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Research assistants dig deep into questions about climate change, the arts, technology and public policy in the West

Collage of 2023 research assistant headshots

 

While the summer can be a quiet time for many Stanford centers and programs, at the Bill Lane Center, it is one of the busiest periods for research. With an eye toward preserving and restoring an American West ravaged by climate change, and a keen interest in elevating the region's rich arts and culture, 23 students have spent the summer working with Lane Center mentors on collaborative projects that span multiple disciplines. Their research represents an incisive look into some of the most vexing problems facing the western United States, while illuminating multiple paths forward and, of course, raising more questions.

With support from the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE), each year the Lane Center offers paid summer research opportunities, allowing Stanford undergraduates to work closely with faculty and graduate student mentors to investigate a number of issues critically impacting western land and life. Research assistants (RAs) are pursuing projects that reinforce the Center's mission: to advance the scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America. While much of the Center's research focuses on questions of western governance and policy, as well as energy and the environment in the West, several RAs go beyond these limits, exploring topics related to the region's art, culture and history.

For most students, summer research at the Lane Center is not conducted as a side-project; rather, RAs work up to 40 hours per week meeting regularly with their mentors to discuss goals and plans. There are three types of research projects from which students can choose: student-initiated, faculty-initiated, or projects pre-identified by the Bill Lane Center. Students often stay on for multiple quarters to continue their research projects or veer into investigations of different western-related topics.

The 2023 cohort 

Since June 2023, the summer research cohort has been pursuing projects that fall into five broad categories: reducing wildfire risk; water and climate resilience; climate change mitigation and energy; technology and public policy; and arts and humanities. Below are summaries of their work, as well as some of the research assistants' reflections on the significance of their research to the American West.

A police vehicle in the foreground drives on a road away from massive plumes of wildfire smoke.
Photo by Felton Davis via Flickr

Reducing wildfire risk 

When it comes to identifying some of the biggest climate change challenges faced by the American West, water management, wildfire risk, and the energy transition spring to mind. Gripped by persistent drought, western states must find ways to match water supply with demand, meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders threatened by the diminishing natural resource. Along with the drier climate comes increased wildfire risk, as desiccated vegetation becomes fuel for blazes that can consume western landscapes with devastating speed. And of course, all of this heat and drought are exacerbated by human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, a sobering reminder that without a swift clean energy transition, the planet could potentially be damaged beyond repair.

Because of the urgency with which the West must deal with problems related to fire, water, and energy, the Bill Lane Center's research agenda has prioritized these topics, organizing three research projects around them. Under the advisement of Bruce Cain and Esther Conrad, the Bill Lane Center's faculty director and research manager respectively, four students have been looking exclusively at wildfire in a project called, "Addressing Barriers to Mitigating Wildfire Impacts in Marin County and Beyond."

The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority: A case study in best practices

The project's focus on Marin stems from the Center's early engagement with the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (MWPA), established in 2020 through a Joint Powers Agreement between 17 agencies. Since the MWPA represents a promising example of fire-resilient governance, and one of the largest collaborative governance structures to address fire risk, in 2021, Lane Center RAs Augustus Wachbrit, ‘23, and Miri Powell, a PhD student in history, set about documenting the agency's creation. Later, in the spring of 2023, another team of student researchers explored strategies employed by the MWPA to streamline the environmental permitting process, as well as problems related to wildfire insurance. The broader goal in analyzing the MWPA's work, of course, has been to learn lessons about effective county-wide wildfire mitigation and apply those lessons elsewhere.

Building off of questions raised by the spring research, RAs Lucian de Nevers, John Lester, Lilly Salus, and Alex Shaffer spent their summer investigating the challenges of implementing vegetation management practices, as well as the current difficulties in accessing affordable wildfire insurance. They've focused on Marin County in particular.  Among the questions they have been exploring, for example, is how to meet the considerable policy and administrative requirements involved in  performing vegetation management, including controlled burns and mechanical thinning. 

California has long done its part to protect the environment from harm. Over half a century ago, the state passed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), established in 1970. But it can be difficult to bring wildfire mitigation projects into compliance with CEQA. This is particularly true for prescribed burns, which will always reduce air quality in the short term, even if their longer-term impact is to protect against catastrophic fire. Projects that involve thinning vegetation in order to reduce fuel loads may also be subject to lengthy CEQA reviews, for example, to ensure that the habitat of endangered species is protected. As such, RA Alex Shaffer, '25, did a good deal of work to understand the MWPA's best practices for navigating the complexities of CEQA. Shaffer noted that the agency took time to build support for fuel-load reduction projects among the local community, thereby avoiding legal pushback. 

