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Articles Worth Reading: March 26, 2019

... & the Best

New Mexico moves to leave carbon-fueled power behind, Colorado River arguments over drought planning end, the last possible savior of the Navajo Generating Station turns away, the San Joaquin Valley aquifer can’t hold as much water, and other recent news about the West and its environment.

 

By Felicity Barringer

New Mexico Governor Signs Law Mandating the State’s Energy Supply Be Carbon-Free by 2045; a bold move that puts the state in the forefront of the cities and states that have passed legislation to fight climate change. The law allows for state bonds to provide support for the state’s major utility to shut down the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in the Four Corners area and creates funds for support and retraining of workers at the plant. It also mandates new apprenticeships so New Mexico workers can enter the clean-energy workplaces of the future. Albuquerque Journal

The San Joaquin Valley Aquifer Lost Five Percent of Its Carrying Capacity in the first two decades of the 21st century, thanks to severe droughts and the resulting over-pumping, according to new research from Arizona State University. Groundwater in aquifers accumulates in “pore spaces” between rocks and grains of sand. The elasticity of these pores, which close when water is withdrawn, means they usually rebound when groundwater is recharged. But if too much is withdrawn and the pore spaces close too far, their elasticity is gone and the aquifer’s capacity shrinks irreversibly. American Geophysical Union

The Colorado Drought Contingency Plan Is Now Before Congress, as representatives of all seven Colorado River states, including California, ended their arguments and agreed on a final version. Bypassed were the demands of the Imperial Irrigation District for $200 million in federal funds to clean up the fetid and deteriorating Salton Sea. Successive droughts have meant that the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people and 7,812 square miles of farmland, needed new agreements for dividing water in times of shortage. After California’s Colorado River Board, by an 8-to-1 vote, provided the final state’s approval, state representatives met in Phoenix with a top federal water official and sent a letter to Congress seeking its approval. The plan sets up new formulas for water use if Lake Mead drops below a crucial level during a prolonged drought. Desert Sun Salt Lake Tribune

Mining, Drilling and Grazing Now Easier as the Sage Grouse Management Plan of 2015 Loses Its Bite. The old plan was a cooperative effort to ensure the birds, several hundred thousand of which live in the oil-rich rangeland of 11 western states, didn’t decline so far that endangered species protections would kick in. The old program set out special “focal areas” requiring protections for the chicken-sized, ground-nesting birds; these are now gone. Cattlemen felt the 2015 requirements were too rigid and applied at too fine a scale; the 2015 rules also required that energy leasing in some areas be prioritized away from areas best suited to the grouse. A Center For Western Priorities representative said, the changes mean “the administration will drive the sage grouse closer to an endangered species listing.” Associated Press New York Times Wyoming Public Media Western Livestock Journal

The Navajo Generating Station’s Last Possible Savior Won’t Save It. By a 9-to-11 vote, a committee of the Navajo Nation Council rejected a plan for a tribal firm, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, to explore buying the power plant and the coal mine that supplies it. For the last couple of years, NGS owners had pulled out or signaled they wanted to. The tribal enterprise wanted to save hundreds of jobs held by Navajos. But the barriers to this solution included a demand by the power plant’s owners for a cap on the liability for cleanup, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Seth Damon, the council’s speaker, said the “Navajo Nation Council signaled that it is time for change. In order to develop a healthy and diverse economy that does not overly rely on any particular industry, the … council will advance new and innovative development initiatives.” Indian Country Today

 

Previously: Articles Worth Reading: March 11, 2019

 

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...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Sierra Garcia and Danielle Nguyen

Articles Worth Reading: August 12, 2019

The Desert Gets A Biocrust Skin Graft in an attempt to reverse the severe erosion, amounting to up to 8,900 pounds of annual soil loss per acre in the Southwest. The thin but hardy film of microbes helps maintain desert ecosystems, ensures healthier air and water, and protects archeological resources. But it can take anywhere from 20 to 2,000 years to regrow once destroyed by oil and gas development or recreational land use. Ecologists who have grown successful artificial biocrusts in labs and greenhouses are now struggling to transplant the homegrown biocrusts onto the desert. These efforts have sparked internal disagreement between land managers and scientists about whether to continue to replace biocrust, or focus time and money on preserving still-intact desert areas instead. High Country News

