Dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America, the Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Panelists at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium on Feb .17. From left to right, Madeline Stano, Susan White, Jim Morris and the moderator, Sasha Khokha. (Photo: Steve Castillo)
Last week, the Center and the JSK Journalism Fellowships hosted a bracing public conversation about air quality problems in western communities touched by oil and gas production. The 2016 Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford brought together the winners of the 2015 prize, Jim Morris and Susan White (of the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, respectively), with a panel that was moderated by KQED Radio's Sasha Khokha and included the environmental lawyers Madeline Stano and Danny Cullenward, a graduate of Stanford's Emmet Interdisciplinary Program on the Environment.
Following is a recap of the event, which continues on the Knight-Risser Prize website and includes the full video of the event.
Trouble breathing, recurring nosebleeds, nausea, headaches. These are the common complaints of adults and children in California, Texas and other states who live near active oil wells and natural gas fracking sites.
But it’s a hard to prove a link. Toxics monitoring is slim to none in some of these areas. Scientists can do little with only anecdotal information. Regulators are often reluctant to pressure the industry, and there is little political will – local to state – to remedy the situation.
That’s the conclusion of an environmental attorney, an energy economist and two longtime environmental journalists who discussed the legacy of the 1963 Clean Air Act at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford.
The symposium honors the winner of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. This year it was “Big Oil, Bad Air,” a joint reporting project by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate Newsand The Weather Channel. The 18-month project focused on the impact on air quality in one of the most active oil and gas fields in the United States, the Eagle Ford Shale of south Texas.
The controversial firing of the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Charles Lester, has led to renewed interest in the powerful but little known state regulatory agency's work. The Commission, established by the ballot measure of the Coastal Act of 1972, is charged with protecting California's iconic 1,100 mile coast, regulating development, and ensuring public access to the sea.
With responsibility for approving or rejecting new construction, property alterations, and coastal armoring measures, the Commission wields power over sensitive issues, and has faced criticism both from groups aligned with developers and with environmental concerns.
But a rigorous accounting of nearly two decades of the Commission's decisions by the Bill Lane Center's Iris Hui tells a different, less dramatic story: the Commission has approved an average of 80 percent of applications submitted, and it has typically done so with little delay. The Stanford News Service has a post today describing Hui's methodology, which utilized text-mining techniques to computer analyze a large quantity of Commission documents.
Hui web-scraped all of the commission's meeting agendas and staff reports between 1996 and 2014. In doing so, she analyzed its permit process, such as what received approval, how long the application process took, what if any permit conditions were granted, and whether the pattern changed over time.
"The goal of the project was to use text mining to make massive paper-based government records transparent and accessible," said Hui.
As Hui pointed out, any development project within the coastal zone requires a permit, either granted by the Commission or by a local government. Commissioners have discretion in deciding what is constituted as environmental impact. An application can only be approved if it can be shown that it would not cause an "adverse environmental impact" under the California Coastal Act of 1977.
Hui's research, part of the Center's larger California Coastal Commission project, has been compiled in a working paper. The paper analyzes not just the up-or-down nature of the permit application process, but also the extensive conditions that the Commission frequently negotiates with applicants to mitigate potential harm to coastal ecosystems, communities, and public access overall.
Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled along a 400 mile long region of South Texas, with another 5,000 approved by state regulators. But while officials claim that nothing is wrong, residents who live close to oil and gas development report an alarming number of health concerns: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems.
These concerns and more were revealed by the ground-breaking investigative report "Big Oil, Bad Air" by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel. The report also found that there are no clear federal standards to protect people living near drilling sites — including children, the sick and the elderly — who are exposed to varying amounts of toxic emissions, and that Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of pollution in regions like the Eagle Ford shale.
The story was the winner of the 2015 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, which is jointly administered by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.
On Wednesday, February 17 at Stanford, we will celebrate the award and convene the winners, Jim Morris and Susan White, together with a distinguished panel of journalists, educators, and policy experts to discuss the urgent issues highlighted by their report.
Nearly a half century after passage of the Clean Air Act, what is being done to protect the air that we breathe? This conversation is especially important in the wake of the Porter Ranch gas leak in Los Angeles and endemic air quality problems in agricultural areas like California's Central Valley.
Please join us for a frank and far-reaching conversation as we contemplate a troubling report with implications for our region and the nation.
The event will be followed by a reception with light refreshments. Guests are asked to please RSVP on the symposium page.
As Governor Jerry Brown prepares to give his State of the State address later this month, a new poll finds that the future of California's water and growing the state's economy are the primary preoccupations of voters. The latest Golden State poll, designed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, asked voters to prioritize a list of 21 policy considerations.
The leading issues were water and the economy, each cited by more than 70 percent of Californians surveyed by the firm YouGov around the first half of December. The survey sampled 1,800 Californians over the age of 18.
The survey also tested voters' opinions of three proposals that will likely become hot topics in the year to come: switching the state's gasoline tax to a mileage-based fee; the Delta water tunnel; and whether funds for high-speed rail should be diverted to other infrastructure projects.
