Skip to content Skip to navigation

Changing Currents: Picturing a Northwest Without Cheap, Public Hydropower

Jan 29 2018

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if, instead of public utilities, that power had been sold by private firms seeking profits?

The Dam that Started it All: Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest.

The Dam that Started it All Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of federal impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest. Bonneville Power Administration via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

After the creation of states of the Pacific Northwest following a series of treaties with Native tribes in the mid-19th century, the area’s most dramatic transformation came with the arrival, in the late 1930's, of large-scale, low-cost hydropower developed by the government from the muscular Columbia River system.

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if private firms seeking profits had developed the power? This blog again looks at how the West might be different if a major event had — or had not — occurred.

‘Electricity and Power Made So Cheap That They Will Become A Standard Article Of Use’

By the time of the Great Depression, “There had been a debate going on for decades between public and private power,” said John Findlay, an historian at the University of Washington. In the early 20th century, success in the turbulent power markets had brought enormous wealth to men like Chicago’s Samuel Insull, whose face inspired the cartoon plutocrat of the Monopoly board game.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937.   National Archives

The collapse of Insull’s empire of electric holding companies “contributed a great deal to the fall of the stock market” in 1929, said Libby Burke, an historian at the Bonneville Power Administration. Other scholars disagree about the utility bubble’s role, but public dislike of private electric companies was pervasive as the Great Depression took hold. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt, speaking at the site of the Grand Coulee dam on the upper Columbia River, said, “We are going to see electricity and power made so cheap that they will become a standard article of use…”

Roosevelt’s Bonneville Project Act of 1937 called for a federally-constructed hydropower grid and federally-controlled distribution of the power. In the decade thereafter, the populations of Washington and Oregon grew by more than 37 percent, almost double the rate of the U.S. population. The hydropower and World War II sparked an economic revolution.

What if a call for private power had prevailed? Counterfactual arguments are endlessly debatable. This one explores a question that keeps coming back. In 1984, the Grace Commission, appointed by President Reagan, recommended privatizing all federal systems for generating and transmitting power. Last spring, President Trump’s first budget proposed privatizing Bonneville’s transmission assets.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman, who lionized dams “for the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.” “Once Franklin Roosevelt comes to power,” said Professor Findlay “they want to introduce the idea of a planned economy, a coordinated economy. Public power got a huge boost from that.” Carol Opatrny, a longtime consultant to lawyers and companies dealing with the Bonneville Power Administration, said simply, “Higher prices would have slowed things down.”

The biggest evidence for their argument: the arrival of the power-hungry aluminum industry in the late 1930s. Production of aluminum ingots requires large, steady and continuous amounts of electricity. It requires roughly 10 times the power needed to make steel, glass, or paper.

Graphic: BPA Wholesale power rate– Over Decades, an Increasing Bargain
Decades without a wholesale rate increase made BPA power an ever-greater bargain, until investments in new power plants drove prices up. Source: Northwest Power and Conservation Council
 

In the East, the first big company, Alcoa, usually located factories near hydropower sites, sometimes generating its own hydropower. It didn't come to the Northwest by accident. The Bonneville Power Administration was charged with managing and marketing the hydropower from the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. With local towns, businesses and politicians, BPA aggressively courted the industry. Their big draw: cheap power. In 1940, private companies serving towns with aluminum smelters, like New Kensington, Pa., charged industries up at least double the Bonneville rates per kilowatt-hour, based on the Federal Power Commission’s archival data.

BPA’s additional mandate, to electrify rural areas, set it apart from private companies, whose profit motive discouraged the practice. As Ms. Burke said, they “weren't going to spend the money to send electricity to those places” in areas with few customers.

The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart

Founded by congress in 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration is one of four regional energy marketing agencies under the U.S. Department of Energy. It was created to sell energy generated by new dams on the Columbia River, like the Bonneville Dam outside of Portland (1937) and the Grand Coulee Dam (1942).

Graphic: The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart– map of Bonneville Power Administration’s service area

Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt
Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt

Aside from price, the attraction for industry was “an abundance of power was available 24/7,” said Ms. Burke. Ms. Opatrny noted that other power-hungry industries, like primary metals, pulp and paper, steel, and chemicals, also arrived. “They came as the [power] load enabled further development. It was the availability and relatively low cost that brought them in droves,” she said.

