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By Land or Sky, Rural Western Communities Seek an Elusive Good: Broadband Internet Access

Felicity Barringer
Jun 26 2020

Two decades into the 21st Century, broadband internet access still falls short of reaching tens of millions of Americans – especially in hilly and remote parts of the rural West. But local initiatives and creative uses of technology are slowly helping close the divide.

The Curlew school district in internet-challenged northeastern Washington used a school bus to pick up and deliver assignments

File Server With students quarantined at home from Covid-19, the Curlew school district in internet-challenged northeastern Washington used a school bus to pick up and deliver assignments.   Curlew School District

By Felicity Barringer

Curlew School in the timber-country hills of far northeastern Washington closed its doors in March to keep students and staff safe from the COVID-19 virus. Since then, the system’s lone school bus has driven by student homes, dropping off days’ worth of school lunches and packets of reading and assignments, and picking up completed work.

Why no Zoom learning? No digital courseware? Curlew has too many students without broadband internet access at home; it is unavailable or unaffordable. After Curlew’s teachers, like April Barreca, the science teacher for middle and high-school students, called students at home and found many disconnected, they knew online classes were a non-starter.

Curlew is a town in northeast Washington’s Ferry County.

Curlew is a town in northeast Washington’s Ferry County.

Barreca tried to stay in touch by telephone. “I just gave them my phone number,” she said. “Some do ask me questions on Facebook messenger.” But even though educational links from around the internet were not something she could offer, “the real deficit is harder to pinpoint,” she said. “It’s less about access to information and more about access to me.” Students work hard “if they feel the teacher is supporting them,” she said, but “if they feel like their teacher has abandoned them,” their incentive fizzles. “I feel like I’m out of touch with some kids,” she said.

Internet connections are necessary, but not alone sufficient for online learning. “Remote education is not working,” said John Glenewinkel, superintendent of Curlew Schools. “For the kids, it’s an incredible paradigm shift.… And two-thirds or more of my kids don’t have reliable internet access.” Often their families can’t afford it.  More than half the 172 students enrolled in Curlew Schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. “You are creating a situation of inequity,” he said.

Ninth graders from the Curlew School this past winter.

Ninth graders from the Curlew School this past winter.   April Barreca

Internet Access Peters Out Beyond Rural Western Town Centers

Two decades into the 21st century, stark stories about life without adequate internet access are common around the rural West. While connectivity reaches many rural centers — like Republic, the county seat in Ferry County — it evaporates within a few miles. Major carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Frontier (now in bankruptcy, with Ziply buying its Northwest territory) support customers in town centers. Left to fill the gaps are rural telecoms, small internet service providers and local cable TV companies. No reliable statistics quantify how many are unserved.

April Barreca’s father, Joe, is a former computer programmer. He started a mapping business at home producing maps showing 911 service territories. His slow internet connection only allowed him to send and receive e-mail, “but I needed aerial photos, which were huge; I’d have to go to town to download them, and town is 20 miles away.”

Betty Buckley is executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, which represents 18 small telephone companies in 21 locations in other parts of northeast Washington in areas with less than 20 people per square mile. “By and large our members have fewer than 5,000 customers,” she said. Buckley lives on the northern side of the Colville Indian reservation. She is convinced “I’m going to be the last person served in the state of Washington.”

She boils everything down to a simple question: “Are we going to serve everyone or not?” There are two tiers necessary to establish fiber internet connections: a “middle-mile” build that gets a trunk line to a centrally-located rural hub, allowing other providers to build “last-mile” connections to homes. When homes are scattered over wide areas, creating the last link can be daunting. “The last two percent of those unserved are going to be stunningly expensive,” Buckley said.

Getting a fiber-optic line to her house, Buckley estimates, “is a $1.6 million build.” She and her nine nearest neighbors are marooned on a digital desert island. “There is nothing, with the possible exception of low-earth-orbit satellites, that’s going to help a situation like ours.”

