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Drone improves emergency response in Wyoming floods

Christi Turner | Mar 20, 2014 10:30 AM

Brandon Yule, a volunteer firefighter in Worland, Wyo., was called to the scene of the Big Horn River flood at 7 a.m. An ice jam under a bridge had apparently caused the river to rise overnight, and water was starting to flood nearby homes. But by 9 a.m., Yule and the team still couldn’t get a view of what was causing the water to continue to rise. “I thought it would be an opportune time to request from the incident commander that I retrieve my Quadcopter” – his personal drone – “to send it up and see if we could see what the extent of the event was,” he said.

Yule returned with his drone, took a few minutes to prepare it for launch, and sent it out over the Big Horn River to survey the scene of the flood. Thus was a hobby drone effectively drafted into an official emergency response team in Washakie County for the first time ever. And it pulled its weight: The drone got a view of the flooding in a quicker, cheaper and more flexible manner than resources would typically allow. Flying above the swelling river, the lightweight drone captured high-definition photo and video with its GoPro camera, showing officials what they couldn’t see from the ground – the extent of the flooding, the size and location of more ice jams clogging the river in other places – and helping them plan their next moves, like whether to evacuate residential areas, where to lay sandbags and which towns to inform downstream. And all this, without resorting to the expensive, complex and inherently risky measure of a helicopter flight, and without wasting time.

(Video courtesy Brandon Yule.)

The Star-Tribune reports officials from Wyoming’s National Guard and Office of Homeland Security who were on hand for the response got an impromptu demonstration of the potential for this type of drone in disaster management. “They were all amazed at the technology and how well it worked to see what we couldn't from the ground,” Yule said. The extent of that technology: A Quadcopter drone equipped with a GoPro camera, and a live video feed to a 7" screen hooked to Yule’s remote control on the ground – all for about $1,600.

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Permian Basin: America’s newest fracking boom where there's not much water

Emily Guerin | Mar 19, 2014 10:40 PM

In the early 1980s, it wasn’t so uncommon for a visitor to Midland, Texas, to saunter off his private jet and into a Rolls Royce dealership. Eight Midland oil barons made it onto Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, “an amazing statistic considering that the city’s population was only 70,000,” notes Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth.

It was the height of the oil boom in the Permian Basin, a geologic formation that underlies southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. The Permian was a place where newly drilled oil wells spurted into the sky, producing 600 or more barrels of oil a day. But by 1983, the 10-year energy crisis had ended, Saudi Arabia amped up production and the price of oil dropped. West Texas emptied out, and since then, oil production in the Permian has sputtered.

Now, thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – the same technology that turned quiet western North Dakota towns into congested cities teeming with roughnecks – the Permian is on its way to another boom. The region’s aging, under-producing vertical rigs are being replaced by new, horizontal drilling operations that can suck crude from hard to reach places.

greetings from odessa
A post card advertises the oil boom in the Permian Basin in the 1930s. 91 years after oil was first discovered in West Texas, the once declining region is booming again, thanks to fracking. Courtesy Boston Public Library via Flickr.

In the past five years, horizontal drilling in the Permian has exploded: the number of rigs has increased fivefold. Since 2011 alone, companies have drilled over 9,300 new wells. The federal Energy Information Administration expects Permian oil production to surge to over 1.3 million barrels per day in 2014, from just 800,000 barrels in 2007. The basin is now the country’s largest oil producer.

Water is one of the key ingredients facilitating the boom. In the Permian Basin, like many other oil and gas producing regions, water is scarce and over allocated. A new report by Ceres, a Boston-based environmental non-profit focused on sustainable investing and business, found that more than 70 percent of the Permian’s oil wells are in areas of extreme water stress, which means over 80 percent of surface water and shallow groundwater is already allocated.

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Don't teach climate change. It'll hurt the economy.

Cally Carswell | Mar 19, 2014 03:30 PM

In the summer of 1925, John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, became one of most infamous defendants in U.S. legal history. In March of that year, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. A month or so later, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a newspaper ad offering representation to any Tennessee teacher willing to violate the law and become the face of a legal battle lawyers hoped to take to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ad caught the eye of community leaders in Dayton, who thought a high-profile trial -- and the media attention and tourists who'd come with it -- could give their struggling town an economic boost. They solicited Scopes, who agreed to become the "test" defendant.

Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a biology class, and his lawyers appealed. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law, but overturned the Scopes verdict on a technicality, preventing higher appeals. It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, deeming a similar Arkansas law unconstitutional. But their ruling didn't put the issue to rest. Some states responded by passing laws requiring teachers to give "equal time" or "balanced treatment" to evolution and creationism. Those laws were also struck down. Still, the anti-evolution movement persisted – and still does. In 2012, Tennessee passed a law preventing school administrators from disciplining teachers who choose to teach students about the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of evolution.

