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.

Water and Energy at Issue in Fifth State of the West Symposium


Photos: Steve Castillo

Two fundamental resources of the American West, water and energy, were the focus of the fifth annual State of the West Symposium held on November 12. Collaboratively organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the half-day event took place at SIEPR's headquarters on the Stanford campus.

Assessing The Economic State of the West

The SIEPR fellow and Stanford public policy lecturer David Crane opened the symposium with a keynote talk (video) assessing the economic state of the American West. Crane noted that while energy dependent economies in North Dakota and Alaska have suffered from declining oil and gas prices, other western states like California, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon saw robust employment growth over the past year. Crane added that a number of western states are seeing tax revenues approach levels not seen since before the Great Recession; at the same time, he pointed out how spending priorities have changed since the economic crisis. For example, California now devotes a much smaller share of its budget to long-term investments like transportation, parks, and education, in favor of meeting the increasing demands of Medicaid, pension obligations, and prison costs.

Video: Economic State of the West

Water Markets a Solution to Scarcity?

Water Markets Panel

The afternoon sessions convened distinguished panels on two issues of critical importance. First, a panel led by SIEPR director Mark G. Duggan explored the feasibility of water transfers and markets as a possible approach for addressing the western drought (video). Felicia Marcus, chair of California's State Water Resources Control Board and a veteran water regulator, lamented the difficulty of achieving productive dialogue on water when most players only see one part of the larger picture. Warning that climate change will be a "game-changer" for California water – in that rising temperatures will reduce the state's ability to use winter snowpack for water storage – Marcus urged an "all of the above" strategy employing conservation, increased efficiency, groundwater recharge, water recycling and desalination and, perhaps most controversially, new water storage projects. Marcus predicted that while "water is complicated, it's not impossible, and we are making progress," pointing to a legislature that has passed more water legislation in the past six years than "in the previous three decades."

Stanford economist Frank Wolak has been working on water pricing formulas to help public utilities replace revenue they are losing to water conservation. He spoke about the promise of water markets as a way of allocating water more efficiently – pointing to the example of electrical markets as a model, using an "independent system operator" to manage pricing and exchange of resources. In electricity, said Wolak, the transmission network takes bids and uses them to run a market that balances supply and demand in real time. The challenge, though, is getting back exactly what you put in, he said, and dealing with possible effects on ecosystems. But the gain would be worth it, Wolak continued, saying that the money that goes to pay for armies of water lawyers could instead go to a tariff that would fund local water transfers.

Both Marcus and Wolak saw the Australian millennium drought – which lasted from 1995 to 2007 and led to major policy changes – as a valuable lesson for western water policy. Wolak pointed out how Australian ecosystems were given their own water right and a seat at the negotiating table, while Marcus admired the communal spirit that negotiators have shown – "even though they fight, there's much more talk of 'we'” in Australia.

Video: Panel on Water Markets

Debating the Costs and Benefits of a "Fossil Highway" to Asia

The second panel of the afternoon featured a spirited debate between opponents and supporters of fossil-fuel export facilities on the West coast (video). Moderated by Bruce E. Cain, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, the panel was led off by Sally Benson,  co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy. Benson pointed out the growing share that renewable energy sources are taking in western states like California.

The conservation lawyer Jay Manning touted the successes of the Pacific coast states from California to British Columbia in promoting renewable energy policies, from cap and trade in California to carbon taxes in B.C. "These states, which together comprise the fifth largest economy in the world," Manning said, "will be the first to embrace the clean energy economy." At the same time that states like Oregon and Washington appear headed toward economy-wide limits on carbon, Manning warned of the possible effects of several fossil energy export projects proposed for ports in Washington and British Columbia. Focusing on the Millennium coal terminal proposed in Longview, Wash., Manning argued that sending U.S. coal abroad to be burned in Asia would add a billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year.