Even though Washington has 238 internet providers — and a newly created state broadband office to focus on improving state systems, the online magazine Broadband Now reports that 103,000 residents have no access to wired internet. Another 338,000 residents can’t get a wired connection with the now-standard 25 megabits-per-second download speeds and three mps upload speeds.

An Increasingly Essential Service in the 21st Century

“If you don’t have connectivity you don’t have a future of work and you don’t have a future of learning.” said Gary A. Bolles, a co-founder of the U.S. Broadband Coalition. At a May webinar of the advocacy group California Forward, Martha Guzman Aceves, a member of California’s Public Utility Commission, agreed. “Now more than ever we have the realization across our society that broadband is a basic utility,” she said. “It’s an essential service.”

Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission reports that 21 million Americans lack broadband access. But it acknowledges the figure is a significant undercount; there are no reliable statistics on the number unserved. Until last year, companies getting FCC grants, like AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier, could report an entire census block as fully served if a single customer had broadband access (census blocks vary in size from less than an acre to multiple square miles). As for internet-deficient Ferry County? FCC maps show the entire county has access to broadband, which doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground.

In reality, about 40 million people in the country “can’t get 25/3 at any price,” said Chris Mitchell, a broadband expert at Minnesota’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance, citing preferred minimum speeds for downloads and uploads. “Right now, the federal government is in the odd situation in which it doesn’t know where broadband is – or isn’t,” the FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed. In an April Brookings Institution webinar, she said, “The maps … describing where broadband is and is not in this country radically overstate service. If we don’t fix those maps, we’re not going to be able to manage this problem.”

The web of obstacles to rural broadband is being untangled in some areas, like parts of Utah and a collection of small Indian reservations in southern California where broadband access has steadily increased. Bolles, now chair for Singularity University’s Future of Work program, said, a “rural county needs a technology sherpa — somebody who can step up to help navigate this…. You’re trying to reach a lot of places. But plains present different problems than hilly country.” Indeed, in hilly Ferry County, the process is still at an early stage.

Defining “Broadband” Internet Access

As technology has advanced and the demand has grown for video streams for teleconferencing, telemedicine, and binge-watching, the Federal Communications Commission has steadily raised the threshold for what it defines as “high-speed” broadband internet service. Since 2019, 25 megabits per second download and 4 megabits up has been the FCC’s target. Most delivery technologies have kept pace, with fiber and cable-based broadband pushing into 1,000 mpbs territory; so, too is the much-hyped mobile wireless technology called “5G.” But the highest speed services are poorly distributed and generally concentrated in affluent communities and big-city downtown business districts.

Graphic: Defining “Broadband” Internet Access

Graphic: Defining “Broadband” Internet Access. Click to enlarge.

After Decades of Federal Investment, Persistent “Digital Desert Islands” Stifle Economic Growth

Across the West, millions of people in rural areas and on Native reservations are in Betty Buckley’s situation – digital desert islands – despite tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loans dating back to the 1990s. Rural broadband grants were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, primarily through the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service and the FCC. That agency has supplemented its earlier grants with a $20.4 billion fund which will be auctioned off to providers to expand rural service.

Lack of broadband has an economic cost. From 2010 to 2018, it contributed to a quarter of the population and job loss in rural America, calculates Steve Ross. Ross was formerly an associate professor of practice at Columbia University's School of Journalism, focused on data journalism; he now is editor at large of the trade magazine Broadband Communities.

Will Rinehart, a research fellow at Utah State University, isn’t so sure. He questions whether rural residents simply lack access, or whether they lack real interest. “Economic development happens pretty quickly after electrification,” he said, “and not as quickly after broadband development.” His 2017 article for American Action Forum noted, “Availability and adoption are two completely different concepts. For people to benefit from the internet, they need to use it.”