The arrival of aluminum production came as World War II broke out. The strong, lightweight metal was crucial to building America’s arsenal. Boeing built bombers with it; Kaiser shipyards along the Pacific coast used it for warships. BPA devoted large electrical resources to the “mystery load,” — power from two of the eight generators at Grand Coulee was set aside to create the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Now 31 dams provide hydropower for the Federal Columbia River Power System. The BPA sells it to 142 of the region’s consumer-owned electrical utilities — public power districts — and six of the area’s eight investor-owned utilities. In 2018, the BPA is the source of about one-third of the region’s electricity, and BPA power reaches California and the Southwest.

Aluminum has long ceased to be the industrial king of the Columbia River. Six decades after 10 aluminum smelters were built, the power-hungry offshoots of a very different industry have followed their footsteps. Almost all of the smelters around the river have been shuttered. About 3 gigawatts of electricity could have remained idle.

After Aluminum’s Decline, A Search for New Customers

Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, technology firms, which need copious and reliable power to run and cool huge data centers, moved in. Would they have come without cheap public power? Unclear.

There were at least two other lures. First, tax breaks. Just as locals did in the 1930s, the towns and counties around the Columbia River competed to attract firms, offering huge tax breaks. Second, the region’s technologically savvy workforce. And some technology executives have expressed a preference for “green” power.

Data centers — the muscles and memory of the Internet — are essential to the reach and profitability of companies like Amazon and Microsoft.They are now in Washington towns like Wenatchee — a former smelter town — and Quincy and Oregon towns like Boardman and Prineville.

Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up
Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up


Sources: The Seattle Times, The Oregonian   Geoff McGhee
 

Aluminum and the internet. “Both industries are power-electricity intensive,” said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “The main difference… is that power was a much larger cost of the aluminum industry than of the data centers. Profit margins weren't that high for aluminum.

“…Both needed cheap, reliable power, but the revenue picture was not the same. You're dealing with selling aluminum versus selling advertising. … The margins and the industries are quite different — and they're at different stages of their life cycle,” Mr. Jourabchi said.

How Would Salmon Fare Under a Privatized BPA?

The notion that Columbia River hydropower is environmentally sound gets strong pushback from Native Americans and environmentalists, who point to the decimation of salmon species. Their age-old journeys downriver to the ocean as juveniles and upriver to spawn as adults are impeded by dams. Manipulations of the river system have added further insults.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists 13 Columbia or Snake River stocks of salmonids as threatened or endangered. The BPA spends $250 million to $300 million a year on recovery methods like habitat restoration, fish hatcheries, and fish ladders. The total exceeds $621 million annually when one includes things like debt service and loss of revenue when river water is deployed to help salmon, not to generate electricity.

Since managing the dams and selling cheap hydropower is a federal job, does that mean salmon recovery efforts have more funding with federal control of power than if private firms were in charge? Northwestern tribal leaders think so. Fishing experts working with Native American groups say that private utilities are responsible to a tough boss that BPA doesn't have: shareholders. And private firms have no legal responsibility to honor the 19th century treaties guaranteeing fishing rights. Tribes have opposed privatization of the BPA.

An Island of Green: Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.
An Island of Green Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.   JBrew via Flickr

Lowering the Cost of Agriculture... and Enabling Irrigation

Agriculture is another industry whose needs Bonneville has served over the decades. As David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil engineering at Stanford University, explained, “The cost of delivering irrigation water is partially subsidized by the sale of electricity. So even though the power [from Bonneville] is cheap, some of that goes to subsidize the delivery of irrigation water. If the power were private, that would not have happened at all.”

And, he said, “farming uses a good bit of energy. There are a lot of groundwater wells, for example. The lower price of electricity does facilitate agriculture.” He added, “If power were private, the lack of irrigation would have precluded agriculture.”

From ‘Economic Backwater’ to Vital and Balanced Economy

No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

Reviewing the full regional picture, Mr. Jourabchi said, “The whole economy of the Northwest is resource based. Having access to reliable electricity at below-national-average prices has helped bring that kind of industry into the region. If we didn't have cheap power what would industries have done? It's the cart and the horse. … You might have had more efficient kind of productivity if you had a more expensive cost.”