"By examining how Marin County has managed to navigate CEQA and build goodwill among community stakeholders, my research -- and the broader Lane Center project on reducing wildfire risk in California -- hopes to find lessons that can be applied to other counties in California to aid them in getting projects implemented quickly and safely," Shaffer wrote. 

By examining how Marin County has managed to navigate CEQA and build goodwill among community stakeholders, my research -- and the broader Lane Center project on reducing wildfire risk in California -- hopes to find lessons that can be applied to other counties in California to aid them in getting projects implemented quickly and safely.

One such lesson, explained John Lester, '25, is that goodwill among stakeholders is all about relationships. And holding informal, public meetings fosters positive relationships to beneficial effect for the broader wildfire management goals. The "MWPA's perception [is] that informal meetings may have aided reductions in public concerns about certain projects," Lester said. These informal meetings have provided a forum for more in-depth discussions of stakeholder concerns and an opportunity to address them prior to the formal consideration of a project before the Board of Directors. A speedier process results, while retaining robust consideration of the environment.

As the RAs conclude their summer projects, some of their questions have been answered, but many more still remain. The research will continue with a focus on understanding the obstacles to wildfire risk reduction and documenting innovative approaches to overcoming them.

Photo by Oleksii Ivashentsev on Unsplash

Water and climate resilience

Like the wildfire RAs, the water and climate resilience researchers have also been working on finding ways to scale up important climate change adaptation measures. One team, comprising students Ellie Brew, Luke Molbak, Sinna Nick, and Adria Nyarko, embarked on a project looking specifically at water supply challenges on California's Central Coast. Under the advisement of Cain and Conrad, and with help from Kate Gibson, associate director of the Lane Center, and Newsha Ajami, an expert in sustainable water resource management at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, the students have focused on the institutional and political challenges involved in maintaining the delicate balance between water supply and demand in the hydrologic region extending from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara.

Why the Central Coast?

Drought intensity and frequency, high temperatures, saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels, reduced recharge -- these are just a few of the factors depleting water on California's Central Coast. Largely disconnected from other state water supplies, the region relies heavily on groundwater. It is strained by an expanding population, agricultural water needs, and new constraints imposed by the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Moreover, equity challenges abound; many communities served by water systems across the Central Coast face water quality, affordability or accessibility issues. Those communities who have yet to be impacted by these hardships are still very much at risk

Student researchers are well aware of the magnitude of these problems, but also of the many ways they can help: "In the Central Coast, multiple basins have been marked as critically over-drafted and unsustainable for future generations," wrote RA Ellie Brew, '26. "Simultaneously, some freshwater drinking water resources have been contaminated with saltwater from over-pumping of basins. Our research can help counties in the Central Coast to become more aware of their current water usage habits and help them plan to have a more sustainable future."

The Lane Center project

In "Water and Climate Resilience in the Central Coast of California," the research team has been investigating two key dimensions of achieving water sustainability: first, designing and constructing new water infrastructure that incorporates priorities of resilience and equity; and second, capturing and storing excess water underground in wet years. The first dimension requires "sustained focus over long timeframes in the face of significant uncertainties," said Conrad, "while the second demands quick action in response to emerging climate conditions in a given year. Building a resilient future will require institutions that can perform effectively on both timescales."

Given the region’s heavy dependence on groundwater, the student team reviewed the 21 Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) and associated annual reports that local agencies have developed across the Central Coast regions. They analyzed infrastructure projects proposed in each plan and their proposed role in filling the gap between water supply and demand within these critical groundwater basins. After compiling the data, RAs selected a few case studies to probe in greater depth. Multiple questions guided this investigation, with climate resilience themes at the top of the list. For example, the students wanted to know what climate assumptions were made during the planning process, and how the infrastructure was scaled or designed keeping those assumptions in mind. How adaptable were the projects to changing circumstances once completed? Could they be scaled up or down, or repurposed if needed? What areas of contention surrounded the project, and were the plans ultimately realized or abandoned? 

The students then focused on the second aspect of the Lane Center project, the role of groundwater recharge in increasing drought resilience.  Conrad noted, “While this strategy offers considerable potential, it isn’t feasible in all areas due to soil conditions, and the institutional and policy requirements can be complex. Whoever is diverting and storing the surface water must establish the right to do so, especially if they want to use or sell the water later." 