Access is required first. The obstacles facing would-be service providers are threefold: legal, technical and financial. Broadband Now reports that laws in 22 states throttle municipalities seeking to use public resources — like bonding authority — to build broadband. That way, incumbent providers, often large corporations, are protected from a new kind of competition. As Martha Guzman Aceves said, “Providers provide service where it makes economic sense…. The market drives where they invest.” The low number of potential rural subscribers seem a less lucrative option, so providers prefer to put infrastructure in densely populated areas.

As Local Services Find Footing, Should the FCC Reduce Reliance On Big Carriers?

“We haven’t really tried to solve the problem in the sense of actually focusing first on what is the best way to connect rural America,” Chris Mitchell said. “Most FCC programs have been about what the big phone companies want to do, not focused on what is best for communities.” James Baller, a lawyer who heads the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, believes, “Local communities are perfectly capable and best situated to understand their own needs and wise about how to achieve them. They should not be restrained from doing so.”

For years, a publicly supported Utah broadband consortium’s financial problems were held up as a cautionary example supporting state prohibitions. Now the company’s success has turned that argument on its head. Despite state prohibitions on publicly-financed retail broadband, this consortium, a wholesale provider called the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (or UTOPIA), was permitted to work with support from willing municipalities to run last-mile fiber to 110,000 households in 11 cities like Orem, a small city that is a technology hub.

The system was controversial – vigorously opposed by the Utah Taxpayers Association - and its problematic rollout apparently left partner municipalities with large debts and inadequate revenue to cover them. About seven years ago, new management turned things around financially. Private companies now use UTOPIA connections to reach customers in these towns; they pay for this service. UTOPIA showed it could earn enough revenue to eventually let municipalities pay off the debt from the original fiber installation.

“Even though the network operates in a state where local communities face barriers to local authority, the need for better connectivity has driven the success of the open access network,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.

“The nice thing is we’ve got 30 companies benefiting from open-access infrastructure,” Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA’s chief executive, told a June webinar of the online magazine Broadband Breakfast. “We get revenue from all of those.” He added that last-mile service “is where it’s at for us... There’s a lot of fiber in cities that doesn’t reach end users. Until you do the last-mile construction, you aren’t meeting the needs of communities.”

Amid Obstacles, Local Broadband Initiatives Take Hold

According to the website Broadband Now, laws in 22 U.S. states prevent municipalities from using public resources to build retail broadband service. Despite the use of legal obstacles ranging from: barring public options if a minimum level of private service exists; prohibiting direct sale to consumers; population caps; and laws barring bond issues to raise funds; they tally over 300 municipal networks providing service nationwide.

Map: Amid Obstacles, Local Broadband Initiatives Take Hold


Decades-Old Rural Cooperatives Are Picking Up Some of the Slack

The debate over allowing publicly supported networks continues in states like Washington. But another management structure, focused on companies established about a century ago to provide rural electric and telephone service, has proven its effectiveness from North Dakota to Colorado. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act provided loans to support homegrown local cooperatives that put up wires and charged residents affordable amounts. Some have successfully moved into the broadband world.

A March Western Governors Association webinar focused on rural electrical cooperatives’ success. Brian O’Hare, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said his members are well-placed to solve technical and financial issues: “they are more interested in making sure their community is served than getting a return on their investment as quickly as possible.”

Seth Arndorfer, chief executive of the Dakota Carrier Network, a web of 15 independent rural telephone cooperatives, told this webinar that in 1996, his companies combined their existing infrastructure; now 40,000 miles of fiber serves 164,000 subscribers around the state. After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of North Dakota “we’ve noticed a 30 percent utilization jump,” he said.

He added, “Our business model is to leverage the investment [the coops] made” — some $1.3 billion for fiber connections. “DCN then leases that local loop, the last mile, from our owner company, and we bring it back and put it on our fiber backbone…”

Rural cooperatives bring broadband to southwestern Colorado too. The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative serves a high-altitude area around the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Focusing on efforts to install fiber connections to individual homes — including remote trout clubs found 10,500 feet high in the Rocky Mountains — its internet company, Ciello serves 3,400 people. Any existing gaps are filled with wireless equipment, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.