Scopes Trial
On a hot day in July, the Scopes trial moved outside to escape the courtroom's oppressive heat.

But this time, the law included a new twist: It allowed teachers to give climate change the same treatment. Tennessee's approach has caught on in some Western states, albeit less successfully. Bills were introduced in Colorado and Arizona in 2013 to allow teachers to question "controversial" scientific theories – specifically evolution and climate change. These bills represent "the third wave of antievolutionist strategy," wrote National Center for Science Education deputy director Glenn Branch in BioScience last fall. Though the bills ultimately failed, they were the "tip of a menacing iceberg," according to Branch. "It is now routine for evolution and climate change to be targeted together in attacks on science education."

In fact, in Arizona, and more recently in Wyoming, climate change, not evolution, was the primary provocation for the attacks. This month, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a budget passed by the legislature that included a footnote prohibiting the state Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (though there appears to be some lack of clarity about what exactly the footnote means for what the Board can and can't do). The standards were developed by more than 20 states, the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and an independent education reform organization. They establish a common framework for K-12 science education, laying out what knowledge and skills students should have when, and how to assess their progress, but not standardized curriculums. They are the first national science standards likely to be broadly adopted by states, and the first ever to require climate change to be taught in schools.

That change is controversial in Wyoming, a state bankrolled by a cornucopia of fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. "(The standards) handle global warming as settled science," Republican Rep. Matt Teeters, one of the budget footnote's author told the Casper Star-Tribune. Reporter Leah Todd wrote that "Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy."

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Updates on stories past: Salt Lake smog, wild horses, floods and more

Krista Langlois | Mar 18, 2014 04:40 PM

It may still be winter in the mountains, but down here in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, late-season flurries are coming up against signs of spring. Farmers are burning ditches, the west-facing steps of Revolution Brewing are packed with after-work sun-seekers, and High Country News is in the middle of our quarterly print edition break, which may or may not include desert river trips for certain writers and editors.

But just because we’re enjoying a hard-earned break doesn’t mean we’ve stopped paying attention to important developments in the West. In the absence of our biweekly ‘Latests’ section in the magazine – those quick little updates to larger stories we've covered in the past – here’s an online-only roundup to keep you abreast of what’s happening this month.

Backstory:  As Sarah Keller reported last fall, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are on track to become the nation’s first tribal hydroelectric dam owners, through the purchase of northwest Montana’s Kerr Dam. The tribes’ first bid to take over wasn’t successful, but they gained exclusive rights to purchase the facility in 2015 – which could mean tens of millions of dollars annually for tribal health care, education and other steps toward self-determination.

Followup: According to the Missoulian, an $18.3 million price has now been set. The only step left is to write the check, says Brian Lipscomb, CEO of the tribal-owned Energy Keepers. The final figure represents yet another win for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes: The number is much closer to what they said the dam was worth than the current owners’ $49 million valuation. Once acquired, the dam will also be given a new name, Lipscomb says.

wild horse roundup
Wild horse roundup courtesy of BLM Oregon. With more captive wild horses than the BLM can support, the agency is seeking alternative population control techniques.


Backstory: Just how many wild horses roam the West – and whether they’re a symbol of freedom or a scourge on the land – is a matter much debated in the pages of High Country News. In the fall of 2012, there were an estimated 37,000 wild horses in Western states – 10,000 more than the feds said the land could support. With wild horse roundups costly (and perhaps inhumane), and slaughterhouses deeply divisive, a new kind of population control gained traction among private ‘insurgents’: Darts loaded with equine birth control.

Followup: The Bureau of Land Management may be getting closer to widespread adoption of such alternative techniques itself. Last week, the agency put out a call for researchers, veterinarians and drug companies to submit proposals for “surgical, chemical, pharmaceutical or mechanical” ideas to curtail population growth of wild horses and burros, reports E&E News. Meanwhile, a recent National Academy of Sciences study finds that the BLM may be undercounting Western equine populations by as much as 30 percent.

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EPA may finally look at coal ash regulation, much needed in Montana

Sarah Jane Keller | Mar 17, 2014 03:55 PM

When rancher Clint McRae first saw the swirling green and white ponds of arsenic, boron, mercury and lead-containing sludge 10 miles from his property, it was in a photography show at the Montana statehouse. He first thought they were abstract art, but quickly realized some were aerial photos of the ash slurry left over from burning coal at southeastern Montana’s Colstrip Steam Electric Station.

Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired power plant in the West, and significant water contamination has been happening there since 1979. Currently, its waste ponds are spewing (some say leaking) coal ash into the groundwater faster than the company can control. Even sucking 423 gallons of polluted water back into the ponds each minute hasn’t stopped underground contamination from spreading. In 2008, after people got sick from drinking water at the neighboring Moose Lodge, and people lost use of their wells, 57 residents in the nearby town of Colstrip settled with the plant’s owners for $25 million. The toxic plume is still spreading.

