehicle batteries – spurred construction of new mines in the state’s “Cobalt Belt”. The vast majority of the world’s cobalt supply is mined from the Congo and exported to China, leading North American companies concerned with foreign reliance to search for more local sources. While the goal of cobalt mining remains an environmental positive, metal mining generates more toxic waste than any other industry in the U.S. The long term impact of future operations is a concern of conservationists and local Native American groups who live with the fallout from the old Blackbird mine site. The Atlantic
Electric vehicles and charging infrastructure exclude the needs of outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but automakers are innovating to change that. EV charging stations are being built in national parks and popular trailheads to go along with “adventure ready” EV trucks and plug-in hybrids that are the latest electrification trend. GM hopes to bring more practical fast-charging to remote wilderness areas using hydrogen fuel cell powered stations, removing the need to be hooked up to the grid. Axios
Scientists tracked an endangered red wolf migrating along the U.S.-Mexico border wall in search of a mate farther south. The data was among the first concrete signs that the 105 miles of new wall in New Mexico have tangible impacts on large animal populations in the region, several of which are federally listed as endangered species. The tracking data from the wolf, known by scientists as Mr. Goodbar, shows that the wall is in violation of the Endangered Species Act though the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to ignore ESA law. National Geographic
Montana intends to limits wolf killing near Yellowstone National Park if another six animals are killed in the southwestern Montana region. The state Fish & Wildlife Commission vote comes after 20 wolves were killed on the park’s borders this season, the most since wolf reintroduction in the area more than 25 years ago. Montana Free Press
A hundredfold increase in Western Monarch butterflies. In 2020 a record low number of 2,000 Western Monarch butterflies overwintered in California,sparking dire concerns for the long-term viability of the species. This winter there are more than 247,000 gathered along the coast. Despite the miraculous hundredfold increase, scientists remain concerned about the crucial pollinators who are in trouble due to climate change, pesticide use, and habitat loss. The recent increase represents only 85% of historic numbers from the 80s and 90s. Mongabay
A Bay Area podcast about how individuals can help the species rebound. KQED
Native tribes will receive 523 acres of redwood forests from Save the Redwoods League, a California nonprofit, which is transferring the Mendocino county land back to descendants of its original inhabitants. Funds for the purchase were donated by the California utility PG&E as part of their efforts to reduce environmental damage. The land will now belong to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 tribes whose ancestors were removed from the area by European settlers. The council hopes to expand and connect the redwood forests now under tribal management in the area to restore and expand local ecosystems. The New York Times
Articles worth reading: January 18, 2022
Yellowstone-area lawmakers set their sights on bears and wolves; Arctic fires weaken carbon-sequestering permafrost; growing concern over agricultural dust in the West sparks new monitoring infrastructure, a new push to monitor heat deaths, and other news from the West.
In recent months 20 of Yellowstone’s wolves were killed in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming during ongoing hunting seasons, marking the deadliest season since wolves were reintroduced. Park officials called the news “a significant setback for the species’ long-term viability and for wolf research.” And a columnist argues for importance of allowing wolves to flourish. Associated Press Mountain Journal The New York Times
Wyoming Lawmakers are again asking the Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species protections of the Yellowstone grizzly after two prior failed attempts since 2007. Governor Mark Gordon stated his hopes to return grizzly management to the state, allowing for a reduction of the population in areas where grizzlies are not tolerated. Associated Press
In the West, severe drought prompts arguments over water rights. But do rivers have their own right to flow? For the National Audubon Society and Trout Unlimited, the answer is a resounding yes. After acquiring a lease to portions of the Gallinas River in New Mexico, the organizations embarked on an environmental experiment aimed at a new water management philosophy. Alongside Indigenous communities, the organization hopes to form the state’s view of the river’s claim to its own water. Biographic
Warmer temperatures and fire are causing carbon-rich Arctic ground to rapidly break apart. New research found that climate change is making wildfires more common in the Arctic and accelerating the melting of permafrost in Alaska’s North Slope. Melting permafrost causes large sinkholes and ravines which release large quantities of methane previously sequestered in the frozen ground. Fires contributed to a 60% acceleration in this process since 1950 due to the removal of the vegetation that once helped to insulate the frozen soil below yet climate models are yet to account for the complex process occurring in the north. Wired
Hawaii is testing a new incentive structure for electric utilities to speed up the transition to renewables. Old regulations favored expansion of existing, non-renewable infrastructure. The new system, flips the dialogue and rewards the utility based on performance with the aim of expanding and integrating renewable energy infrastructure without increasing consumer costs. NPR
The danger of people dying from the heat became more evident in 2021, and a new analysis by the California Natural Resources Agency calls on the state government to set up a monitoring system identifying and tracking heat-related illness and deaths. Scientific American
As dust becomes a growing problem, scientists scramble to find its source and how to stop it. A lack of adequate monitoring infrastructure in agricultural areas makes it challenging for scientists to determine the severity and origin of dust events. That will change as new modeling techniques and satellites are being put to the task in 2022 and 2023. In the meantime, as famers in California’s Central Valley fallow land thanks to groundwater restrictions, air quality is likely to decline. Prolonged exposure to dust can cause breathing issues in people with asthma as well as a fungal infection known as Valley Fever. Civil Eats PPIC
Skiing is changing. Milder temperatures, drought, and a global pandemic have reduced the appeal of ski resorts, pushing snow lovers to find new ways to enjoy the wintertime. Of necessity, it is evolving, with a new rise in ski touring, which is a hybrid of both cross-country and downhill skiing. Stevens Pass in Washington has become a center for ski touring, also called uphill skiing, which originated centuries ago in Europe. The New York Times
Articles worth reading: January 5, 2022
The origins and impact of Colorado’s winter wildfires; Californians learn to treat wildfires as a part of everyday life; snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada broke records but only dented the ongoing drought; the troubling intersection between green energy projects and sacred tribal spaces; how a plan to create a fossil-free suburban neighborhood in Colorado was thwarted; and more environmental news from around the West.
