Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Abrahm Lutgarten, Lauren Kirchner, and Amanda Zamora report at ProPublica:
Why do I keep hearing about the California drought, if it’s the Colorado River that we’re “killing”?
Pretty much every state west of the Rockies has been facing a water shortage of one kind or another in recent years. California’s is a severe, but relatively short-term, drought. But the Colorado River basin — which provides critical water supplies for seven states including California — is the victim of a slower-burning catastrophe entering its 16th year. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country.
The severe shortages of rain and snowfall have hurt California’s $46 billion agricultural industry and helped raise national awareness of the longer-term shortages that are affecting the entire Colorado River basin. But while the two problems have commonalities and have some effect on one another, they’re not exactly the same thing.
Just how bad is the drought in California right now?
Most of California is experiencing “extreme to exceptional drought,” and the crisis has now entered its fourth year. This month, signaling how serious the current situation is, state officials announced the first cutback to farmers’ water rights since 1977, andordered cities and towns to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Those who don’t comply with the cuts will face fines, but some farmers are already ignoring the new rules, or challenging them in court.
The drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state’s agricultural industry is suffering. A recent study by U.C. Davis researchers projected that the drought would cost California’s economy $2.7 billion in 2015 alone.
In addition to the economic cost, the drought has subtle and not-so-subtle effects on flora and fauna throughout the region. This current drought may be contributing to the spread of the West Nile virus, and it’s threatening populations of geese, ducks and Joshua trees. Dry, hot periods can exacerbate wildfires, while water shortages are making firefighters’ jobs even harder.
And a little bit of rain won’t help. NOAA scientists say it could take several years of average or above-average rainfall before California’s water supply can return to anything close to normal.
What about a lot of rain? Couldn’t that end the drought in California and across the West?
Not necessarily. A half-decade of torrential rains might bail California out of its crisis, but the larger West’s problems are more structural and systemic. “Killing the Colorado” has shown that people are entitled to more water from the Colorado than has flowed through it, on average, over the last 110 years. Meanwhile much of the water is lost, overused or wasted, stressing both the Colorado system, and trickling down to California, which depends on the Colorado for a big chunk of its own supply. Explosive urban growthmatched with the steady planting of water-thirsty crops – which use the majority of the water – don’t help. Arcane laws actually encourage farmers to take even more water from the Colorado River and from California’s rivers than they actually need, and federal subsidies encourage farmers to plant some of the crops that use the most water. And, as ProPublica has reported, it seems that “the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential” — meaning that even the big dams and canals we built to ferry all this water may now be causing more harm than good.
Water use policies—perhaps more than nature—have caused the water crisis in the West. As the former Arizona governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told ProPublica: “There is enough water in the West‚ [but] there are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”
While there are mixed views on whether climate change can be blamed for California’s drought, a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reportfound climate change was not the cause. Global warming has caused excessive heat that may have worsened the drought’s effects, but it isn’t necessarily to blame for the lack of rain. It’s true that recent years have yielded much less rain and snow than previous times in history, the NOAA report explains, but that’s just a result of “natural variance” and not necessarily because of man-made pollution. But in both California and the larger Colorado River basin, mismanagement of the water supply has left the West more vulnerable to both short and long-term changes in climate.
What do you mean by mismanagement?
When officials divvied up rights to Colorado River water nearly a century ago, it happened to be a wetter period than usual. The result? The states vastly overestimated the river’s annual flow. Today, the river’s reserves are especially low and states are stillclaiming the same amount of water from the Colorado River that they always have — which is 1.4 trillion gallons a year more than the river actually produces. This sort of oversubscription is similar in California, where historic water rights give many farms first rights to California’s streams and rivers, and haven’t been adjusted as the state’s population has increased and its cities have grown.
Wait — don’t we all have equal water rights? . . .
From EWG, the foods with the worst pesticide residue—so buy these foods from the organic section:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas – imported
- Hot Peppers
- Kale / Collard greens
And the foods lowest in pesticide residue, so safe to buy from the conventional section:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes (I prefer Jewell)
Broccoli is another safe one. Check the link.
Nice touch: they offer a mobile phone app so you can get food’s score as you shop.
Brian Merchant writes in Motherboard:
“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” That’s not a line of dialogue from Interstellar or The Walking Dead. It’s a direct quote from Pope Francis, found in his biggest and most influential teaching document to date, “Laudato Si,” which was officially revealed by the Vatican this week. And when its language skews more traditionally biblical, it’s just as grim: “the earth herself,” Francis writes, “burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail.’”
