Out West Blog

Notes, photos and updates from the Center's student researchers and summer interns working at organizations across the region.

Starting the Day in the Field

By Justin Appleby
Civil and Environmental Engineering, 2017
Environmental Modeling Intern, The Henry's Fork Foundation

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

It is hard to believe where I was two weeks ago this morning – Palo Alto, California – and where I am now – Ashton, Idaho. Like [fellow HFF intern] Reid Calhoun, I went on a road trip of my own. It took me to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake, Craters of the Moon, as well as a few other beautiful places. It was great to start off the summer seeing a part of the country I hadn’t seen before, the Pacific Northwest. After almost 1,700 miles of driving that took 29 hours over the span of four nights, after reaching a top speed I do not feel comfortable sharing here, and after visiting two national parks, a national monument, and four state parks, I came to the Northeast corner of Idaho.

Upon arriving in Ashton, I found myself in a new but not so unfamiliar place. With my family, I have often traveled to – and fallen in love with – Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just an hour and a half drive away on the other side of the Tetons. I had never been to this side, the west side of the Tetons, until now. Although this side is less populated and less visited by tourists, it is clear that there is no shortage of wonder.

One of my goals this summer was to “do cool outdoorsy stuff every weekend.” Before I even arrived, I had a list of places I wanted to see. It started with the obvious: Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole, Targhee National Forest. Little did I know I’d be driving up and down highway 20, cutting through the National Forest, almost every day. Since the moment I arrived, that list has grown. Borah Peak (the tallest peak in Idaho), Cave Falls, Sawtell Peak, Table Rock, and driving the Mesa Falls byway, to name a few. I even found out you can snowboard this late in the season, if you find the right places at high enough elevations! And let’s not forget fishing.

I’ve been on one fly fishing trip, last August down the Snake River. With the aid of a guide I must have caught over twenty fish that day. I was in for a shock when, this summer, I threw up a big zero on my first day fishing the Henry’s Fork with Reid, HFF’s Washington & Lee intern and Jack, a graduate student conducting research with the foundation this summer. While they were reeling fish in left and right, I was casting, untangling knots, and eventually giving up and going for a swim instead. Still, it was a fun time and I hope to go again soon. There are few things as peaceful as hanging out on the river, with the backdrop of the sun setting on the Tetons. On my first day at HFF, I went out into the field to take water quality samples with the other interns. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my first day than putting on my waders and getting tossed headfirst – figuratively, not literally – into the river, while learning from Reid and Jack, who had arrived earlier this summer, everything they knew from their first couple weeks on the job. The second day, I went with Christina, last year’s Stanford intern and current research assistant, and Reid to the Buffalo Dam Fish Ladder to count the number of fish migrating up the ladder. Again from the outset, somebody had to jump into the fish ladder to wrangle up the fish, and Christina turned to me and said something along the lines of “you’re the new intern, you’re doing this.” It had been a while since I handled any fish with my hands, let alone nine. I measured each of them and then sent them on their way up the river. Christina uses this data for HFF’s annual monitoring of the fish ladder and presented on her findings here during the Henry’s Fork Day membership meeting.

Henry’s Fork Day was a great way for me to grasp the true importance of what our work here is doing to the people of the Henry’s Fork watershed. When six-hundred people gather under a tent for dinner, celebration, and donation, all in the name of one thing, fishing the Henry's Fork, it’s a powerful thing for a relative outsider to see. Everyone talks about their fishing experiences, some from that very same day. Once Henry’s Fork Day finished I was able to settle into the office this Monday and get started on my project for the summer.

As I have typed in at least ten emails in the last four days, HFF has ten water-quality monitors, called sondes, installed along about 80 miles of river. The way they are set up right now, we have to drive to each one individually and download the data by plugging it into a small laptop. Between the highway, dirt roads, and trudging through bushes, it takes about a full day to do all of them. That’s a full day taken away from time that could be spend actually analyzing the data. My mission is to install products called data loggers at each site to transmit the data over cellular service directly to the office. Using this data, we will create an interactive webpage to display whatever data the user wants, whether it be water temperature, depth, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and more, over whatever dates and times the user chooses. This live data will allow fishers to find the places and times with the right conditions for fishing.

