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California gears up to fine water wasters: Should we turn our neighbors in?

Judith Lewis Mernit | Jul 17, 2014 07:50 AM

Five years ago, when south-central Texas was suffering through its driest year in more than a century, public officials in the city of San Antonio turned in desperation to a new tactic to enforce water conservation: They dispatched the police. From April of 2009 and on through the rest of the year, off-duty officers and other city employees prowled neighborhoods looking for over-green lawns, leaky hoses and inveterate sidewalk-washers, issuing tickets to observed offenders. The city also set up an online form residents could use to report their neighbors, just in case the authorities let one slide.

"We don't go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that,” San Antonio Water System spokeswoman Anne Hayden said back then. “But we do take the report and send out a letter saying, 'You've been reported for not following water rules.'"

Sprinkler on the sidewalk. Photograph by Flickr user Jeremy Price.

The gambit may have seemed extreme at the time, but it worked. The city used no more water in 2009 than it did in 1984, even with nearly twice the population. By 2011, the “water police,” along with other aggressive conservation policies, had driven the city’s water use down 130 gallons per person per day — about two-thirds of the state average. San Antonio’s now-permanent conservation ordinance has kept the water level in the Edwards aquifer stable enough to sustain both an endangered blind salamander and the city’s drinking water supply through successive years of drought.

In California, state and local officials have long been mulling a way to achieve a similar kind of success, and persuade the state’s residents to stop wasting water in this third driest year of the century. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, asking the state’s residents politely to reduce their water use by 20 percent. It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up.

So on Tuesday, the State Water Control Board decided more draconian measures were in order. The agency directed local jurisdictions that don’t already have mandatory water restrictions in place to adopt them: No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers. And it authorized local agencies to fine water scofflaws as much as $500 per day.

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This hummingbird's survival hinges on precipitation, new study shows

Sarah Tory | Jul 16, 2014 04:05 PM

Every year, the rufous hummingbird – a tiny fire-colored ball of feathers that weighs just three grams – flies up to 3,900 miles from its winter home in Mexico all the way to Alaska. At about three inches long, the rufous takes one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird its size. Over the past several decades, however, the feisty hummingbird has suffered: its numbers are declining at a rate of 3 percent per year, and now, scientists have a new theory as to why.

The rufous hummingbird is declining by 3 percent a year. Scientists believe drier conditions in the West are largely to blame. Photography by Flickr user Andrew Reding.

Most scientific studies have focused on the fact that warmer temperatures push some birds into higher, cooler elevations and latitudes, but there’s no consensus yet about how climate-driven changes in rain and snowfall will impact them. Yet newly published research that looked at climate impacts to 132 bird species across five western states and British Columbia, suggests that precipitation plays a surprisingly important role for many bird species, and particularly, for the rufous’ long-term survival.

“The findings suggest that many birds tune into things that are controlled not by temperature but (mostly by) moisture availability, which carries over from the winter snowpack,” said Julia Jones, a geoscience professor at Oregon State University who participated in the study. According to the report, rain and snow trends had major impacts on the population patterns of 60 percent of the bird species studied.

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Grasshopper plagues: agricultural nightmare or ecological boon?

Krista Langlois | Jul 15, 2014 12:35 PM

In early June, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were puzzled: There was a big splotch on the radar that didn’t look like any weather system they’d ever seen. Maybe their software had a bug?

Turns out, the dark green blob hovering over Albuquerque wasn’t a software glitch at all but a giant swarm of grasshoppers. John Garlisch, an agricultural extension agent at New Mexico State University, told Modern Farmer that the state’s dry winter allowed more grasshopper eggs than usual to hatch this spring, and the ongoing drought has caused a dearth of fresh growth on rural rangeland, forcing the swarm to take flight in search of greener pastures. The well-watered gardens of Albuquerque must’ve looked mighty appealing.

By now, the grasshoppers have mostly died of natural causes or been eaten by cats, says forecaster Brent Wachter of the National Weather Service. But this summer’s incident raises the question: As climate change continues to impact weather patterns across the West, will grasshopper swarms big enough to show up on Doppler radar become a more regular concern? And if so, how concerned should we be?

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The water-energy nexus could become a collision in a warming world

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 11, 2014 03:15 AM

If you thought fracking was a water-guzzling and violent way to get the oil and gas flowing from shale, then you should check out oil shale* retorting. Earlier this month, details were made public regarding an oil shale project Chevron proposes for western Colorado. Of particular note was the amount of energy and water it will take to produce 100,000 barrels of oil per day. If you think about it, it makes about as much sense as melting down five quarters to make a silver dollar.