How climate change intensified the Colorado fires that engulfed entire suburban neighborhoods near Boulder. The disaster began with spring rains that produced lush vegetation, then a scorching dry summer that turned the grass to spark-ready fuel. By the end of July, 40 percent of the states was in a drought; by the time the fires hit, that figure hit 100 percent. Wind gusts greater than 100 m.p.h. created an epic firestorm. Washington Post
- A photo gallery of the destruction. KSUT
- A moving graphic of the fire’s path. @Us_Stormwatch On Twitter
Living with wildfire has become a necessary skill in California. A writer follows the psychic changes that they and other state residents are undergoing, saying, “Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret.” The New York Times
Massive winter snowstorms haven’t ended California’s drought. Despite huge storms that left snow levels at 160 percent of normal in the Sierra Nevada, a leading California water official says “this drought is far from over.” Says another: “We dug a really deep hole with this drought, and we have a really long way to go to get out of it.” Los Angeles Times San Francisco Chronicle National Public Radio
The things that could move water scarcity from a rural problem to an urban one, and what Phoenix, Denver, St. George and Grand Junction are doing to keep their water systems working. Drought is the focus of problems that put water supplies at risk, but don’t forget about earthquakes and wildfires. Cal Matters Bloomberg
Green energy projects in the West overlap with tribes’ sacred spaces, and the habitat of species at risk, prompting new confrontations between old allies. High Country News Nevada Current Bloomberg
Radioactive contamination has crept into drinking water, stemming from sources like nuclear weapons production, uranium mines, hospitals, or naturally occurring elements. The Environmental Working Group estimates that drinking water used by more than 170 million people – more of them in California and Texas than other states—could pose a cancer risk because of its level of radioactivity. Ensia
An ambitious plan to make a new Colorado neighborhood fossil-free thwarted by construction industry practices and preferences. Overall, buildings supply 13 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions; the building sector may prove as resistant to change as the coal and oil sectors. Inside Climate News
Red light, green light. An essay on how management of the Colorado River could change for the better, as long as people still recognize the impact of the historic drought. “This phenomenon can be seen most clearly in the transition from inaction in the 1990s to action in the early 2000s. The river’s policy management community, fully aware of the possibility of future difficulties, discussed a range of potential policy actions to respond. However, full reservoirs created a “red light” condition. As the reservoirs dropped in the early 2000s, the light flashed “green,” a federal mandate was issued, and important, difficult policy steps were taken.” Water
Articles worth reading: December 20, 2021
This week, in a new feature called “Up Close,” we survey a group of notable recent stories on California’s deep groundwater problems amid an ongoing drought. Additional stories follow below.
California’s Crisis Is Latest Chapter of Water Flowing to Power
As atmospheric rivers blow in from the Pacific and threaten to prompt public amnesia about the West’s continuing drought, the cost of re-engineering California’s water systems over many generations is coming due. The history of the torquing of the state’s natural systems has been vividly recalled by Mark Arax, a reporter and San Joaquin Valley native, who understands every misappropriation of rivers and how we drained California dry.
His vivid reconstruction of — and somber lament for — California water grabs focuses on the remaking of rivers and aquifers to support the San Joaquin Valley’s mighty agricultural industry. To make money and to feed the country, farmers in the Valley need predictability and a regular water supply in a part of California where extremes of water are routine. In Arax’s words, “the water whose too much can destroy us, whose too little can destroy us, whose perfect measure of our needs becomes our superstition and our story.” The extremes led farmers to look to underground aquifers to ensure predictable supplies. MIT Technology Review
The demands for water, wherever it can be found, continue and animate a new Los Angeles Times investigation into the frenzy of well drilling by California farmers that has left taps running dry. As the piece makes clear, the 2014 law designed to ensure California groundwater is used sustainably has failed to protect hundreds of lower-income homeowners whose wells are dry because the aquifer has been drained by large agricultural pumpers.