Arguing the "pro" case for the terminals fell to Bill Chapman, CEO of the Longview-based Millennium Bulk Terminals company. Chapman countered that "having a dialogue about symbolic gestures in a mostly hydro-powered region is not going to affect China" – adding that China already has 155 coal-burning plants under development and that the policy priorities should be for Asian markets to burn cleaner coal – like the US's. He added that a priority is for Chinese plants to start using pollution control devices, which they have already installed but are reluctant to use because of the corresponding reduction in energy output.

Video: Panel on Energy Infrastructure

Evening Keynote with Wyoming Political Royalty

The Western Governor's Association chairman and Wyoming Governor Matt Mead gave the evening keynote address(video). Echoing the discussion of fossil fuel exports, Mead pointed out that his coal-rich state is the third largest energy exporter in the world, and that "it is unrealistic to think that the source of 40% of electricity is not going to be around," but added "it is the responsibility of coal-producing states to make it better."

Turning an eye to renewables, Gov. Mead said "we intend to build the world's best onshore wind platform, though delivering to California is problematic."

Gov. Mead also stressed the importance of ensuring that the West can meet the food needs of the future, despite the shrinking number of young people going into agriculture. He added that food is an important national security concern: "imagine the leverage of other countries if we needed them not just for fuel, but for food?"

From left to right: David M. Kennedy, Former Sen. Alan Simpson, Bruce E. Cain, Jody Foster, Nancy Pfund

Gov. Mead, the grandson of Wyoming Governor and Senator Clifford Hansen, was given a folksy introduction by his fellow Equality State political scion, the voluble former Senator Alan Simpson, the son of Wyoming Senator and Governor Milward Simpson. The address was followed by a conversation among Gov. Mead, Sen. Simpson, and Bill Lane Center founding former co-director David M. Kennedy.

In reaching back to his family roots, Gov. Mead emphasized the need for maintaining collegiality in working with the other western governors. "In Wyoming, civility matters. If you look at myself, Governor Brown and Governor Inslee [of Washington], we have fundamental disagreements on coal, but we have to work together on forest health and issues that don't recognize state boundaries. The Western Governors' Association and the ability to recognize differences and common interests, that's a model to me," he added.

Video: Gov. Matt Mead and Former Senator Alan Simpson

State of the West Symposium Returns in 2016

The sixth annual State of the West Symposium will be held in December 1, 2016. Complete video of this year's sessions is available at Read about previous symposia on our State of the West page.

Watch complete video of the 2015 State of the West Symposium »

Applications Now Open for Summer 2016 Local Governance Institute at Stanford

Applications are now open for the 2016 Local Governance Summer Institute, taking place from July 24-29, 2016. This week-long summer institute at Stanford University is open to city managers, county executives, regional directors, and other senior local government officials from throughout the West.

See the event page for details and a link to the application form »

A Multi-Faceted Portrait of Women Farmers and Ranchers

Photographs from the Femme Farmer Project by Elizabeth Zach

Elizabeth Zach's story opens in a bar in Highwood, Montana, where the 76-year-old rancher Donna Schroeder points out two cattle brands carved into a wooden block. The first she shared with her husband, she says, the other she adopted after his death more than four decades ago – over which time she continued to run herds of 350-odd cattle on her own.

Zach, writing under a Western Journalism and Media Fellowship from the Bill Lane Center for the American West, continues,

Donna is a striking example of an intriguing and expansive demographic in America today. According to the Economic Research Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, in the past three decades the number of women-operated farms has increased substantially in the nation. Between 1978 and 2007, when the last agriculture census was completed, the number of women-operated farms in the U.S. grew from 306,200 to nearly a million. Women run 13 percent of all the nation’s farms and are 30 percent of all farmers in the U.S.

Since this past January, Zach has been traveling throughout the rural West interviewing women farmers and ranchers about their lives and livelihoods, compiling a moving portrait of a changing field though interviews with more than 50 subjects. Zach writes that the women she encountered ranged widely in age, background, and agricultural products, ranging from cattle ranchers to wine and artisinal cheese makers, from sheep herders to lavender growers. 

