Skip to content Skip to navigation

Strawberry Fields Forever? Thirsty Baja Turning to Seawater to Grow Lucrative Crop

Felicity Barringer
Jul 13 2018

An arid region 180 miles south of Tijuana is the crossroads where strawberries, economics, and groundwater meet. Baja usually gets less than three inches of rain annually, and there is a multi-year drought. But strawberries grown for export have become so valuable, farmers keep trying to grow more, and are allowed to use more groundwater than nature replenishes.

Strawberries under cultivation – and under wraps – by the Pacific coast outsude of Emiliano Zapata, Baja California.

Strawberries under cultivation – and under wraps – by the Pacific coast of Baja California Alan Harper via Flickr

By Felicity Barringer

For Americans, what probably matters most in this story are the strawberries. For most Mexicans in the northern Baja peninsula, what matters is the robust economy strawberries bring. For some, what matters most is the steady loss of the fresh groundwater that makes strawberries possible here.

Average Annual Precipitation in Mexico

The San Quintín valley, an arid region 180 miles south of Tijuana, is the crossroads where strawberries, economics, and groundwater meet. The average rainfall in northern Baja is less than three inches annually; there is a multi-year drought. For a century, groundwater irrigated local crops. But strawberries grown for export have become so valuable, farmers keep trying to grow more, and are allowed to use more groundwater than nature replenishes.

Visitors can see this meeting place while riding along the two-lane highway through the valley towns. These sprawl at crazy angles in what academics call “anarchic growth.” Each year brings more ramshackle homes, where workers live. Also more cell towers, gas stations, condos, and places to eat. Seemingly endless strawberry fields surround town centers, which are continuously under construction. Old American school buses shuttle workers to and from the fields; trucks carry lumber and cement to construction sites, all amid clouds of dust.

Bus delivering workers to the fields; right, pickers in the strawberry fields

Bus delivering workers to the fields; right, pickers in the strawberry fields, April 2018. Felicity Barringer

That is the picture today. What will it be tomorrow? Will the engine of strawberries continue powering the economy? Or will it run out of gas — or, more accurately, fresh groundwater?

Sárah Eva Martínez, dean of academic affairs at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), a small college based in Tijuana whose researchers have done meticulous studies of agriculture, water, and energy in the valley’s 1,437 square miles, speculated that the strawberry fields may not last. The government-supported system of overdrafting groundwater is “not working, and they will get to a critical point when they see that they just can’t go on any longer,” she said.

Growing Strawberries in Baja Squeezes Out Groundwater – and Stresses Residents

Produce has long been cultivated in the Mediterranean climate of the northern Baja California peninsula. In recent years, though, the growth of lucrative and water-intensive crops like strawberries and tomatoes has badly depleted aquifers in areas like the San Quintín Valley.

A look at Baja’s agricultural heartland and the communities affected by the strawberry boom.

Overview map showing Baja California and strawberry-growing region around the San Quintin Valley.

Groundwater Under Stress in the San Quintín Area

* Groundwater withdrawals in acre-feet; ** Net water loss after rainwater recharge; *** Designation by CONAGUA, Mexican national water authority;

Sources: Hugo Riemann, Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF); CONAGUA, INEGI, ESRI Earth Imagery, Natural Earth Data
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
What happens in the next decade or two will decide whether the San Quintín valley towns begin to resemble Colorado ghost towns whose mines played out, or continue to expand as farmers use strawberry profits to pay the immense energy cost of treating seawater.

Is Treated Seawater an Answer to the Water Shortage?

There is another possibility: using water from the Pacific Ocean, after taking out the salt. What happens in the next decade or two will decide whether the San Quintín valley towns begin to resemble Colorado ghost towns whose mines played out, or continue to expand as farmers use strawberry profits to pay the immense energy cost of treating seawater.

In the health-conscious world of 2018 America, strawberries are the agricultural equivalent of gold. Americans in 2012 ate an average of 7.9 pounds of strawberries, up from 4.9 pounds in the year 2000. The vast majority grow in California and Florida, but about 14 percent come from Mexico. Of these, 49 percent come from the San Quintín valley. Meeting the demand for the berries has made Baja agriculture very lucrative.

