Skip to content Skip to navigation

By Treating Obstacles to Health, Community Health Workers Also Treat a Troubled System

Aug 1 2017

Welcome to the world of community health workers. The job, part medical aide and part social worker, is a tradition in poor and rural communities around New Mexico and well established in similar places around the country. But institutional recognition has been slow to come.

Margarita Perez Pulida and Jorge Montoya Sosa, who work in an immigrant-heavy area of Albuquerque

Margarita Perez Pulida and Jorge Montoya Sosa, who work in an immigrant-heavy area of Albuquerque. Felicity Barringer

By Felicity Barringer

Lidia Regina was just starting a new job at the University of New Mexico Health Center in Albuquerque a decade ago when the full weight of the unfamiliar work fell on her, hard. The new job was to check in with poorer patients, find out about the problems they faced every day, and ensure that poverty, unemployment or family obstacles did not prevent them from keeping pace with the health regimen their doctors prescribed.

Her first assignment was monitoring care of clients’ new babies. “The first case I get, I’m just going to see if she wants to participate,” she said. Within five minutes, a shower of bureaucratic problems rained down. The baby had no birth certificate. Or social security number. Neither did the mother. The father was suspected of drug abuse.

Ms. Regina said she excused herself, went into an adjoining room, and screamed. Then she returned, said, “Do you want to work with me?” When the patient agreed, Ms. Regina began to assembled the data needed to get the identity cards that would make health care payments possible. She ended up working with the family for years.

In rural communities around New Mexico, community health workers are the link to a medical world that can seem alien to local cultures.

Welcome to the world of community health workers. The job, part medical aide and part social worker, is a tradition in poor and rural communities around New Mexico and is well established in similar places around the country. There are now 80,000 in the United States, and 700 or more in New Mexico. But institutional recognition for these workers, who often have only a high school degree – their main asset is being trusted by communities that are isolated from the workaday world – has been slow to come.

Now, after decades or more during which these people helped remedy social obstacles to medical care and healthy living, their work is increasingly recognized by the institutional structures at the core of modern healthcare. More than 10 states, including New Mexico, either train and certify these workers or plan to do so. Hospitals, clinics and insurance companies pay them, to identify and ameliorate what are called “social determinants.”

“Primary care providers experience a sinking feeling when, after a clinical encounter, their hand on the doorknob to leave the examination room, the patient adds one more reason for the visit — perhaps they lost their job, are unable to afford their medicine or are about to be evicted from their home,” wrote the authors of a report on health workers and their new tools. Since 2014, the state has offered a formal certification to newly trained workers, and has certified seasoned hands under a grandfathering program.

'WellRX' card used to refer patients to community health care workers
Beyond medical care In a pilot program, “WellRX” cards like this were given to patients whose doctors had concerns about their peripheral life issues.

In rural communities around New Mexico, community health workers are their link to a medical world that can seem alien to local cultures. One-third of the state’s population lives in rural areas; the vast majority of those areas have a shortage of primary-care physicians. Poverty is everywhere. Of 2 million-plus citizens, about 550,000 people currently receive their health care through Medicaid. The bill is $3.8 billion a year.

Health care workers “are usually family members and friends, and can have talks about chronic diseases and their care,” said Lynn Gallagher, New Mexico’s Secretary of Health. “They can go into the community because they know the traditions.” Ms. Gallagher spoke in March at the Rural West Conference run by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West (note: the Center also publishes this blog).

About 48 percent are Hispanic; 10 percent Native American. A health-care worker might belong to a Native American community that is aloof to outsiders.

Health indicators in New Mexico are troubling, especially for those earning less than $20,000 a year. According to statistics from 2015, 35 percent of the people in this income range suffer from obesity, about 18 percent have diabetes, and more than 26 percent have mental diseases. Many people at this income level are concentrated in rural counties, where doctors practice what the medical community calls “frontier medicine” Two-thirds of the state’s 33 counties have a shortage of primary-care physicians; two have an extreme shortage.