One of Zach's most memorable subjects, a Colorado convent where nuns rise at dawn to tend cattle, gather eggs, make cheese and run a working farm, was just featured in the October 26 issue of High Country News. Zach, a prolific freelance journalist with bylines in The New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications, is also a staff writer for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation in Sacramento. The RCAC has published a long-form version of Zach's reporting on its newly relaunched website, and Zach is working with the Center to develop more outlets for her continuing reporting on the topic, including the Spence and Cleone Eccles Rural West Conference taking place next March in Missoula, Montana.

New Faces and New Roles at the Center

From left, Iris Hui, Jessica Dutro, and Preeti Hehmeyer.

After some sad goodbyes over the summer, the Bill Lane Center for the American West entered the new academic year with some great new colleagues and a new look to our organizational structure. We hope you'll join us in welcoming our new coworkers, and making note of some changed responsibilities.

In August, Preeti Hehmeyer joined us as our new Associate Director, Planning and Development. Preeti got off to a busy start with the Center, flying down to Mexico at the end of her first week for our California-Mexico Clean Tech Trade Mission in Mexico City and Monterrey. Fresh from the world of management consulting, Preeti will be responsible for planning and organizing our events and conferences, as well as development and donor relations. She will also be handling our summer internships program and Sophomore Colleges.

Jessica Dutro is our new Associate Director of Finance & Administration. Jessica joined us from the university controller's office at the beginning of September, and has already showed her mettle by handling the many moving parts of a Sophomore College course that sent students and their instructors all around California, and our three US-Mexico collaborations on entrepreneurship, energy and water, and clean technology.  

The researcher and social scientist Iris Hui is now our Associate Director, 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. We are excited to have Iris in this new role. 

We'd also like to wish Kathy Montgomery well with her move to Oregon and to offer heartfelt thanks for her hard work, good humor, and friendship these past three years.

Native Lands and the Northwestern Boom: John Dougherty's Book Heads to Print

The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in 1973.  (David Falconer, National Archive via Flickr Commons)

We are very pleased to announce that John J. Dougherty's book Flooded by Progress has been acquired by the University of Washington and is headed for publication as part of the Emil and Kathleen Sick Book Series in Western History and Biography. According to the publisher, the series "features scholarly books on the peoples and issues that have defined and shaped the American West." and "seeks to deepen and expand our understanding of the American West as a region and its role in the making of the United States and the modern world." Previous titles in this prestigious series include works written and/or edited by Richard White, Katrine Barber, Andrew H. Fisher, Lissa Wadewitz (a former Center scholar), John Findlay, Alexandra Harmon, Jen Corrine Brown and others.

John is in his second year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center, and is working on completing his manuscript, which began as his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. Here, he describes his forthcoming book:

Flooded by Progress: Law, Natural Resources, and Native Rights in the Postwar Pacific Northwest examines the politics of federal Indian law and the changing environmental landscape in the post-World War II Pacific Northwest. It argues that the changing legal status of Native lands and resources was instrumental in both the industrial expansion of the region and environmental changes brought by increased development of natural resources. It highlights how the region’s environmental and economic transformations inequitably burdened Native communities in the Pacific Northwest, from their loss of treaty rights and tribal status to the destruction of tribal lands and natural resources. However, the book also illuminates how Native communities actively navigated critical directions in Indian policy and became powerful stakeholders in regional environmental politics.  

Please join us in congratulating John and in looking forward to his book's debut.

Weighing Californians' Appetite for Water Reductions

Lake Oroville reservoir in the summer of 2014 (California Department of Water Resources)

Buffeted by years of drought, Californians appear more ready than ever to make sacrifices to address the state's water challenges. According to a poll conducted in late August and early September, 54 percent of likely voters in California supported mandatory cutbacks in water supplies, and that "dealing with the state's water problems" topped their priorities for state government. 

Poll respondents also showed high levels of support for a variety of water storage investments, from dams and reservoirs (70 percent in favor), desalination (81 percent), aquifer storage and recharge (89 percent) and stormwater recycling (91 percent). Support for recycled drinking water varied from 10 to 43 percent, with those who knew more about how the process works showing greater comfort with the idea.