That’s some powerful verbiage, and some loaded imagery of a dying planet. Few environmental writers—or dystopian screenplay scribes, for that matter—do better.
Good thing, too. This is the first encyclical ever issued by a pope that’s focused on the environment, and it was clearly designed to leave a mark. (It’s also the first major encyclical that the popular Pope Francis has issued thus far; he published one previous encyclical, but it contained much of the work of his predecessor). In no uncertain terms, it urges the people of the world, especially the powerful, to fight climate change with an eye to aiding the poor, to reduce pollution, to conserve natural resources, and to be wary of the allure of grand technological fixes. Or else.
A leaked Italian-language draft that made the rounds earlier this week already hadcommentators noting the “apocalyptic” nature of the document, and the official release confirms it: This isn’t just a teaching paper. (Though it is that, and a good one;the Washington Post marvels that the pope has outed himself as “a total policy wonk.”) It’s also a piece of literature crafted to move the world to action. It’s intended to be rousing as well as educational—it’s loaded with quotable, shareable apocalyptic snippets—and, as such, the encyclical’s language seems to take its cues from both old-school biblical apocalypticism and modern-day dystopianism.
Compare the headline-grabbing “immense pile of trash” line with this, a more poetic cautioning: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
Francis can invoke the tone of a science journal presenting disturbing findings in one instance, and that of Revelations the next: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems,” Francis writes at one point; “This sister, [Mother Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her,” he intones at another.
Throughout, the pope crafts a vision of a world on the brink, threatened by the fossil fueled growth that’s led the rich to prosper and to the resultant pollution that punishes the poor. It’s about both ecology and economics; in the pope’s eye, climate change and global inequality are the leading drivers rushing the world to ruin.
Even the encyclical’s closing prayer, A Christian prayer in union with creation, contains a narrative, of a world under fire, to be won back by the poor and the just. Here’s a snippet:
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Also explicit in the encyclical is the notion that technology will not be our savior, but may just as easily be our ruin. (“Technology,” Francis writes, “which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”)
Interesting, then, how this vision aligns with the marquee dystopian fictions of our day: Elysium is . . .
Fascinating article in ProPublica by Abrahm Lustgarten:
A couple of miles outside the town of Page, three 775-foot-tall caramel-colored smokestacks tower like sentries on the edge of northern Arizona’s sprawling red sandstone wilderness. At their base, the Navajo Generating Station, the West’s largest power-generating facility, thrums ceaselessly, like a beating heart.
Football-field-length conveyors constantly feed it piles of coal, hauled 78 miles by train from where huge shovels and mining equipment scraped it out of the ground shortly before. Then, like a medieval mortar and pestle machine, wheels crush the stone against a large bowl into a smooth powder that is sprayed into tremendous furnaces — some of the largest ever built. Those furnaces are stoked to 2,000 degrees, heating tubes of steam to produce enough pressure to drive an 80-ton rod of steel to spin faster than the speed of sound, converting the heat of the fires into electricity.
The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water — lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles — has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand.
This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.
At sunrise, a reddish-brown snake slithers across the sky as the burned coal sends out plumes of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead and other metals. That malignant plume — containing 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every year — contributes to causing the very overheated weather, drought and dwindling flows of water the plant’s power is intended to relieve.
Its builders knew that the Navajo Generating Station, which began being constructed in 1969, would cause enormous pollution. An early government analysis warned that burning so much coal would degrade the region’s air by “orders of magnitude,” and federal scientists suggested Navajo and other coal plants in the region could turn the local terrain into a “national sacrifice area.” But for more than a decade, the pollution went largely unchecked. Climate change wasn’t yet a threat, and the other option for getting water into central Arizona — damming the Grand Canyon — seemed worse.
At times, officials have tried to mitigate the plant’s problems, pouring $420 million into improvements to limit sulfur dioxide emissions as acid rain blanketed parts of the country, for example.
But again and again, the federal government and the other agencies responsible for the plant have dodged calls to clean up the facility and have pushed some of the most stringent environmental requirements far into the future.
In a series of reports, ProPublica has examined how . . .
Matt Richtel reports in the NY Times:
Early one morning in late April, Parvinder Hundal stood beside a hole in the ground at the edge of his almond farm near Tulare in the Central Valley of California. The hole, which was about the size of a volleyball and was encased in a shallow block of concrete, was the opening of a well, one that went hundreds of feet into the earth. He had paid $100,000 to have it drilled, but it wasn’t producing water. Mr. Hundal was hoping that if he cleaned out the well, the water would start flowing again.