A Shortage of Doctors to Practice ‘Frontier Medicine’

Map: Primary Care Physician Shortages in New Mexico, 2014
Bill Lane Center for the American West

Research Suggests Community Health Care Workers Pay for Themselves in Reduced Costs

Dr. Arthur Kaufman, the vice chancellor for community health at the University of New Mexico, has long been an ardent advocate of community health workers. “A significant change in the financing of health care has now enshrined the work of community health care workers as a ‘tangible economic benefit,’” he said. Federal Medicaid payments to insurers are now made per patient, rather than per procedure.

Mitigating Obstacles to Care | In March, The University of New Mexico’s Dr. Arthur Kaufman spoke about the ‘social determinants’ that hinder quality health care from reaching underprivileged populations.   Rural West Initiative, Bill Lane Center for the American West

New Mexico’s four approved managed care providers – Molina Healthcare, United Healthcare, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and Presbyterian Health Plan – all pay for community health workers; salaries range from less than $10 an hour to more than $25; median pay is about $17. Their work can reduce what insurers pay in medical bills.

Such workers – Molina’s title is ‘community connection workers’ – “are kind of a door” into the homes of poor clients, said Laura Ortega, healthcare services manager for Molina. “When you see a member’s hierarchy of needs, when you see they have no food, place to live or transportation – well, if you don’t move them from that level, they don’t have self-esteem.” Self-esteem, she believes, “improves a member’s willingness to work with Molina.”

A small 2012 study showed a reduction in emergency-room visits. Patients without resources often rely on the emergency room for primary care, leading to large and often unnecessary expense. Dr. Kaufman and several colleagues followed 448 Molina patients over a six-month period, measuring their use of emergency rooms before and after they worked with community health workers. The $650,875 Molina paid for emergency room visits before the change dropped to $225,324.

More studies are in progress to show the economic impact as this traditional approach to health care, in areas that are poor or rural or both, is integrated into the health-care system. But behind the studies are encounters like those experienced by Lisa Coppedge, who works for Molina in Cuba, a small rural community in Sandoval County, or Jorge Monroy Sosa and Margarita Perez Pulido, who work in an immigrant-heavy area of Albuquerque.

Dr. Kaufman and several colleagues followed 448 Molina patients over a six-month period, measuring their use of emergency rooms before and after they worked with community health workers. The $650,875 Molina paid for emergency room visits before the change dropped to $225,324.

To do the job, Ms. Coppedge said, “You have to have empathy, to be a good listener.” In one case, she said, she visited a woman who is a victim of domestic abuse. “She lives in a run-down trailer in poor condition and she doesn’t want to move. There’s no heat, no air conditioning, no running water. No internet service. No SNAP benefits.”

“She was completely unaware of community resources – that there was a local community food distribution group that gives out wonderful food boxes. I was able to get Home Depot to donate a window air-conditioning unit for her. Local churches picked up the unit and got it installed.”

“Her health issues mostly involved mental and behavioral health. Depression. I needed to advocate for her to see a counselor. She had no car or transportation.” Ms. Coppedge helped the client deal with these obstacles, and the woman, who used to appear in the emergency room with mental breakdowns on a regular basis, now does so less often.

Now, when first meeting a patient, community health workers like Ms. Pulido and Mr. Sosa, who work at the First Choice clinic in Albuquerque, fill out a “WellRx,” asking questions about a patient’s access to utilities, transportation, child care, shelter, and food. The WellRx emerged from Dr. Kaufman’s offices; he said it is much more useful than some other required tests.

One patient Ms. Pulido helped was an 85-year-old had been missing her doctor’s appointments; the home care nurse had stopped coming after, on several visits, no-one opened the door for her. Family members had chosen to keep her isolated. When Ms. Pulido got in to talk to the patient and her granddaughter, she got the granddaughter’s assurance that the patient would now go to the doctor.

Giving Health Care Services a Friendlier Face, Bolstered with Technology

Patients’ fear of authorities – some poor immigrants see the medical system as part and parcel of threatening government agencies – is perhaps the most pervasive obstacle community health workers must overcome.

The obstacle that advocates like Dr. Kaufman had to overcome was the financial structure of the health care industry, which long created incentives for maximum payouts for procedures, and minimal payout for community and preventive healthcare. “The reason it didn’t happen in the past is because the incentives were not aligned with community health,” he said.

