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Environment

10 May 2016
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Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted. For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet. “There’s…
13 Apr 2016
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The 90-mile drive south from Silicon Valley to Watsonville, Calif., runs mostly through coastal forest, with intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean. Then the road turns inland, and the redwoods and briny air give way to the aromatic strawberry fields of the Pajaro Valley. Though the two communities are geographically close, they feel very far apart. Silicon Valley is an overcrowded center of technological innovation, made up of mostly white, affluent residents, with a median income of more than $90,000. The quiet town of Watsonville is 81 percent Hispanic, with a median income of $44,000, and is culturally and economically defined by its strawberry crop. Jennifer Magana and her older sister grew up watching their parents work the fields for major companies like Driscoll’s. They came home exhausted every night, only to get up and do it again the next morning. Magana, now a high school senior, has no desire…
04 Mar 2016
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On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the building, shuttered in 2010. “I was on the school board; the grass was green; kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.” Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry, and farm-related jobs…
20 Feb 2016
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When the California Coastal Commission fired its executive director, Charles Lester, late on Wednesday, Feb. 10, most members of the audience in the community center in Morro Bay were left distraught. For seven hours, people from across California had taken the podium to declare their support for Lester. There were representatives from indigenous communities and organizations for underserved Hispanic populations in Los Angeles, former commissioners, and at least one resort executive. Almost 1,000 people gathered, nearly all of them in favor of Lester. But in a vote of 7-5, commissioners fired Lester—and they did so without offering any real explanation to the public. Many fear Lester’s firing could mean increased pressure from developers, closed-off beaches and environmental damage to a quintessential Western landmark—one that runs from the surf breaks of San Diego to the wild cliffs of Big Sur and beyond. Since the California Coastal Commission was established about 45…
03 Feb 2016
At the beginning of February last year, South Lake Tahoe in California was nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit—almost 20 degrees above its historic average. At that time, the drought had been dragging along for four years, and chair lifts at nearby ski resorts were swaying over barren slopes. Representatives from the California Department of Water Resources called the Sierra Nevada snowpack “dismally meager,” at only 23 percent of normal. This year, it’s a drastically different story. January has been California’s best month for the snowpack since 2011, and the state’s measurements are at 127 percent of normal. Still, it’s still not enough to make up the deficit from the persisting drought in the state. It is enough, though, to keep ski resorts running and reservoirs in the state from drying up. Above-normal snowpack measurements are tracking for most of the West, too. (See the chart below.) The season was off to…
26 Jan 2016
After one of the many attempts to plug the methane-leaking well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles suburbs, the thing erupted like a geyser, spewing not only natural gas, but also the muddy slurry that company technicians had pumped into the well. It reminded me of a phenomenon that disrupted small-town life in southwest Colorado in the 1990s, during a coalbed methane boom. An abandoned natural gas well, drilled decades earlier, would periodically erupt, shooting natural gas, water and debris some 200 feet into the air. Locals dubbed it Old Faithful. Aliso Canyon is a bit like a gigantic, catastrophic version of the geyser gas well of yore. Since the leak was first noticed in late October, some 4.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas have leaked into the atmosphere. Most of that is methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, along with smaller amounts…
12 Jan 2016
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Last summer, as California was struggling through its most severe year of the recent drought, two California members of Congress unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. David Valadao introduced, separately and respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide. Both seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for…
02 Jan 2016
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Last month in Paris, 195 of the world’s leaders reached a historic agreement to lower-greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to stave off the most drastic effects of climate change—a momentous shift that will lay the groundwork for climate preparations across the globe. Just a few weeks before the talks began, a new report showed that many Western states are unprepared to face the increasing weather-related risks posed by climate change. However, California is leading the nation in its efforts. The States at Risk Project is a nationwide report card released last month by ICF International, a consulting firm, and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and journalism organization. It’s the first-ever comprehensive assessment of threats to each of the 48 states in the continental U.S., such as extreme heat and drought that researchers predict will grow more severe in the future. See an interactive map with each state’s status below.…
14 Dec 2015
As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions. However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage. “Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in…
08 Dec 2015
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On Earth Day 2014, a group of farmers, ranchers and Native Americans who live along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline marched and rode horseback through Washington, D.C., wearing cowboy hats and feather headdresses. On the National Mall, they erected tipis and held ceremonies; a couple of days later, they gave a hand-painted tipi to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in President Barack Obama’s honor. They gave the tipi the same names that the Lakota and Crow gave Obama in 2008—“Man Who Helps the People” and “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.” The message was implicit: The man who helps the people rejects the Keystone pipeline. In November, Obama did just that, handing the climate movement its clearest political victory yet. The fight over Keystone XL gained national attention when prominent environmentalists like Bill McKibben positioned it as a litmus test of Obama’s commitment…