Undertaking this project seems like a mountain to climb, but in the end it comes down to three steps:

  1. Researching and eventually ordering the product that works best for us, weighing several products’ functionality and price. This will be done by early next week.
  2. Installing this data logger at one site and mastering the details of communication between the sonde, the logger, and the office.
  3. Coding a website to display this data, while scaling up the operation to include all ten (and eventually twelve) sites.

I have narrowed our options down to two or three, while learning a lot about these data loggers. They’re essentially complicated circuit boards that attach to antennae and need to be protected inside fiberglass or plastic enclosures, to stay safe from vandals and from the elements. At the end of the day, as the amount of tech work we do on our own increases – wiring, coding, and the like – the price decreases. It’s going to be a matter of finding the right balance between our skillsets in the office and how much we are able to pay.

To round out a typical week in and out of the office, I’ll be going on some more field trips like the ones I did on days #1 and #2. It’s only been two weeks since I left Stanford campus and I already have seen and learned so much. I still have over eight weeks of taking in this fresh air, chasing mountains, and enjoying these sunsets.

Summer 2016 Internships Open for Applications

We are pleased to announce that our Summer 2016 internship offerings are now online. This year, we have added three new internship host organizations: the Trust for Public Lands, the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail and the Santa Lucia Conservancy. In addition, we are debuting a brand new program called Stanford Energy Internships in California, aimed at exposing Stanford students to the complex world of energy policy in Sacramento. Stipends for our internships range from $4,000 to $6,000. 

Internships offer students an immersive experience to learn hands-on about a variety of issues facing our diverse region. Undergraduates should apply by Tuesday, February 9 at 5 pm.

Student Researchers Trace California's Coastal Act and the Agency it Spawned

Big Sur Coastline

The Big Sur coastline (Photo: Vadim Kurland via Flickr)

Imagine the state of California without its coastline: a thousand miles of sand dunes, forests, rocky inlets, marinas, muscle beaches, and coastal mountains. While the state's constitution enshrines coastal access as a right of every Californian, citizens looked seaward with alarm in the early 1970s as an oil spill fouled the waters off Santa Barbara and some extravagant development projects sought to bar the public from beloved beaches.

The result was the Coastal Act of 1972, a ballot measure passed with 52.5% of the vote, with strong support among Central and Southern counties along the coast. The Act led to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission, a public agency charged with protecting the coast, regulating development, and ensuring continued public access to a coastal zone extending three miles out to sea.

“For some people, the Coastal Commission is their least favorite agency.”

Its mandate placed the Coastal Commission at odds with powerful political and economic forces in California, and over the four decades since its establishment, its budget has been chipped away, its full-time staff declining nearly by half since 1980. “For some people, the Coastal Commission is their least favorite agency,” says Quito Tsui, a research assistant for the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Four decades since the Coastal Act, how has a small agency fared at regulating development along a vast shoreline? Two groups of research assistants spent the summer of 2015 working for the Center's California Coastal Commission project to trace the origins of the agency, and assess the cumulative work done under its aegis.

Examining the Commission's Localized Implementation

One of the keys to the Commission's effectiveness may be a decentralized structure and reliance on localized implementation. The Commission is divided into six regional offices, these offices in turn look to local communities to produce their own development plans – with public comment and input.

The research assistants Elana Leone and Quito Tsui – advised by the Center's Iris Hui – sought to examine the Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) created by local municipalities and under the supervision of the Coastal Commission.

Leone and Tsui approached their survey with three principal questions:

  • How did the Local Coastal Programs they studied align with the Coastal Act?
  • What degree of influence does the Coastal Act have on these LCPs?
  • How much autonomy does the LCP program give to local jurisdictions and their residents?
Elana Leone PortraitQuito Tsui Portrait

Elana Leone, left, and Quito Tsui

Tsui and Leone looked at seven Local Coastal Programs produced within two of the Coastal Commission's six zones: the North Central Coast zone running southward from Sonoma to San Francisco, and the Central Coast zone extending south from San Mateo to Monterey counties.