“The incentives for drug companies, for doctors, for hospitals, all of that was geared to fee-for-service. Not only fee-for-service but specialized care and procedural specialists’ care. Who determines that? Specialists who did procedures. You had these strange incentives that worked absolutely against community health.”

But, in a sign of the attitudinal change now underway, Dr. Kaufman said, “We just got a $4.5 million grant, five-year grant” from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services “to screen all Medicaid and Medicare patients for social determinants and for the higher risk ones to intervene and see if you could increase quality and reduce costs.” They hope to screen 75,000 patients a year in Bernalillo County, around Albuquerque. With some of the grant, he hopes to get community health workers smartphones loaded with contacts for social service agencies, local food banks, clinics, and other things they might need.

Ideally, he said, “We will be able to track where patients are sent, whether they arrived, whether there’s duplication. Everyone knows if this person has gotten food at a food bank. We don’t have to get food elsewhere. This would diminish the chance of waste.”

Increasingly, this blend of a social work and health care, long familiar to rural New Mexico, is an essential part of New Mexico’s health care delivery. Community health workers, as Secretary Gallagher said, “can actually have meaningful discussions” to change patient attitudes – and cut health-care costs.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Decarbonizing California’s Energy Diet

California’s ambitious energy goals may lead the state toward an economy far less reliant on carbon-based fuels than ever before. But how quickly?

 

 

 

 

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Natasha Mmonatau and Felicity Barringer

Aug. 3, 2017

The Price of Being a Small Community or a Remote One in the West Is High. Either environmental utilities cost more, or are more flawed and potentially dangerous than those in urban areas. California communities where fewer than 1,000 people live pay more than double for their sewer service, and even in cities housing 10,000 and 50,000 people, the median rate is still twice that of the large urban areas. In New Mexico, small communities struggle to deliver clean water; in tiny Santa Cruz, the water from 180 feet down is laced with uranium. Circle of Blue    Santa Fe New Mexican

As a New Coal Mine Permit Is Debated in Wyoming, a Podcast Lays out the Arguments. The idea is to focus on technology to turn coal into other products, not simply fuel for power plants. Landowners and environmental groups and even another coal company dig in to oppose it. Also, two international wind turbine makers fighting it out for dominance in a state ended with superb wind resources. (Segment starts at 1 min., 15 seconds from beginning.) Wyoming Public Radio

In Alaska, Some 56 Native Groups Are Crammed Into an Area the Size of Indiana. Some feel that their people will have more power and better lives if they unite. But not everyone agrees. They are debating a proposal to have a tribal government that eventually would be responsible for essential services like taxation, public safety, education, a court system, fish and game management, and alcohol control. Each tribe's top elected leader would join a 56-member legislative council. Alaska Dispatch News

In Larger and Larger Pockets of the West, Bison Are Back, and They Might Help Slow Climate Change. The near-destruction of the American bison by European settlers has long been a parable of environmental heedlessness, but bison are back. As climate change advances on the region, that may be a good thing. The need for a symbiotic relationship between bison ranchers and the environment means that the more bison, the higher the chance that the land they live on and the grasses they eat will be well-managed. This means more carbon is sequestered. As the new herds are encouraged to mimic the natural movements of their forebears, they may help restore over-grazed land to its natural state, sequestering even more carbon. Well-managed herds could slow climate change. Bloomberg

Water Hazards are Rare When Golf Is Played on the Navajo Reservation. But there are plenty of other hazards. Like putting. “Being from Albuquerque,” said Eric Frazier. “I’m not used to putting in the dirt. It was really challenging but it was really fun. I would like to do it again.”Navajo Times

July 20, 2017

Ever Since Wolves Returned around the West, Ranchers’ Conviction they Are Destroying Livestock has helped them get compensation. Not all their claims are well documented, and special state set-asides are showing the strain of payments. One rancher said that last year wolves killed 41 calves and 11 cows in Baker County — where there are 3 resident wolves and no confirmed wolf kill of livestock since 2012. Earth Fix | Oregon Public Radio