Of course the stories about overdrafts have appeared for several years, but now a new collection of stories are showing that the state is mindful of past abuses and won’t accept groundwater plans from two dozen different basins in the San Joaquin Valley. The plans appear to allow aquifer levels to go so low that more domestic wells could run dry. The question state regulators face: will the controls of the much-hailed 2014 groundwater law take effect soon enough, or do the decades of built-in delays ensure sustainability will be unattainable? SJV Water CALMatters Los Angeles TImes
In other western news:
Three thirsty southwestern states agree to Colorado River cutbacks. California, Arizona, and Nevada along with tribal communities like the Gila River Indian Reservation will cut 500,000 acre-feet annually from their use of the oversubscribed and shrinking Colorado River for the next two years. Farmers will endure the biggest cuts, and will be compensated to the rune of $200 million by both local water agencies and the federal government. Arizona Republic Los Angeles Times
A Houston oil company is indicted for its role in creating the oil spill off the shores of Orange County in California. Prosecutors say the spill was worsened when workers at Amplify Energy Corp. and its companies failed to respond properly to alarms that signaled a pipeline rupture. NPR San Jose Mercury-News
California is changing the financial incentives for installing rooftop solar panels after deciding that the existing system of net energy metering was unfair to lower-income ratepayers. Utility Dive KQED
Colorado overhauls transportation plants to eliminate more CO2. The state’s transportation department took the lead because traffic is the largest source of air pollution in the state. The rules govern how Colorado’s five major regional planning districts design and build projects through 2050, and require that new projects reduce pollution around the state. Denver Post
Western states spent almost $12 billion suppressing wildfires from 2005-2015, a figure that doesn’t include the cost of massive wildfires in the past four years. Just 12 percent was reimbursed by the federal government. Boise Public Radio
Three experts in prescribed fires offer their experiences in support of increasing these planned events to mitigate the furious wildfires that have been consuming the West. Outwest Podcast Ensia
“The weather of the past will not be the weather of the future,” said a climate scientist attending a recent climate science conference at which scores of detailed studies were presented charting the effects of the hotter, drier world — particular the future for western wildfires. The Washington Post
How to understand the disappearance of Alaska’s snowy owls? In 1995, a researcher recorded 54 nests in a 214-square-kilometer area around the North Slope’s largest town, which in 2016 was renamed Utqiagvik. In 2020, he found none. Why did they start disappearing? Perhaps because lemmings that make up 90 percent of their diet are also disappearing. The owl population worldwide is down 30 percent or more in three generations, international observers say. The owl research puts a focus on what’s happening in one of the fastest-changing regions in the world; temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as fast as elsewhere. Hakai
Articles worth reading: December 6, 2021
Disappearing water, Part III. Small farmers in the Central Valley wonder: where is Kings County water going? They fear that if large amounts of water continue to be exported — with little to no oversight from the state — small farmers will be driven out. 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. The facility, designed to send liquified natural gas to Asian markets, had received federal approval, but this was contingent on Oregon agreeing to the plan. This never happened, and the company that planned it, Pembina Pipeline Corp., has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to cancel its authorizations. 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
The long tail of wildfire damage in western communities. Damage from the 2010 Schultz fire near Flagstaff was exacerbated as floods followed the flames. A new study found that “costs associated with the Schultz Fire and flooding continued to accrue over ten years,” rising from the original top estimate of $87 million to more than $100 million. Arizona Republic Northern Arizona University
As the sage grouse population drops, the BLM reviews its conservation plans. Burned sage grouse habitat is being renewed as prisoners help replant sagebrush in wildfire areas. Wyofile H20 Radio
The arrival of tens of thousands of European greens crabs could spell disaster for the Lummi Nation’s cultivation of salmon and shellfish in Washington State. Bellingham Herald
The journeys of Alaska’s Western Arctic caribou herd, told as part of a personal biography with arresting photographs. The herd has declined by more than 50% in the past two decades. Biographic
Articles worth reading: November 22, 2021
California wildfires shrink the giant sequoia population; Chaco Canyon will be protected from oil and gas drilling for at least the next 20 years; groundwater sustainability plans for four major California groundwater basins deemed inadequate; a small community of Colorado farmers fights for their water rights as they use a communal acequia irrigation system; tree DNA is used in a Washington State criminal trial, and other environmental news from around the West.
California wildfires have wiped out 13 to 19 percent of the giant sequoia population over the past 15 months. The giant sequoias, which reside on the western face of the Sierra Nevada, are disappearing at staggering rates because they occupy dense forests and experience extreme drought, making the trees extremely vulnerable to fire. The New York Times
An atmospheric river drenches the Pacific Northwest, inducing floods, mudslides, evacuations, and deaths. The weather system, which is a long and narrow band of water vapor that can transport a month’s worth of rain in just a few days, adds to the severe environmental challenges of the region, already plagued by wildfires and rising temperatures. The Pacific Northwest’s environmental challenges are related, as wildfires remove a crucial layer of vegetation that captures rainfall and slows down the spread of water. Without this important layer, the region suffers even more from the atmospheric river. Gizmodo The Guardian
A 20-year oil and gas drilling ban in a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The Biden administration announced that after many years of indigenous requests, the area, which is home to many sacred sites for Pueblo people, will be protected. The move follows President Biden’s decision in October to increase protections to Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments in Utah. Despite the Biden administration’s new protections for some sacred sites in these monuments, the administration has received pushback from Native Americans and environmentalists because it approved a pipeline in Minnesota which cuts through tribal lands and watersheds. The New York Times
State agencies criticize four new plans to keep groundwater pumping sustainable in California’s Central Valley. The state’s top water agency says plans in several major agricultural areas don’t make it clear how residential drinking water supplies will remain unharmed. Cal Matters
The Biden administration reinstates a ban on roads and logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The ruling restores a Clinton administration law that was reversed by the Trump administration. The Washington Post
Spotted owls’ critical old-growth forest habitat in the West Coast will be protected in a move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reversing a Trump-era decision to open millions of acres of old-growth forests to logging. The Trump administration played down the threat of extinction that logging would cause to the endangered species, using flawed science to support their decision. Associated Press
A farming community in Colorado’s San Luis Valley fights for their water rights in the face of the Southwest megadrought. The community relies on acequias, a centuries-old irrigation system brought from Mexico that pumps water out of rivers into desert valleys for irrigation. The 300 families who rely on acequias are among the most vulnerable to the drought since most do not have wells if their acequias run dry. The acequias are managed collectively. Companies, such as Renewable Water Resources (RWR), take interest in the region’s water, offering to pay farmers for water rights and jeopardizing the vitality of the acequias system. National Geographic
New research indicates that the Sierra Nevada has “two birthdays.” The mountain range’s first birthday is its initial formation 100 million years ago. Then, a volcanic eruption dwarfed the range 40 million to 20 million years ago. The second birthday dates to 10 million years ago when the range was reborn, as the Sierra Nevada rose to the heights we witness today. Stanford Earth Matters
Tree DNA used as evidence in a criminal trial to prosecute people involved in illegal logging. The group, led by Justin Andrew Wilke, was accused of chopping down and selling sought-after maple trees, which are used to make musical instruments, in Olympic National Park. It is illegal to fell trees in national forests without a permit. A research geneticist for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Forest Service testified at the Washington State trial that the wood the group sold was a genetic equivalent to the remains of three cut maple trees in the area. The Washington Post
Articles worth reading: November 9, 2021
The COP26 could tighten restrictions on oil and gas company operations in the West; rural western residents take on a firefighting role; the Quinault Nation in Washington state must relocate inland due to the rising sea levels; floating offshore wind has a future off of California’s coast; as the West continues to dry, challenges arise for Coloradan farmers, and other environmental news from around the West.