In 2012, Chevron announced it was ceasing its oil shale research operations to focus on other things. However, the company continued to pursue water rights associated with the project. Boulder-based environmental group Western Resource Advocates wondered why, and took Chevron to court to find out. It turns out they still want to develop oil shale by strip mining the shale and then using Staged Turbulent Bed retorting, which “processes mined and crushed oil shale rock to remove the shale oil by heat transfer … accomplished by mixing spent oil shale, which has been heated (to temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in a separate combuster, with fresh shale, causing the fresh shale to decompose and release the shale oil,” as it's described in the Chevron documents. They’re planning on cooking a bunch of rocks, in other words, and that requires water.

In order to cool and condense the steam in its turbines, the Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico built Morgan Reservoir on an arid mesa next to the plant. Windsurfers can occasionally be seen enjoying the warmed waters of the lake. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Chevron says it will need 16,000 acre feet — or 5.2 billion gallons — of water per year to retort 100,000 barrels of oil per day, or about three-and-a-half gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced. An additional 8,000 acre feet per year will be needed to slake the thirst of their man camps, serve other purposes and, the other crazy part of all of this, generate energy. Chevron estimates that they’ll need a 375-megawatt natural gas fired power plant to generate the heat required to retort the shale. The power plant, in turn, will require 2,520 acre feet of water per year to operate. The Chevron documents suggest they may try to produce as much as 500,000 barrels per day, meaning they’d need about 120,000 acre feet of water in all, more than one-third of Las Vegas’ allotted share of the Colorado River.

In the documents, Chevron admits that the whole endeavor remains economically unfeasible, and thus has no plans to start mining shale anytime soon. But the details are telling because they shine a light on the water-energy nexus. That is, it takes a lot of water to produce most sources of energy. And moving and treating water requires a lot of energy, which takes a lot of water, which… well, you get the picture. As the world warms and potentially dries up, says a recent report from the Department of Energy, the water-energy nexus is likely to pose challenges, and the connection could become a full-fledged collision.

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Lake Mead watch: At lowest levels since 1937

Sarah Tory | Jul 10, 2014 11:35 AM

For almost two decades, the white band of mineral deposits circling Arizona’s Lake Mead like a bathtub ring, has grown steadily taller, a sign that America’s largest manmade water source is in deep trouble. This week it fell to its lowest level since 1937, when Hoover Dam was completed and the reservoir filled.

The white bathtub ring around Lake Mead shows how much water levels have fallen in recent years. Credit: Chris Richards/Flickr.

The record-setting mark of 1,082 feet  is just seven feet shy of the level that would spur more strict water rationing. It's the latest indication of  a worrisome trend affecting the Colorado River Basin: an unholy mix of drought exacerbated by climate change and increasing water use that’s leaving 40 million people who depend on the river for their drinking water and an entire region of water dependent industries thirstier than ever.

Water in Lake Mead has been dropping steadily since 1998, the last year in which the reservoir was near capacity. Currently it’s just 39 percent full, a number that the Bureau of Reclamation predicts will continue to drop.

There’s a 50 percent chance that by 2017, water levels in Lake Mead will have fallen below 1,075 feet, the amount needed to trigger water use restrictions for Arizona and Nevada. Those two states will be rationed first, out of the seven that share Colorado River water.

So you’d think that the seven states that rely on the Colorado River would be working frantically to reduce the amount of water they take out of the river.  Well, not quite. Despite diminishing river flows and climate change models that indicate more intense and frequent dry spells, a growing population throughout the West mean most of the cities and water districts in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are planning to use more Colorado River water, not less.

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Pebble Mine: Alaska sides with mining corporation, tribes back EPA

Krista Langlois | Jul 08, 2014 12:15 PM

Victories in clean air and energy politics may be among the Obama Administration’s lasting legacies, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t been getting much love from rural communities lately. Here in western Colorado coal-mining country, a hand-painted sign reflects the opinion of many local miners: “Frack the EPA and the war on energy!” In Idaho last week, demonstrators illegally dredged a protected stretch of the Salmon River to protest EPA permits for mining in Western watersheds. Since January, Kansas and seven other rural states have passed symbolic measures opposing the EPA’s new power-plant emission standards, and since 2010 Texas has spent millions in taxpayer dollars on more than a dozen (mostly unsuccessful) lawsuits against the agency.

Yet in rural Alaska, where sentiment against federal oversight runs deep, a group of remote residents are actually siding with the EPA. Not only that, they’re joining the agency in fighting a powerful lawsuit filed against it.

That’s the latest news in the saga of Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit copper mine proposed in western Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. Local tribes and commercial fishermen fear the mine could destroy one of the world’s most prolific salmon runs, and in 2010, tribes petitioned the EPA to invoke a seldom-used power under the Clean Water Act to block development. This April, after a federal environmental assessment concluded the mine could indeed harm salmon habitat, the EPA took the first steps to begin using the Clean Water Act to halt the mine.