Further west, the Delta Montrose Electric Association’s members got impatient and, around 2015, “the community came out in force and pushed us into thinking how we could become an internet service provider,” Kent Blackwell, DMEA’s chief technical officer, told the webinar. The cooperative’s investments have led to hundreds of miles of fiber connections; it has 7,435 broadband subscribers. But it needs economic help to finish: the state contributed $6.5 million, helping pay for 275 miles of fiber to 2,700 homes. “We’ve been able to level the playing field for small towns like Montrose or Delta, Colorado, allowing them an economic foothold on a parity with an urban market,” Blackwell said.

Better (and Cheaper) Wireless Options Emerging for Hard-to-Reach Communities

A microwave transmission tower for the Tribal Digital Village project, south of Temecula in Southern California’s Riverside County.

A microwave transmission tower for the Tribal Digital Village project, south of Temecula in Southern California’s Riverside County.   TDVNet

While fiber to individual homes is the surest way to ensure good high-speed service, there are places, like Betty Buckley’s house in north Ferry County, which are physically and economically out of reach. But some wireless options are not dramatically inferior.

“Each community will be different,” said Edyael Casaperalta, founder of Casperalta Law, a Denver firm representing indigenous peoples and nonprofits in telecommunications matters. “A huge component to be able to connect a rural area is who is pushing for it. … You need to have a company willing to invest, local officials not erecting barriers to investment, and technology” that works.

Matthew Rantanen is a sherpa for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, a group of 20 federally recognized tribes in southern California including the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians and the Campo Band of Kumeyaay. Rantanen was a web designer at an online greeting-card company, bluemountain.com, before the tribes made him their director of technology.

In 2002, he and his team got a subsidy of about $1 million from the FCC’s E-Rate program supporting schools and libraries. Then he piggybacked on a network design from U.C. San Diego called a High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). Their first attempt to connect tribal homes, using a wireless technology called mesh networking, failed. So they moved to a hub-and-spoke model for microwave transmissions, setting up 23 towers that send signals directly to about 400 homes — 18 percent of the 2,200 within reach. The base $35 monthly cost to tie into the Tribal Digital Village is still out of reach for many; the tribal unemployment rate averages 55 percent.

Some local hurdles were unique. Rantanen found out the hard way that cows like to scratch their backs: scratching toppled some towers. A staff of five maintains the towers — which means knowing how to get there over dirt roads in 115-degree heat, pour cement, climb towers, and fix the solar panels that power the system.

With internet available, Native students have more access to education. In 2001, before Rantanen started his work, 26 tribal students graduated from local high schools. Last year, with more access to sites like Khan Academy, 147 graduated.

In Hilly Western Towns, Topography Poses a Particular Challenge

The town of Curlew sits in a valley in Washington’s northeastern Ferry County, about 8 miles south of the Canadian border.

Passed over no more? The town of Curlew sits in a valley in Washington’s northeastern Ferry County, about 8 miles south of the Canadian border. Residents in the town center can get relatively slow wired service via copper-wire DSL service, or faster wireless options like microwave broadband served by TV Association of Republic, a coop that operates the tower from which these images were taken. But service is sparse in the surrounding areas; a new TV white space-driven project may help bring faster speeds to the wider area.   TV Association of Republic

Ferry County’s terrain has parallel issues of distance and angular topography, daunting obstacles to fiber installation. But two other wireless options are on the horizon. Literally on the horizon, in the case of one: a chain of satellites in low earth orbit, close enough that, ideally, there won’t be significant lag time, or latency, between the transmission of a signal and its arrival at a receiver. This satellite solution, known in the broadband world as “LEO’s,” is being created by, among others, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. It has put 422 satellites into orbit about 200 miles above the earth’s surface — as compared to the 22,000-mile distance of conventional telecommunications satellites.