Land Wars Are Nothing New Around the West, but an Ongoing One Near Rifle, Colorado Has a New Twist. To keep an Conoco Phillips subsidiary off 2,500 federal land where one ranching family has grazed cattle for decades, Susan Robinson, a widow who owns an adjacent 560 acres, has gone to court to prove that title is hers because her family’s cattle occupied it uninterrupted for 18 years. The oil company, TOSCO, says it installed a pipe without Robinson’s objection, which weakens her claim. But she traces the fights over this land back to Joseph Robinson, her late husband’s grandfather. Denver Post

Until Western States’ Electrical Grid Is Less Balkanized, Electricity Is Not Efficiently Used Our colleague Natasha Mmonatau's reporting is confirmed by a new analysis that explains that, thanks to a bumper harvest of sunshine this spring, California had to discard enough electrons to power 55,000 homes for six months, simply because the divided authority over the grid meant it couldn’t get the power to places that needed it. A representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council is urging that these barriers fall. High Country News

Farmers Have Centuries of Knowledge Built into the Way They Deal with the Earth, but that Knowledge, Like their Soil, Is Being Reworked. In Moonpark, California, John and Molly Chester are using their organic farm as an experiment in building healthy soil through regenerative farming. The idea is to allow soil to replenish itself, making fertilizer increasingly unnecessary. Another effect is allowing the soil to store carbon, by not plowing up the soil. It’s another ay to limit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Video) KCET

Showing When Water Conservation Is Good for Utilities and for Homeowners, a Chicago-based research group’s new report on the Arizona towns of Tucson and Gilbert is a conservationist’s dream. In the wake of sharp cuts in water use starting in the mid-1980’s, Tucson’s water rates are 11.7 percent lower; and conservation ensures that total water use remained the same over three decades, while the population grew by 240,000. Circle of Blue

The West’s Fire Season Roars on, endangering electricity at Yosemite National Park; 4,000 residents of Mariposa County have been evacuated. Los Angeles Times

July 10, 2017

Anticipating an Energy Department Report Predicting an Oversupply of Green Energy that would overwhelm the nation’s energy grid, Jacques Leslie issues a rebuttal based on the advances in battery and renewable technologies. Yale Environment 360

California Gov. Jerry Brown Has Declared the Drought Is Over, But Rural Residents of The Central Valley Will Be Grappling for Years with the long-term impact of the years-long thirst, as their wells have either been dried up by new and deeper shafts installed beside them, or are vulnerable to this. Water Deeply

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Wants to See More Fossil Fuel Extraction from Public Lands. But His Method May Not Work. As a Congressional Research Service report said, increasing opportunities for federal leases “may not translate into higher levels of production on federal lands, as industry seeks out the most promising prospects and higher returns which in recent years have come on more accessible nonfederal lands.” E&E News

Oil Slicks, a Little Dab’ll Do You. If You Are a Shorebird, That Is. Every feather gooked-up with oil means the bird has to work that much harder to fly.  A new study shows that birds with just a light coating of oil covering less than 20 percent of their body surface had to expend approximately 20 percent more energy than birds flying oil-free. On Earth /NRDC

To Quote from the U.S. Water Alliance: “Native American Lands Have Some of the Poorest Water Infrastructure in the Country” “Thirteen percent of homes on reservations lack access to clean water or sanitation, a significant number compared to 0.6 percent for non-Native Americans.” John Fleck takes a look at the striking issues of environmental justice from Indian Country to California’s Central Valley Inkstain

As Summer Fires Spread Around The West, The Evacuations Begin. A small town in Montana; the area around a big ski resort in Colorado; a rural region in central British Columbia; workers at the Hanford nuclear site in southeast Washington are sent home, thousands of evacuations continue in and around Oroville in Butte County, California as the Wall Fire remains untamed; and dramatic video of fawns being rescued in Arizona. Montana Public Radio Colorado Public Radio  AP Spokane Public Radio Sacramento Bee Washington Post