But Pebble Mine has the potential to dig $300 billion in minerals from an undeveloped part of the state, and despite being on shaky financial ground after a series of major investors yanked their support in the past year, the Pebble Partnership isn’t going down without a fight. They’ve sued the EPA for overstepping its boundaries. Last month, Republican Governor Sean Parnell announced the state will back the lawsuit – hardly surprising given Parnell’s history of stalwart support for resource development.

Pebble boat
Commercial fishermen and Bristol Bay Native tribes vehemently oppose Pebble Mine, but the state of Alaska has backed the Pebble Partnership in a lawsuit seeking to stop the EPA from stopping the mine. Photo courtesy Flickr user echoforsberg.

Now, the 13 tribes that make up the United Tribes of Bristol Bay are throwing their weight behind the EPA. It’s shaping up to be an epic fight. On one side: an embattled federal agency, a grassroots environmental campaign and coalition of Native tribes – the likes of whom don’t exactly have a strong record of being treated fairly by the government. On the other, a pro-business governor up for re-election in a strongly red state and a weakened-but-still-swinging international mining corporation desperate for investors.

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Interior commits to bison restoration – but offers few specifics

Jodi Peterson | Jul 08, 2014 09:25 AM

Bison have pretty much been “odd ungulate out” when it comes to restoration efforts. Deer and elk are found throughout the West, and bighorn sheep and mountain goats are relatively widespread as well. But there are just a handful of  free-roaming, genetically pure herds of bison in North America – today most of the gigantic, shaggy beasts are confined to ranches, destined to become buffalo burgers. And almost all of those ranch bison carry cattle genes, thanks to cross-breeding efforts to make them more docile and better suited for meat production.

Attempts to give wild bison more habitat in which to wander have met with strong opposition from ranchers and their political supporters, who fear the animals will spread disease and compete for forage (one Montana legislator called them “this creeping cancer, these woolly tanks”, and compared their restoration to bringing back dinosaurs).

But the Department of Interior recently released a report that commits to restoring bison on selected public and tribal lands – and not just as a few token animals here and there, but at scale, in numbers sufficient that they can once again fulfill their role as a keystone herbivore.  The report isn't an actual plan for carrying out such restoration though, and doesn't include timetables -- it's more like a wish list.

The agency first proposed returning bison to their rightful place on the landscape back in 2008, and has taken some steps in that direction, like establishing a herd in the Book Cliffs of Utah. In 2012 then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed his department to identify public and tribal lands where bison from Yellowstone could be moved, with the goal of expanding the number of wild, genetically pure bison (today there are less than 10,000).

Bison grazing near Antelope State Park in Utah. Photograph by Flickr user Matt Peoples.

The long-awaited report commits to collaborating with tribes to restore bison to tribal lands; it also stresses cooperation with states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers and ranchers. To resolve the long-standing Yellowstone bison issue (described in our story “The Killing Fields”), the report proposes stocking suitable public lands with quarantined animals – once a bull or cow has been certified as free of brucellosis (which causes cows to abort) it could then be moved to a new area. Yellowstone scientists say that within five years, they could have bison with a clean bill of health ready to move.

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Nuclear Los Alamos, America’s best place to live?

Krista Langlois | Jul 02, 2014 05:00 AM

We all love contemplating what makes a place worth living in. For some, it’s jobs and schools. For others, it’s recreation or the environment, or a reasonable cost of living. But whatever your criteria, one thing’s certain: In the transient, often rootless culture of the American West, the search for the Big Rock Candy Mountain is endless—and sometimes hard.

Luckily, the New York Times has done some legwork for us. Last week, the paper crunched stats about education, household income, unemployment, disability, life expectancy and obesity for each county in the U.S. and created this interactive map, ranking where Americans are doing well and where we’re struggling.

The criteria seek to measure quality-of-life factors that go beyond simple GDP, though they fall short of addressing environmental quality or social mobility, mostly because such data wasn’t consistently available. Still, the map paints a stark picture. Six of the ten roughest places to live are in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky. In the West, low-ranking counties are in Navajo Nation, interior Alaska, central California and other impoverished rural areas you might expect.

There were also some surprises. Despite Wyoming’s reputation as a stark place to call home, the state did well across the board: not a single county there ranked below average. But the biggest surprise may be the county that grabbed the numero uno, best-place-to-live title. It’s in the West, yes. But if you’re thinking Boulder, think again. San Francisco? Nope.

Think desert. Think… nukes.

Yep — the highest quality of life in the U.S. could be in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a tiny 109-square-mile county northwest of Santa Fe, population 18,000, birthplace of the Manhattan Project. There, PhDs cluster in such high numbers that anyone with a master’s can feel like a second-class citizen. Sixty-three percent of residents have a college education (the national average is 28 percent), unemployment is 3.5 percent (the national average is 6.3 percent) and folks there can expect to live a few years longer than elsewhere in the country.