How might the COP26 impact the American West? The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is underway in Glasgow, Scotland. More than 20,000 participants from nearly every country in the world gather to tackle climate change with the objectives to keep global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and reach global net-zero emissions by mid-century. President Biden’s proposed methane regulation, his interest in minimizing oil and gas leaks, and the new green steel pact with the European Commission could mean stricter regulations for oil and gas companies in the West, but it remains unclear whether he will follow through with these proposals. Boise State Public Radio The New York Times The Washington Post Reuters
The Quinault Nation must move a village inland as the rising Pacific Ocean threatens their coastal community in Washington. To be safe, the Quinault people plan to build a new village 100-feet above sea level for 660 residents. The new village will be a half-mile uphill from their current homes. Their plan is to build 300 housing units, a K-12 school, police and fire stations, parks, trails, and a cultural museum. This project will cost around $150 million, an amount they do not have the means to reach on their own. Quileute, Hoh, and Shoalwater Bay people, three other Indigenous tribes in Washington, also need to move inland due to sea-level rise. Bloomberg
Many residents in the rural West become their own fire defense. Rural residents have purchased fire trucks and construction rigs, converted vehicles into water trucks, installed water pumps, and taken firefighting classes. Some have been practicing fire management for decades; others have taken up fire management due to recent fire incidents on their properties. Many professional firefighters express concern about this growing movement in the rural West. The New York Times
The California Coast will be home to an offshore wind farm in the near future. While the dates are not settled, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill ordering California to create a plan for offshore wind by 2023. Once technologically infeasible in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, where the water can be 600 feet deep near shore, offshore wind can now become a reality on the West Coast due to a new floating platform technology that can be installed in water over thousands of feet deep. The implementation of floating offshore wind is essential in order to meet California’s targets of having 60 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045. The proposed offshore wind farm –– planned to be installed near Morro Bay and the city of Eureka –– has not been embraced by everyone. Many fishermen near the proposed farm fear for their jobs and livelihoods. The Atlantic
One country, two diverging climates. Climate change has created separate climate outcomes for the Eastern and Western United States. A drier West and a wetter East emerge. Maps from the New York Times depict this difference. The New York Times
The Hoopa Valley Tribe is hopeful the Trinity River ecosystem will be restored after a Fresno County Court Judge repudiated a Trump-era water contract on October 27. The contract, between the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands Water District, would have provided the Westlands Water District indefinite access to 1.15 million acre-feet of water from California’s Trinity River. Most of the water would have likely been sent to California’s Central Valley for irrigation on industrial farms. According to fishing and conversation groups and tribal nations, the contract would have disregarded law that requires that the Westlands Water District pay $400 million to the Bureau of Reclamation for ecosystem restoration of the Trinity River, which the Hoopa Valley Tribe for centuries have depended on for salmon, a dietary staple. High Country News
As sea levels rise, many California lawmakers support managed retreat, which is a plan for the government to purchase beachfront homes and rent them out until they are wiped away by the Pacific. Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a managed retreat bill last month, but many state politicians believe it is the only path forward because the Pacific Ocean could rise as much as 3 ½ feet in the next 30 years. E&E News
As the Western drought continues, farmers in Colorado struggle to adapt. Some Coloradan farmers share their stories. NPR
Articles worth reading: October 26, 2021
Nevada lands that some tribes consider sacred may soon be dug up; a study reveals the repercussions of the Cascade Mountains’ melting glaciers; some California counties have saved enough water for decades to come while others have nearly run out; the Navajo Nation president demands federal regulations to increase their water supply; floodwaters may damage the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and other environmental news from around the West.
Nevada’s Thacker Pass, which includes some sacred land, could be scarred by a new mine, as a multinational company plans to implement a 1,000-acre project to produce lithium for electric car batteries. A federal judge ruled that the tribes had not established that Thacker Pass was the site of a massacre of Indigenous people by US soldiers in the late 1800s. In addition, three tribes had been consulted about the project by federal officials and raised no objections. Now three other Indigenous groups, seeking to block the mine in court, are presenting new evidence they claim establishes the site of the massacre. A final court hearing and ruling are needed to allow the mining to begin. The Guardian Associated Press
Tensions rise between Yuman-speaking Indigenous tribes and renewable energy companies over the future of a section of the Mojave Desert. Indigenous communities and conservationists call upon the Biden Administration to establish the 380,000 acres as a national monument, noting the historical and cultural importance of the land; renewable energy companies see the vast area as a perfect place to install wind and solar farms powering multiple homes and businesses, accelerating the transition to a renewable future in the state. E&E News
A 50-year project studies the impact of melting glaciers in the Cascade Mountains, the most glaciated area in the lower 48 states. The glaciers provide 25 percent of the region’s water supply, which is used for drinking water, power, agriculture, and salmon runs. The glaciologist behind the operation, Mauri Pelto, studies the glaciers by foot and has covered around 5,000 miles and ascended more than 160,000 feet during the course of his multi-decade project. National Geographic
San Diego expects to have sustainable water supplies through 2045, even as water resources in the rest of the state dwindle. More than two decades ago, the San Diego County Water Authority divorced itself from Los Angeles County water resources, developing various infrastructure projects to build diverse sources of water. The New York Times
California’s Mendocino County has an amalgam of towns with abundant water and towns with none. As the American West dries, neighboring towns bear the weight of the drought unevenly. The Washington Post
The Navajo Nation president calls upon the federal government to make regulatory reforms as water is increasingly scarce due to the Southwest megadrought. Up to 40 percent of Navajo people do not have running water or electricity. The Navajo president states that federal dollars need to be invested to increase water and electricity access for tribal people. Politico Pro E&E News
Flooding jeopardizes the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, as floodwaters near the pipeline increase due to rising temperatures, accelerating snowmelt and intensifying rainfall. At least three different times in the past two years, river floods have caused bank erosion, bringing Alaskan rivers closer to the pipeline. Alaska is warming faster than any other state in the U.S., posing great risks for future floods and other climate-related disasters. Inside Climate News
To much surprise, more than 2,500 western monarch butterflies emerged in one day at a California sanctuary. The western monarch population has seen a major decline in recent years due to habitat loss and climate change. In 2020, only 1,914 western monarchs arrived at the sanctuary in the entire year. The butterflies migrate from Canada for the summer to the California Coast and Baja California for the winter. The reemergence of western monarchs does not necessarily indicate a long-term trajectory for population recovery, but signs of hope reemerge, as well. The Washington Post
Articles worth reading: October 11, 2021
Indigenous Peoples’ Day becomes a state holiday in a ninth state –– Oregon; annual precipitation in the San Francisco Bay area dwindles further; the Dixie Fire comes to a standstill; Hopi people must make challenging concessions as a result of the Southwest Megadrought; the Four Corners Potato may be one agricultural solution; and other environmental news from around the West.