On the nearby trees, some leaves had turned yellow and the almond husks appeared smaller than usual. In February, Mr. Hundal received emails from various water districts, informing him that, because of a historic drought that has left reservoirs nearly dry, he would most likely get no surface water to irrigate his 4,000 acres of crops this summer. Not one drop.
Mr. Hundal watched as his nephew, his right-hand man, prepared to lower pipe into the hole. “We’ll have water by the end of the day, I hope,” Mr. Hundal said.
Mr. Hundal is an optimist. An immigrant from Punjab in northwest India, he arrived in California in 1986 with little money and, through a combination of borrowing and shrewdness, he managed to make a small fortune through farming. But he’s also a pragmatist. Since he can’t count on the virtually unlimited surface water he’s been allotted in the past, he’s been looking for water underground. This year, Mr. Hundal spent $300,000 to hire a contractor to dig three new wells, including the one in Tulare. Those didn’t pan out. So he wired $670,000 to a broker in Texas to buy his own used drill. No water, no problem. Mr. Hundal will drill when he wants.
There’s a well-drilling boom in the Central Valley, and it’s a water grab as intense as any land grab before it. Drilling contractors are so swamped with requests that there is a wait of four to six months for a new well. Drilling permits are soaring. In Tulare County, home to several of Mr. Hundal’s almond farms, 660 permits for new irrigation wells were taken out by the end of this April, up from 383 during the same period last year and just 60 five years ago — a figure rising “exponentially,” said Tammie Weyker, spokeswoman for Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency.
The new drill that Mr. Hundal ordered from Texas should be up and running in a few weeks. He says it can push 2,500 feet into the ground, tapping new aquifers and making way for wells that can produce thousands of gallons of water a minute. He plans to drill at least six new wells on his various farms across the Central Valley: Four of them are in Tulare, and two are on property 100 miles north.
“It’s about survival,” he said. “Everybody is pulling water out of the ground.”
“Nobody is bothered,” he added. “The neighbors aren’t bothered. Everybody is doing what they’ve got to do.”
It turns out, though, that some people are bothered — very bothered — and are growing hostile. That’s because the drilling has serious side effects. Rampant drilling causes underground water levels to fall. When shallow farm and domestic wells that serve residences dry up, the underground bounty goes to those who can afford to dig deeper.
When it comes to drilling for water, there are few rules and no boundaries. Generally, farmers who follow a set of modest regulations can drill on their own land.
“Me first, screw you” will not last as a guiding principle.
Abraham Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:
ONE AFTERNOON LAST SUMMER, Pat Mulroy stood in 106-degree heat at the broad concrete banister atop the Hoover Dam, the wall that holds back the mighty Colorado River, and with it the nation’s largest reserve of water.
The reservoir is the brain stem of the system that helps sustain just about every person from here to San Diego. But as Mulroy looked out over the drought-beleaguered pool, then at 39 percent capacity, it appeared almost empty.
“Scary,” Mulroy said.
Few people have played a greater role in determining how the reservoir’s coveted and contested water supply has been used than Mulroy. Much of it has gone to nourish the Southwest’s booming cities, and for 26 years, Mulroy was the chief arbiter of water for the fastest-growing city of them all, Las Vegas. As the head of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she handled the day-to-day approval of water for new housing developments, emerald golf courses and towering casinos. As the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority — a second job she held starting in 1993 — she also budgeted water for Las Vegas’ future, helping to decide its limits. As the Water Authority’s general director, Mulroy stretched her enormous influence over state bounds, shaping how Nevada negotiated with the six other states sharing Colorado River water.
Deploying a prickly wit and a rare willingness to speak truth about the water challenges hammering the Western states, Mulroy met head-on a reality few other leaders wished to face: that the Colorado River’s ability to support the West’s thirst to grow its economy and embrace the large population that came with it was not unbounded. She has been lionized for espousing conservation and pioneering a list of progressive urban water programs in Las Vegas while fiercely negotiating tough agreements between the states to use their water more efficiently and come to terms with having less.
But an examination of Mulroy’s reign shows that, despite her conservation bona fides, she always had one paramount mission: to find more water for Las Vegas and use it to help the city keep expanding.