But cheap public power, he said, “has certainly made a contribution to the development of the Northwest.” Not a small one. No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

“The Pacific Northwest began as an economic backwater, more like a colony that would send raw materials to the nation's industrialized centers and purchase … finished products,” explained Jeff Hammarlund, a recently retired professor at Portland State University, specializing in Northwest energy policy. “As a result of our low-cost, reliable, and virtually carbon-free power system, our region has blossomed into a more vital and balanced economy based largely on energy-intensive industries. We've become an important center for innovation that contributes benefits extending far beyond the Columbia River basin.”

and the west logo

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

The Short Life of The BLM’s Master Leasing Plans

The plans were intended to manage resource conflicts on public lands that border national parks and monuments, contain popular hunting and fishing grounds, or shelter cultural artifacts. The Trump administration has moved quickly to set the program aside.

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

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 and Rebecca Nelson

Articles Worth Reading: Oct. 9, 2018

Wildfires Don’t Hurt Real Estate Markets. Researchers from University of Las Vegas determined that real estate markets in Colorado rebound within a year or two of a wildfire, encouraging development in high risk areas. People continue to move to fire-prone areas due to their scenic appeal and proximity to cities. High Country News

Water Disputes in Colorado. A cop investigates conflicts over stolen water in the Four Corners region. His work involves enforcing complex water statures and confronting local tensions over water rights that sometimes turn violent. KUNC Radio

The Potential of Stormwater Capture. In California, communities are expanding their stormwater management programs to include aquifer recharge and irrigation in addition to controlling floods. Captured stormwater could provide Californians with a water supply that is resilient to climate change. Pacific Institute

An Air Quality Monitoring Program Failed to Alert Residents of Seeley, California to the danger of particulate pollution near a local elementary school. The nonprofit responsible for the monitoring, Comite Civico de Valle, seeks to expand its program to other areas despite controversy over its practices. Desert Sun

Bee Thieves Exploit California’s Almond Harvest. Bees play a crucial role in the pollination of almonds in the Central Valley, but colony collapse disorder threatens apiculture. Recent increases in stolen beehives have exacerbated the industry’s challenges. Reveal/CIR

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 25, 2018

In California’s Central Valley, Air Pollution Levels Are Very Local. Residents, like the mother of a young asthmatic profiled here, need to know exactly what they are. “Regulatory agencies think regionally,” said the head of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, a Fresno-based nonprofit. This group and others, helped by new state laws, try to increase the air monitoring in a region with some of the country’s most polluted air. Kaiser Health News

Gender Diversity and California Firefighting. Starting on August 1st, the Donnell Fire burned 36,000 acres in Stanislaus National Forest, and firefighters now have it at least 90% contained. A photographer shares the stories of firefighters tackling California’s Donnell Fire and challenging traditional gender roles in their careers. High Country News

With Climate Change, Algal Blooms Contaminate Oregon Drinking Water. Last May, Oregon declared a civil emergency when toxic algae contaminated Salem’s drinking water, posing health risks to children and nursing mothers. Recently, Oregon became the second state to require testing of potable water for algal toxins. The new regulations are part of the Oregon’s plan to address how climate change is affecting its water quality. KSUT

National Parks Are Warming Twice As Fast as the rest of the country, according to a new study. It focused on 417 protected areas and found they were 1.8 degrees warmer in 2010 than they had been in 1885, double the national average rate, and precipitation was down 12 percent in the same period, compared to three percent nationally. Yale Environment 360

Los Angeles Proposes Giant Hydropower Battery for Hoover Dam, but the project faces many legal and political roadblocks due to Colorado River’s shrinking water supply, which has been a source of conflict between California, Arizona, and Nevada. Los Angeles aims to create a three billion dollar hydropower storage system, consisting of twenty miles of pipeline that connect to Hoover Dam. Water Deeply

Wyoming Turns to Wind Power. Although Wyoming is America’s top coal producer, the state is now garnering increased support for wind power, as the coal industry declines. Proponents of Wyoming’s developing wind power industry emphasize its economic importance, while skeptics raise environmental and aesthetic concerns about how wind turbines will impact the landscape. Natural Resources Defense Council

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 11, 2018

In 27 Years, California Plans to Eliminate Carbon From Its Electrical Grid. That’s the central aim of legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown. A year after a similar bill failed, the new measure underlines California’s desire to be the nation’s leader on working to slow climate change — the shifting weather that has turbocharged the state’s wildfires and caused increasing destruction from Redding to Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, wind developers are eyeing the California coast as a place to create new renewable energy for a changing grid. InsideClimate News Utility Dive

