Skip to content Skip to navigation

To Save Crops, Farmers Took Groundwater. Then the Land Sank

Mar 24 2017

Like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too.

Troubled Water A flow of runoff designed to move serenely through a bypass structure becomes an abrasive torrent, right, after pouring down a waterfall created by land subsidence. To rejoin the San Joaquin River, this water will have be pumped back out again or a growing pool of low-level water may spill out over nearby land. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

By Felicity Barringer

The story of land subsidence in California’s Central Valley usually begins with a focus on wells and groundwater withdrawal. So, in western Madera County, one looks to wells like the ones Case Vlot needed to keep forage growing on his 3,500 acres in Chowchilla, which he uses to feed a few thousand dairy cattle. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, 10 of Vlot’s wells reach below the clay layer deep underground that supports the gently sloping farmland from Los Banos to Madera.

That farmland has been cracking at the surface for years; heavy pumping to keep crops alive during a five-year drought has made it worse. But now that the rains have come back with a vengeance, water managers have a new reality: like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too. Thanks to the damage, they can’t hold as much water.

It is not a good time for the flood infrastructure to function below capacity. Just as the drought was epic, the snowmelt of 2017, arriving in the next few months, may be epic as well. So, three things are happening:

  • Downstream, Central Valley farmers, water managers, and communities are getting ready for the water’s arrival.
  • Upstream, dam managers are trying to make room in their reservoirs to store the coming snowmelt, hoping they can make enough space to allow them to release runoff gradually into the rivers below.
  • Overhead, aircraft and satellites are providing increasingly accurate measurements of how much the land below has subsided. Water specialists and researchers are analyzing the this data to determine what is happening, where, how fast, and what must be done about it.

One of the starkest examples of subsidence in California’s Central Valley can be found in the area around Los Banos and Chowchilla, where the 50-mile Chowchilla-East Side Bypass structure was designed to absorb the runoff from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. But it is hardly unique in being damaged by subsidence, according to a recent report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A new Stanford paper determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

Last month, the agency reported the sinking is happening faster, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage. In a bowl north of Yolo, the ground has dropped nine inches over the past six years; a bowl around Tulare and Corcoran has subsided a like amount, or even a bit more. A new book, “High and Dry,” explains that the subsidence the San Joaquin Valley is suffering mirrors what is happening in arid farming regions around the world.

The measuring tools carried by aircraft and satellites have become very sophisticated. “We have radar images every six days to a month, repeating,” said Tom Farr, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the lead author of the NASA report, “I can see the changes in the ground as they happen.” Not all the subsidence is permanent, he added.

And it is not just flood control structures whose capacity has been reduced by subsidence. A new paper by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor at Stanford and Ryan G. Smith, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in environmental geophysics, which was published in “Water Resource Research,” determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

“Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Chris White of the Central California Irrigation District. At right, water cascades down a rift created by subsidence under a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass. Managers estimate that damage caused by subsidence has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by a quarter. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

As far as Chris White is concerned, “Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Mr. White is the general manager of the 80-mile long Central California Irrigation District, which encompasses are quarter of a million acres and 1,900 landowners in the area around Los Banos. The district supplies more than half a million acre-feet of water a year to its largely agricultural customers. Mr. White knows very well what farmers have gone through trying to keep crops going during droughts. He also remembers the flood years, like 1997 — experience that is guiding him now.

Standing on a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass, he gestures past the water roaring over a 15-foot waterfall created by subsidence, to a spot beyond where surging water from a February storm overtopped the banks and left a tangle of tree limbs and other debris. Aside from endangering farmland, the floods that could overtop the bypass could swamp parts of Highway 152 and a local elementary school.

Perched over the new waterfall, Mr. White explained the gouging impact of the water, which makes the hole deeper. The water carries away soil and vegetation, depositing them further down the bypass in a low place with slower flow. This further impedes water designed to flow back into the San Joaquin riverbed. Worse, subsidence means the water pools lower than the last portion of the bypass structure. To get the water back into the bypass and on to the river channel, it must be pumped uphill.