Mulroy wheeled and dealed, filing for rights to aquifers in northern Nevada for Las Vegas, and getting California to use less water while her city took more. She helped shape legislation that, over her time at the Water Authority, allowed Las Vegas’ metropolitan footprint to more than double. She supported building expensive mechanisms with which to extract more water for the city’s exploding needs – two tunnels out of Lake Mead and a proposed pipeline carrying groundwater from farms in the east of the state. Not once in her tenure did the Authority or the Las Vegas Valley Water District she ran beneath it reject a development proposal based on its use of water. The valley’s total withdrawals from the Colorado River jumped by more than 60 percent on her watch.
Yet even last summer — staring at the effects of growth and drought on the reservoir, where once-drowned islands were visible for the first time in as much as 75 years — Mulroy apologized for none of it. She bridled at the idea that Las Vegas or other desert cities had reached the outer edge of what their environments could support.
“That’s the silliest thing I have ever heard,” she said, her voice rising in anger. “I’ve had it right up to here with all this ‘Stop your growth.’”
ProPublica is exploring how the West’s water crisis reflects man-made policies and management strategies as much, or possibly more, than it does drought and climate change.
Whether and how cities grow is one of the most decisive factors in determining the future of Western water supplies, and, to some extent, the nation’s economy. For much of the last century the West has been guided by a sort of “bring ’em on” philosophy of the more people the better. Teddy Roosevelt first envisioned using the Colorado River’s resources to move west a population the size of that day’s Eastern Seaboard. They came in droves, supported by infrastructure the federal government built — including the Hoover Dam — and the water those facilities helped supply.
To an arid region blessed with little rain, the newcomers brought their Eastern tastes: Kentucky bluegrass planted across sprawling yards; fountains flowing with abundance; fruits and vegetables growing in an Eden-like oasis. Hundreds of thousands of settlers turned into tens of millions of people still dividing the same finite supply of water, one that was stretched thin from the very start. By the time it became apparent that growth might need to be controlled to be both productive and efficient, Western sprawl, like a sort of Frankenstein monster, had taken on a momentum of its own.
Los Angeles went through this spurt first, . . .
It’s pretty easy to save the bees in terms of effort, but because corporate profits will be somewhat reduced, corporations will not allow it, and corporations control legislators. So no action will be taken despite the environmental danger—cf. global warming: clear and imminent danger, nothing done because it would impact oil and coal profits. Example.
Lindsay Abrams writes in Salon:
The world’s bees are in trouble, and progress in addressing the underlying problems contributing to their demise, from the use of dangerous pesticides to the destruction of their habitat, is painfully slow.
But it still isn’t too late, a hopeful, if not terribly optimistic Dave Goulson tells Salon.
A professor of biology at the University of Sussex and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson knows better than anyone just how massive the challenges are, but also how capable we are of meeting them — if we only muster the will. His work studying the bees’ plight was the focus of his first book, “A Sting in the Tale” — Salonspoke with him about it last May. His latest book, “A Buzz in the Meadow,” has as its centerpiece a small part of the solution: Goulson writes of his decade-plus-long project of transforming a rundown farm in rural France into a thriving meadow, which teems with life of all sorts and has become a haven for wild bees.
Salon caught up with Goulson to gauge the current situation and for a much-needed reminder that saving the bees isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s been happening in the bee world since we talked a year ago? Have there been any big developments in research or policy that stand out to you?
The thing that everyone talks about is all the pesticide-related stuff that’s rumbling on and on and on. There’s a lot of politics there. Obama has just announced his bee care bill, and in Ontario they’re having a big battle over proposals to withdraw neonicotinoids or reduce their use by 80 percent. Over here in Europe we’ve got this moratorium in place, but it runs out this year and no one knows what to do next, so there’s a pitched battle running at the moment between the agrichemical industry and the environmentalists and scientists all caught up in the middle of it. So that’s all been interesting and messy.
I was wondering what you thought about Obama’s new pollinator plan. I know it emphasizes bee habitat and creating these pathways for bees, which you talk about in the book as extremely important to be focusing on.
I guess I’m naturally a bit of a skeptic as to the value of big documents produced by politicians, because they often don’t seem to actually result in much real action. If they really produce, now I forget of the top of my head how many million hectares of habitat it was supposed to be, was it 5 million or something?
Yes, 5 million.
If that actually happens, and it’s good habitat for bees, that would be amazing. That really would massively help. But talk is all very well; it doesn’t help anybody or anything, so it would be nice to see whether it really works.