In 1987, the first year of winter berry production, roughly 9,000 tons of berries were produced in the San Quintin valley in the winter, COLEF researchers calculate; in 2013, the local farms produced 120,600 tons. In 2013, winter berries had a minimum value of 1.88 billion pesos — about $145 million in 2013 dollars.

Chart showing growth of Mexican strawberry exports to the US since 1980.

Strawberries are the most lucrative crop. Still tomatoes, also grown for export, cover almost twice as many acres. The valley’s intensive agriculture depends on the four aquifers under towns like Camalú, Vicente Guerrero, and San Quintín. All four are overdrafted annually, according to CONAGUA, the national water agency. The hydraulics of aquifers near the coast ensure that over-pumping leads to saltwater intrusion, as the weight of fresh groundwater becomes unequal to the weight of the underground reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The saltier the water, the worse for strawberries, which are stunted and less tasty. As pumping exceeds the rate of natural recharge, the groundwater basins have gotten saltier and saltier.

“Intensification of horticultural production has also contributed to a dramatic decline in the region’s water quality… [and] caused sustained saltwater intrusion in the watersheds, which severely affected wells used for irrigation,” wrote Christian Zlolniski, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Arlington, in a 2011 edition of the journal “Cultural Anthropology.”

Two decades ago, farmers chose between cleaning the groundwater or reduced pumping and lower yields. They chose the former. J. Alberto Torres, an agent of the Ensenada municipal water agency, CESPE, said the first desalination plant appeared in 1994. CONAGUA, the Mexican water agency, reports there are now 83.

Their size varies. “Some can fit inside a truck container that runs from 50 to 150 gallons a minute,” said William Hedrick, the operations vice president of the large BerryMex farms. These are the small ones. Larger ones produce “up to a plant that can range as high as 2,000 gallons a minute.” CONAGUA reports that 12,427,074 cubic meters, or nearly 8,400 acre-feet, is used annually on 12,000 acres of crops.

Subsidies Underwrite Energy-Intensive Desalination Process

In 2015, the governor of Baja California, Francisco “Kiko” Vega de Lamadrid, second from left, attended a ceremony in San Quintín marking federal investments as part of a “development program for arid zones.”
In 2015, the governor of Baja California, Francisco “Kiko” Vega de Lamadrid, second from left, attended a ceremony in San Quintín marking federal investments as part of a “development program for arid zones.” Government of Baja California

Both pumping and desalination plants require government permits and, often, subsidies. A scholar with contacts in the berry-growing industry said they confirm that the government subsidizes electricity for desalination.

Hugo Riemann, a senior researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera, said that he has repeatedly sought data on these subsidies — which his research showed can reduce electrical costs by two-thirds — but he has not been successful.

The groundwater supply here was never abundant. Before winter strawberries came in 1987, the big cash crop was tomatoes. Before that, people lived by fishing and growing onions, potatoes, carrots, and chili peppers.

“We know pumping and water consumption in the area puts a big burden on the aquifers,” said Hedrick, the BerryMex executive. More than 74,000 acres of land in the San Quintín valley had been devoted to the older version of local agriculture in the 1980s, he said. Now, with less water — and lower quality water — available for the strawberry and tomato crops, the land under cultivation is less than 20,000 acres.

“Our future in the region going forward is totally dependent on seawater desalination.”

BerryMex, which supplies Driscoll’s, the Watsonville, California berry giant, plans a new future. “We’re in the middle of an ambitious project” to desalinate seawater, Hedrick said. “We are in the process of installing a plant — it’s 70 percent complete — on the Pacific coast of the town of San Quintín.” He added, “Our future in the region going forward is totally dependent on seawater desalination.” The company aims to use solar power for the plant. A BerryMex spokeswoman declined to give the plant’s cost, saying company finances are private.