Oregon recognizes the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, removing Columbus Day as a holiday. Tribal leaders in Oregon say this reversal is long overdue but one step forward. Nationally, at least 130 cities and 20 states recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day or similar observances on the holiday that is still celebrated as Columbus Day in much of the country. The Oregonian CNN National Geographic Washington Post
New maps show the extent of the spill of 126,000 gallons of oil spreading off of the southern Californian Coast. Investigators now believe that the pipeline had been struck by vessels’ anchors, probably repeatedly, in the months before the leak. The pipeline at issue connected three offshore platforms to a pumping station in Long Beach. This spill threatens the future of the offshore oil industry in California, which currently boasts 200 miles of pipelines that feed into 23 offshore platforms. The New York Times Associated Press
The San Francisco Bay area’s precipitation was one-third of normal for the ‘water year’ from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. San Francisco saw 9.04 inches of rain, compared to 23.65 inches in a normal year. Santa Rosa received 13.01 inches of rain, compared to the 14.9 inches of rain in a normal year. San Francisco Chronicle
After two months of nonstop spread, the Dixie Fire comes to a halt at around 963,000 acres. The second-biggest fire in California history entered an area with slower winds and small pockets of rain, allowing firefighters to attack the flames with bulldozers and hoses. The firefighters also got lucky, being in the right place at the right time. The Los Angeles Times
Fences, which are omnipresent in the American West, harm wildlife. The American West has enough fencing to wrap around the equator 25 times. New studies find that fences trap and kill wildlife, separate mothers and children, and injure animals. Scientists in the growing field of fence ecology have begun modeling, mapping, and removing fences to protect Western wildlife. The Atlantic
There’s a rift among different Indigenous groups over the future of oil and gas drilling near New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Congress is considering legislation to set up a no-drill barrier on the park’s edge; Navajo Nation leaders want to reduce the area off-limits to drilling, concerned that tribal members with land allotments could miss out on drilling-related jobs and income; they want a congressional hearing held locally. In contrast, many Indigenous activists, environmental groups, and politicians support the Chaco legislation, citing the law’s ability to protect cultural resources and preserve land in the region. Associated Press
The Southwest megadrought poses great challenges for the Hopi people. Faced with depleting water sources, the Hopi people must cut back on either their cattle or their water-intensive crops. Tensions are rising between Hopi farmers and ranchers, as neither side wants to limit their activities. Both sides agree that the Hopi people are unfairly impacted by the drought while cities in Arizona continue to exhaust state reservoirs with few restrictions or conservation efforts. The New York Times
Oregon leaders aim to implement home-hardening rules to protect against fires, a plan that is met with criticism from homeowners and homebuilding and agricultural industries. State leaders want fire-safe building codes in high-risk areas; critics believe this will drive up costs and breach private property rights. NPR
The Aaniiih and Nakoda Nations in north-central Montana gather native seeds from healthy plots to revitalize degraded land. The tribes work with the Fort Belknap Indian Community Grassland Restoration Project to care for their land, promote cultural understanding, and bring back their land to its original state before European colonization. High Country News
With a history spanning 11,000 years, the Four Corners Potato may make a striking comeback in the Southwest. The potato, an Indigenous superfood, is drought-resistant, becoming a viable food source in the midst of the Southwest megadrought. Yale Climate Connections
We’ve seen the powerful wildfire photographs, but what’s it like to be the photographer? Josh Edelson tells all. Gizmodo
Articles worth reading: September 28, 2021
Hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam gets increasingly vulnerable; new worker protections for extreme heat exposure will take effect in the U.S.; a federal judge seeks evidence that the Joshua tree should be protected under the Endangered Species Act; invisible oil leaks threaten Texas; goats become unlikely protection against future wildfires, and other environmental news from around the West.