A Floating Boom a Third of a Mile Long is the Newest Garbage Collector in the Pacific Ocean. Its mission: start cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre of sailing detritus has an estimated 1.8 trillion objects rotating slowly between California and Hawaii, and California. The nonprofit Ocean Cleanup is investing $20 million in the project. But can it really remove the 87,000 tons of plastic? New York Times/Associated Press

The Killer of Swaths of Bigleaf Maples in Washington State Is Unknown, but its impact is being felt from Washington State south to California. These trees, whose leaves can stretch a foot across, can grow 100 feet tall. Their impressive silhouettes mean that the landscape changes dramatically as they die. The U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington, and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources have been studying the maples, but no diseases or insects have been found in significant numbers. So no known culprit. Seattle Times/Tacoma News Tribune

Bighorn Sheep and Moose Tell Their Friends Where to Go for the best food, a new study shows. The notion that migration behaviors, following the green wave of food around the West, was a learned behavior and not a product of genetic inheritance, had been around for a while. The thought was “they just have to learn how to do this,” said Matthew Kauffman, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming. So he set up a study involving bighorn sheep that were transplanted into an area unfamiliar to them, but where established herds existed. Without genetic coding for this particular migration, they did it anyway. National Geographic

Some Called Him ‘The Renaissance Man of the West;’ His Maps Combined Geography, History and Whimsy into one package. Jo Mora, an immigrant from Uruguay, did some sculpture and coin design before finding maps to be his metier. One observer said “They’re almost like books,” to be perused in bits and pieces at several sittings. The maps he left are cartographic cartoons, telling not just the shape of the state, but the stories of its places. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 1, 2018

Hunters Have Waited More Than 40 Years To Shoot Grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park. The wait was almost over, when a federal district judge delayed the hunt for two weeks to study whether the federal Fish and Wildlife Service erred in lifting protections from the bears. Judge Dana Christiansen wrote, “harm to…members [of endangered species] is irreparable because once a member of an endangered species has been injured, the task of preserving that species becomes all the more difficult.” Casper Star-Tribune Montana Free Press

Canada’s Transmoutain Pipeline, Whose Growth Was A Key Aim of the Canadian Government, Just Lost its bid for expansion in court. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal overturned approval of the pipeline because the government failed to adequately consider native nations’ concerns and didn’t take environmental impacts into account. Opposition groups had argued that the risks of oil spills in the Salish Sea — home to an already-endangered killer whales — and the potential hazards of increased petroleum tanker traffic are too high a price to pay for an economic boom. The expansion could have tripled the 750-mile pipeline’s capacity bringing up to 890.000 barrels a day from tar sands in Edmonton to the coast of British Columbia. Oregon Public Broadcasting Grist Reuters

Facebook and the Navajo Nation Commit to Renewables, but on very different scales. The year-old Solar Project – built mostly by Navajo workers – is the largest tribally-owned renewable power plant in the country and has been operating a year. Generating 27.3 megawatts, it provides enough power for 18,000 Navajo nation homes – the same number that had been without electricity a decade ago. Facebook, the social media giant in Menlo Park, California, is also expanding its uses for renewable power, but on a far vaster level. It has committed to powering its global operations with completely renewable energy by the end of 2020, in party by positioning data centers near electrical grids that can accommodate more renewables. In the last year Facebook has signed contracts for more than 2.5 gigawatts of renewables, Cronkite News/Elemental Utility Dive

Lake Mead Has Been Using Lake Powell to Keep Its Levels Up and postpone the moment when drought contingency plans are triggered because its level has dipped below 1,075 feet. But scientists now report that this draining of Lake Powell can’t go on forever: it is now 48 percent full, while Lake Mead is 38 percent full. “We’re draining Lake Powell to prop it up,” said one scientist. Arizona Republic

Is The Current Drought Just the Beginning? David Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico, says “It is possible that the next big megadrought is upon us, and we’re right in the middle of it.” The snowpack that supplies the upper half of the Rio Grade has decreased 25 percent in the past 40 years. The Elephant Butte reservoir, the largest in the upper Rio Grande, is just six percent full, down from 24 percent last winter. Some 500 years ago, tree rings tell us, a megadrought hit the Southwest just as the Spanish arrived; the population was decimated. And a study shows that climate change increase the chances of a megadrought to 70 percent or more. Quartz