The magazine also features an article co-authored by Bruce E. Cain and the Stanford graduate student Esteban Antonio Guerrero Jaimes, looking at the obstacles Gov. Brown faces in his goal of reducing statewide petroleum usage by 50%. The measure failed to make it into the ambitious energy efficiency law passed by the state legislature last year, and Cain – the Center's Eccles Family Director – and his co-author explore the reasons that many Californians aren't ready to accept mandates to switch to electric or other "zero-emissions" vehicles.
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.
Photos (clockwise from left): EcoWest data visualization tracking the Okanogan fire complex; walking from Stanford to the sea in April; Center director Bruce Cain at the Mexico-U.S. entrepreneurship innovation council in September; students on the summer 2015 Sophomore College course on energy in the southwest; postdoctoral scholar Katie Young introducing a panel at the Rural West Conference in March in Troutdale, Oregon
This year, the Bill Lane Center for the American West celebrates an important milestone: a decade of advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present and future of western North America. Over the past very busy ten years, the Center has become a nationally recognized hub for the interdisciplinary study of the American West.
Our achievements to date give us much to be proud of. We have encouraged historians, political scientists, hydrologists, engineers, and art historians from across Stanford and the West to collaborate on teaching and research about important western topics. Our undergraduate programming has cultivated the next generation of stewards and scholars of the West through innovative new courses and a variety of internship opportunities with organizations throughout the West. Our annual Sophomore College field course and American West classes are quite popular. We have broadened our public outreach by offering talks, film screenings and articles that speak to a wide range of audiences. On top of all of this, we look forward to introducing new initiatives in the coming year.
New Staff at the Bill Lane Center
On a more personal note, 2015 was a year of considerable Lane Center staff turnover. Kathy Zonana remains on campus but in a new role at the School of Medicine. Kathy Montgomery has retired to Bend, Oregon, and Chau Ho has begun a master’s degree of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. We are grateful for their years of contributions to the Center and wish them the very best in their new endeavors.
We now have a new team in place and slightly modified organizational structure. Our new Associate Director for Finance and Administration, Jessica Dutro, joins the Center after nearly 15 years working in Stanford’s Office of the Controller. Our new Associate Director for Programming and Development, Preeti Hehmeyer, comes to Stanford after spending four years as a management consultant for local governments throughout the western United States. Researcher and social scientist Iris Hui is now our Associate Director for Academic Affairs. As a postdoctoral scholar, Iris had been running our American West scholars group for the past two years, and her responsibilities have now expanded to include oversight of all of our research projects, as well as our postdocs and dissertation scholars. Geoff McGhee continues as the Center’s Creative Director for Media and Communications albeit from his new base in Seattle, Washington.
Looking Forward: Undergraduate Education
As many of you know from our various communications over the years, we have carved out a distinctive niche in undergraduate education by developing interdisciplinary courses and promoting experiential education in the American West. Our courses and internships are well subscribed, but how can we do better? Some new opportunities will come from collaborations with other units at Stanford. For instance, the Haas Center for Public Service’s Cardinal Quarter initiative hopes to expand public service teaching/internship opportunities among Stanford undergraduates. We will explore tying our internship programs more closely to that effort. In Spring 2016, we will be inaugurating a one-unit class on Energy Internships in California in conjunction with the Precourt Institute for Energy. In addition, we plan to create an American West-themed dorm with a sequence of courses built on the foundation of our American West lecture class and additional educational trips throughout the region. We expect to have a preliminary plan by May when our Advisory Council meets and then to launch it in Fall 2017.
New Research and Public Service Initiatives
The Bill Lane Center has taken many steps in recent years to study issues and problems in the American West. Our annual State of the West conference with SIEPR brings scholars, public officials and members of the business sector to hear about and discuss economic and policy trends in western states. Our annual Eccles Family Rural West conference circulates to different states every year to learn about issues in rural areas. And in July, the Center hosted the inaugural Local Government Summer Institute. This week-long institute convened city managers, county executives, regional directors, and other senior local government officials from throughout the West. While at Stanford, these local executives had the opportunity to exchange and acquire tools for improving local government performance and ways of enhancing prospective analytical capacity to innovate and anticipate societal change.
This year, we also strengthened our focus on water and energy issues at the southern border, topics that will become more important due to the drought and mandated reductions in carbon emissions. In August, the Center and the Precourt Institute for Energy cosponsored a clean tech trade delegation aimed at accelerating clean energy investment and development in Mexico and California. In September, we co-hosted representatives from the U.S. State Department and the Mexico-US Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council. At this meeting, Stanford signed letters of intent to collaborate with the State of Baja California and the City of Tijuana to create some test-beds along the border for new technologies in energy and water and to undertake joint research. Finally, in October, we invited scholars from universities across Mexico to discuss the water-energy nexus issues along the California-Mexico border region. This workshop produced several concrete proposals that will allow us to test new technologies at small scale and to do research about how the border region is adapting to the climate and energy challenges both countries face.