McRae is worried about his ranch’s water, but he’s caught between Montana’s toothless coal ash regulations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s complete lack of oversight. “No matter where we turn, we get the finger pointing the other direction,” he says in Things of Intrinsic Worth, a short film showing the McRae family’s struggle to defend their watershed against coal ash (video below, film starts 49 seconds in).

Coal ash sludge ponds have long plagued communities in the shadows of coal-fired power plants. The environmental nonprofit, Earthjustice, keeps a tally of known spill and contamination cases from coal ash. They have recorded 208 in 37 states since 2007. Though coal ash is one of the largest waste sources in the country, it’s not federally regulated. But that could change soon. After a decades long debate, with a federal court forcing their hand, the EPA recently announced that it will take action on coal ash regulations by December 2014. Then days later, in early February, 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River, prompting almost immediate federal criminal investigation.

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Google Street Viewers can now raft the Grand Canyon

Jonathan Thompson | Mar 17, 2014 08:50 AM

Back in the early 1980s, the French philosopher Michel de Certeau went to the 110th floor of the then-brand-new World Trade Center and looked down at Manhattan. It was a revelation to him:

“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. … It allows one to read (the world), to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.”

Far down below, he wrote, are the walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.”

A disembodied head appears to float down the Colorado River in this image from Google's Grand Canyon Street View, apparently the result of Google's face- and raft-blurring software gone awry. Source: Google Maps.

The passage comes from de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City,” in which he expands upon this contrast between the aloof, high-altitude “readers” of the city — e.g. urban planners, cartographers and the like — and the “writers” swarming through the streets in a seemingly chaotic manner. When I first read the essay a few years ago, I couldn't help but wonder what de Certeau would have made of the Internet, particularly Google Maps, that crazy tool that gives those of us sitting at our desks in rural Colorado that 110th floor view of Manhattan — or for that matter, of any "hidden" canyon in the world — at the mere click of a mouse.

What would he have to say about our ability to use that tool to zoom instantly down to the walker’s or driver’s view from street-level? And what kind of mind-boggling meaning can be derived from the fact that a person can be both "reader" (high altitude viewer) and "writer" (the walker) at the same time via his smart phone’s glowing screen? Even as he walks, he can follow his own movements on his phone, from the viewpoint of the 11oth floor. It's enough to tie one's mind in a knot.

Last week, Google took things to another level of mind-f**k by introducing its “Street View” feature of the entire length of the Grand Canyon. You no longer need a raft, a permit or 120 cans of beer to float the Grand Canyon; you just need a computer. It’s truly amazing, but also on some level disturbing, and not just because the software that blurs out all human presence — in this case the raft and the rafters — has caused a disembodied, cowboy-hatted human head to bob down the river in some shots.

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Oregon moves to help disappearing honeybees

Jodi Peterson | Mar 17, 2014 05:05 AM

Here in western Colorado, a few honeybees have emerged recently, buzzing tentatively among the first spring crocuses. Soon the peach, apricot and cherry trees will burst into pink and white bloom and bees will begin working in earnest, to pollinate the stone fruit that’s a mainstay of our area’s agricultural economy. Then local farmers will plant other crops – peppers, onions, squash, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, peas, beans -- all of it reliant on honeybees. Nationwide, honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion in produce each year.

Apis mellifera

But honeybee populations are in steep decline, and have been for a decade. These days, beekeepers lose up to 30 percent of their bees each winter, compared to historic overwintering losses of 10 to 15 percent. Scientists suspect that a number of factors are to blame – parasitic mites, fungicides, disease, the stress of being trucked from farm to farm, toxic buildup in honeycombs, and an especially nasty class of pesticides called neonicotinoids produced by the gigantic chemical company Bayer (at least 30 studies have linked these pesticides to bee deaths).

Now, Oregon is taking the lead in protecting bees. Eugene just became the first city in the nation to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. In late February, the town council prohibited the use of such pesticides on all city parks and open space (see the resolution, “Enhancing Current Integrated Pest Management in Parks”).

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Crane migration depends on agriculture and sustainable groundwater management

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 14, 2014 10:40 AM

Last Friday morning, as a cold sun struggled to rise above the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley – the 125-mile-long, 7,000-foot-high, Oklahoma-flat basin that lies between the San Juans and the Sange de Cristos in southern Colorado – a throng of birdwatchers climbed aboard a yellow school bus to observe one of the greatest migrations in the West.

The occasion was the arrival of sandhill cranes, majestic gray birds graced with red-feathered facemasks and six-foot wingspans. Around 20,000 sandhills pass through the San Luis Valley every year on their way from wintering grounds in New Mexico to summer homes in Idaho and Yellowstone. While that population pales in comparison to the half-million cranes that annually flock to Nebraska’s Platte River, 20,000 giant birds are nothing to sneeze at – especially in a world losing its migrations to habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Rsocol.