A Clean Energy Breakthrough Could Be Buried Deep Beneath Rural Utah in a subterranean salt dome, part of which is across the street from an existing transmission line to Los Angeles County. The vast network of salt caverns could act as an enormous battery, using a decades-old technique to store large amounts of energy — in this case,renewable energy. With the neighboring coal plant scheduled to close in 2025, the salt dome is in a perfect position to become a major component of Los Angeles County’s commitment to be 100 percent renewable by 2045. Los Angeles Times

Mountain Goat Eradication Is A High-Flying Balancing Act In Olympic National Park. Helicopter teams are charged with capturing, hog tying, and safely relocating these tenacious invasive animals. The elaborate airborne relocation efforts aim to eradicate all mountain goats from the park, where they have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. They are being moved to their natural habitat of the North Cascades Range, where the native mountain goat population is in decline. The project transported 115 goats last year alone, and so far, tracking devices show that the transported goats are surviving as well as their Cascadian-born kin. The goats that altogether evade their captors, or “muggers,” will eventually be killed to rid Olympic National Park of mountain goats for good. High Country News

This Remote Corner of Nevada Is One Of The Darkest Places in The World, and is now also the newest and largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in the United States. Like all Dark Sky Sanctuaries, the 100,000-acre sanctuary at Massacre Rim lacks legal protection. The International Dark Sky Association bestowed the title on Massacre Rim, recognizing it as one of the best spots in the world to view a night sky unobstructed by light pollution. The area is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest settlement and over four hours from the nearest city; its extreme isolation allows visitors to see the Milky Way shine so brightly that it casts shadows. The audio segment of this story is under four minutes and accompanied by a short written article. NPR

The Pacific Coast Salmon That Are Most Threatened by Climate Change travel furthest to spawn, new research shows. Dams for flood control and irrigation, water diversions and logging have pushed more than 50 runs of salmonids onto lists of endangered and threatened species; climate change may be the coup de grace for some. Inland waterways far from the coast, where some salmon spawn, are getting warmer, and may get too warm for young salmon to survive. Chinook salmon at the greatest risk in three places: California's Central Valley and the Columbia and Willamette River basins. Also at risk are coho salmon in Northern California and Oregon and sockeye salmon from Idaho’s Snake River basin. Inside Climate News

Articles Worth Reading: July 30, 2019

Megadroughts Could Return to Southwestern U.S. on a scale not seen for half a millennium thanks to climate change. A new study reveals that the region can expect atmospheric conditions similar to those that caused decades-long ‘megadroughts’ in the middle ages, which likely destroyed the thriving Chocan civilization. A slight global cooling around 1600 halted the megadroughts, but with current global climate change, experts fear a return of extreme dryness to the Southwest. National Geographic

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Goes Solar in a bid for energy independence, job creation, and environmental stewardship. With more than half a million acres of land and only 2,000 residents, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe hopes to point the way for other tribes with vast tracts of flat, sunbaked land to develop and export solar energy. By some estimates, solar energy on tribal lands in the lower 48 states alone would exceed by fourfold the amount needed to power the entire country. High Country News

Coalition Urges Senators to Back Herd Fertility Curbs for Wild Horses to rein in their extreme overpopulation and resultant environmental damage from large herds trampling sensitive rangeland. The contentious issue has brought together unlikely allies, uniting the ASPCA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Public Land Trust. All are pushing for a plan that would reduce the wild horse population by more than 60 percent in a decade – without euthanasia. The visceral public opposition to killing the classic western icons makes a plan based on intensive fertility control alone likelier to succeed in Congress. E & E News

Feds Look Again at Reintroducing Grizzly Bears to the North Cascades, an ecological boon that would bolster the top predator’s current estimated population of 10 bears within the North Cascades. The National Park Service and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the public comment period last week, a decision conservationists celebrate and ranchers bemoan. Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke surprised stakeholders last year by signaling the federal government’s support for moving forward a reintroduction scheme. The Seattle Times