Toward The Next Ten Years
As we look toward our second decade, the Center will develop a strategic plan over the next six months to guide our efforts. We welcome input from all of our friends and supporters. I extend my deepest thanks for your support of the Lane Center in its first decade, and look forward to our continued success in the years to come.
All the best,
Bruce E. Cain
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.
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, 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.
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."
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.
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.
Bauch doing fieldwork in the Grand Canyon backcountry, September 2013 (Photo: Geoff McGhee)
The geographer Nicholas Bauch spent 2013-2015 as a postdoctoral scholar at the Center developing an online, interactive revival of a turn-of-the-century photographic slideshow of the Grand Canyon. His project has been acquired by Stanford University Press, and will become its first digital-only publication.
As I end my term as a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, already I can look back and recognize these two years as a period of tremendous professional and personal development. For those of us in the business of writing, thinking, reading, collaborating, and experimenting, there do not exist gifts of higher value than time and trust. Having been the recipient of these two irreplaceable gifts from the Center, I have built new ways of practicing the craft of knowledge production, certainly within my own discipline of geography, but also – relatedly – in the creative act of writing.
I started at the Center with a vision to make a digital scholarly publication based on a single historical document: the 1905 photographic slideshow of the Grand Canyon produced and sold by a career photographer named Henry Peabody. By the time I arrived in autumn 2013, the Center had already established a tradition of cutting-edge digital scholarship, led by the efforts of creative director Geoff McGhee, former postdoc Maria Santos, former Dee fellows Andy Robichaud and Cameron Blevins, and visiting graduate student Thomas Favre-Bulle, among others. As part of this cohort, I noticed that all of our work in digital media occupied an uneasy position with respect to the rigors of peer review and academic publishing. We were all doing high-quality work, yet blatantly missing was a pathway to the same accreditation achievable in traditional print media.
As my Grand Canyon project – called Enchanting the Desert – grew, the editors at Stanford University Press took notice, and invited me to submit a prospectus for the first born-digital monograph in their new digital scholarship publishing initiative. None of us knew exactly how to proceed; in fact, the template they first sent to me for the prospectus was taken nearly verbatim from their book proposal template. I happily spent an enormous amount of intellectual energy fitting the needs of a digital scholar into the norms of the publishing industry, forging a new template for how digital scholars and publishers can communicate standards and best practices with one another.
The user interface of Enchanting the Desert (Stanford University Press)
With digital media, for example, new forms of narrative – in this case spatial narrative – became imminently possible. It became clear that anonymous peer reviewers for the historical content of the work would be necessary, as expected. But rather unexpectedly, it also became clear that reviewers for the design of the user interface would be necessary since the content of the project does not unfold linearly. From this I have found that designing for navigation and access (a reader cannot simply flip through the pages of a digital project like she can a book) is one of the major new realms traditional publishing houses will need to enter as born-digital scholarship continues to grow.
With a publication date now within sight (planned for 2016), my work at the Center has put me in a position to be a leader in the methods of the digital humanities as well as in the subject of cultural geography. These are very practical types of professional coups, as my knowledge about the history of tourism and photographic vision at the Grand Canyon has increased immeasurably alongside my technical skills in digital publishing – including things like website design, web archiving, cartographic design, and the application of media theory. Enchanting the Desert has given me the opportunity to practice all of these in one big cauldron, stirring the elements together to make a unique geographical vision of, as the subtitle to the project suggests, “a pattern language for the production of visual space at the Grand Canyon.”
Bauch using his field manual to line up the vantage point of one of Peabody’s original slides. (Geoff McGhee)
Despite all these invaluable achievements, the skill I can say that I have sharpened the most as a scholar – and as a person – during my time at the Center has been writing. Although I came to the Center with a Ph.D. and a considerable amount of experience in academia, I still felt something of a cold distance between the topics I thought about and what I read in my community of scholarship. That is, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in at geography books and journal articles, understanding and respecting what I read, but not knowing how exactly to do it myself. I always found myself wondering, “How do people write these documents?”
Part of my experience in academia before coming to the Center included two years as a teaching fellow in Stanford’s Introduction to Humanities program, a series of writing-intensive courses for first-year undergraduates. There I thought a lot about writing, witnessed the writing process for hundreds of students, and advised those hundreds of students on how to make their writing clearer and more engaging. But it was not until these past two years at the Center that I can proudly say that above all I now consider myself more than a good writer, or a writing instructor, but a professional writer.
Video profile of Enchanting the Desert from the Stanford Humanities + Digital Tools series. (Geoff McGhee)
With the time and trust granted to me by the Bill Lane Center, I have developed a style particular to the aims of my research visions, and have, with the countless informal conversations in the Center’s halls, consciously trained myself how to express all those wordless ideas, thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that constantly flood our minds. I have grown to love the process of finding the right word, to love those moments sitting in front of a blank page not knowing what exactly will emerge, and to love spending far too long perfecting a single sentence. I am better than I ever have been at slowing down, capturing, and describing the mechanics of the mind, something that I will cherish and continue to improve upon for the rest of my life.
Enchanting the Desert is forthcoming from the Stanford University Press.