Articles Worth Reading: August 21, 2018

Colorado River Cutbacks Possible by 2020, the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts.The result could be water shortages in the Lower Basin states of Arizona, New Mexico. If Lake Mead’s elevator drops below 1,075 feet, as is likely in 2019, decade-old agreements mean downstream users will lose water the next year. Arizona farmers would be hit hardest. KUNC Radio Circle of Blue John Fleck

Arizona Farmers Who Depend on Irrigation Will Fight Cutbacks before they let one third of Pinal County’s agricultural fields go fallow. “That’s a pill we’re not going to swallow,” said one, a board member of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, one of the county’s largest. “It would be a huge economic hardship.” Water Deeply

Phoenix Has Learned That Heat Can Kill, and More Is Killing More People. As summer temperatures have reached well above 100 degrees for days on end, Phoenix lost 155 people to heat-related deaths in 2017. To gird itself against the “silent storm” of heat deaths in the future, it aims to prepare for heat emergencies the way other cities prepare for hurricanes. Phoenix is in competition for a $500 million grant to make its ideas a reality. KJZZ/NPR

When It Comes to Sage Grouse Protections, Wyoming Wants to Keep Its Level of Protection. Even as the Interior Department seeks cutbacks in requirements for mitigating the destruction of sage grouse habitat, the state that houses one-third of these birds is pushing back. The federal government apparently will not disturb Wyoming’s rules even as it cuts back on similar safeguards of its own. In a recent letter to the Bureau of Land Management, Gov. Matt Mead said the federal agency should “defer to the state’s assessment of how to apply avoidance, minimization and, if necessary, compensatory mitigation to address impacts to this State-managed species.” Wyofile

The Ocean Off the San Diego Coast Just Broke All-Time Temperature Records. “Just like we have heatwaves on land, we also have heatwaves in the ocean,” said Art Miller of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At risk are kelp forests and coral reefs, and the marine “heatwaves” last longer than those in the atmosphere. A new study predicts they will become more common. The Guardian

The Last Salmon Cannery in British Columbia Is a Sign of the Future, as Native Nations are taking over the business of processing the fish that have sustained them for centuries. In 2015, the owner of St. Jean’s cannery, Gerard St. Jean, sold a controlling interest in his family’s business to NCN Cannery LP, a partnership between five of the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations that call the western side of Vancouver Island home. Hakai Magazine

Midsummer Heat and Fire: August 6, 2018

How Hot is it Around the West This Year? Hotter and hotter. A landmark: Death Valley just had the highest temperature on Earth. Again. The Washington Post

How Have Wildfires Changed? The fire tornado is the newest phenomenon that is defining wildfires during this, one of the most destructive and unusually hot summers in human history. “From an on-the-ground, human perspective, July looked and felt like hell.” Six of California’s 10 most destructive fires have occurred in the past 10 months. The Carr fire near Redding, California (animation), has burned more than 1,500 homes. Grist

How are the Fires Hurting the Air We Breathe? Air quality in parts of the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana as well as parts of California, Oregon and Washington has got significantly worse, even as the rest of the country has experienced a sharp improvement in air quality, “There’s a big red bullseye over that northern Rockies area where they are getting the big wildfires,” said a co-author of a University of Washington study. The link between the smoke and illness or death is sometimes complicated; smoke exacerbates a range of conditions. No death certificate cites “air pollution” as the cause of death. The smoke from the deadly Ferguson fire near Yosemite (animation) is making Fresno’s air extremely unhealthy. The Guardian/Climate Desk Fresno Bee

How Are We Going to Pay for Fighting Fires? Congress just changed the way in which the federal government will pay for large fires, but it may not make a dent in controlling the burgeoning costs of fighting big fires. Fire seasons are longer, and there is more to burn. Climate change, the fire deficit on many western lands and development in the wildland-urban interface ensure that the potential for major fires is baked into the system for decades to come. Scientific American/The Conversation