June 21, 2017

Wind and Solar Are Now 10 Percent of National Energy Generation Moving into double digits for the first time, wind farms, and solar panels generated more than 10 percent of the total monthly electricity in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Energy has reported. Texas generates the most wind energy; of the top 12 wind and solar states, only California and Arizona produced more solar than wind last year. Houston Chronicle

… And Solar Power Produces Jobs Where Oil and Gas Once Dominated, as more than 300 laid-off oil workers in Pecos County, Texas found jobs installing solar panels. When oil prices tanked two years ago, hundreds of Pecos County workers lost jobs working at oil and gas companies in the prolific Permian basin. Pecos now has five operational solar farms, large projects that meet the definition of utility-scale: having the capacity to generate at least one megawatt, enough to power about 200 houses on a sunny day. Houston Chronicle

How Does a State Government or Local Utility Ensure Clean Water at Affordable Rates? Water prices in San Francisco increased by double digits in six of the last seven years, the latest national assessment by Circle of Blue has found. In Fresno, the state’s most destitute big city, water rates rose 15 percent in the last year. California lawmakers have slowly chipped away at the affordability problem. Now staff members at the California Water Resources Control Board are tackling the affordability component of the state’s 2013 Human Right to Water legislation with a novel approach for the United States: a state-run financial aid program to offset rising household water bills. Circle of Blue

Wildfire Pollution is Worse Than We Knew, as burning trees and brush recently studied emit triple the amount of fine particles into the air, compared to the levels recorded in the Environmental Protection Agency’s emission inventories. “Burning biomass produces lots of pollution. These are really bad aerosols to breathe from a health point of view,” said researcher Greg Huey of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which led the study. The research also describes other chemicals in wildfire smoke, some never before measured, and it raises the estimated annual emission of particulate matter in the western United States significantly. Science Daily

Colorado’s Mountains Are Part of Climate Change Measurements, so if one takes air samples for years atop a Rock Mountain ridge, one can watch the ratio of carbon inexorably climb above 400 parts per million. NPR/Colorado Public Radio

Mining with Dredges in Oregon’s Rivers Has Imperiled Some Salmon, prompting the Oregon legislature to pass a measure protecting critical salmon habitat in much of the western part of the state. Gov. Kate Brown signed it last week. About five years ago, the number of dredge miners in southwestern Oregon reached 2,000. Oregonian

June 8, 2017

The Bureau of Reclamation Is Pitching Itself as a Partner to major financial and engineering firms, as it looks for financial support to keep 8,100 miles of canals, 76 hydropower plants, 492 pumping plants, 300 bridges, crossing dams and canals from falling apart. A Duke University scholar said after a recent meeting in Denver, “all the mainstream banks and engineering firms were present.” Circle of Blue

A Colorado Scientist Goes Undercover as a Grizzly Bear to find out how musk oxen in northerly realms like Alaska and northern Canada will deal with the new worlds they inhabit as the climate changes. PRI via Mountain West News

Ansel Adams’ Photographs of Japanese Citizens at the Manzanar Internment Camp aimed to show the resilience and optimism of the internees. Did he, a natural romantic, ignore the injustice of internment? An essay looks back at his book. BlogWest

Peer Mentors A Key to Addiction Fight for Montana’s Native Americans The Tribal Epidemiology Centers, of the Indian Health Service, has data showing that dependence on methamphetamine and other psychostimulants tripled for tribal members in Montana and Wyoming from 2011 to 2015. The story of Aaniih Nakoda, a Native-American-led peer project in the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Montana Public Radio / Kaiser Health News

May 25, 2017

Environmental Justice Movement on the Rise in Sacramento Environmental justice, once viewed as a fringe movement, takes center stage as a trip by Governor Jerry Brown to a low-income area of Los Angeles highlights the perspective of low-income communities and people of color. Part of their concern is that they will not benefit from the $800 million in reparations Volkswagen will pay to the state for its emissions cheating. The influence of the environmental justice perspective on California policy and legislature is widening as questions are raised about whether the California Air Resources Board should consider controlling soot as well as greenhouse gases, and how the state’s cap and trade program might be reshaped. Cal Matters