The proliferation of subsidies of the San Quintín valley wells, desalination plants and the electricity they need, “is as crazy as it looks,” said Jay Famiglietti, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “But it seems to be the norm. We are seeing it all over the world: massive overdraft, lack of groundwater oversight, and the desire to find some mythical, unlimited future source of water.” To have Baja’s desalination plants subsidized, Famiglietti said, “is a good idea for the farmer. It’s a bad idea for the health of the aquifers.”

So BerryMex is turning to the sea. Leopoldo Mendoza Espinoza, a professor at the Oceanographic Research Institute at the University of Baja California in Ensenada, said the BerryMex plant represents “the first time that seawater is being desalinated for agricultural purposes” in Mexico. There have been recent efforts to do the same in Spain. Correction

His reaction to the existing desalination of the groundwater is mixed. “I don’t like natural systems being depleted for any purpose...” But, “it is really hard to argue against the number of jobs produced, and the wages they pay.” An alternative, reusing wastewater, wouldn’t work, he said. “I’m a very big advocate of wastewater reuse, like they do in Israel. But really there is no large urban area in San Quintín that would produce enough reclaimed water for irrigation.”

Increased Berry Production Brings More Workers – and a Growing Population Burden

For months in 2015, workers staged a strike over wages and living conditions. One irony highlighted during the unrest: in a place whose economy depends on water and migrants, there is clean water for crops, but not for all workers.

The area’s misfortune is a fragile groundwater supply. Its good fortune is its proximity to the United States. About 180 miles up the road is the border where strawberries turn to gold.

As the valley’s crop yields grow, so does the number of farm workers. Many are from Oaxaca, near the Guatemalan border. They were an itinerant labor force, but many now live permanently in towns like Camalú, Vicente Guerrero, and San Quintín. In 2010, the population of the town of San Quintín was 9,492, double the 1990 total of 4,374.

Workers are employed by big operations like BerryMex and Los Pinos, or by mid-sized farms. For months in 2015, workers staged a strike over wages and living conditions. One irony highlighted during the unrest: in a place whose economy depends on water and migrants, there is clean water for crops, but not for all workers.

More than 95 percent of the water in the valley goes for irrigation, the Mexican government reports. Academic researchers at COLEF put the national average at about 77 percent. The population of the entire valley jumped to 92,177 people in 2010, up from 38,151 in 1990, according to a 2014 paper done by Marie Laure Coubès, Laura Velasco and Zlolniski.

A truck making domestic water deliveries.
Trucks carrying fresh water, for a price, roam the highway. Felicity Barringer

In 2010 in the town of San Quintín, COLEF reported, using state data, 1,667 households – comprising 17.6 percent of the population — had no fresh water piped into their homes. Trucks carrying fresh water, for a price, roam the highway.

Three years ago, strikers demanded desalinated water for people. Now a consortium consisting of an American company, RWL Water Group, and two Mexican partners is building $32 million new desalination plant to serve residents.

The growing harvest, the increase in workers and the strike are the culmination of 24 years of desalination. The first plant was built in 1994, Torres said. With it began this cycle: Desalination plants clean brackish groundwater, which means more pumping. Which means saltier groundwater. The level of dissolved solids in seawater is 34,000 parts per million. Hedrick said that the levels in at least one of the San Quintín basins exceed 10,000 ppm. For strawberries, irrigation water should not exceed 450 ppm, more than 2,000 ppm is ruinous.

Salinity levels for different water types

Using some of the techniques adopted by Driscoll’s Berries near the central California coast, San Quentín Farmers work to conserve water. They use drip irrigation and some berries now grow in high cylindrical plastic greenhouses — Hedrick calls them “tunnels” — that cover fields with tightly bunched rows of off-white fabric. “Equipped with sophisticated irrigation, microclimate control, and fertilization systems, production in such shielded environments requires less water… and generates higher yields and better quality crops,” wrote Zlolniski.

Shielding the strawberries reduces water use.

Covering the strawberries reduces water use. Alan Harper via Flickr

There are two ways to see the transformation of the valley. Said Sárah Martínez, the COLEF dean, “If you ask people now living in San Quintín, they’d say it’s for the good. They don’t have fresh water but they have a lot of other things. If you go to the regional level, the state of Baja would say it’s good because it creates value.” Referring to politicians’ terms of office here, she added, “the government is here for six years. It doesn’t care what happens in 20 years’ time.”

