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Sunshine and water

Ed Quillen | Jun 08, 2009 07:02 AM

   The solar-electric generating systems in my area are "photo-voltaic." When photons from the sun strike certain materials, they give off electrons, which are then channeled to the electric grid.
    There's another way to generate electricity from sunshine: Concentrate the solar rays to heat a fluid that in turn boils water, resulting in steam that turns a turbine connected to a generator.
    In essence, it's a thermal generating plant, except that it uses sunshine for a heat source, rather than coal, natural gas, or decaying uranium.
    And like any other thermal plant, these facilities need to be cooled. This leads to a quandary. The best places for these solar thermal plants are where the sky is clear and sunny, like the Mojave Desert, and that's where water is scarcest.
    Here's a piece about this dilemma and its potential effects on the American Southwest. In short, such power plants might be new players in the old water wars.


Whoosh! Down it comes!

Emily Underwood | Jun 05, 2009 10:00 AM

I spend a fair amount of time at the HCN office reading online news, and writing blogs like this one. It's easy, when surrounded by abstractions, to feel a little bit cut off from what makes things work around here in Paonia. One quick antidote to that feeling is to go down to the river on my lunch breaks and stand on the bridge overlooking the North Fork of the Gunnison. Over the last few months, I've watched the river transform from quiet, dark, and ice-glazed--a secret under snow--to a silty torrent, flattening the willows, wrapping debris around the cement bridge pillars, and making a holy racket. Watching these changes feels like keeping my fingers on the pulse of what makes this place, not just Paonia, but Western Colorado, tick. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

An equally good reality check is to attend a local water meeting. On Monday, Jun 1st, the smell of fried chicken wafted from the annual State of the Gunnison River meeting. The room at the Holiday Inn in Montrose was so packed with farmers, water district representatives and other community members that they had to bring in extra chairs. This year, said Bob Hurford, state engineer for the Gunnison Basin, early, fast runoff has made it "kinda tough for guys trying to manage dams and irrigate." The dust blowing in from Utah and Arizona made the snow melt fast and early, filling the reservoirs to, and beyond, capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation has had to let water out as fast as possible to avoid excessive spillover. Dan Crabtree described their efforts as similar to "driving a Ferarri and hoping we don't hit any sharp turns..." 

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No entrance fees

Jeff Chen | Jun 03, 2009 07:59 AM

OK, so the Park Service didn’t put out a press release about how they’ll start allowing certain firearms in parks. But thankfully, they put one out about a few fee-free weekends this summer. That's right, you won't pay to enter "America's Best Idea" on these weekends: June 20-21, July 18-19 and August 15-16.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazaar said the waived entrance fees would allow more Americans to enjoy an affordable vacation during tough times. The fee-free weekends are also supposed to give a boost for all the communities that surround our parks.

Arches National Park - FREE
Arches National Park
Photo by Jeff Chen

Just don’t bring your gun; you can’t do that ‘til next year.


Mixups over tribal IDs

Marty Durlin | Jun 03, 2009 06:21 AM

From Walmart to the U.S.-Canadian border, Indians are encountering problems with their tribal IDs -- partly due to new laws which went into effect June 1, partly due to bureaucratic glitches, and partly because of the ongoing failure of the U.S. government to treat Native Americans fairly.

HCN reported on this problem in a story by Krista Kapralos titled Security vs. Sovereignty. Here's how NativeAmerican Legal Update explained it in a March posting:

In order to comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and the Real ID Act, travelers seeking entry into Canada from the United States must present either a current passport or a security-enhanced ID card by June 1, 2009. The federal government has provided millions of dollars to state governments to develop the chip-embedded ID cards and supporting database systems – but no money has been provided to Tribes to equip their members with the necessary cards and support.

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May Bats Prevail

Emily Underwood | Jun 02, 2009 05:01 AM

Back in March, I wrote a post about the grisly lawnmower effect wind turbines can have on bats. Well, there's some good news: a new study conducted by Iberdrola Renewables and independent conservation group Bat Conservation International found that bat death can be reduced by more than 70 percent if the turbines are turned off when wind speeds are low. Even better, the power lost from shutting turbines down at these speeds was only 2 percent of total output. As thrilling as this information is all on its own, I point to the study as an example of the collaboration and problem-solving that will be necessary for the renewables industry to live up to its promise of clean energy with minimal collateral damage. See Sarah Gilman's excellent and much commented-upon essay,  "For the Love of Wastelands" for a meta-discussion of the impacts of wind and solar.




Give me your huddled masses...

Terray Sylvester | Jun 02, 2009 03:57 AM
Filed under: The Border , Latinos

If America is the land of beckoning opportunity, Mexico is the land of bargain operations -- and cheap dental care, and sensibly-priced treatments for chronic illness. At least, that's what Mexico is to about a million Californians each year.