The Colorado River continues to dwindle, posing a threat to hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam, which provides power to five million people. Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, powers the electricity-generating turbines for the dam. Despite a summertime infusion of water from upstream dams, the level of Lake Powell has dropped to 3,547 feet above sea level. If the reservoir drops just 57 more feet, the turbines will no longer be able to produce power. Without hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam, customers will be forced to look to more expensive energy sources, including many Indigenous tribes in the West. Arizona Republic
Can the biggest agricultural state in the United States maintain its title? California, which produces one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts in the United States, faces a severe water shortage, posing challenges to its irrigated agriculture. Soon, wetter states may need to take on much of California’s agricultural responsibilities. The New York Times
The Biden Administration announces new worker protections against extreme heat exposure after the United States experienced the hottest summer on record. NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that 384 people died from heat exposure in the U.S. in the last decade. Many of the deaths were farmworkers in California and Nebraska and construction workers and trash collectors in Texas, with Hispanic people making up one-third of the fatalities. NPR
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider its decision to exclude the Joshua tree from the Endangered Species Act, thanks to a federal district judge’s order. Scientific evidence reveals that Joshua trees are at risk of extinction by the end of the 21st century. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 60 days to decide if they will appeal the order and grant protections to Joshua trees. The Desert Sun
Teenagers in Portland, Oregon participate in the Global Climate Strike, calling for the city to go fully carbon neutral by 2035. The Portland protesters join teenagers around the world demanding climate action. The Oregonian
Researchers found the world’s top shale oil field has an invisible leak releasing more than a ton of methane per hour. Researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund calculated that a West Texas leak of the potent greenhouse gas has an environmental impact equal to that of about 47,000 idling cars. They say that the owner, Energy Transfer LP, is not alone; EDF found such emissions at 533 different locations, with 149 continuous leaks. Bloomberg
The Makah Tribe in Washington State may be able to hunt gray whales again. An administrative law judge’s recommendation to the US Department of Commerce declared the resumption of hunting would not disrupt the whale population. The Makah people hunted whales for more than 2,700 years until 2002, when they lost hunting rights because the Marine Mammal Protection Act required them to get a waiver. They applied for one in 2005 but have not received one. The Guardian
Alaska’s dramatic climate makes it hard to build resilient homes, and climate change has only made it worse. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) is working to address this challenge, building sustainable and durable architecture that applies Indigenous knowledge and the most up-to-date technology available. Many Alaskan residents live on top of permafrost, which covers 80 percent of the state but is thawing quickly. CCHRC’s solution is to build adjustable house foundations that can shift up to nine inches to accommodate the changing permafrost. Washington Post
Goats are now one solution to mitigate wildfires. Goats eat grass, leaves, and tall brush, vegetation most grazers cannot reach, and vegetation that is known to combust quickly and create wider fire spread. In addition, the goats’ waste returns organic matter to the soil, increasing the soil’s ability to hold water. Lani Malberg, a goat herder who developed this fire-suppression practice in graduate school, practices her technique in the American West. The New York Times
“What was brown and dry was now lush and green” –– a new Tuscon resident experiences the Southwest monsoon season for the first time. She joins the Southwest Monsoon Fantasy Forecast, an online game where people make monsoon predictions, embracing small moments of order in our ever-changing climate. High Country News
Articles worth reading: September 14, 2021
Eyes from space monitor water diversions in California; protecting Native sacred sites remains difficult; California’s two-month-old Dixie fire may become the state’s worst ever; salmon numbers in Alaska’s lower Yukon drop sharply; battery storage expands and overheats and other environmental news from around the West.
Satellite monitoring is the latest tool California’s water police are using to keep track of illegal diversions. Now agricultural diverters in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta no longer claim they didn’t do it — they increasingly claim they had the right to take water. Circle Of Blue
The drought is easing opposition to helicopter roundups of wild horses. Some opponents find that, in the face of dwindling supplies of water and plants to sustain the animals, gathering them to safer locations may be necessary. Reuters
Salmon shortages harm communities in Alaska’s Lower Yukon, where it has been an economic and cultural staple for hundreds of years. Now they are forced to look elsewhere for food and commerce. A typical fall chum salmon count on the Yukon is 868,000; as of August 31, it was 93,000. Anchorage Daily News
As California’s industrial battery storage expands, overheating and a shutdown sideline a key project. The growth of battery systems that can work with intermittent power sources like wind and solar is accelerating. But then came overheating, scorched wires and a unit shutdown at the key Moss Landing facility. Inside Climate News Power Magazine
Mountains, underground springs and rock formations sacred to Native peoples in the West often lie outside the boundaries of the lands they control. When their sacred spaces are surrounded by public land, tribes must argue their case along with the recreation industry, mining companies, and others with little background or interest in tribal religions. Arizona Republic
Prescribed fires and mechanical thinning can lessen the impact of fires in the West. These treatments had been practiced by Indigenous communities for many years until the U.S. government enacted fire suppression laws in the early 20th century. The result was creating highly combustible fuel-load buildup in Western forests. National Geographic
A new California fire record may soon be broken. The two-month-old Dixie fire in the Sierra has incinerated more than 927,000 acres so far. The fire is 59 percent contained, but the sections that are not fully controlled could scorch enough land to outpace last year’s August Complex Fire, which burned more than a million acres, the greatest swath of destruction in the state’s history. Scientific American
A yearlong project documents people hit by the 2020 Alemda Fire in southern Oregon and how they have rebuilt their lives in the months since. The photojournalist Alisha Jucevic captured a post-fire world of displacement and loss, particularly for migrant workers. She also witnessed the recovery, from meeting new neighbors to graduating from high school. High Country News
Articles worth reading: August 30, 2021
Wildfires’ side effects, from landslides and tainted water to undrinkable wine; water shortages spell trouble for lucrative marijuana and almond crops; pollution backsliding, from new gas plants in California to ozone in Utah; Paradise pursues land buybacks to build a fire perimeter; and how to live with wolves – some of the latest environmental reads.