“What they are buying is social stability. They are buying lower unemployment levels.” Part of the cost is creating harmful, concentrated brine which, if dumped in the ocean, contaminates marine ecosystems.

She cares. “The problems they are building for the middle term are much bigger than the short-term problems they are solving. But how do you make people have a long-term view?”

Seth M. Siegel, who wrote “Let There Be Water,” a 2015 overview of Israeli water systems, explained that governments subsidize desalination because “what they are buying is social stability. They are buying lower unemployment levels.” Part of the cost is heavy energy use and creating harmful, concentrated brine which, if dumped in the ocean, contaminates marine ecosystems.

Dumping brine is bad enough. But, Siegel said, compared to the energy drain of a seawater desalination plant, “The idea of allowing an aquifer to become saline is a far greater threat to the environment. Even with a big [ocean] desalination plant, the amount of energy needed … and fish problems is all modest, compared to the catastrophic effect of Baja aquifers being ruined.”

and the west logo

 

Corrections

An earlier edition of this story suggested that Mexico’s use of seawater desalination for agricultural purposes might be the first time anywhere. We have learned that similar efforts are underway in Spain. Go to sentence

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Under New Pollution Regulations, Milk Producers Seek Profit in Dairy Air

A new law calls for reducing methane emissions by 40 percent from its 2013 levels by 2030, but comes with government outreach, economic incentives, and grant programs to help remake a more sustainable dairy industry.

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, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

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

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Articles Worth Reading: August 3, 2020

In Reversal, Army Corps Determines Alaska’s Pebble Mine Poses No Serious Threat to the region’s valuable sockeye salmon population. The Corps’ ruling overturned a 2014 finding by the Obama Administration. The proposed mile-square mine, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, is poised to unearth one of the richest deposits of copper, gold and other valuable metals in the world. It pits two of the state’s most important industries, mining and fishing, against each other. Washington Post The New York Times

Land Subsidence Means Chunks of California’s Coast Are Vanishing, a new ASU study reveals. The sinking hotspots are found in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco where the population of millions will be at greater flood risk. “We have ushered in a new era of coastal mapping at greater than 1,000 fold higher detail and resolution than ever before,” said Manoochehr Shirzaei, a co-author of the study. “The unprecedented detail and sub-millimeter accuracy resolved in our vertical land motion dataset can transform the understanding of natural and anthropogenic changes….” Earth.com

Pairing Landowners and Land Management Agencies and Nonprofits has allowed Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge to develop a more resilient landscape and rural community. Its programs include prescribed burns, predator deterrence, and drought-sharing agreements. Bitterroot

California Farmworkers Are Paying High Price as COVID-19 Surges, worrying that as the pandemic surges in agricultural hubs, it could catch and kill them. Or it could kill their jobs. Protections for farmworkers, like masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing, need to be made mandatory, advocates said, and longstanding conditions that farmworkers have endured, such as crowded buses to and from work, or overcrowded housing, need to be addressed. InsideClimate News

Decline in Western Bumblebee Populations Gets More Dramatic, a federal review reveals. In the last two decades, the bee population has dropped by as much as 93% in the last two decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now deciding whether the insects need protection under the Endangered Species Act. The bees are important pollinators and many factors contribute to their decline: pesticides, habitat fragmentation, a warming climate, pathogens and agricultural chemicals. E&E News

The Fight for Clean Water in California’s Central Valley Is a Slog, as clean water is unavailable for hundreds of thousands of Californians in the state’s agricultural heartland. Tooleville, an unincorporated community of 80 homes at the southern end of the Central Valley, is trying to consolidate with a larger and better-resourced neighboring community.. “It’s very, very, very hard,” Yolanda Cuevas said of worries about her children and grandchildren’s exposure to contaminated water. Yale Environment 360

Murder Hornets: What do We Need to Worry About? The arrival of the Asian Giant Hornet in the western U.S. has researchers anxiously looking for ways to control the insect with the terrifying sting, which can pierce the protective clothing of even professional beekeepers. How many are there and where could they spread? A podcast on those questions by the WGA. Western Governors Association NPR