Bruce Cain, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, helped the Hoover Institution design the poll, which was administered by the polling firm YouGov.  It surveyed 1,500 adult Californians from around the state between August 31 and September 11. 

Earlier this week, Prof. Cain joined a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to talk about the results. Concluding that voters had largely accepted California Governor Jerry Brown's water policy so far, he added a note of caution: "but the reality is that we've done so far is the easy stuff, and what we're facing is potentially a bigger and deeper problem." Cain cited two concerns: one, that California's water infrastructure was designed during what scientists now believe was an atypically wet 20th century, meaning that even normal conditions might be much drier than we realize; second, that rising temperatures due to climate change may undo the state's system of using winter snowpack as a "frozen reservoir."

"That system," he concluded, "is being undermined systematically and it's not clear that if we have to go to deeper cuts if we're going to find that level of public support."

Listen to the full audio of the event:

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.

The Salton Sea: Natural or Not?

Panoramic view of the Salton Sea shore. (image: Akos Kokai via Flickr)

Daniel PolkDaniel Polk is an anthropologist and postdoctoral scholar at the Center. His research looks at the politics of water in the borderlands of California. Here, he describes his research on the Salton Sea, the California's largest lake by area and a vast but rapidly changing body of water in the southern desert.

In the arid lowlands of the Imperial Valley lies the Salton Sea, California’s largest and perhaps most uncanny body of water. An inland sump, it is an enclosed drainage endpoint, a vast sheet of water surrounded by the heat and brittle aridness of the desert basin. With no outlet to the ocean, the lake’s concentration of salts and sediments only increases, mixed with fertilizers and pesticides from nearby agricultural runoff.

Image: Patty Mullins via Flickr

The lake is a habitat for hundreds of species of migrating birds, a vital stopover on the hemispheric migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway. Yet it remains a perilously balanced ecosystem. The lake teeters between fish population booms and massive fish die-offs, its shore carpeted with dried barnacles and fish bones. The Salton Sea also stands out for its recent history, arising only a century ago from the inundation of canals and levees along the Colorado River. In the press and most other accounts, the lake is nothing if not unnatural—a product of hastily-cut engineering, an out-of-place ecology. An examination of the Salton Sea however shows how this place resists ready categorization of “natural” or not.

Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood.

The lake is a relatively young body of water. Its recent history attests to claims of its unusual nature. The Salton Sea began to rise when the Colorado River flooded through a shoddy irrigation canal in 1905. The full force of the river flowed into the Imperial Valley, led by gravity into the below sea-level basin until engineers dammed the flood in 1906. The river then broke through a levee, filling the basin until it was finally stopped in 1907. Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood. The Colorado River has frequently flooded the valley; geologists estimate that an ancient lake twice the size of today’s Salton Sea has periodically filled the basin for millennia. One wonders, if the levees had not been constructed in the first place then the river would have flooded into the basin on its own. If anything, the damming of the 1907 flood (and the continued irrigation water feeding the lake presently) have created a small-sized sea whereas in its place “Mother Nature” would have perhaps allowed the river to fill the basin to the brim.

Image: Travis S. via Flickr

Another aspect of the lake reflecting it unique attributes is perpetual environmental constraints. The Salton Sea is home to millions of salinity-resistant fish, which in turn support migrating birds. Yet the high “nutrient load” of the waters lead to occasional algae blooms, which starve fish of oxygen and lead to thousands of dead fish washing onto the shore. During such events, the lake produces hydrogen sulfide gas, an odor as unpleasant as rotten eggs. Even these challenges may not strictly merit the label of “unnatural.” Such processes of high salinity, nutrient load, algae blooms, fish die-offs, etc. are common to other lakes—what scientists call “eutrophication.” The lake’s most unusual, unsettling sight—dead fish covering the shore—is itself the product of a process documented in many other “natural” bodies of water. It is rather the scale and rate of these processes that is special to the Salton Sea, accelerated by unintended human impacts—what scientists call “cultural eutrophication.”

Image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

The lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs.