Sunken by Groundwater Pumping, the Central Valley’s Flood Infrastructure Will Be Put to the Test By Spring Snowmelt

During the past few years of drought, large parts of California’s Central Valley experienced land subsidence — a sinking of the ground level that can damage infrastructure and affect the flow of irrigation and stormwater canals. The primary culprit, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe, is the heavy pumping of groundwater to replace missing surface water supply. According to NASA’s aerial analyses, some areas of the Central Valley sank more than two feet between the springs of 2015 and 2016. Subsidence threatens a vast range of elevation-sensitive infrastructure (in addition to canals and levees), such as railroads, bridges, and buildings. At right, an animation of the estimated snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains over the past few months; this spring, water managers expect snowmelt to bring intense runoff into the Central Valley.

map

Sources: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (land subsidence); State of California Spatial Information Library (aqueducts and water features); U.S. Geological Survey (watershed boundaries) National Snow & Ice Data Center University of Colorado, Global Reservoir and Dams Database; Natural Earth Data    Geoff McGhee
 

Avoiding a flood of water that overtops the bypass is the job of people like Michael Wolfe, a hydrologic supervisor at the Friant Dam, which impounds San Joaquin River water several miles away. Right now, Mr. Wolfe said, dam managers from the federal Bureau of Reclamation are releasing water at an unusually high rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second, to lower the level of the reservoir and allow more space for the snowmelt. “We don’t know when it’s going to come and we’re being as ready as we possibly can be,” he said. One can get ahead of a deluge; it’s almost impossible to catch up.

When the snowmelt comes, the managers at Friant will be having frequent conference calls with their counterparts at the Army Corps of Engineers, who manage dams: the Buchanan dam on the Chowchilla River; the Hidden Dam on the Fresno River just south of it; and further south, the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River. Also on the calls is the state’s Department of Water Resources, which manages smaller structures.

“When it gets going hot and heavy, we talk every day,” Mr. Wolfe said, “it’s been a good a start to the flood season because we’ve run flood control flows since January,” indicating that the high-volume releases to date are keeping dam managers with capacity to spare to accommodate some future floods. The managers also talk to the San Joaquin Levee District, which manages the bypass. All of them try to do the math, juggling variables of time, distance and flow, to make sure that the vulnerable sections of the bypass don’t have to absorb more than 12,000 cubic feet per second of water. Before subsidence, that section was designed to accommodate 16,500 cfs.

But the dam managers have floods of their own to avoid, and a prescribed regimen of releases when waters surge; their needs take precedence, in a pinch. In the coming weeks, it will be evident whether their choreography of the 2017 water ballet can keep the Los Banos and Madera area dry.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future

The nationwide decline of coal is testing the resilience of the Powder River Basin. Residents used to a thriving economy, a top-notch education system, and an excess of job opportunities are learning to live with less.

 

 

 

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.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

Articles Worth Reading: October 27, 2020

Snow Hits Colorado’s Cameron Peak, East Troublesome Fires Sunday, bringing critical relief. The Colorado wildfires — some of the largest in the state’s history — have forced evacuations and turned deadly in some areas. As of Sunday, the Cameron Peak fire has burned over 200,000 acres, with the East Troublesome fire following close behind, burning about 192,000 acres. The snow is expected to dampen the fires, giving firefighters a critical chance to bring the blazes under control. Denver Post Washington Post

Trump Reverses His Decision to Reject Wildfire Relief for California, approving a package of wildfire disaster relief hours after the administration said the state should not receive the aid. The aid will be used for remediation for six wildfires that have burned nearly 2 million acres. It will also add to the 68 fire-related aid packages for California that Trump has approved. His change of heart came after Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Kevin McCarthy urged the president to provide the aid. The New York Times

Watchdogs Push New Mexico to Limit Use of U.S. Nuclear Waste Dump, as the federal government looks to extend and expand operations at the country’s only underground nuclear waste repository. The Energy Department’s application for renewing its permit for 10 years proposes abandoning the original 2024 date, when it had agreed to to close and decommission the 20-year-old dump, where tons of waste has been stored in salt caverns. Opponents say the state has failed to hold the Department of Energy accountable for cleaning up the contamination and dealing with radioactive waste. Associated Press

Trump Administration Adds 1,275 Miles to the National Trail System. The administration announced the creation of 30 new national recreational trails in 25 states, including new trails in California, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. Organizations like the American Hiking Society and PeopleForBikes praised the Department of the Interior for the expansion. The trail designations advance the Trump administration’s goal of increasing public access to outdoor recreation, according to a Department of the Interior press release. National Park Service

Public Lands Decisions Across West Questioned after ruling on status of acting federal agency chief William Perry Pendley. A federal judge determined Pendley had served unlawfully for 14 months as the head of the Bureau of Land Management. Sixty environmental organizations in Colorado and across the West argue that Pendley’s decisions, which include a plan to allow drilling on public lands across six counties in Colorado, should not stand. The state of Montana has called for the courts to throw out Pendley’s decisions. Denver Post