I suppose I also thought it was a little bit weak on the pesticide side of things. It was just really saying, “We need to do loads more research.” Well, I do research, so you’d imagine I would be saying, “Yes! Lots more money, that’s what us scientists need.” And of course, that would be nice. But actually, I think we know enough to do something, so some more specific measures to reduce pesticide use would have been nice. But perhaps that was further than they were willing to go.
Are there any areas where you might suggest that, so far as pesticides go, more research really could be useful? Or is this just buying time? That’s what it sounded like to me.
I think it is buying time rather than biting the bullet, because we all know that we use too many pesticides and it’s not really good for the environment. But nobody really wants to tackle it, because there are such powerful vested interests and so much money is made from selling them that it’s politically a difficult one to take on. So it’s an easy option to say “Let’s do more research.”
There are some areas we don’t understand very well. One of the obvious ones is that when people look at the safety of any new chemical that’s being developed, it has to be evaluated — and it’s all done on little short-term toxicity trials. So you get your honeybee and you give it compound X. You basically then wait two days, and if it’s still alive after two days, all is well and it’s deemed that that compound is not going to harm honeybees. So they look at acute toxicity in very short time periods. They never look at what happens if a bee is exposed for six months to a small amount of pesticide — but that’s what really happens. Also what really happens is the bee isn’t just exposed to one chemical — it’s exposed to 10 chemicals chronically throughout its life. Nobody looks at what the effects of mixtures are on bees, or for that matter on everything else, on people. We all consume pesticides chronically, more or less in everything we eat, and yet no one really knows for sure that that isn’t harmful long-term because no one has ever studied it long-term. You couldn’t really do it; there are some obvious practical difficulties.
So as far as bees are concerned, there are some big unknowns as to just how much impact being gently, chronically exposed to a whole cocktail of chemicals throughout their lives has. We know it happens, but we don’t know what it does. But you can guess it’s probably not good for them.
Going back to habitats, I’d love it if you could take a minute and talk about the importance of restoring wild habitat and maybe a little bit about what you learned on your farm in France.
Well obviously the big reason bees have declined, and the big reason wildlife has declined globally, is loss of habitat — and particularly for bees, loss of these flowering meadows. We used to have loads and loads of them, particularly in Europe. We had this ancient tradition of making hay and so we had hay meadows all over the place: huge, huge areas of them, and they were all full of flowers and happy bees until the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s when they all just got destroyed. It’s slightly different in North America, but you still had these vast tracts of prairies not so long ago which were originally flower-rich, open grasslands full of bees. But obviously the vast majority of those got turned into cereal fields and farmland and there are basically no flowers left, or hardly any.
The simplest way, if you want to conserve bees, the most obvious thing and the least controversial thing, everyone can agree, it would be nice to have more flowers. You don’t upset too many people when you say that. But it’s true. And also going back to these other things, the pesticides and the diseases they suffer from, they’re probably better able to cope with being poisoned or infected if they’ve got lots of food. The same is true of people; obviously we all know if you’re unwell, it’s important to have healthy food and so on, because that helps build your strength and immunity. So creating areas with flowers is a really good way to help them.
But also it isn’t just about bees, because if you try and restore these flowery habitats, then it helps hundreds of other species as well. Starting with the flowers, obviously, there are all these interesting, beautiful wildflowers that used to be quite common and many of which now are very rare. It gives them somewhere to live. Loads of other insects will come with that: the grasshoppers and crickets and beetles and flies and wasps, all sorts of other things as well. So there’s a whole rich community of creatures that live in these meadows. It’s quite dear to my heart to look after the meadows that are left and create new ones if we can, which is what I’ve been up to down in France for the last 12 years.
You focus a lot on bringing our attention to these tiny species that we might overlook. We don’t hear about tiny bugs going extinct as often as bigger animals, and it seems to require a bit of a more complicated argument as to why it’s important to keep them going.
It’s actually easier to make. As I say in the book, if pandas were to go extinct, I think we’re pretty certain it wouldn’t have any repercussions for people other than we’d be sad because we wouldn’t be able to see one at the zoo. There would be no ecological impact. But obviously, for insects that live all around us — and the simplest example of course is bees — then it’s really easy to explain the link to our own well-being. We wouldn’t have those beautiful flowers, we wouldn’t have the food to eat, if we didn’t have bees. So that’s an easy one; even young schoolchildren understand that bees do something useful, pollinating flowers.
What’s a little bit harder is the next step, but I think bees are a good way into talking about this. . .