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Environment

06 May 2014
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Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves. The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.” This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic. This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out…
05 May 2014
The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding. Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy? This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District. This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority…
21 Mar 2014
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When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it. The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross. But this estuary did the opposite: As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out. “Crossing these rivers by boat or…
06 Mar 2014
Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California. Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years. “Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management. Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could…
24 Jan 2014
As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?” To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River. Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that…
30 Dec 2013
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As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters. It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land. I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way. “I’ll answer some questions!” Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of…
24 Dec 2013
Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild. But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown. "The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los…
06 Dec 2013
As I wrote last spring, the pumas of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains are dying—slowly, but quite literally—for lack of genetic diversity. Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator. That’s why it mattered so much that, during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range. When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they’re back, we know: This death…
07 Nov 2013
The spring of 2011 was wetter than usual in the Pacific Northwest. A huge snow year was followed by rain, and during the peak, runoff water was ripping through the hydroelectric turbines on Bonneville Power Administration’s dams. Spring is also the windy season, and hundreds of new turbines in the region were pumping juice into the electrical grid. Even when substantial electricity exports to California were taken into account, the combined wind and hydropower plants were generating more carbon-free electricity than the region’s residents and businesses could consume. But too much of a good thing is, well, too much. In order to keep the grid from being overloaded, the BPA forced the wind farms to shut down, bashing their bottom line. Controversy and lawsuits ensued: Both wind-farmers and salmon advocates would have preferred it if the BPA had spilled the water over the dams, rather than run it through the…
20 Sep 2013
Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group—the D.C.-based nonprofit that helps the green-conscious decide which sunscreen to wear and what to wash their dishes with—was rallying California followers to contact state legislators in support of a bill to regulate fracking. The sun was about to set on California’s legislative session without a single new law on the issue, despite an industry poised for potential boom on the Monterey Shale—1,750 square miles that extend from Central to Southern California containing two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale reserves. Two proposed bills had already died; one that would have imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing got just 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly. Only Senate Bill 4 still had a chance; it had cleared the Senate and was headed for the Assembly. And though some moratorium-or-bust environmentalists thought the bill didn’t go far enough, EWG—whose staff had worked for four years on the…