Alaska Seeks to Block Federal Approval of an Emergency Hunt for A Native Village, despite a dire food shortage. The lawsuit against the Federal Subsistence Board came after it approved an emergency out-of-season hunt for the Organized Village of Kake at the start of the pandemic. If the state prevails, rural communities and federally recognized tribes will be prohibited from requesting emergency hunts. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

Revitalizing Indigenous Stewardship with Cultural Burning on the central California coast, the Amah Matsun Land Trust seeks to effectively manage fire-prone lands using the stewardship of Indigenous groups. In the Quiroste Valley, the Native Stewardship Corps (NSC) are working in uplands above the meadow and riparian valley that contain dense stands of Douglas fir and coyote brush with little to no understory. These stands have encroached upon the open coastal prairie grassland. Due to the dense canopy cover, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, thus allowing little to no presence of grasses and forbs. This reduces biodiversity, and threatens the coastal prairie, which was once much more widespread. Cultural burning could help restore the grasslands. The land trust plans a Zoom conference to discuss traditional Native American land management. Amahmutsun Land Trust

Environmental Activists and Hoover Dam Operators Are Joining Forces, as hydro-electric industry groups and environmental activists have publicly committed to collaborate to minimize the environmental harm of existing hydro-electric dams. This union of warring factions from industry and the environmental movement is an instance in a fledgling but growing trend of large-scale industries, joining non-profit organizations and institutions to explicitly address the best ways to counter the threat of runaway climate collapse. The New York Times

Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

Articles Worth Reading: October 12, 2020

California Announces Plan to Conserve 30% of State’s Land and Coastal Waters by 2030 as part of the state’s fight against climate change. The effort comes on the back of a growing movement by environmental groups, scientific organizations and the National Geographic Society to advance the “30 x 30” goal: preserve at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. While the decision drew criticism from Republicans, environmentalists praised the announcement as key toward addressing a host of environmental issues in the state. San Jose Mercury News

Montana Asks Court to Throw Out Major Public Lands Decisions after federal judge ousted Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) acting director from his post. The decisions include BLM plans to open up hundreds of thousands of acres for oil and gas drilling. In response, the Department of the Interior argues that former BLM director William Perry Pendley took “no relevant acts” to be thrown out. Pendley served unlawfully for 424 days. The Hill

EPA Grants Oklahoma Environmental Oversight in Indian Country. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request to the EPA allows the state — not Indigneous nations — to regulate environmental issues in Indian Country. While the decision was welcomed by Oklahoma’s state oil and gas industry, Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation quickly denounced the decision. “This was a swift move meant to circumvent the federal government's trust, duty and obligation to consult with the tribal nations concerned,” wrote Muscogee Nation’s press secretary in a statement. Washington Post Indian Country Today

Experts Developing Plan for Trout Recovery in Los Angeles. Biologists and engineers are setting the state for a “fish passage” through downtown L.A. that would aid in the recovery of the Southern California steelhead trout, a threatened species. Concrete and treated urban runoff in the L.A. River channel blocks the trout from returning to local rivers to spawn. The recovery effort could rival the return of the gray wolf, bald eagle and California condor. Los Angeles Times

The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear is Crowned in Alaska. Every year, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that allows individuals to vote on large bears, in an effort to raise awareness about the park’s wildlife. This year’s champion? Bear 747 (named in reference to the Boeing 747), weighing in at more than 1,400 pounds. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

The Royal Bank of Canada is Withholding Financing for Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing its “particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability.” This policy change may be part of a paradigm shift for major financial institutions, which finance and drive the majority of oil and gas development. The bank’s pledge comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open up the refuge for development. RBC joins five major U.S.-based banks in this decision to not finance development in the ANWR, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase. The Narwhal

A Devastating Fire Season Just Keeps Going: to date, California wildfires have consumed four million acres as 8,200 fires in August killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings. Burning through 100,000 acres, the August complex fire in Mendocino County is the largest on record, “at nearly five times the size of New York City.” It is only 54 percent contained by weary fire fighters. Increasing temperatures exacerbate the fires’ intensity; their effects are being experienced at greater distances, as hazardous air quality conditions extend across the continent. The Guardian

An in-depth video shows the severity of California’s fires and what to worry about now, like mudslides. San Jose Mercury News