To learn more about how groundwater recharge is playing out, the student team conducted virtual interviews with 14 groundwater managers across the Central Coast. While analysis of findings is still on-going, several key themes emerge. There is a high degree of variability across the region in the size and scale of recharge projects, ranging from programs to promote small infiltration basins on private land, such as the Recharge Net Metering Program in the Pajaro Valley, to large projects that inject recycled water into a groundwater basin, such as the Pure Water Monterey Project. The soil suitability for recharge also varies greatly. For example, while the Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County is quite limited in its suitability for recharge, conditions in other basins – including the neighboring Atascadero basin – are much more favorable.  The high costs of land and water are often important constraints for recharge in the Central Coast, and permitting requirements – especially the determination of water rights – often pose a significant barrier. 

When it comes to understanding the importance of their work on water in the Central Coast, the researchers were clear that climate change presents an existential threat to an already arid West, and their project is about sustaining life: "Water is a necessity for life. Helping local communities sustainably manage the resource can help future generations be prepared for longer droughts and wetter winters," wrote Brew.

Water wars on the Central Coast

A second RA team spent the summer researching water and climate resilience on the Central Coast as well, but from a historical angle. Carol McKibben, a Lane Center affiliated scholar who has taught California history at Stanford for fifteen years, mentored three students on this project. It looks specifically at the history of water disputes on California's Central Coast, particularly in the context of three main themes: military pollution of groundwater, water as a public or private resource, and water contamination in agriculture. In 2022, Caroline Reinhart, '23, MA '24, started this research with McKibben and has been continuing the work this summer, along with Adria Nyarko. A third student, Apurba Paudel, was supported through the Urban Studies Program.

Reinhart's work included a deep dive into Monterey military history, uncovering activities conducted on Monterey County’s Fort Ord military base which have presented not only water contamination problems, but equity challenges as well. Reinhart summarized the degradation of Monterey's water supply by the military base, which operated from 1917-1994: "The base brought great economic growth to the diverse communities of Monterey County at the expense of long-term environmental and public health harm. This damage of the water supply and landscape has been and continues to hinder the development of Seaside and Marina, further adding to pre-existing issues. Environmental contamination is not unique to Fort Ord. It is part of systemic military policy and practice to disregard the long-term health effects for soldiers, their families, and the communities they live in brought on by poisons from weaponry of all kinds."

Both teams of RAs recognize the significant role water plays (and has always played) in the American West, and the importance of sound resource management to ensure an equitable and sustainable future. Whether they are thinking about infrastructure and storage or contamination and equity, the students are all invested in improving the relationship between the West's people and places. What their water research boils down to is the age-old question of how to promote human stewardship of the region's essential resources instead of allowing a dependency upon nature to result in its irreversible exploitation.  

A black electric vehicle is being charged in a parking lot
Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash

Climate change mitigation and energy

A third project organized by the Bill Lane Center, undertaken jointly with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), sought to identify sources of delay in the permitting of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the state. Clearly, vehicle electrification plays a critical role in the energy transition, and it cannot be achieved without ample charging stations. But obtaining permits from local jurisdictions to expand these charging stations can be a lengthy ordeal. By scrutinizing documents and conducting interviews with local government officials, summer RAs identified barriers to permitting with the hope that their findings can help state governments streamline the process.  

Identifying obstacles

In the spring of 2023, Lane Center researchers looked at a list of 50 jurisdictions with extended permit wait times. Though two state permitting laws, AB 1236 and AB 970, recently passed to accelerate California's EV charging station goals, not all local governments have implemented the requirements yet. Spring RAs reviewed each jurisdiction’s compliance with the streamlining legislation, and conducted interviews with a few of them to understand their perspectives. The students then presented their findings to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) in June, identifying limited staff capacity, complex requirements of the streamlining legislation (i.e., ADA compliance), and power grid capability as key barriers. 

This summer, a new team of RAs has been tackling those obstacles in a project called "Permitting electric vehicle charging stations across California: Identifying barriers and possible solutions." The Bill Lane Center has sponsored Andrew Huang, Lee Rosenthal, Logan Schreier and Natalia Seniawski to work on this research. Amaryllis Gao and Armita Hosseini joined the team with support from SIEPR. 