Can low-orbiting satellites effectively get broadband to that last two percent? Greg Rosston, a senior fellow and the director of Stanford University’s Public Policy program, said, “If Elon Musk’s stuff works, then we should be able to do it. But I don’t know if it’s going to work.” A recent FCC report highlighted doubts that the latency problems of low-earth-orbit options like Musk’s Starlink could be overcome.

One wireless technology contemplated for Ferry County uses signals closer to earth. It’s called “TV white space,” a reference to part of the wireless spectrum awarded to television broadcasters decades ago which is now mostly unused. The original idea, as the federal government parceled out this spectrum, was that the airwaves used by one station should be buffered by unused spectrum between broadcasters. But many of the over-the-air stations left channels unused as they moved to internet streaming, digital broadcasting, or closed up shop.

Backed By Microsoft, TV White Space Pilot Launches in Ferry County

One sherpa in Ferry County is Trevor Lane, an associate professor of economic and community development at Washington State University and its extension director in Ferry County. Lane is working with a Broadband Action Team formed by the state government to solve the physical and economic obstacles to broadband in Ferry County. He is a big advocate of using TV white space.

Trevor Lane, right, extension director in Ferry County for Washington State University, with a Curlew student.

Trevor Lane, right, extension director in Ferry County for Washington State University, with a Curlew student. April Barreca

A former Navy mechanic, Lane saw TV white space used for internet services in poor countries overseas. “TV white space is phenomenal at shooting through trees and mountains,” he said. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, whose company has worked to expand rural broadband through its Airband Initiative, agrees. “We expect that TV white spaces and other fixed wireless technologies will ultimately provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of the underserved rural population,” Smith wrote in his 2019 book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.”

Smith’s worry is having enough spectrum available. “First, we need regulatory certainty to ensure the necessary TV white spaces spectrum remains available. While some of the TV band has been auctioned off and licensed to mobile carriers,” he wrote, “it’s important to ensure that two usable channels remain available to the public for TV white spaces in every market, with more available in rural areas.”

Lane is cobbling together a system in Ferry County. Last year he took Microsoft’s Smith into the remote hills and demonstrated how his jury-rigged system allowed Smith, deep in a mountain forest, to talk wirelessly to people in the county seat of Republic. Microsoft is helping support the build-out of the system; in March the FCC proposed to change its rules governing TV white space to facilitate its use for rural broadband.

Lane is encouraged by pilot projects connecting officers of the Ferry County sheriff’s office, but he believes that the solution for Ferry County will be “a marriage of fiber and wireless technologies.” One essential is laying “middle-mile” fiber in accessible areas — at a cost of more than $20 million — and then shooting out the signals from that fiber using TV white space. An industry executive put the cost of  connections at $3,500 for a tower transmitter and $500 to $600 for the receiver antenna and radio; Lane’s equipment has a similar cost but gives access to a cluster of houses.  

“A lot of these have to be hybrid solutions,” Chad Rupe, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, told the Western Governors webinar. “We realize in the end we can’t get everyone fiber. Some places are going to have to have satellite technology. But it’s got to link into a tower and a fiber backbone to get the internet information where it needs to go.”

Who pays? In many places it remains unclear what roles federal, state and local governments, companies like Microsoft, smaller internet service providers, ngos, and customers will play. What would they get for their investment? It would allow Joe Barreca to run his mapping company without hoofing it 20 miles to town. It would allow April Barreca to reach her students directly and link them to science websites. It might keep Ferry County’s young people from moving out as soon as they can.

“One of the things that makes us a nation is our ability to communicate with one another. It is the role of the federal government to create that and subsidize that” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the nonprofit digital advocacy group Public Knowledge. “We have done this for every advance in communication.” Although, he added,  “it takes us a while to recognize when something goes from a luxury to a necessity and the private sector is not going to provide it everywhere.”

He concluded, “We talk about internet access. We don’t talk about electric access, or telephone access, or water access…. When you learn to use the internet, you become a participant in the community. That’s different from any other utility.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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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

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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