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Harvesting grievances

Ariana Brocious | Oct 01, 2009 09:15 AM

All summer long, farmers in California’s Central Valley have complained about their parched fields—one even likened their communities to tumbleweeds about to blow away—and they blame their thirsty crops on fish.  Endangered Species Act protections for smelt and salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta limit the amount of water pumped out of Northern California, much of which goes to agriculture.

But these struggling farmers, and others in the West, are getting some attention from Obama’s administration this week.

On Wednesday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he would ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the scientific reasoning behind the ESA limits on Northern California water pumping. The LA Times reports:

“State water officials say most of the delivery cuts from the delta are the result of drought—not the fish protections—but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Central Valley congressmen have repeatedly denounced the endangered species restrictions as placing fish above people.”

Salazar asked the academy to find out if there are other fish protection measures that would use less water, but remarked that it was “wrong to blame California’s water problems on environmental regulation.” And one columnist argues that both farmers and fishermen are in the same "dry-docked" boat, since water shortages have heavily affected both industries--keeping farm fields fallow and the salmon season closed for a second consecutive year.

Meanwhile, Hispanic farmers in New Mexico aired their discrimination complaints when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Las Cruces, N.M., on Wednesday. Vilsack listened to the concerns of southern New Mexico farmers, who said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency had administered loans and service to white farmers first, causing many Hispanic farmers to lose their land or crops because of delayed loans. Vilsack said he was aware of the situation but that  “his hands were tied by the judicial system,” according to the Associated Press.

A lawsuit filed by farmers in 2000 charges the USDA with “rampant discrimination in the administration of USDA loan programs,” and a court meeting on Oct. 13 will assess any progress in the suit. Plaintiff’s attorney Stephen Hill said the case has been “stonewalled” by the USDA and Department of Justice, reported the AP.

“Each farmer out there had the same story about discrimination,” David Cantu (a Texas farmer) said. “I commend the secretary and we know he is not the cause of these problems. But fortunately, it has fallen on his administration to make it right.”

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Snowpacks melting sooner

Ed Quillen | Sep 28, 2009 06:55 AM

    Why are mountain snowpacks melting sooner these days?
    Part of it may be climate change associated with increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but there's something else in the air -- dust (a/k/a airborne particulate matter).
    Snow reflects sunlight quite well, as evidenced by the blinding glare it produces and the phenomenon of snow-blindness.
    Put a layer of dust atop the snow, though, and more of the sun's energy is absorbed, rather than reflected. The absorbed solar energy makes the snow melt faster (see our story "Dust and Snow").
    And in recent years, as shown by sediment layers in western ponds and lakes, humans have greatly increased the amount of dust in the air, leading to earlier melting.
    This has major implications for water managers who rely on alpine snowbanks for storage, and there's more in this article.

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California's State Parks: No New Closures

Judith Lewis Mernit | Sep 25, 2009 12:40 PM

In July, after $14.2 million was cut from the California State Parks' operating budget, it looked like up to 100 parks might have to close to make ends meet. Park supporters have thus spent the last few months anxiously speculating about which parks would fall to Governor Schwarzenegger's death panels. But today they got a reprieve.

Sort of.

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Claws out for big cat protection

Ariana Brocious | Sep 25, 2009 03:07 AM

Macho B's death, contentious and untimely, could also be criminal. 

The capture, collaring and euthanization of America’s last known wild jaguar in March was illegal, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, who brought a lawsuit against Arizona Game and Fish Department yesterday. The Center asserts that AZ Game and Fish did not have the required permits to allow the capture of endangered jaguars, and seeks to prevent the state agency from any other similar captures until it gets all the necessary permits.

This lawsuit is separate from a criminal investigation of Macho B’s treatment that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook in April, which will look into "all aspects of the incident." Tucson congressman Raul Grijalva, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife pushed for a federal investigation after concerns were raised regarding whether Macho B's capture was intentional or not, reported the Arizona Daily Star, which has been following the issue.

“We hope that the Fish and Wildlife Service will seek accountability and justice for the loss of the last known jaguar in United States,” said Michael Robinson of the Center. “Our suit is about preventing future harm to jaguars in the United States,” according to the press release.

While protection and appropriate treatment of the iconic feline is admirable and important, it's unfortunate that this comes after the killing of the last known wild one, which ultimately may have been unnecessary: Was our last wild jaguar euthanized by mistake?


Is the Pioneer doomed?