A New Yorker Describes Moving to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, where people live with pioneering self-sufficiency and isolation. The valley’s several hundred residents live on some of the cheapest and most punishing land in the country, with minus 40-degree temperatures in winter and and no trees for lumber or protection. The profile showcases a lifestyle remarkably similar to nineteenth century homesteaders, and examines what drives broadly diverse people to live on The Last Frontier. Harpers

Articles Worth Reading: July 15, 2019

Phoenix Tries To Reverse Its 'Silent Storm' Of Heat Deaths, which rose to 155 people last year and will only continue to climb with global climate change. The city, which now experiences at least 100 days over 100 degrees each year, plans to redesign its layout to increase shade and create more aggressive outreach programs to prevent heat-related deaths. It hopes to become a leader and a model for other cities struggling with rising average temperatures and health challenges. NPR

California Lawmakers Approve Legislation For $21 Billion Wildfire Fund to help public utilities pay out homeowners in wildfires connected to the power providers. The new legislation aims to stabilize fears that wildfire damage claims could permanently cripple California utilities, making them a risky investment vehicle. Pacific Gas & Electric, northern California’s major utility, filed for bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for igniting some of the worst wildfires ever recorded in California last year. Reuters

Renegotiating The Columbia River Treaty Six Decades Later will be a very different process from the original negotiations between Canada and the United States. The treaty governs management of the Columbia River watershed, a region about the size of France; parts of it are set to expire in 2024. The renegotiations will retain the original treaty’s focus on coordinated flood control and energy security across the vast region, but will add environmental concerns as a third pillar of managing the river. The new negotiations will also include First Nations and other native representatives who were entirely excluded from the original treaty negotiations. High Country News

A 700-Mile Solo Float On The Green River Led to a Comprehensive New Book on western water distribution and policy analysis, as described in an interview with the author Heather Hansman. The environmental journalist and rafter intersperses her policy research and stakeholder interviews with her personal experience navigating the major river through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. This podcast episode of the “Go West, Young Podcast” is 25 minutes long; this interview begins at 4:44. Center for Western Priorities

‘Goats Are the Best Tool’ for Cheap, Chemical-Free Fire Prevention – and demand for herds-for-hire is exploding in the western US as wildfire season looms. Prolific vegetation growth from heavy winter rains combined with extreme wildfires in recent years have towns, cities, and private owners across the west eager to clear out potential wildfire fodder. Goats are a cheap, efficient, and hungry solution, and herds are hard at work across the western states. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: July 2, 2019

A Tiny Creature Threatens Utah’s $1.8 Billion Lake Powell Pipeline. The culprit is an invasive mussel. Concerns that the quagga mussel will infiltrate the water supply and grow inside pipes could well stall the long-awaited pipeline, which is designed to carry water from the Colorado River to quickly growing Utah counties. Utah’s Division of Water Resources has proposed adding a molluscicide (a compound that kills mollusks) into the water supply, but critics fear that it would be impossible to prevent the quagga ‘epidemic’ from eventually spreading further via the pipeline. Salt Lake Tribune

As Legal Cannabis Spreads, Growers Go Organic to gain an edge and meet a growing demand in the industry. Many growers chose to go beyond state restrictions on pesticides for marijuana and cultivate a holistic, ultra-organic brand. Many new organic-certifying companies are emerging to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. National Organic Program’s inability to vouch for cannabis-growers’ standards, since cannabis remains federally prohibited. Several firms provide certification for additional attributes, such as being biodynamic or handled through fair trade. Environmental Health News

Who Gets To Own The West? The answer to the fraught question: a shrinking group of wealthy landowners, 100 of whom collectively hold more than 42 million acres. The new landowners face considerable local opposition when they close down trails, roads, and other spaces that many have had access to for generations. The handful of people consolidating these gigantic swathes of land argue that cracking down on local recreational use of the land promotes conservation. The New York Times

Reining In Free-Roaming Horses to protect ecosystems in the Great Basin region from possibly permanent damage has become a more urgent task. . The wild herds have swelled to over 300 percent of the Bureau of Land Management’s estimated “appropriate maximum level.” As they roam across 31.6 million acres of remote rangeland, the horses compact the soil, consume scarce water sources, and trample native plants. However, because grazing domestic animals also occupy many of the same areas, it is often difficult for scientists to single out the ecosystem damage caused by wild horses. Also, public affection for the wild horses makes policymakers reluctant to control their rapid population growth. EurekAlert