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The transformative power of... efficiency

Judith Lewis Mernit | Jul 01, 2014 10:30 AM

As streamlined shorebirds rose and dove amid sailboats in San Diego’s Mission Bay one recent afternoon, scores of energy wonks gathered in the over-cooled ballrooms of the Hyatt Regency. They'd come to deliberate on the impending disruption to the conventional electrical industry, brought on by tightening carbon restrictions and ever more people making electricity on their rooftops. Some had products to sell, others had ideas to circulate, still others, from utilities and public agencies, just wanted people to understand what they're up against.

“Avoiding chaos,” as one utility manager put it, “is a major concern.”

efficient light bulb
A Phillips LED light bulb that uses just eight watts to shine the light of 40. Photo by David Dodge of Green Energy Futures.

Greentech Media’s first ever  “Grid Edge” conference, held over two days in the last week of June, brought together entrepreneurs marketing the very latest in energy storage technology and rooftop solar installation strategies with representatives from utilities, regulators and big thinkers on energy. Much of the conference, however, wasn’t about all the cool stuff: zinc-bromine flow batteries, new materials for photovoltaic cells, advances in automated nanogrids. Some of it, in fact, was not about how to produce or store electricity at all. Instead, it was preoccupied with a much simpler question: How can we use less energy, and more efficiently?

Outside the conference, over tea at a tiny table draped with bright green cloth, Sam Krasnow, vice president of regulatory affairs for a company called FirstFuel, explained to me why that should be. FirstFuel uses big data to conduct mass audits of commercial buildings; a useful service, it turns out, as efficiency is hard to pin numbers on. Forty-seven states have some sort of energy efficiency program in place, and utilities have to report back to regulators on their savings. Watching energy providers strain under the burden of accounting for waste and savings got Krasnow to leave his East Coast life as an attorney and eventually join FirstFuel.

“Utilities were rolling trucks to do energy audits and they couldn’t keep up,” he told me. Without a big technological solution to the audit problem, “the whole policy project would fall apart.”

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Want a walkable community? Start with the main drag

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 30, 2014 11:35 AM

At first glance, I suppose nothing appears to be amiss with the scene in this photograph. It’s Main Ave., the primary business and tourist district of Durango, Colorado. But it could be any number of mid-sized Western towns.

Durango, Colorado's Main Avenue looks like a lot of Western towns' main drags. While it's not hostile to pedestrians and bikers, it's also not as friendly as it could be. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

The town has done an admirable job retaining its historic integrity and aesthetics of the architecture and has managed to mitigate the threats from the big-box stores that have metastasized on the town’s fringe. Yes, Main Ave. lost its hardware store, furniture stores, Woolworths and a couple of pharmacies to high-end restaurants, tacky T-shirt shops and cheesy galleries, but “real” businesses, aimed toward locals, remain. Empty storefronts don’t stay vacant for long, despite high rents, and the seven-block stretch is usually pretty vibrant. Many of the buildings have residential or office spaces in the upper stories. Every 20 minutes the bus comes by, ferrying passengers to and from the other end of town for free.

To a degree, it’s the type of mixed-use downtown that many communities are striving for these days, as our love affair with the suburbs and the exurbs, the McMansions, culs-de-sac and ranchettes, fades. But look a bit closer and you’ll see that even Durango, with its passion for bicycles and outdoor recreation, still has a long ways to go.

Demographers tell us that both Millennials and Baby Boomers are bailing on the ‘burbs, giving up their interminable commutes, and heading for the bike-able, walkable urban cores. It represents a shift in the way we relate to each other and our communities as a whole: We are ready to give up being ensconced in backyard or behind the wheel, and get out into the public spaces to interact with others. The trend not only holds for urban areas, but also for mid-sized towns like Durango, where real estate values generally decrease as one moves away from the city center.

A city government has a variety of tools it can use to promote bike- and walk-ability: It can give incentives for infill development, relax height limitations in downtown areas to encourage density, and change zoning rules to allow for more mixed-use neighborhoods. But the most powerful tool is the way it uses its roads: streets, highways, bike paths, sidewalks, light rail and the like. Just as roads can influence where and how development happens, they can also change the shape of a community. Here in Durango, the quality of life jumped noticeably after the riverside bike/foot path was all linked up several years ago. When the city revamped a rough and nasty artery by adding big sidewalks, generous bike lanes, a roundabout and tree-filled medians, it not only made for a safer and more pleasant drive/bike/walk along the route, but also upped the desirability of the neighborhoods alongside it.

It's time to extend the courtesy to the heart of the city, its downtown.

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