Summer research goals

The summer research plan consisted of three main components, said Conrad, with each student tackling different aspects of the work. First, the RAs needed to gain a statewide perspective on the sources of permit delays, through interviews with local officials responsible for implementing permits. Another component involved collecting and analyzing permit data in a small group of cities from before and after the adoption of AB 1236 and AB 970 to determine the effectiveness of the legislation. Finally, with SIEPR’s support and under the guidance of Michael Bennon at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, several students focused on assessing how rebates at the state level and new opportunities at the federal level could potentially influence the number and type of charging stations being proposed.

With regard to sources of permit delays, the team conducted a total of 16 interviews with county and city officials, community choice aggregators (CCAs), and EV charging station developers. Overall, the team found that permitting delays do persist in some areas, particularly in larger jurisdictions and when complex projects are being considered that require review by multiple departments. Officials reported delays across the state in getting utility hookups to new EV charging sites, especially sites that include fast chargers, which require a much larger amount of electricity than do Level 2 or Level 1 chargers. In addition, many interviewees commented on challenges involved in accessing grant funds for building charging stations in areas that might not be a focus for private developers, including lower income neighborhoods.

RA Logan Schreier, '24, poured over EV charging station permit data this summer to quantify how well different California jurisdictions could issue EV permits over time. After an exhaustive search, he discovered that the available permit datasets were not adequate to achieve his objectives. So he ended up creating his own web-scraping tool to automatically pull relevant data from San Francisco's permit database. He then "re-tooled" the web scraper to fit other permit databases. "With more time, this web scraper could be applied to a plethora of permit databases in the state with some minor adjustments, which would enable a more thorough analysis," Schreier explained. To aid future research efforts on EV charging station permits, the ambitious RA then wrote "a web scraping how-to guide" so others could adapt his tool to extract data from other permit databases.

With research this complex, it's easy to get lost in the granular details and lose sight of the big picture -- the reason RAs have spent a summer on this work in the first place. But Schreier clearly outlined the importance of improving the consistency and transparency of permitting data across California. If the state had awareness of the jurisdictions that were struggling, Schreier said, it could better allocate its resources, thereby establishing "robust EV charging infrastructure access for all Californians." Lee Rosenthal, another student deeply involved in this aspect of the work, wrote and submitted a comment sharing these findings to the California Energy Commission (CEC). The research team hoped to inform the CEC's planning for an online dashboard to track the progress of EV charging stations, including permit timelines.

Another member of the EV research team, Armita Hosseini, examined the most salient challenges to charging station installation. Her findings indicated that marginalized groups often face greater obstacles when it comes to building out the charging station infrastructure: "Throughout my research, I examined several key challenges to charging station installation: inadequate access to funds, lack of electric capacity in many regions, limited resources to build direct current charging stations with faster charging times, and vandalism of existing EV charging stations in some locations. These challenges disproportionately affect people in rural, low-income, and minority communities, illustrating the need to prioritize assisting a vast array of groups. [These] findings provide more opportunities to delve into the nuances associated with EV charging station development, allowing us to work toward California's Zero Emission Vehicle goals and overall, a more sustainable future."

Throughout my research, I examined several key challenges to charging station installation: inadequate access to funds, lack of electric capacity in many regions, limited resources to build direct current charging stations with faster charging times, and vandalism of existing EV charging stations in some locations. These challenges disproportionately affect people in rural, low-income, and minority communities, illustrating the need to prioritize assisting a vast array of groups.

California's role 

Multiple student researchers working on the electric vehicle project commented on the need for California to move quickly and efficiently in its implementation of  zero-emission regulation. As a leader in progressive environmental policy, California serves as a model for other states who must follow suit in building out their own sustainable transportation infrastructure. The Bill Lane Center recognizes California's climate leadership role and the promise of research that may help the state optimize its clean energy efforts. The broader goal is not just California's successful transition. With other parts of the country looking to the Golden State for guidance, it plays a crucial role in shepherding the nation toward a climate resilient future.

Research on carbon dioxide removal pathways 

RA Katherine Wang, '25, has also been focusing her efforts on climate change mitigation research, working on a project related to carbon dioxide removal pathways. She has been guided by Bruce Cain and Celina Scott-Buechler, a doctoral student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources program (E-IPER). In collaboration with the think tank Data for Progress, Wang has been conducting policy research she describes as encompassing both "a natural language processing project evaluating public and stakeholder perceptions of various carbon dioxide removal pathways, and community workshops across the country on carbon dioxide removal potentials."

