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Putting a Tempest into a Teapot: Can California Better Use Winter Storms to Refill its Aquifers?

Felicity Barringer
Jun 4 2019

With new rules coming into effect, farmers and municipalities using groundwater must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014. California Department of Water Resources
 

By Felicity Barringer

The general long-term forecast for California as climate change intensifies: more frequent droughts, intermittently interrupted by years when big storms bring rain more quickly than the water infrastructure can handle.

This bipolar weather will have profound implications for the state’s $50 billion agriculture industry and the elaborate network of reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts that store and distribute water. A system built for irrigation and flood protection must adapt to accommodate more conservation. “The effects of climate change are necessitating wholesale changes in how water is managed in California,” the state Department of Water Resources wrote in a June, 2018 white paper.

During droughts, farmers and municipalities pumped groundwater to augment sparse surface supplies. After nearly a century of heavy use, many aquifers are badly depleted. And California’s five-year-old law regulating groundwater basins is nearing a moment of truth: in 2020, sustainability plans are due from agencies managing critically depleted aquifers. They must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. The law – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – is beginning to bite. A 2019 study from the Public Policy Institute of California predicted that at least 500,000 acres of farmland will eventually be idled.

Map: Groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley
Sources: PPIC (groundwater overdraft), California DWR (water district boundaries); Natural Earth Data;   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California. “We need to capture the atmospheric rivers,” said Tim Quinn, the former director of the Association of California Water Agencies. But, he added, “We don’t have the right conveyance facilities. There’s not enough storage to capture the atmospheric rivers.” Quinn wants to capture stormwater and divert it to aquatic “parking lots,” as he calls them, where water can trickle back into depleted aquifers. This serves several ends: restoring a depleted natural resource, reducing land subsidence and providing for future water supply.

After passage of the law, groups including state and local water agencies, nonprofits, farmers, and agricultural groups like the Almond Board, are pushing to increase opportunities for recharge. “SGMA is a huge driver,” said Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, a nonprofit working with farmers and local water agencies around the state. “There is a much greater interest in recharge than there was pre-SGMA.”

In the Tulare basin in the south, irrigation districts have long directed water onto special fields designed to allow it to percolate swiftly down and recharge aquifers. Now, “instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging,” said Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District. “If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

“Instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging. If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

Boren’s colleague at Sustainable Conservation, Daniel Mountjoy, said more than 120 million acre-feet of groundwater “has been pumped out of California aquifers” in the Central Valley in the last 70 or 80 years. He added, “I think of it as a giant underground reservoir that has already been built.” If you think about the cost of building one reservoir” — and the cost of environmental permitting – “why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

“If you think about the cost of building one reservoir, why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

Making the Central Valley Flood Again

How to tap into the atmospheric rivers? Ask Don Cameron, of Helm, who manages the Terranova Farm on the North Fork of the Kings River. He has flooded his vineyards since 2011. He has invested $14 million – $5 million from a DWR grant and another $9 million from Terranova – in diversion structures that will increase the amount he can recharge into the Kings aquifer’s sub-basin from 14 cubic feet per second to 500 cfs, or 1,000 acre-feet per day. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons; average California households use up to an acre-foot a year.)

For 38 years, Cameron has managed the farm, which grows 25 different crops, from tomatoes and garlic to wine grapes and, most recently, almond trees. “I noticed some time ago that the water table was declining two feet a year,” he said. “We realized we needed to do something.” His initial efforts to build recharge infrastructure – a pipe, a canal, and a spot designated for recharge – expanded nine years ago when he got a $75,000 grant from the federal Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. This let him monitor “whether we could do groundwater recharge on working landscapes” – flooding his fields, both those fallowed and those where permanent crops, like grapevines, grew.

“We started flooding the wine grapes. We kept the water on from February to late June. The neighbors thought we were crazy, that we were ruining our grapes.” He wasn’t. Now he floods not only vineyards but nut trees. He works with DWR, promising to take excess water in flood years to prevent downstream flooding and has set aside 400 acres as a permanent recharge site and 1,200 acres more for seasonal recharge

Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River.
Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River   Terranova Farm

His new system includes a large structure with gates that open to let water out of the north fork of the Kings River to a canal and the large pumping station to extract the surface water from the canal, plus a structure with gates that open to let water out of four new 72-inch pipes and into a canal, headed for recharge areas. He expects to be able to recharge at a rate of 500 cubic feet per second, which would equal 1,000 acre-feet a day, into the depleted aquifer. “The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet,” he said. “We have huge potential under our feet.”

“The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet. We have huge potential under our feet.”

He’s not alone. Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, also wants to use flood irrigation to tap into atmospheric rivers; her district partners with another on a $2 million pilot project to recharge aquifers. Aaron Fukuda in Tulare helps operate a district using part of a $1.95 million federal grant to build a new recharge basin and study ways to expand existing recharge facilities. In the wet year of 2017, his district provided cheap water to farmers willing to put it back in the aquifer. But for an individual farmer, creating a recharge basin could be costly. Counting the price of land, engineering and excavation costs, a pipeline to move the water, and legal costs, a one-acre recharge project can cost $100,000, Fukuda estimates.