Marty Durlin | Sep 23, 2009 05:30 AM

What a pleasure it was to ride Amtrak's Pioneer route, which ran from Salt Lake City to Boise, through Oregon to Portland and north to Seattle. The route operated from 1977 to 1997, hooking up with the California Zephyr to service riders in Colorado.

I remember one fabulous trip to LaGrande, Oregon, getting off at the old train station there, direct from Denver -- whereas now I fly into Boise and drive several hours to eastern Oregon in order to pay a visit. A long train ride with a sleeping berth is just about heaven for travelers. There's the soothing rhythm of wheels on tracks, the dining car with its bright white linen tablecloths, the club car with its easy camaraderie, and -- best of all -- lying on a sleeping berth watching the moon move in and out of clouds as you roll across the open country, drifting into sleep like a baby being rocked by mama.

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Light bulbs and big government

Ed Quillen | Sep 22, 2009 07:20 AM

    The precise number of people who recently rallied in Washington, D.C., for a national "tea party" is hard to come by. Left-wing reports have it at less than a hundred thousand participants, while some right-wingers put it over a million.
    Whatever the count, it was refreshing that so many people were concerned about "out-of-control government." It would be easier to take them seriously if they had marched eight years ago to oppose warrantless wire-taps, indefinite detentions, torture and the like, but better late than never.
    One persistent big-government complaint I've encountered concerns our familiar incandescent light bulbs. In 2007, Congress passed a law mandating new efficiency standards. It didn't exactly outlaw incandescent lamps, but no such bulb on the market then could meet the standard -- which was easily met by the odd-looking compact fluorescent bulbs.
    Why would anyone object to a lower electric bill from more efficient lighting? I don't recall any anger about the improved efficiency standards for electric refrigerators that took effect in 1993.
    Well, there are some people who get headaches from fluorescent bulbs. They've never bothered me -- my indoor work history includes many hours under sickly blue-tinged light in newspaper offices and industrial laundry washrooms -- and such headaches as I suffered had nothing to do with the light.
    But I am married to a woman who sometimes reacts adversely to bluish fluorescents, and I prefer the warm yellow glow of incandescents. Neither of us, however, is fond of paying any more than necessary to Xcel Energy. We've replaced most household incandescents with CFLs that mimic the warm glow, and so far, it's worked out pretty well. The light has a tone that pleases me, it doesn't give Martha headaches, and we consume less electricity.
    Further, I read that the incandescent lamp is becoming more efficient, and the new ones will meet the 2012 standards.
    Even so, there's still the complaint that "the damn government is telling us what kind of light bulbs to use."
    And I thought "doesn't the government already tell us what kind of light to use?" For instance, our Victorian forebears used gas lights, and surely they're illegal now, given the heat and fire hazard.
    Some nosing around the Internet produced a site devoted to gas lights, which pointed out some modern safety features that shut off the gas if the flame goes out, so that the building doesn't turn into a bomb. It also said their legality is determined by local building codes.
    I called Bill Paradise, a Chaffee County, Colo. building inspector (the office also conducts inspections in our county's three municipalities).
    He told me that your insurance company might have problems if you used gas lights, but they're allowed under the International Building Code used here and in many other jurisdictions.
    Blinding electric arc lights? No problem with the building code, he said, and the same held for hot halogen lamps, kerosene and gasoline lanterns, lime lights (hydrogen and oxygen aimed at calcium oxide, used in 19th-century theaters and thus the phrase "in the limelight"), acetylene, candles, whatever other illumination I could think of.
    He said the only lighting measure in the International Building Code used by the county was a requirement that recessed lighting fixtures be sealed.
    Thus I was wrong when I thought that "the government" already regulated what kinds of lighting you could use in your own home.
    And if you're really fond of those inefficient incandescent bulbs that turn 90 percent of their electricity into heat rather than the light you want, you can still use them -- you'll just need to stock up now, or develop a black-market connection, because someday soon you won't be able to buy them legally, and they do burn out.


Relocation is a loaded term

Arla Shephard | Sep 18, 2009 09:51 AM

There has been little noise made about the EPA's relocation of seven Navajo families living near the former Church Rock uranium mine in northwestern New Mexico. Scouring the Internet, I could only find one brief article in the Gallup Independent

The news was brought to my attention last week, when Cally Carswell and I met with youth activists in Albuquerque on a reporting trip focusing on environmental justice. 