In their report, entitled “A Closer Look at Local Coastal Programs: A Case Study of the North Central Coast,” the authors explored the seven plans in depth, creating a matrix for point by point comparison, and mapped critical areas in each of the local communities, from wetlands to coastal structures, erosion hot spots, and areas threatened by sea level rise. Despite many commonalities, the program documents varied widely in length, scope, and issue focus.

California Coastal Commission Regions Map

Coastal Commission regions (enlarge)

“We found that despite the Coastal Act’s unquestionable influence on the LCPs in the North Central Coast,” write Leone and Tsui, “that each coastal jurisdiction has some flexibility in establishing its own priorities.” The authors noted, for example, that while Marin county was explicity devoted to protecting and supporting its coastal agriculture, the coastal plans for Daly City, Half Moon Bay and Pacifica were primarily concerned with urban issues like affordable housing and coastal access. This is understandable given the great difference in size and urban density between Marin and the latter urban areas.

But other differences were harder to reconcile: why, Leone and Tsui ask, did only some of the LCPs address bluff erosion and rising sea levels, when coastal hazards like these are felt equally among all of the communities they surveyed? In particular, they asked why San Francisco's LCP doesn't address flooding or flood prevention, given the number of residents in the coastal zone. “This lack of consistency across the board,” they write, “can have significant policy consequences given the seriousness of the threats dune erosion, bluff erosion and flooding pose to the North Central Coast.”

Despite the shortcomings of individual plans, Leone and Tsui conclude that the variation among the LCPs overall is a positive result of the Commission's decentralization of coastal management. "Despite the possibility of the Coastal Act whitewashing local areas and their unique characteristics," the authors write, "we instead found that the Coastal Act is in fact a malleable document that more often than not, works with local governments to create a document that protects the interests of both local areas and the coast."

When Seeking Water Savings, Increasing Agricultural Efficiency Could Backfire

Strawberries receiving drip irrigation on a Watsonville, CA farm during the summer of 2015. (USDA via Flickr)

This past spring, a New York Times editorial thundered against California farmers’ use of flood irrigation amid the state’s ongoing drought. The authors urged farmers to “switch from flood irrigation or inefficient sprinklers to drip or microspray systems, which use less water.”

According to the Center’s Vanessa Casado-Perez and Maggie Niu (’17), the Times’ editorials – and others like them – suffer from a flaw in conventional wisdom about agricultural water use during drought. Drip and microspray irrigation systems, while more efficient, often do not end up conserving water at all. Instead, says Niu, a research assistant for Casado-Perez during the summer of 2015, “efficient technologies like drip irrigation actually consume more water than older methods,” which generate return flows that can be reused by other farmers. Because drip and microspray systems deliver water directly to the crop in small quantities, the water is either entirely absorbed or lost to evaporation.

Maggie Niu, left, and Vanessa Casado-Pérez

As a result, Niu and Casado Perez write, “promotion of drip or sprinklers may backfire: they may divert less water and produce more in a single plot of land, but they may consume more water than flood, thus having negative systemic effects.”

Water Conservation Goals and Policies May Be Misaligned

Niu and Casado-Perez wondered if the mismatch between the stated goal – water conservation – and the technical solution – increasing efficiency – was one that affected the water policies of many western states, one that might limit their ability to achieve water conservation.

“The promotion of drip or sprinklers may backfire: they may divert less water and produce more in a single plot of land, but they may consume more water than flood irrigation.”

Research Surveys Western State Water Policies

For a forthcoming paper entitled “Agricultural Water Conservation Policies in the West,” the authors examined conservation regulations and legislative statutes in seventeen states from up in the Dakotas and Texas westward. Pointing out that the official definition of agricultural conservation is “reducing the amount of water used on farms,” they point out that “the reality is much more complex.”

In their paper they find that conservation programs vary widely. Many states mention conservation in their codes and water plans, but for several, like Idaho and Nevada, participation is strictly voluntary. By contrast, parts of Arizona have some of the most stringent conservation requirements. Conservation plans vary also in their scope – local, as in Texas, or statewide – and at whom the measures are aimed, whether individual farmers or entire irrigation districts.