The inequality of climate change in California’s Coachella Valley. Just as COVID-19 revealed income-based inequities in health care, climate change is revealing inequities in the pain and suffering caused by heat, drought, and floods. Take Coachella Valley, whose western half is a luxury playground and whose eastern half is home to hot and ragged trailers housing people who do menial labor on the western side. Propublica
Do California almonds have a future? The historic drought across the U.S. West is an arrow aimed at California’s $6 billion almond industry, the source of about 80% of the world’s almonds. Some farmers in California’s Central Valley are practicing “deficit irrigation” — providing less water than the trees need. Others fallow fields for annual crops to save water for the trees or plan to pull up some of their trees. So “our huge investment that we put in these trees is gone,” one said. More growers are expected to abandon their orchards as water becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. Associated Press
The prospect of undrinkable smoky wines is a waking nightmare for California vintners. Whatever the destruction the drought has caused California’s agricultural bounty overall, grape growers feel a particular impact from the fires. Wine grapes tainted by smoke often make for undrinkable wines. One grower said drinking wines with a burnt rubber taste feels “like licking an ashtray.” Inside Climate News
Water restrictions on pot growers stir Hmong community fears in California’s Siskiyou County. The Guardian
The well fixer’s warning. As wells keep going dry, Matt Angell, a well fixer in Claifornia’s Central Valley, keeps on digging. “Nature alone didn’t explain what had gone wrong with this well and scores of others — ag wells, home wells, business wells, the junior-high and high-school wells — that were bringing up so much air. From the data on his devices, Angell calculated that the underground water table in Madera County, one of the most over-tapped in the West, had dropped an astounding 60 feet over late spring and summer. “I’m 62 years old. I’ve been doing this California town more than half my life, and I’ve never seen this. Not even close,” he said. “This is all brand new, and it’s shaken everything I believe in.” The Atlantic
California approves temporary gas plants to avoid blackouts caused by the loss of hydropower. Although Gov. Gavin Newsom has supported a managed decline of fossil-fuel production in the state, his government okayed more than 9,000 new oil and gas permits in the past 36 months. Bloomberg Gizmodo
After a fire is out, its impacts go on. Cleared by wildfire in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a swatch of empty land led to a mudslide that required hauling out as many as 135 truckloads a day of mud and rocks to uncover I-70. But that may only be part of the fires’ impact: as a Colorado official said: “Water flowing from fire-scorched land can also taint streams, rivers and drinking water reservoirs with a variety of toxic chemicals. E&E Daily
Paradise now seeks to buy out burned-out homeowners. The homes consumed in the deadly Camp Fire almost fire three years ago might not have gotten permits under current building codes. But the West has a libertarian legacy of loose zoning rules, and California’s tight housing markets force people to live in places like this that are cheaper and less safe. These high-risk properties are now the focus of a town effort to get homeowners to sell their properties back and turn the land into green space, a new fuel break to slow future fires. NPR
Articles Worth Reading: August 16, 2021
Fire and drought continue to choke the West and states are finding new ways to save water and expanding opportunities to reuse wastewater; a fire ecologist talks about what makes fires tick; With Lake Powell’s continuing evaporation, bits of Glen Canyon once underwater reemerge; California’s new energy code, and other environmental news from around the West.
California Bans Removal of Stream and River Water. Early this month, state regulators barred thousands of Californians from diverting surface water to their lands and crops. The emergency declaration covers the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed, which stretches from the Oregon border well into the San Joaquin Valley. THE LOS ANGELES TIMES SACRAMENTO BEE
The Oldest Water Rights in California Have Been Sacrosanct for a Century. Will That Change? Those who watch California water issues wonder if the state’s new curtailment of surface-water withdrawals is a harbinger of a future in which the water rights dating before 1914 – long considered untouchable – will be put into play. SJV WATER
Paying Farmers and Ranchers Not to Use Colorado River Water may be one avenue to cut back the number of lawsuits over rights to the river. Colorado and other states are considering the option, and at least one non-profit is moving ahead. “If they’re paying us more than we think the value is of the production, it’s a no-brainer to do it,” the rancher Bill Parker said. Parker’s deal with Trout Unlimited paid him $15,000 to keep water in the creek to ensure conditions can support fish and a healthy ecosystem. COLORADO PUBLIC RADIO
Increasing Western Efforts to Reuse Wastewater mean forgetting about the “yuck factor” behind, as San Diego and California’s Orange County have been doing for a decade. Now Arizona municipalities, like Scottsdale and Phoenix, are starting to work with plants that clean effluent so thoroughly that direct potable reuse is possible. ENSIA
Tracking Western Wildfires With Maps and Satellite Photos. Before-and-after satellite photos show the Dixie Fire’s destruction. REUTERS and this fire map is being constantly updated. NEW YORK TIMES
A Federal Pause on Oil and Gas Leases Hasn’t Stopped Growth in Wyoming’s Rigs. Oil and Gas companies were operating five rigs in Wyoming the week of Jan. 29 when President Biden announced a pause to review oil and gas leasing policies and royalty rates. This week, 15 rotary rigs were staffed, according to Baker Hughes, an technology company. During the pause, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has granted 1,984 drilling permits to energy companies — almost double the 1,059 issued during the same period in 2020. WYOFILE
How to Think About Transplanted Species in the West. The scientist Peter Moyle has spent a career studying what is happening with the fish in California’s rivers, and has this observation: “To some extent, native and non-native fishes can form coalitions (novel ecosystems) where the resources available are divided up among the species, much as it supposedly is in undisturbed habitats (e.g. Aguilar-Medrano et al. 2019). But, in general, non-native fishes are replacing natives as habitats change, mostly as we have changed them. How do we live with this change but still save native fishes? Let’s start with language.” His look at how we think, and talk, about the species that came from somewhere else. California Water Blog
Articles Worth Reading: August 3, 2021
Ongoing drought news: plans for how to cope with the West’s dry future, the rise of water thieves and record-low lake levels; California utility plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines to avoid wildfire ignitions; landslide closes major interstate through the Rockies; Montana Water Court establishes rights for hundreds of Chippewa Indians, and other recent environmental news from around the West.