Santa Fe’s Indian Market Goes Virtual This Month, as more than 400 artists must find a new way to sell their work. On Saturday, Aug.1, the first Virtual Santa Fe Indian Market opened for business for the rest of the month. Lovers of Native art can shop for jewelry, dolls, textiles, pottery, clothing, baskets and much more at the SWAIA website, though August 31. Native News Online

Articles Worth Reading: July 21, 2020

Government Throws Curveball at Klamath Dam Removal Efforts. The long-range plan to take down four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, which flows between Oregon and California, seemed to be headed for conclusion. Then federal regulators refused to let the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, sever its connections to the project, which it now owns. But energy regulators ruled that while the company can transfer its license, it must remain a co-licensee, potentially leaving it with unexpected liabilities beyond those it has already assumed. The decision throws the idea of recovering Klamath salmon populations further in doubt. Associated Press

Dramatic Increase Coming in California Weather Extremes as climate warming intensifies the cyclical oscillation of air systems, a phenomenon that influences everything from cyclones in the Indian Ocean to drought in the southwest. This finding from a University of California, Davis researcher suggests that the West will experience greater month-to-month fluctuations in extremely dry and wet weather. UC Davis

A Rabbit Plague Is Hitting the Southwest, bringing a mortality rate of up to 70 percent to populations of jackrabbits, hares and related species, including the rare pika. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease causes fevers, bloody noses and lethargy in rabbits, hares and other similar species, who often die of internal bleeding or liver failure. It came from China and Europe and infected domestic rabbits two years ago, but is now spreading in the wild. “The virus is in a pretty vast area, and we don’t have any tools to use to mitigate the spread or stop it once it’s out in free-ranging populations,” said a U.S. Geological Survey expert. The Guardian

Effort to Block the California-Quebec Climate Deal Fails, as a federal court finds the pact on greenhouse-gas emissions doesn’t usurp federal foreign-policy prerogatives. The cap-and-trade program at the heart of California’s fight against climate change could have been weakened if the Trump administration challenge had been upheld. Bloomberg

In Utah, a Debate Simmers Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, which could be reprocessed at a mill next door to the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, the only operational uranium mill in the United States. State officials must approve an importation license. Tribal officials fear this waste transfer could become the first of many to the White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, in southeastern Utah. The tribe says the mill was designed for a different function and is 20 years past its original planned lifespan. Reuters

Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Won’t Lose Federal Protections, thanks to ruling in a Montana state court that has been upheld by federal appeals judges. A 2017 federal decision stripping the bears of threatened status under the endangered species act could have paved the way for state-planned hunts Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Birds, Like Buildings, Can Have Confederate Names. One is the McCown’s longspur, a sparrow-like bird that summers in the Great Plains and winters in the southwest. John Porter McCown, its namesake, helped forcibly relocate Native Americans in the 1840s and served as a Confederate general during the Civil War. “Naming and language have power. The way that you use language tells people whether they belong or not,” said Earyn McGee, a University of Arizona doctoral candidate and organizer an online campaign to increase visibility of Black birders. The American Ornithological Society had balked at a name change; it is now rethinking that decision. Undark

Why Is the West Running Out of Water? A crisp and succinct video history of the series of poor decisions that have left the region looking at a parched future. Some 40 million people now depend on the Colorado River, which will be increasingly unable to provide water to those that need it. Cheddar

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

Sep 29 2020 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Learning to combat new megafires; New Mexico objects to a new federal license for nuclear fuel storage; small farmers are shortchanged by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act; The Monterey Bay Aquarium works to bring deep-sea creatures up for display; and other environmental news from around the West.
Sep 29 2020 | Center News, Happenings
The Bill Lane Center for the American West is pleased to welcome two Thomas D. Dee II Graduate Fellows to the Center for the 2020-21 academic year.
Sep 25 2020 | Stanford News Service | Center News, Happenings, Research Notes
New survey findings suggest that wildfires tearing through the state may bring Democrats and Republicans closer together in support of climate resilience measures.