Research on Hawaii's renewable energy transition

In another collaborative project, Ishita Gupta, '25, has been working alongside the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to examine Hawaii's ambitious goal of achieving 100% renewable energy by 2045. She has been investigating grid stability, energy equity, and resilience on the island state.  Her research goal is to gain insight that will be helpful for other regions undertaking similar sustainable energy transitions.

A black silhouette of a hand placing a ballot in a ballot box
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Technology and public policy

Drawn to the Bill Lane Center for its focus on western governance and policy, Rizina, '24, has been immersed in work on the creation of a policy evaluation tool to promote effective governance. Rizina's guiding concern has been addressing gender injustice and social inequalities. Given the government's "crucial role in delivering essential services like education, healthcare, and infrastructure, as well as ensuring social justice, environmental sustainability, and economic productivity," Rizina finds it "immensely problematic" that there is no requirement for policy evaluations to be shared publicly. Equally troublesome is the lack of a "central repository" for policy evaluations, and "no coordination of evaluation at the whole-of-government level.” 

Rizina's project has focused on researching a technology tool to enable robust policy evaluation of government systems, particularly in Australia and the United States. She believes effective governance has been undermined by the lack of such evaluative measures, and that a digital technology solution could vastly improve government policies.

With support from the Lane Center, Rizina hopes that her summer project can allow more voices -- particularly young women's voices -- to inform the development of data- and consultation-driven policies. When asked how her research might benefit society, she wrote, "Policy evaluation, across all fields, is integral for human flourishing." 

Policy evaluation, across all fields, is integral for human flourishing.

An empty auditorium as seen from the stage, with many rows of orange theater seats and a single light shining from a tech booth.
Photo by Rudy Dong on Unsplash

Arts and humanities

Three RAs designed their own research projects in the arts and humanities, with each student exploring different aspects of the American West by way of the literary, visual, and performing arts. 

In "An artistic exploration of the western National Parks," Savannah Voth, '26, researched the artistic tradition of the American West in order to inform her own original art. The multimedia project brought Voth to several of the western National Parks where she created paintings and poems inspired by her time there. Over the course the summer, Voth was guided by age-old questions about the awe and wonder humans experience during encounters with the natural world. The beauty and majesty of the American West elicited poems, ink and watercolor sketches, and photographs inspired by the region's diverse landscapes. Of her process, Voth wrote, "Though I mainly focused on the production of original works, I started by looking at existing nature poetry and paintings to gain inspiration...At home, I refined the poems and completed several studio paintings using the photos for reference. Finally, I consolidated this work into an illustrated book of poetry, combining these two modes of engaging with the beauty of the natural landscape." 

Bethany Lorden, '26, was equally moved by western landscapes during her summer journey through the Rocky Mountains, where she researched poetry and literature written in the region. She spent time with "cowboy poets" at a "cowboy poetry conference" in Encampment, Wyoming, where conversations "continued long past the campfire jam sessions or cowboy church service." From these casual exchanges, she learned a good deal about the ranching community, and discovered that "storytelling is an integral part of mountain culture." Her research culminated in "The Poetry of the Rockies," original poems documenting her time in the mountain states. 

Chloe Chow, BA '23, MA '24, researched the history of Asian American theater production in a project called "Setting the Stage." Her work was inspired by an earlier visit to the archives at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle International District where she learned that Seattle was home to one of the first Asian American theaters in the region. During the course of her research, Chow evaluated the history of Asian American theater from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles, investigating how the aesthetics of the archival footage she watched reflected political positions of Asian Americans at the time. 

Chow also conducted oral history interviews with members of Pork Filled Productions and East West Players to contextualize the impact and production process of Asian American theater recordings in the Wing Luke archive. The aim of Chow's research was "to put all of my oral history in conversation with my performance critical analysis to discover how Asian American theater history directly impacted aesthetic choices." She hopes her discoveries will inform a future career in Asian American performing arts.

Next steps

During fall quarter 2023, Bill Lane Center RAs will present their projects before faculty and peers at a series of Friday meetings convened by Research Manager Esther Conrad. While much of the research will conclude at the end of summer quarter, several projects are ongoing and will continue to evolve. As more work is done, the Bill Lane Center will continue sharing the findings of these dedicated student researchers, many of whom are on track to be future leaders of the region and promising stewards of western land and life.

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