Dramatic Ocean Warming Off Alaska Raises Concerns For Hunters And Wildlife alike as both struggle to find sufficient food with diminishing sea ice. Villagers who hunt in the summer for meat to store for the winter are traveling unprecedented distances to find the edge of the sea ice and the marine mammals that dwell there. Seabirds, seals, and grey whales, are suffering as well. The vanishing sea ice, which has already blown away the record low ice levels set last summer, is linked to human-caused global warming, since it is a direct result of very warm ocean temperatures (comparable to temperatures off the coast of California). Anchorage Daily News

Restoring Water In Paradise might be harder than the California Water Board expects, argue water contamination and plumbing specialists argue. Several academic experts say that the Water Board’s recommendations aren’t good enough to screen for water contamination by volatile organic compounds produced by the fire. How much responsibility the California Water Board bears for fixing contamination is also unclear; most of the damaged pipes are in individual buildings. This regulatory enigma further confuses the question of what the state and the town should do to ensure an uncontaminated water supply – a prerequisite of restoring the community. (Podcast is 3 minutes and 45 second long.) Circle of Blue

Articles Worth Reading: June 17, 2019

Convicts are Returning to Farming—and Anti-Immigrant Policies Are the Reason. Now the jobs that Mexican and Central American farm laborers often fill are left empty. Agriculture-intensive areas such as Washington, Idaho, and Arizona are turning to convict leasing on a scale not seen in more than 100 years. Like undocumented immigrants, convicts don't have the same level of legal labor and wage protections standard in most situations, and are often apyed well below the minimum wage. Although the Jim-Crow era practice, which used mostly black prisoners, was banned at the start of the 20th century, in the 21st century it has made a lucrative comeback. The Conversation High Country News

The Federal Bureau of Land Management Plans to Push a Massive Photovoltaic Project in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas; it would be the largest solar array in the country and one of the largest in the world. Some conservationists object to the proposed location of the 11-square-mile solar array and battery system, which is home to the threatened desert tortoise. The area also abuts several popular outdoor recreation areas. When constructed, the project could provide solar power to Nevada, California, and Arizona as early as 2021.E&E News Las Vegas Review Journal

This Year's Snowmelt Surge Is a Welcome Reprieve for the Parched Southwest, a “complete turnaround” from the two-decade drought that has left reservoirs and rivers running low across the region. Water levels in major reservoirs, like Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona border, have risen up to a foot a day. The extreme reversal has pushed rivers to their limits, replenished the Rio Grande, and made some popular rafting and camping spots unusable. Exceptionally low 2018 water levels in Lake Powell, which supplies water for Arizona, California, and Nevada, had led to speculation that Arizona would face a lower water allowance this year. Colorado Public Radio News 

Cactus Smuggler's Case Reveals 'Growing Problem' of Rare Cacti Pilfered from public lands to serve a burgeoning domestic and international trade. The smuggler was convicted of illegally collecting over 500 cacti from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area along the Arizona-Nevada border. The cacti were sold online for more than $20,000, and included species that take decades to mature. Because cacti can be relatively easy to smuggle and conceal, authorities worry about the challenge of protecting delicate desert ecosystems and threatened species from the growing popularity of the prickly plants. E&E News 

An Effort to Recover Suspected Agent Orange Chemicals From Wallowa Lake has ignited fears over possible water contamination and speculation about the origins of the barrels. Recreational divers discovered ten100-gallon drums in the Oregon lake last summer labeled as containing herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. These are key ingredients in the infamous Vietnam War defoliant (and carcinogen) Agent Orange. The delicate removal process began ten months after divers first reported the barrels at the lake bottom. The Oregonian

The West's Worst Fires Aren't Burning in Forests, but on scrub-covered open rangeland in the Great Basin region, which includes Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Because wildfires on the sparsely populated open range don't attract as much public attention as forest fires, nine million acres of scrubland have quietly burned away on the range in the last five years alone. There are even fewer resources available to fight the remote range conflagrations than for forest fires. The frequent fires on the range may permanently destroying scrubland habitat essential for over 300 species, like pronghorn and sage grouse, where fires have burned too hot and too often. High Country News

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 »

 

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