Drawing Meaning from Death, One Seabird at a Time Coastal beach patrols scour the beaches of the West for bird carcasses in an effort to assist with the documentation and research of bird die-offs. Oil spills, El Niño events and the collapse of food systems in the ocean all contribute to bird deaths, as do natural causes. The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) comprises eight hundred citizen volunteers committed to this important task that helps researchers understand larger patterns of ecosystem and bird behavior. Hakai Magazine

The Next Scapegoat for Agriculture: The Bay Delta’s Longfin Smelt Despite a recent spike in reproduction rates due to the rain this year, the declining population of longfin smelt fish of the San Francisco bay — 80,000 found 50 years ago, 7 this year — tells a story about an ecosystem imploding. Researchers hope to find a solution to the imminent extinctions of native fish; when the delta smelt dies out, attention will be on its cousin, the longfin smelt, whose population currently struggle with rising water temperatures and diminishing habitats. KCET

The Ways That Climate Change is Shrinking the West’s Water Supply Three studies tackle the different ways the changing climate is reducing western water supplies from the traditional sources like snowpack and groundwater. They also look forward, anticipating a coming era in which water scarcity is likely. The article covers groundwater, the Colorado River, and snowpack across western peaks — the three lenses of the new studies. High Country News

Gross Domestic Product San Francisco-based artist Phillip Hua’s artwork explores the relationship between humans and the environment, and the environment and economic success. With an introduction by the environmental writer Barry Lopez, the art work depicts the vulnerable place of birds, fish, trees and flowers in an age devoted to the bottom line. Orion Magazine

May 19, 2017

That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Most kinds of salmon and trout that for centuries sustained Native tribes on the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers — the same fish that sustain local fishermen today — have little chance of long-term survival, a new report says. Thanks to climate change, in the summertime these and other waterways will become too warm or dry up. If that weren’t enough, irrigating crops from wine grapes to marijuana are taking needed water from the fish. NPR

How to Get Energy From Its Source to Its Markets is the question that is bedeviling energy-rich states like Wyoming, and the grid that carries the electrons was built too long ago for too few sources of energy. Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The Modern World is Burying America’s Prairies and the tall grass ecosystem that thrives there under the plow and under frackers’ drills. The prairie ecosystems are pitted against the idea of using— and abusing — that land to feed billions of people or develop tens of thousands of cubic meters of natural gas. The economic use of the land makes it harder to preserve. Undark

The Good News for Reducing Methane Emissions is that forest soils are methane sinks. The bad news: the trees growing from the soil emit methane through their trunks, meaning the net good of forests in curbing emissions is less than once thought. Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Shaking Up Serenity in national parks, drones have become an obstacle to everything from human meditation to animal communication. The Guardian

May 10, 2017

Blackfeet Nation Approves Water Compact An historic agreement between members of the Blackfeet Nation, Montana and the U.S. government both ensures and quantifies water access for the tribe. The compact and Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act also provide for federal funding for water infrastructure. About 75 percent of the voters on the reservation approved the measure, which could ensure control of water supplies for coming generations. The newspaper piece describes the overall framework; the Blackfeet Nation story gets into the details of the agreement Flathead Beacon

What’s Really Killing King Coal? While some argue that the main culprit is the rise in renewable energy usage, this piece makes a case for natural gas as the primary cause of coal’s demise. Citing the agility and cheapness of natural gas and a change in cycles of energy use, the author describes the current need for flexible grids, showing how natural gas rose with some help from the federal government to meet the challenge of ensuring consistent energy output when the inputs are variable. High Country News

100 Million Dead Trees: A Danger That Persists Long After the Drought An explanation of the link between water scarcity and wildfire emerges in an illuminating conversation with Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at U.C. Berkeley. While the end of the California drought signals relief, if not celebration, for many water users, Stephens warns of the dangers of dead trees: forest corpses left behind as fodder for summer’s inevitable wildfires.
Water Deeply

The Path of the Unseen Whale emerges in the form of traceable prints that linger for minutes upon the water surface. Historically, the “flukeprints” were used to identify the last place a whale emerged during a hunt, and they provide a map of underwater activity. This article uses a short and sweet animation to explain the science behind these indicators of whale activity. Hakai Magazine