Every year, the sandhills’ return catalyze another movement of biomass: Thousands of humans, from as far as Japan and Australia, congregate in the town of Monte Vista (population: 4,400) for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Perhaps because it was the festival’s first day, no one on the bus last Friday was from Japan – the most exotic place of origin was Boulder. Still, these were craning veterans; war stories of migrations come and gone trickled up the aisle. Refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine, blond curls popping from beneath a brown baseball hat, spoke into a microphone at the front of the bus. “They showed up three weeks ago en masse,” she said as we hung a wide left at Dairy Queen and headed for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. “Maybe it was the mild winter, but it’s been great so far this spring.” An excited shiver went through the bus.

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Wildfire mitigation program helps homeowners create safer communities

Christi Turner | Mar 13, 2014 02:00 PM

With years of experience bracing for wildfire along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s no surprise that Boulder County is launching a new program – Wildfire Partners – that may mean the start of a paradigm shift in wildfire mitigation.

“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire,” said Jim Webster, Wildfire Partners’ program manager. “The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility.”

Wildfire Partners is a new voluntary program to help homeowners in Boulder County prepare for wildfire. It starts with an on-site expert assessment of residents' properties, leading to specific mitigation recommendations – which could include anything from removing whole trees to cleaning dried leaves from gutters. The program offers financial incentives to defray initial mitigation costs – including at least $300 in rebates – and other benefits, such as free telephone access to trained advisors. It also includes a free follow-up inspection, and a Wildfire Partners certificate for homeowners who successfully complete the mitigation specifically recommended for their home.

The program boasts a wide range of public and private sector collaboration, including representatives of the insurance industry. Insurers will be watching how the new program proceeds, in order to determine whether a Wildfire Partners certificate could make a property more insurable. Of the 445 residents who applied, 400 will be officially accepted into the program next week. Participants must be homeowners in unincorporated Boulder County, or nearby mountain towns of Nederland, Jamestown or Lyons; they must also agree to home inspections and prove a long-term commitment to the program.

Giving individual attention to the priorities of each homeowner and each neighborhood is key to forging community buy-in for new mitigation plans, says Molly Mowery, founder of Colorado-based consulting firm Wildfire Planning International and the former manager of a National Fire Protection Association program that helps communities across the U.S. take responsibility for their fire risk. Mowery is one of the eight new wildfire mitigation specialists contracted by Wildfire Partners.

“The biggest catch is how to motivate people to work together,” Mowery said. “We need to get everyone on the same page enough so that you can make community-wide decisions.”

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Los Angeles City Council votes for a fracking moratorium — and hopes the state follows suit

Judith Lewis Mernit | Mar 11, 2014 08:55 PM

Los Angeles oil wells nestled among the houses.

During the suddenly rainy last week in February, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban fracking within city limits. It might have seemed like an academic exercise, just as it did a few years ago, when the five-person city council of Beverly Hills, Calif., voted four to one to quash the city’s oil industry altogether. Beverly Hills, after all, is the place Jed Clampett went to squander the profits from his Tennessee petroleum, not to look for more. Who drills for oil in Los Angeles?

As it turns out, among the photographs that line the walls at City Hall, says David Graham-Caso, environmental advisor to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, “it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have oil derricks in it.” Both Beverly Hills and the City of Los Angeles were, quite literally, built on oil, in some places virtually on top of the pits of viscous bitumen that during the Pleistocene ensnared mastadons, llamas and mammoths along with the dire wolves who came to feed on their misery. When you cross the grounds at Los Angeles’s Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, which houses those doomed animals' fossils, you have to watch your step: Many a shoe has been ruined by an incautious plunge into an asphalt seep.

Actual oil operations are harder to find these days, which doesn’t mean they’re not there: Nearly 2,000 wells operated by more than a dozen companies have been hidden behind verdant hedges and ivy-covered walls. The La Brea Tar Pits lie at the southern edge of the Salt Lake Oil Field, where there’s still an active drilling operation sandwiched between a hospital and a shopping mall. Salt Lake abuts the Beverly Hills Oil Field, where Venoco, Inc. will operate a drilling operation on the campus of Beverly Hills High School until that city's ban takes hold in 2017. The Beverly field connects with the Cheviot Hills Oil Field, where the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Company operates a drilling site hidden inside an expansive public park that includes dog-training grounds and an archery range, plus 18 holes of golf.

Farther south, the country’s largest urban oil field, Inglewood, runs the length of an open-space preserve, bounded on the other side by middle-class homes. Producing more than three million barrels of oil every year, the Inglewood field in 2009 ranked 44th among the top 100 most productive wells in the country.

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