Canadian Indigenous Groups Looking to Invest in the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline which Indigenous groups in the United States oppose. Four First Nations groups in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan are pursuing an equity interest in the pipeline, signing a memorandum between the pipeline developer, TC Energy, and Natural Law Energy, which represents the Three Maskwacis Nations and the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta, and the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan. The idea is to create a long-term partnership. Neither party explicitly commented on the Indigenous-activist led resistance movement to the pipeline. Members of the Lakota Nation and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux who led a delegation to the U.S.-Canadian border for an anti-pipeline prayer ceremony in mid-summer, described a Native employee of TC Energy “a traitor.” Kallanish Energy Billings Gazette

Snake River Dams Not Going Anywhere After Federal Decision to Release More Water for as much as 16 hours daily to help stabilize the population of fish, particularly Chinook salmon, that have suffered serious decline in the entire Columbia River watershed. The plan adopted by three federal agencies won praise from groups representing farmers and loggers, but skepticism from conservationists and dismissal from the Nez Perce tribe. Boise State Public Radio

Solar Energy Expansion Is in Overdrive in West Texas; the state has 17 solar facilities, including 13 with capacities of at least 100 megawatts of power. With intense sun and large swaths of empty land where major solar farms can spread out, West Texas has long been ideal for solar development. Texas’ free-market approach and loose regulations encourage all big electricity projects, including solar. The cost of developing solar farms has dropped about 40 percent in Texas in the last five years, according to an industry association. Texas Observer

Clam Gardens, Revived on the Beaches of British Columbia, are expanding crustacean habitat using an age-old Native practice of flattening the shoreline with small rock walls and tilling the sand to improve aeration. Using these methods and removing predators like the sea star allows the Wsáneć, Hul’q’umi’num, and Stz’uminus First Nations to expand the habitat for butter, littleneck, and horse clams, plus crabs, chitons, seaweeds, and other useful species. Generations of Native land stewards continued this practice even when overrun by colonial settlers who passed laws criminalizing the work. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

Knowing How to Fight the Megafires of Climate Change is the daunting task facing firefighters today. Wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and the traditional ways to fight them are proving inadequate. The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 was a harbinger of what is now an annual series of catastrophes. Hotter, drier weather increases the scale, power, and frequency of wildfires, which spawn tornadoes and thunderstorms. Once unheard-of Arctic fires produce large volumes of greenhouse gases; every degree Celsius of temperature rise increases lightning activity by 12 percent. Yale Environment 360

Recycling Helps Rid Us of Forever Plastics? No, Say Some Experts. Much recycled plastic, from yogurt containers to bags and “clamshells,” heads not for a new life but landfills. One former executive told a PBS Frontline investigation that selling the idea of recycling meant they could sell plastic. While all used plastic can be repurposed, it’s expensive to pick it up, sort it, and melt it down. KQED

New Mexico Resists a New License for Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. A New Jersey company wants a 40-year license to build a multi-billion-dollar complex near Carlsbad. It would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could allow up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel from nuclear plants around the country. State officials told Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the firm’s analysis is incomplete, the site is geologically unsuitable and environmental justice issues are being ignored. Associated Press

A 37-Year-Old Public Trust Doctrine to Preserve Inland Lakes just got a new look from the Nevada Supreme Court. In the precedent-setting 1983 Mono Lake case, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust interest in the water, fish and wildlife of the lake meant diversion of the lake’s tributaries must be controlled. Nevada’s Supreme Court just took a different tack, saying the state could not reshuffle existing rights to the Walker River to protect the receding Walker Lake. Ninth Circuit federal appeals judges had send sent the case to the Nevada court; it’s now headed back to federal court. Las Vegas Sun Nevada Independent

Local Control Was the Hallmark of California’s Groundwater Law, but a new study shows the local plans tend to favor large agribusiness over small farmers. Only about 12 percent of 260 new groundwater sustainability agencies include representatives from tribal groups or small farms not already affiliated with local irrigation districts. Estuary

After Four Decades of Combat Over the Efforts to Drill for Oil Under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Appear Headed for Success. With the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous groups of the region at issue, a month ago, the Interior Department cleared the way for bidding on drilling rights. But the voices of the Iñupiat people — some of whom welcome the chance to earn revenue from lands that were once theirs — and the Gwich’in people, for whom the caribou of the region are both a nutrition and cultural linchpin — are seldom heard. A collaboration with of the The Threshold podcast, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal

Aquariums are Accustomed to Showing the Ocean’s Shallows, Not Its Depths. Now, around the world, they are figuring out how to display the mysterious and remarkable animals of the deep sea. Two years hence, California’s Monterey Bay aquarium hopes to create the first large-scale exhibition of deep sea life and the impact that warming and seabed mining may have on the unseen world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2020