California Submerging: Rising Seas Are Claiming its Famed Coast Faster than Imagined Based on the findings of a recent report commissioned by the state, this piece looks at the expected impact of rising sea level on California’s coastal regions. It confronts the overwhelming projections with a view to how cities, towns, and neighborhoods along the coast will be affected. Cal Matters

April 18, 2017

California Isn’t Accounting for this Major Emitter. Methane emissions from hydropower have evaded state emissions budgets for some time, despite the release of significant amounts of this potent greenhouse gas owing to plant decomposition in reservoirs and lakes. California’s failure to account methane emissions from hydropower presents a blind spot in the state’s fight against climate change. High Country News

NASA Is Digging in the Snow to Help the West Manage its Water. NASA’s latest earth explorations include the SnowEx project, an effort to figure out how much water is stored in the planet’s snow cover. Scientists measuring snowpack density in western Colorado hope to put together a remote modeling system devoted to taking continuous stock of earth’s water resources, with potentially far-reaching economic implications for water management. Five Thirty Eight

Court Rules California Climate Payments Aren’t Taxes. A recent court decision in California could help the state’s cap-and-trade program, which requires industry polluters to account for their greenhouse gas emission outputs and pay for or mitigate any excess. Several comapnies wanted the court to declare the cut-and-trade program a disguised tax. But the legal opposition included multiple stakeholders including the California Air Resources Board united to disprove the tax theory for pollution payments. A boost to cap-and-trade may aid in moving California forward on its climate goals. Climate Central

Native Americans Caught Salmon Here for Millenia. Now the World Is Hooked. Small-scale fisheries owned by Native Americans in Washington serve as an exercise in community building, strengthening local ties and prompting rapidly increasing profits for catches. Using commercial standard fishing methods, the Yakama tribe is bringing Native catches to wider global markets. Grist

The (Poi) Power of Hawaiian Food Sovereignty. Hawaiian farmers developing innovative agricultural methods and practices may be leading the fight for nutritional self-sufficiency in Hawaii, an island that currently imports the majority of its food. Growing taro, the root used to make a Hawaiian dish called Poi, allows a return traditional food systems and a path toward greater independence in the future. Sierra Club

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Alan Propp

March 15, 2017

A U.S. Appeals Court this week upheld an Indian tribe’s right to the groundwater beneath its reservation. This decision, which has significant implications for the future of water management in the West and beyond, signals Native Americans' willingness to protect their water supplies using the courts. While the battle will likely continue in higher courts, the ruling remains a major victory. Circle of Blue

Ecologists are exploring radically new techniques to manage tree-covered land in the Sierras, as pressure on forest health increases from a number of directions. Researchers now endorse a “toolbox” approach incorporating resistance, resilience, and realignment to combat stressors from heat waves to insect plagues. This is proving to be a difficult change for forest managers using long-developed management schemes. Yale Environment 360

The Crescent Dunes solar thermal project is the largest energy station of its kind in the world. It delivers power to NVEnergy, which serves the majority of Nevada’s population. Large-scale solar thermal plants, whose association with harm to wildlife has made them controversial, nonetheless represent a massive step forward in renewable energy’s development in the west. Alec Ernest presents a documentary film showing the scale and challenges of Crescent Dunes. In related news, Nevada's 50-year-old Reid Gardner power plant officially stopped burning coal this week. KCET

Hear from western readers about some of their experiences in the American West. High Country News asked for uncomfortable truths, encounters, and revelations from readers in the West, and published a sampling of their responses. High Country News

While most people see California at the forefront of the fight against fossil fuel interests, “Big Oil” still holds a large sway in this state of progressive and environmental values. Both politically and economically, oil interests have a massive stake and wield a large influence in the California’s decisions, which may test the state’s role as a climate leader in the years to come. Reveal

Some energy billionaires are planning bold new clean energy initiatives in Western states. From California to Wyoming, the energy landscape is shifting, and Sammy Roth from the Desert Sun evaluates the costs and benefits of the coming changes. This podcast explores his story. Sea Change Radio