A group of researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles recently added another scuff mark to the travel-worn line that separates the U.S from Mexico. It's old news that many Americans buy antibiotics south of the border, but according to the latest findings, nearly 500,000 of the Californians who cross the border each year on health-related errands are actually Mexican immigrants. Their reasons are somewhat varied, but in the end the situation pretty much boils down to dollars. Mexican immigrants might find work in the U.S., but relatively few find health insurance. Even after living north of the border for 15 years or longer, as many as 30 percent lack general medical insurance and nearly 50 percent lack dental coverage. Those numbers are roughly double the corresponding figures for non-immigrant Caucasians.

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Salmon scuffle

Sarah Gilman | Jun 01, 2009 01:50 AM

If you've been following the comment stream on High Country News' recent two part series on salmon ("Columbia Basin (Political) Science," by Steve Hawley, and "Salmon Salvation," by Ken Olsen), then you know how fired up people can get about fish. That includes, of course, the authors of the articles and the primary agencies involved. The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells low-cost electricity from many of the dams in the Columbia Basin, has protested both stories. We ran the agency's first letter, along with Hawley's response, in the print magazine. The letter the agency sent in response to Olsen's story was so similar to the first we decided not to run it in print. But we'd still like readers to see what the agency had to say, and we invited Olsen to respond in kind. Definitely worth the read:

Salmon simplification (BPA's letter)

Ken Olsen responds



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BLM's unheroic response to civil disobedience

Michael Wolcott | May 29, 2009 04:26 AM

"One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” – Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In the Alabama of the mid-nineteen sixties, Martin Luther King could see the arc of history bending before him. He knew that the South’s real heroes were people like Rosa Parks, who defied the law because she wanted to make a better world.

In today’s Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is apparently not so visionary. The BLM’s wildly inconsistent responses to two recent civil-disobedience cases suggest that the agency is as far out of touch with America’s direction now as George Wallace and Bull Connor were in 1963.

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Adopt a stimulus project

Marty Durlin | May 28, 2009 07:25 AM

Affirming that "investigative journalism is at risk," ProPublica began publishing a year ago. A nonprofit newsroom in Manhattan led by Paul Steiger (former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal) and Stephen Engelberg (former managing editor of Portland's Oregonian and once an investigative reporter at the New York Times), ProPublica is bankrolled by the Sandler Foundation to the tune of $10 million a year and employs 32 journalists. Stories are offered to traditional news organizations, free of charge, and then appear on the ProPublica website after a period of exclusivity.

Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

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Confessions of a trespasser

Ed Quillen | May 28, 2009 06:40 AM

    My favorite dog-walking trail near town has just undergone another transformation from the federal Bureau of Land Management. A new sign sprouted on a post at its start a few days ago: ROUTE CLOSED. And then, a few days later, the post and sign were gone.
    Before March of this year, it was just a bone-jarring mud-holed rock-ridden chunk of dead-end road that twisted for less than a mile between the railroad tracks and the Arkansas River about two miles downstream from Salida. Then the BLM planted a post in it, announcing it was closed to motorized vehicles.
    That post was knocked down, and there were complaints about diminished access.
    The BLM put up a new post, but a few days ago, the agency changed the sign from "No motorized vehicles allowed" to ROUTE CLOSED.
    What happened?
    The BLM does not want to encourage people to trespass on railroad property, and this route did wander across some railroad land at various points. Thus the new sign.
    Some history is in order. The line was built by the Denver & Rio Grande in 1880. The D&RG was not a "land grant railroad" like the Union Pacific or Northern Pacific, wherein the federal government  subsidized construction by issuing vast tracts (generally alternate sections for ten miles out from both sides of the tracks) that the railroad could then sell.
    But where the D&RG crossed public lands, all the federal government gave it was a right-of-way that extended 100 feet on both sides of the center line of the track. It shows up on old maps as a "railroad reservation" because the land was "reserved" from other uses, like mining claims or homesteads, along the same lines as Indian reservations or military reservations.
    As the BLM implemented its travel management plan for this area earlier this year, determining which routes would be open to motorized vehicles, the agency recently discovered that this trail, as it wound along the river, also wound across railroad land.
    Apparently no one had really noticed before because there's a barbed-wire fence (not in good repair) between the tracks and the road. But the fence, as it turns out, was just to keep cattle off the tracks; it didn't indicate the property boundary.
    As for the property owner, the original D&RG became the Denver & Rio Grande Western, which became part of the Southern Pacific in 1988. In 1996, the Southern Pacific was merged into the Union Pacific, and the UP decided to close the "Tennessee Pass Line" through here. The last train over these tracks ran in early 1999 to haul the last load of lead and zinc concentrates from the Black Cloud Mine near Leadville as it shut down.
    In railroad parlance, the line is not abandoned; instead it is "out of service." The rails remain in place, but they are covered with rust and sit atop rotting cross-ties on a weedy roadbed dotted with sporadic small rockslides.
    If the UP actually used the land it owns for its intended purpose of providing transportation, that would be one thing. But as it is, I plan to keep walking my dog there. I'll take my chances on getting arrested for trespassing by the railroad cops.
    As for the post and sign that vanished a couple of days ago, I called the BLM, figuring there had been yet another development and perhaps the BLM was washing its hands of this troublesome portion of the travel-management plan. But no, the post and ROUTE CLOSED should have been there. Some vandal had pulled out the post, and the BLM plans to replace it.

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