Drought Puts Water Supply in Many Northern California Communities at Risk. “The current drought now covers 85% of California. Santa Clara Valley Water District Board President Tony Estremera has warned residents that “we could face the possibility there will not be enough water (next year) to meet basic demands without serious risk of subsidence in 2022.” Salt water intrusion in crucial pumps more likely as river flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are law. Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water board’s division of water rights, said the situation creates a potential “doomsday scenario.” SAN JOSE MERCURY-NEWS
If the West Doesn’t Adapt to Drought, It Will Break. “If you talk about drought, drought is our new normal. It’s not a drought anymore,” said Newsha Ajami of Stanford’s Water in the West program. “We have to shift that mindset … drought is.our reality.” GIZMODO
Less Available Water Means More People Willing to Steal It. California thieves in water trucks are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water they sell on a burgeoning black market. At nighttime, others siphon water from city hydrants, homes, private wells, or even pressurized water mains. “Any way that you can imagine that somebody is going to grab water, they’re doing it,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. CAL MATTERS
Landslide Closes I-70 Through the Rockies Indefinitely. Colorado’s main route over the Continental Divide suffered “extreme” damage in a landslide, “unlike anything seen before” said Colorado Department of Transportation employees, It is unknown when the damage inflicted by the rock and mud slide will be repaired and the road reopened. COLORADO SUN
To Reduce Wildfire Ignition Risks, PG&E Will Bury Some Power Lines. Northern California’s major utility is planning to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground, to avoid the impacts of branches or trees falling on lines and sparking wildfires across drought-stricken California. Customers will likely foot the bill. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Plans for 850-Megawatt Solar Array in Nevada Withdrawn in Face of Local Opposition. The array, called the Battle Born project, would have been one of a growing number of solar energy production sites in the Moapa Valley region about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas. LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Setting a Precedent, Montana’s Water Court Settles 800 Water Rights Claims for members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. “I hope it’s the first step in a tidal wave of such decisions, the court’s chief judge, said Russell McElyea. The decree establishes ownership of tribal reserved water rights held in trust by the United States government. It makes clear how much is allocated to users in a particular basin and establishes their priority. NATIVE NEWS ONLINE
The Growing Lure of Dark Sky Tourism draws visitors to the West and Midwest, from northern Nevada to Nebraska. There are now more than 60 dark sky parks, communities and reserves in the country, including western parks like Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley. In Idaho, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is certified as having among the darkest skies, and Bruneau Dune State Park is seeking the same recognition. In Nevada, dark sky designations now made under a new state law. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KOLO-TV
Articles Worth Reading: July 19, 2021
The consequences of the unremitting drought for salmon in California, for hydropower in California and Nevada, New Mexico’s acequias and the Gila River in Arizona; wildfires spread and mushrooms proliferate; the roadless rule is back in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and the impact of the post-pandemic tourist boom on the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears.
A Look at the Future of a Southwest With Less Colorado River Water. Water users include farms that need outsized amounts of water. Semiconductor plants making the computer chips used in innumerable products need millions of gallons daily. Then there are developers and the water needs of new homes. “We’re about to declare the first water shortage ever on the Colorado River,” says Chuck Collum, a program manager for the Central Arizona Project, an agency that delivers Lake Mead’s water to the state. “This isn’t just an Arizona problem. This is a Colorado River basin problem.” BLOOMBERG
Work Underway to Avoid Losing Hydropower Around the West. Dams upstream of Lake Powell in Utah make emergency releases of water as the lake is projected to go lower than it has even been since it was filled more than 50 years ago. The turbines at Lake Oroville in California are expected to shut off in a few weeks. KUNC KCRA
Some of New Mexico’s Acequias Go Dry. A few of these canals, which are part of an Arabic irrigation brought to the state by Spanish explorers in the 1600s, are still delivering water to farmers. Others are not. A few decades ago, snowfall and rains kept them functioning. But exceptionally arid weather has persisted for two decades, drying many up. THE NEW YORK TIMES
Heat Threatens to Exterminate Salmon now in the Sacramento River. This summer’s extreme temperatures, combined with the decades-old impact of building the Shasta Dam, are on track to kill virtually all the salmon now in the Sacramento River. SACRAMENTO BEE GIZMODO
The Fate of the Gila River in Arizona and New Mexico Is Unsure as the southernmost snow-fed river in the country loses more and more water. What once was a perennial stream flowing 649 miles through those two states and emptying in the Colorado River, is now intermittent and facing a future without snowmelt. YALE ENVIRONMENT 360
Now 80 Large Western Wildfires Have Torched More Than 1 Million Acres; Montana and Idaho had the most fires, and the Bootleg fire on the Oregon-California border was the worst; burning at least 303,000 acres. CNN
In Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the Roadless Rule is Back. Enacted by President Clinton and suspended by President Trump, the rule banned creation of new roads on more than 9.3 million acres of the forest. Over two decades, it effectively prevented industrial logging of old-growth cedar, spruce and western hemlock trees. EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL
On the Navajo Nation, an Israeli Generator Produces Clean Water. The water comes from a generator on a concrete pad outside the one store in Rocky Ridge. NATIVE NEWS ONLINE
Trying Times For Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears. As throngs escape COVID-19 lockdowns and congregate to celebrate their freedom in the national parks of Wyoming and Montana, grizzly bears pay a price. MOUNTAIN JOURNAL
Staff and Contributors
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