February 9, 2017

Rising temperatures in California could soon spur a shift in crops for Central Valley farmers. While rising winter temperatures could benefit some agricultural commodities, others (such as walnuts, cherries, and pistachios) will suffer. Within the next few years, farmers must either find technologies that allow these trees to flourish, or leave abandon them and turn to warmer-weather crops. Valley Public Radio via NPR

The energy mix in the West continues to shift towards sustainable sources – the opening of Tesla’s battery farm in Southern California could be followed by the closing of the West’s biggest coal plant in Arizona. The Aliso Canyon gas leak led Southern California Edison to search for more reliable energy sources, opening the door for lithium-ion battery storage provided by Tesla and others. Meanwhile, declining natural gas prices and rising costs for coal electricity production are making many coal plants — like the Navajo Generating Station — economically infeasible. The Guardian Grist Grand Canyon Trust

The expansion of predator populations is causing a kaleidoscope of reactions across various western states as locals struggle to balance conservation and ranching concerns. In Oregon and beyond, the recovery of wolves may mean that individuals (such as a high-profile wolf by the name of OR7) may lose their novelty, making them more expendable. Meanwhile, Colorado is cracking down on black bears and cougars in order to protect its thin mule deer population, an effort that has not been implemented without controversy. High Country News onEarth

California is increasingly turning to an unorthodox source for drinking water: recycled sewage water. Since 2014, the state has aggressively increased funding for wastewater treatment and recycling. Once produced largely for non-potable use – on landscaping, for instance – effluent is increasingly purified intensively and used for drinking water and aquifer replenishment. This technique is spreading despite the difficulty of the purification process. Undark

Biologists and fisheries managers in Oregon have begun using eDNA to find threatened species in river systems through water sampling. This novel technique uses highly sensitive water sampling techniques to find the DNA that endangered creatures shed from their skin, urine, and feces. With more refinement, the approach has the potential to revolutionize fisheries management, making it cheaper and easier to monitor species in waterways throughout the western United States. NPR

January 31, 2017

President Barack Obama is gone now, but what sort of mark did he leave on the West’s climate, energy, and lands? In the “West Obsessed” podcast, High Country News covers the wide-ranging and (for the most part) positive impacts that happened on his watch, including the development of renewable energy, the first far-reaching actions to address including the development of renewable energy, the first far-reaching actions to address climate change, and the last-minute designation of large federally protected conservation areas. High Country News

In the vein of the last administration’s conservation efforts, learn more about his recent expansion of Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. This stunningly beautiful protected region contains one of the most ecologically rich areas in North America, with species ranging from northern spotted owls to rare butterflies, and remains an important area for biodiversity research. While contested by some, Cascade-Siskiyou’s expansion is hailed by many as a victory for the conservation of large, intact, and critical habitat areas in the United States. Undark

Stanford’s new data visualization project, called “Follow the Money,” allows users to track the destination counties for a variety of different environment-related funds. Find your county and see how much it has received through the years from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Forest Service Revenue, the Federal Mineral Leasing Act, and more. Or, choose a fund and track how its payments have changed through the years, such as the dramatic increase in mining and drilling funding for Utah and Colorado in the mi-90s. Stanford Spatial History Project | CESTA

The consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in Southern California were far-reaching over the last two years. The leak emitted massive amounts of methane and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere for months before the SCGC was able to get it under control. This environmental and health disaster, essentially invisible to the naked eye, has united communities against the reopening of the facility and given a regional boost to a relatively new and under-tested form of energy technology: batteries. The New York Times

New collaborative research on the Yellowstone River reveals the complex consequences that human activities can have on the rivers in the region. The combined effects of these actions - which include diversion for irrigation, erosion control, and the placement of boulder breakwaters - weaken the river system and make it vulnerable to stressors like fish-killing parasites. Yale Environment 360

As California’s extended drought continues, tensions remain high over water rights and who is entitled to the usage of various water sources. The state has imposed increasingly strict consumption quotas, and has begun to turn more attention to the largest water users in the state. This article explores the developing energy efficiency technology and research efforts in the region, with a specific focus on the state’s economically critical and most extensive water consumption industry: agriculture. The Desert Sun