For agencies or individuals seeking to create new recharge basins, a new Stanford study offers a tool. The study, done by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor, and a former Ph.D. student Ryan Smith — now an assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology — can help those building recharge ponds avoid the problems that plague the delivery system of the Friant-Kern Canal. Over-pumping made the land below it subside, torquing the structure and reducing its capacity. The study shows how a combination of satellite and aerial remote sensing, which map the underground sand and clay layers, can be used to predict how recharge can reduce subsidence. Combining the data sources allows creation of maps of the link between recharge — or continued groundwater pumping — and subsidence.

Recharge operations are nothing new; dedicated basins have dotted the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley for years. Kern County’s Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District dates to 1959. Such operations helped raise the total of water recharged for the San Joaquin Valley to 6.5 million acre-feet in 2017 — a year, like the current one, soaked by atmospheric rivers. But the total amount of inflow to surface waters was closer to 30 million acre-feet, PPIC reported. While the volume of rain and the volume of recharge were exceptional, researchers say more recharge was possible. An annual average of about 500,000 acre-feet of recharge potential is available – about a quarter of the average annual groundwater deficit from over-pumping.

Volume of Groundwater Recharged in Surveyed Districts, 2017

Following the extremely wet winter of 2016-17, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) collected recharge statistics from 46 water districts in the San Joaquin Valley. They found that dedicated recharge basins stored the largest amount of water.

In Acre-Feet of Water

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

“It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

The state Department of Water Resources has a program devoted to improving on-farm recharge called Flood Managed Aquifer Recharge, or FloodMAR. Kamyar Guivetchi at DWR said they are working with the Merced Irrigation District to find out how much water could be recharged on farmlands in the Merced River watershed. Beyond that, he said, “We want to broaden the footprint” of new projects. The obstacles he sees goes beyond infrastructure. “It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

Buzz Thompson, a Stanford law professor, focuses on the problem of moving the water. “The bottom line is that in the really wet years, we do not have the ability to store all the water that is available,” he said. Legal obstacles include the 120-year-old system of established individual rights to specific quantities of water. These must be met before the excess can be taken for recharge. So must requirements for environmental water deliveries ensuring fish get enough water. Most problematic: “Right now the greatest amount of surface water is available north of the Bay Delta and some of the best storage sites are south of the Delta,” he said. As long as the Delta is a transportation bottleneck, that limits the amount that can be stored.”

A Hitch: Who Owns the Recharged Water?

One incentive nudging farmers to do recharge is the knowledge that in dry years they will have access to the water they deposited in wet years. Irrigation districts and groundwater sustainability agencies don’t have a common approach to the question of credit. “With SGMA, each agency is going to establish its own rules,” said Mountjoy of Sustainable Conservation. “Does it belong to the farmer or the irrigation district that has a right to send it to the farmer?”

One school of thought favors collective ownership. “The water district has a right to take that water – it remains the irrigation district’s, for the benefit of all users,” Mountjoy said. A second option is “give the farmer the right to capture it and sell it. … They paid to put it in the ground. It’s now theirs. They could pump it out of the ground in a dry year or sell it to a neighbor. You basically create a water market.”

Kern County’s Semitropic Water Storage District practices a variant of this. “Our farmers can bank” recharged water “under the district’s established program. They have a bank account for their use,” said Jason Gianquinto, the district’s general manager. “We haven’t decided if they can do anything other than keep it for their own use. I can’t say you can move water outside our district to another area.”

Another Tactic: Releasing Water from Reservoirs When a Storm Nears

One way to capture more of the atmospheric rivers is allowing dams to release reservoir water in anticipation of a storm. The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoirs, has strict rules on how much water must be held and when it can be released. Now the Corps is working with tools developed by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego that facilitate what are called Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations.

The Turlock Irrigation District uses the tools. “In 2017, when we had an excess amount of water, we were able to know what was coming. We could start making pre-flood releases,” said Josh Weimer, the district’s government affairs manager. The advance releases, some of which could be recharged, meant the 2017 flooding at its height was 25 percent of the flooding caused by similarly strong storms two decades earlier.

Across California’s farm country, the hard reality of a future without guaranteed access to groundwater is sinking in. Jerry Gragnani, a neighbor of Don Cameron’s who is 70 years old, recently sold 8,000 acres of his farm, keeping 3,000 acres for permanent crops like nut trees. “There’s no future without recharge,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a farmer around here that doesn’t realize that. We know if you don’t recharge the water, it’s going to run out. Once the aquifer is closed, it’s closed forever.” He added, “It’s a good time to get out.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles Worth Reading: October 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

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

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

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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

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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