Instead of seeking a conclusion on whether the lake is “natural” or not, it is more useful to ask what purpose does the Salton Sea serve, what relations and circumstances does it make possible? For the lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs. This water transfer is slowly draining the Salton Sea, and it is to go into full effect after 2017, marking the time after which the Salton Sea could shrink to half its size. As a result, dried-up lakebed would be exposed to harsh desert winds, kicking up fine sediments mixed with decades of accumulated pesticides into the polluted air. These dust storms could hinder the industry, agriculture and tourism of nearby Mexicali, Imperial Valley and Palm Springs, threatening the public health of over one million people in the United States and Mexico. The lake’s environmental restoration is not for the goal of simply restoring a “natural” habitat but of caring for a place which so many are connected to. The Salton Sea is part of an ecosystem which countless people and institutions now depend on.

The lake demonstrates that the “natural” is a fluid and not fixed term. Proponents of the Salton Sea often emphasize the natural qualities of the lake. If the lake is unnatural, then its decline can be more readily accepted by the public, yet if it is a natural place, then its restoration becomes a more urgent imperative, less easy to ignore for those in power. As a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center, I will be continuing my research on the politics of the Salton Sea, placing a focus on the ways that its impacts cross political boundaries. This requires investigations into not only how people make sense of and negotiate water management, but also how people make sense of their world and define nature itself. To do so requires historicizing the present predicaments of the Salton Sea and highlighting the political nature of its ecological crisis.

Living History

Image: Tyler McIntosh and Sean Baumgarten get excited during an archival research trip to the U.C. Berkeley Earth Sciences Library.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

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.

The day comes to a close with the furious ‘click-click’ of the camera and desperate yet muted riffling of yellowed archive pages. It’s 5 o’clock at the California Historical Society and our team of archival researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute is being booted out the door.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) is composed of three different programs: Clean Water, Environmental Informatics, and Resilient Landscapes. I am the intern for the Resilient Landscapes program, which works to create ecologically diverse landscapes that are resilient to climate change and human disturbance. Historical Ecology is perhaps the largest component of the program—the process of studying landscapes as they used to exist, intersect, and interact. The study of historical ecology, at least in the case of SFEI, involves the use of hundreds of first- and second-hand documents, compiled and cross-referenced in order to compose a vision of the historical landscape. Vision components include habitat, land use change, hydrology, geomorphology, and native species.

It is for one such study that I find myself suddenly standing outside the California Historical Society’s doors, blinking against the sunlight and San Francisco’s bubbling flow.

The society is but one of many treasure-troves of information that SFEI digs through for information on the numerous projects that the organization constantly juggles. An NGO known throughout the Bay Area for quality science at a landscape scale, SFEI works to define environmental problems, provide sound scientific research and analysis, and connect information with those in planning, management, and policy-making positions.

Just like SFEI itself, over the past few weeks I’ve juggled work on a number of different projects. From GIS data entry and copy editing reports to researching the Pacific pocket mouse (an endangered species historically found in the lower Tijuana Valley in San Diego County) and continued historical ecology database searches and archive visits, I’ve gotten a chance to experience many of SFEI’s modes of communication and research. It’s been fascinating to see the massive scale of research outside of a strictly academic context.

I’ve also greatly appreciated the opportunities I’ve been given to learn about NGO functioning, project coordination, and the work that different organizations are doing in the Bay Area; between brown-bag lunches from partner organizations, sitting in on meetings, and being involved in and around the office, it’s nearly impossible NOT to learn something new.

Although my heart, lungs, and legs yearn for the open air of the mountains where I grew up, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the Bay Area as best I can with what free time I’ve been able to squeeze from my busy days. My few short weeks of living in Berkeley have already shown me parts of California that I hadn’t seen before: the mirror of the bay cradled between golden-grassed hillsides, Mt. Diablo’s skin-frying sunbeams and sweeping vistas, San Francisco’s delights, Berkeley’s many hidden nooks and crannies, and so much more.

I look forward to continuing my summer with SFEI, learning more about the company’s internal workings and analysis process, and getting a chance to work on a variety of projects; in particular, historical ecology research on the Walnut Creek watershed and Mission Bay in Southern California.

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