Federal Program is Also Problematic

Niu and Casado-Perez also looked at the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), funded by the federal government and managed in partnership with the states. EQIP subsidizes farmers looking to switch to more efficient irrigation systems – generally drip irrigation. They found that while EQIP identifies its goal as natural resource conservation, nowhere does the text define what that means, nor how switching to efficient watering systems would bring real water savings. “EQIP,” they conclude, “takes for granted that the adoption of efficient irrigation systems will achieve the desired goal.”

Surface waterways and flood irrigation flow valves bring irrigation water to drought-affected Livingston, California in July 2015. (USDA via Flickr)

Finding Models in State Legislative Statutes

Failing to find evidence of robust conservation either in state codes or in a widely used federal program, the authors turned to state legislative statutes “aimed at solely promoting the conservation of water.” They found measures like these in four states they studied: Montana, Washington, California and Oregon.

Of these statutes, Niu and Casado-Perez conclude that California’s legal framework is the one that most clearly prioritizes reduced water consumption. Like the others, it incentivizes farmers to save water by granting them full or partial right to the water they conserve, which they can then lease or sell this water to another right holder. Additionally, however, California’s law is the only one that requires a net reduction in consumption for water rights holders to retain their right.

In summation, the authors say that states “should tailor legislation to fit the water supply and demand of their state, focusing on whether increased efficiency will bring them more benefits, even with the possibility of increasing consumption, or whether conserving water is their priority.”

But states should never assume that pursuing one goal will achieve the other.

Ice Patches, Holes in the Ground, and Other Adventures in Yellowstone National Park


By Peter Salazar
B.A., History, 2015
Summer Intern at the Archeology Department, Yellowstone National Park

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

As much as I might have expected the pace of change and dynamism of my job in the Yellowstone Park Archaeologist’s office to slow in the final few weeks, no such thing actually occurred. I could hardly settle into a comfortable office routine before a new task or challenge would rise up and present itself for contemplation or resolution. My day-to-day task of updating, editing, and cleaning up the 2000 park site file records found regular and happy interruption in a number of other projects that continued to expose me further more to the world of archaeology and cultural resource management.

My experience working with GIS software, for example, allowed me to assist my supervisor in updating the park archaeological map, clearing out inconsistencies and filling in data that would make the rather unwieldy map to function in its capacity as a directory for the location and content of all of the park’s archaeological sites. I also had the opportunity to join my supervisor and a group of other natural and cultural resource management professionals on an educational excursion to the Beartooth Mountains (right next to the northeast entrance to the park) to explore the topic of ice patch archaeology, that is, scouring the rapidly melting ice patches of the high alpine regions of the vicinity for artifacts emerging after thousands of years. While we didn’t have any sensational finds on this particular excursion (aside from a well-preserved sheep skull and a spear shaft fragment), the exercise was a fascinating exposure to the issue of how cultural resource management is affected by such a far-reaching issue as global climate change.

And a description of my final few weeks in Yellowstone would be woefully lacking without a reference to my role participating in the Fishing Bridge construction monitoring. A scheduled update of a water main was taking place at Fishing Bridge, one of the principal intersections in the middle of the park, and an extremely sensitive archaeological site – it was there that the only pre-Columbian burials in the entire park were found. Another volunteer and I in the office, Melanie Langa, supervised the work and made sure that nothing of an archaeologically sensitive nature was being disturbed. It’s hard enough to methodically analyze stratigraphy, soil changes, and artifact density in a controlled excavation setting. But when your scientific instrument changes from a trowel to a backhoe, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. Unfortunately (or perhaps thankfully), we did not stumble across any buried settlements or treasure troves, but the exercise was nevertheless a fascinating lesson in geology and archaeological field methods.

I’m sad to go, of course. Yellowstone is a remarkable and breathtaking place to spend one’s summer. I became fond of saying to others that I would be more than happy to scrub toilets all summer, and I would still consider myself to have the emerged with a sweet deal for having been able to live in the park. To be able to live in the park and spend my time doing something that I loved and found interesting, however, makes an already dreamy situation that much better. I don’t know if I’ll end up pursuing a career in archaeology at this point, but this experience was nevertheless a fascinating introduction to the world of careful compromise, concession and dialogue that takes place in the stewardship of natural and cultural resources.

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