How Can We Preserve Some of the Forests We Inherited? Without major ecological investments, Arizona risks losing its ponderosa forests in a generation. It's likely too late to save it all, so federal foresters and their allies are racing against the next megafires to choose the places that matter most. Some areas are crucial to the survival of rare birds or the small mammals whose paws scatter the seeds of new forests. Some areas, after fires, could filter ash and debris from water headed for city systems, reducing treatment costs, and preventing post-fire floods. But all this means major investment in thinning trees.“We’re really managing for the future, so we have a forest,” said a silviculturalist for the federal Forest Service. Arizona Republic

What Does it Mean to Live Amid the Heat and Fire? “One truism about the future is that climate change will spare no place. Still, I suspect the threat of warming feels more existential in New Mexico than it does in Minnesota…. The fire risk was so high by June 1 that the U.S. Forest Service closed all 1.6 million acres of the forest to the public. The forecasts for our water supplies are equally grim.…. Staying put may not mean that Colin and I lose what we’ve put into our home, and it may not mean running out of water. But it may mean bearing witness to the slow death of the Rio Grande. It may mean biting our nails every June, hoping this won’t be the year that a mushroom cloud of smoke rises from the Santa Fe Mountains, which are primed for a destructive fire.” High Country News

July 24, 2018

Factory Nut Farms Drain an Aquifer in Arizona; Homes Go Dry. There are 356,000 acres of nut orchards in the Sulphur Spring Valley. And to ensure a constant water supply, farmers can drill a well 1,000 feet deep every 160 acres. As yearly water consumption doubled, the soil in the aquifer collapsed, and the elevation sank 15 feet in places. Now a water-truck delivery services must ensure water for homeowners. Many have abandoned their homes. The New York Times

Endangering the Endangered Species Act? Or Making Sensible Changes? The moves to change the 45-year-old law credited with saving the bald eagle began in Congress, where legislation to change the law has percolated for years. That accelerated this year, and now the Trump Administration proposes major changes. The Washington Post ASU Cronkite News

Feds Returning Mining to a Place That Had Left It Behind. Once a coal town in Colorado’s Western slope, Paonia has transformed itself over the past few decades. It’s now known for wineries, boutiques, galleries and organic farms that draw tourists from nearby ski resorts. But Paonia’s shift away from its fossil fuel roots could be reversed under the Trump administration’s new push to maximize oil and gas leasing on federal land. Reveal/E&E News

Climate Change Leaving Wild Horses Dying of Thirst on the Navajo reservation. Last month, more than 100 were found dead, stuck in thick mud near a dried-up stock pond. Now a dozen volunteers are taking care of 200 other horses of the more than 30,000 horses counted on the reservation in 2016. But because of horses’ competition with cattle for sparse forage, the tribal government hopes to partner with outside groups to get some horses adopted. KJZZ via Elemental

As Wildfires Spread, Scientists Try to Understand Health Impacts. With fires spreading and air quality alerts being called around the West, scientific efforts to correlate the particulates from the widespread smoke have redoubled. Two Colorado universities and the University of Washington are part of an unprecedented effort, costing more than $30 million, to map the fire-sparked air pollution, using aircraft, satellites and vans full of high-tech equipment. Boulder Daily Camera Science Magazine

June 1, 2018

Mussels Off Coast of Seattle Test Positive for Opioids, according to scientists at the Puget Sound Institute at the University of Washington Tacoma. The mussels were contaminated, they said, by oxycodone present in sewage that was treated at wastewater plants and pumped into the sound. Mussels are bottom feeders and filterers that often test positive for other drugs, but this is the first time they’re known to have been polluted with opioids. Huffington Post

Court Rules Montana Broke Law in Allowing Gold Drilling North of Yellowstone. The district court found that environmental regulators ignored environmental concerns and illegally approved Lucky Minerals Inc.’s plans to drill for gold in Emigrant Gulch, a narrow canyon near Chico Hot Springs. Opponents believe the drilling may lead to an industrial-scale mine that could harm the environment, water quality and the region’s tourism-based economy. The court directs the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to complete a more extensive environmental review Bozeman Daily Chronicle

California Governor Sets Permanent Water Restrictions . Although California declared an end to one of its longest-lasting droughts this past year, Governor Jerry Brown signed two new laws that would require cities, urban water districts, and large agricultural water districts to set strict annual water budgets – or risk fines. Three factors should go into the new standards: an allowance of 55 gallons per person per day for indoor water use; a set amount for residential outdoor use that will vary depending on regional climates; and a standard for water loss from leaky pipes. The Mercury News