Establishing a New Indigenous Wildfire Task Force is the goal of a California State Senate candidate, Jackie Fielder. As “fire season” becomes increasingly intense, the need for effective fire management practices increases, and Indigenous groups’ knowledge becomes a beacon for forest managers.. Fielder’s plan is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, which shows how controlled burns help prevent destructive wildfires. SF Weekly

Recent Fires Destroyed Much of Washington State’s Crucial Sage Grouse Habitat An expert on the birds said that the state’s population of less than 1,000 grouse may have been cut in half as fires burned more than 600,000 acres of forest and sagebrush rangeland this year. Overall, scientists have issued a report showing that grouse populations in nine states have declined 44 percent in five years. Mongabay

Los Angeles Is Working to Turn Recycled Plastic into Pavement and Parking Lots. Three years ago, when China announced it would take no more recycling waste, the federal Energy Department started looking for ways to dispose of the excess piling up in American dumps. The city is working on a project to create asphalt containing recycled plastic and has experimented with the asphalt mix on parking lots and small roads. It is now planning to use it on a major street near Walt Disney Concert Hall. E&E News

The Southwest Is Suffering a Major Bird Die-Off, as thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in recent weeks. The cause of this mass die-off remains unknown, but some theorize that raging western wildfires forced many birds to reroute their migrations, and that exceptionally dry conditions have greatly reduced the presence of insects, birds’ main source of food. Large avian mortality during migration is rare and few instances have been as large as this one. High Country News

Microsoft Has Launched the Second Phase of an Underwater Data Center Experiment , extending work done off the West Coast in 2015 to explore the feasibility of submarine computing. Their Natick Project intended to explore underwater data centers’ potential economic and environmental advantages relative to those on dry land. The findings: a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve overall reliability, given that oxygen and humidity corrode terrestrial centers as they do other modern infrastructure. The team also hopes that offshore data centers could support faster information retrieval over interconnected networks. CMSWire

A “Language Keepers” Podcast Illuminates the Struggle to Keep Indigenous Languages Alive in California. Two centuries ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today only half this number remain. This series explores the current state of four Indigenous languages that are among the most threatened in the world: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu. It features stories of families and communities across California working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures. Emergence Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: September 15, 2020

While the Jordan Cove Gas Export Terminal Has Received Federal Go-Aheads to Operate, lawsuits, other permitting delays and the unstable economics of natural gas make the export terminal’s future uncertain. Even if Pembina Pipeline Corp., developer of the planned terminal, prevails over state officials and environmentalists in court, the project faces a fragile liquid natural gas market — U.S. exports have decreased about 61% from January to July. ”It is increasingly difficult to permit and build these types of projects ... whether it's market demand or public outcry," said a Western Environmental Law Center lawyer. E&E News

For a Second Year, a Landmark Plastic Recycling Measure Fails to gain sufficient support in the California legislature. The bill would have made it a state goal to reduce waste from single-use products by 75 percent, and required that single-use products be recyclable or compostable. The final 37-18 vote at the last minutes of the session fell three votes short of the tally it needed. KQED

The Disappearance of Aleutian Island Otters Frays Alaskan Waters’ Food Web. Over the past 40 years, more than 90 percent of sea otters have vanished from the Aleutians’ delicate seascape. There, otters are more protector than predator, holding the entire ecosystem together by feasting on destructive sea urchins at a rate of up to 1,000 a day. Fewer otters, more urchins. Climate change makes things worse, as reported by a paper in the journal Science. Populations of sea urchins have boomed, carpeting the sea floor in spiny spheres that mow down entire forests of kelp. Now the living, red-algae reefs on which the swirling stands of kelp once stood are in peril. Softened by warming and acidifying waters, the coral-like structures have quickly succumbed to the urchins’ tiny teeth. The New York Times

Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Oct 27 2020 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Snow slows spread of wildfires in Colorado; Trump grants California wildfire relief aid; watchdogs push New Mexico to reject federal expansion at nuclear waste dump; Trump administration adds miles to National Trail System; and other environmental reads from around the West.
Oct 21 2020 | CivicPulse | Center News, Happenings, Topics of the West
Bill Lane Center partnership with CivicPulse yields new report on patterns of local protest against coronavirus restrictions across the United States
Oct 20 2020 | ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Indigenous fire practices in California; Dam operators and activists join forces; Montana coal prospects dim; Statehood for the Navajo Nation? and more recent environmental reads from around the West.