"[The EPA] told families they had to move two to three weeks before they were moved," says Leona Morgan, a youth activist who grew up on the Navajo reservation. "They didn't know where, or if they were going to get a food stipend." 

The families who were moved live nearest to the 97,000 cubic yards of contaminated top soil that General Electric and United Nuclear Corp. are spending $5 million to remove. The EPA's decision to relocate the families for five months to hotels in Gallup came as a surprise to other residents of the area, primarily because the decision seemed so haphazard, Morgan says.

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Sen. Baucus' healthcare plan

Marty Durlin | Sep 16, 2009 07:53 AM

The political comedian Bill Maher this week told President Obama to act on behalf of the "70 percent of Americans who are not crazy" and go ahead with his agenda, instead of trying to please enough Republicans to make a bill bipartisan.

The Democratic senator from Montana, Max Baucus, might heed this advice as well. For more than a year, according to the New York Times, the chair of the senate finance committee has been crafting a compromise health care bill, working the last three months with a bipartisan group known as the gang of six. His unveiling of the 223-page bill today found him alone at the podium, without a single supporter. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine -- the Republican half of the gang -- said the bill doesn't meet their demands, while the Democratic senators seemed underwhelmed: Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico issued a statement saying the bill isn't perfect (he wants a public option), and Kent Conrad of North Dakota called it a "good start."

Over at, which is following the political circus surrounding the health care issue blow by blow, Kos raged:

Baucus allowed the GOP to delay health care reform in a bullshit effort to find "common ground". Baucus was played, yet he ended up conceding much in exchange for zero.

Pollster Nate Silver had this to say:

...let's be clear -- some of this is Baucus's chickens coming home to roost. When you make a unilateral decision to negotiate with only five other people from a 23-person committee and 100-person Senate, and two of those five people have clear electoral disincentives against supporting any plan that you might come up with, the negotiations are liable to end in failure far more often than not. The flurry of on-the-record statements against Baucus's reform plans -- not "leaks", not trial balloons -- points toward a defective process.

Ultimately, not even Baucus stood up for his plan. Today at the senator's own website, mum was the word. Not a single press release noted the release of the proposed legislation, so long in coming.




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Bright sunshiny day

Ariana Brocious | Sep 15, 2009 10:35 AM

Arizona has more clear, sunny days than any other state in the West. In the summer months, sheets of mirage-casting heat waves pour down across expansive miles of desert. Yet for years this sunny state has lagged in developing its solar industry, relying instead on coal and nuclear power. Recently, though, that’s started to change.

Tucson Electric Power announced today that it is seeking bids for land to build a “utility scale” solar plant near Tucson, along with a few smaller installations that combined could power 727 homes, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Union Distributing Co. also recently announced plans to build solar plants in Tucson and Phoenix to generate up to 85 percent of its own energy. When completed, the combined sites “will rank as the third-largest privately-owned power plant in the state,” reported the Arizona Daily Star. Distributed solar is taking off as well, thanks to deregulation of residential solar installations in Mesa and Gilbert, where “American Solar Electric, one of the Valley’s largest installers, projects it will install 700 to 900 residential systems in 2009,” reported the Arizona Republic.

In July, the state legislature passed a bill meant to spur renewable energy manufacturing through tax credits and incentives. This should attract more manufacturing plants and jobs to Arizona instead of California or Oregon, both of which already have strong solar manufacturing industries and more attractive state incentives:
Federal incentives have helped boost Arizona’s solar industry, along with supportive legislation like the recent American Clean Energy and Security Act, which requires electric utilities to meet 20% of their electricity demand through renewable energy sources by 2020.

All of this is good news for the state economy too, which has been struggling to balance the budget with a $3 billion revenue shortfall. And Arizona leads the nation in employment loss over the past 12 months, according to a Wall Street Journal blog.

Renewable energy manufacturing plants like solar would not only capitalize on the state’s abundant natural resource but provide important jobs and revenue to get Arizona back on track.



See HCN’s recent story on solar taking the place of timber in Washington.

Graph from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.


Lawless future indeed

Jodi Peterson | Sep 15, 2009 05:56 AM

Our recent story "Lawless future" described the Road Warrior-esque state of some of California's state parks. The state's budget problems meant that parks lost nearly $40 million this year. Short on staffing and law enforcement, many parks saw a surge in vandalism and illegal activity; nonetheless, the state is planning to shut down several parks altogether to save money and further reduce services at others. 

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