Interior Department Plans to Auction 4,000 Acres of Northern Arizona Public Land for Oil Exploration. The decision follows the Trump administration's rollback of environmental protections for oil and gas leases on public lands. Local environmental organizations are prepared to challenge the plans in court, claiming that drilling and fracking the land, which straddles the Little Colorado River, could deplete and pollute groundwater. White Mountain Independent

Conservation and Human Rights Groups Link Up to Protest Border Wall. Organizations opposed to the proposed wall plan to gather on June 2 at the site of new border wall construction near the Santa Teresa Port of Entry, west of El Paso, Texas. The groups cite concerns from militarization of border communities, to the threat to wildlife, endangered species, and public land. KRWG Las Cruces

May 21, 2018

Congress Could Prevent Closure of Navajo Coal Plant and Mine. The bill, drafted by Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who serves on the Committee on Natural Resources, would address several problems facing the plant that is now up for sale. The legislation exempts the new owner of the plant from the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act. Opponents, like Navajo representative Nicole Horseherder, say that it “should be called a tribal exploitation act,” because it would remove environmental safeguards for the Navajo people. Arizona Star

To Clean Up the Willamette River, Oregon Hopes to Remove Homeless Camps. The Department of State Lands proposed a measure that would ban people from camping alongside a stretch of public-owned beach along the river. The river is undergoing cleanup after years of industrial pollution, including several oil spills. However, these beaches have become increasingly popular for homeless people, whose tents and fires are blamed for destroying nearby vegetation. Oregonian

Six States Are Suing Washington State for Blocking Coal Port Expansion. Attorneys general from Montana, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and South Dakota filed a joint amicus brief against the Washington Department of Ecology. That office had denied the environmental permits necessary for the expansion of the Millennium Bulk Terminal based in Longview, saying it would cause “significant and unavoidable harm” to the environment. Attorney General Fox of Montana, the latest to join the lawsuit, says politicians are “hold[ing] coal states hostage.” Missoula Current

Local Resistance to Native Tribes’ Push to Change Two Names on Map of Yellowstone National Park A geologist and a soldier, one of whom is said to have advocated for the “extermination” of native people and the other of whom has been a war crimes in an Indian massacre, both are memorialized in the park, by Hayden Valley and Mount Diane. Tribal groups petitioned the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for a change; local county commissioners are pushing back. WyoFile

New Focus on Small Farmworker Communities’ Bad Drinking Water. California's Central Valley is home to 19 percent of food production in the world, but about 100,000 of its residents have lived without clean drinking water for decades, and a million may do so today. Two audio reports look at the reasons, the cost of solving the problem permanently by filtering toxins out of tap water, and the reli-ance to date on indifferent stop-gap solutions. KCET Podship Earth

Why Are Environmental Groups so White, and What Can Be Done About It? A 2014 report found that ethnic minorities do not exceed 16% of board members and or staff of environmental organizations. A similar 2018 report found that of 2,057 organizations that volunteer their data, 80 percent of board members and 85 percent of staff are white. While some institutions are trying to increase diversity, the statistics are slow to change. Environmentalists of color like Eddie Love and Queta González say organizations must commit to systemic change and changing their own internal cultures. Ensia

May 8, 2018

Study Finds Mega-Storms Will Become Increasingly Common for California. Extreme weather swings will occur more frequently as global warming raises sea levels and puts more water vapor in the air, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. It suggests that the drought-to-flood weather patterns the state has experienced in recent years indicates a growing risk for more turbulent weather ahead. San Jose Mercury News

Hawaii May Ban Sunscreens Containing Chemicals That Hurt Marine Environment. After years of advocacy by local groups, Hawaiian lawmakers have passed a measure to ban the sale of sunscreens with the chemicals oxybenzone and octynoxate. The risk of these chemicals has often been overlooked, but they have been shown to wash off in the ocean and threaten local marine life and ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. Should Gov. David Ige sign the bill, Hawaii would become the first state banning such products to protect marine ecosystems. Washington Post

Oregon Health Department Says Air Near The Dalles Is Safe, Despite the Odor. For several years, residents living near the Amerities railroad tie plant in The Dalles have voiced concern over the stench apparently a result of the plant’s chemical activities. The plant uses a creosote mixture to treat the wooden ties, which emits several substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that, in high levels, are known to cause cancer and other health problems. While the air does not pose these risks, according to the report, it may still cause reactions in some people. KGW TV

NIMBYism and the Environment: Opponents of Housing Development for Homeless Cite Environmental Law to Shut Down Project. The Los Angeles development’s would-be neighbors, the Rosadas, have filed a lawsuit claiming that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved an environmental report prepared for the city by consultants. The land to be developed apparently sits over an abandoned oil well, causing concerns over remaining contaminants in the soil. While experts conducted extensive studies on the land before the housing plan, the Rosadas insist the dangers to the environment still exist. Los Angeles Times

An Unusual Alliance: Washington Farm Groups Joins Cattle Association and EPA in an Environmental Suit. The Washington Farm Bureau succeeded in overcoming, for the moment, a state court decision that blocked them from intervening in an environmental organization’s lawsuit. The suit, by Northwest Environmental Advocates, alleges federal and state regulators aren’t protecting waterways from agriculture and required buffers to keep out runoff are inadequate. The Bureau has been concerned that an eventual decision might hurt agricultural interests, and wanted a seat at the table. Capital Press

April 20, 2018

Las Vegas by the Sea? Desert City Thinks About Desalination. With a new report predicting the Nevada city will outgrow its water supply within 20 years, Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority said recently, "Certainly desalination might be part of Southern Nevada's water portfolio at some point in the future. He added, "it could be something that happens within the next 20 or 30 years." Water Deeply

Once Again, Water Is For Fighting Over: the Central Arizona Project Is Accused of Unfairly Manipulating its claims on the Colorado River. Four states from the Upper Basin have joined Denver's water utility to accuse the Arizona agency of seeking to avoid the kind of cutbacks that could be imposed on other river users, In the throes of an 18-year drought, with Lake Mead's levels projected to decline further, the states risk losing their decade-old spirit of cooperation. John Fleck/Inkstain Denver Post

Protecting Hawaii's Reefs Means Cutting Tropical Fish Collection. That's the impact of a ruling by federal judges in the 1st Circuit Court. The court voided all 131 outstanding aquarium permits issued by the state of Hawaii, blocking the harvest of a quarter-million fish annually. This ruling blocking recreational harvesting of tropical fish comes on the heels of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling last fall, which held that all commercial aquarium collection permits in the state had been issued illegally. Hawaii's conservation groups.have been fighting to protect the reefs and marine wildlife. Wisconsin Gazette

If Mojave Desert Groundwater Is Sent to Cities, Can Bonanza Spring Survive? Yes, say studies by Cadiz Inc., the company selling the groundwater. No, says a new study, which links the spring — the biggest in the southeastern Mojave — to the same deep pool of groundwater from which Cadiz plans to pump 16 million gallons annually. Andy Zdon, a hydrogeologist, determined that Bonanza Spring seems to have a "hydraulic connection" to the deep aquifer Cadiz will use. "The spring is going to be highly susceptible to drawdown from the pumping," he said. "It would likely dry up." Desert Sun

Wyoming Area Set Aside for Species in a Collaborative Process Now May Be Leased. County commissioners in the southwestern section of the state object to the fact local Bureau of Land Management officials have been stripped of their ability to postpone leasing decisions, while examining environmental effects. They fear that the new policy, removing decision-making to the bureau's Washington, offices threatens the 522,236 acres of the Greater Little Mountain Area — and the work of a years-long collaborative effort — to optimize the area's management. Proposed leases would allow drilling along a 150-mile mule deer migration route. WyoFile

To Thrive, the Conservation Movement Needs Buy-In by People of Color. But this video report on the fraught history of the National Park Service and non-white visitors shows that if people of color need to learn more about the value of parks, parks need to know more about people of color. Grist

Graphics & the West

 

Recent Center News

Oct 12 2018 | Out West student blog
A former western summer intern with the Center, Christina Morrisett, '15, is a watershed scientist with a passion for serving rural communities.
Oct 11 2018 | Out West student blog
“Here we were, a group of kids who had never been to Goblin Valley,” says SoCo 2018 student Aja Two Crows, “and we felt like we had some right to it.”
Oct 9 2018 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Posts Recommended by the ... & the West Blog
Wildfires aren’t hurting real estate markets; water disputes in Colorado; innovations in stormwater management; the failures of air quality monitoring in California; and other recent environmental news stories from around the West.