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Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

Sarah Gilman | Mar 28, 2014 05:00 AM

The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

Alison amoeba
Alison demonstrates proper brain-eating amoeba risk mitigation technique.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver.

Three hours later, Alison and I began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the freeway and the hotel on the rim, while Sarahlee and Laura held down a campsite and explored an island in the middle of the river. The route was a spectacular scramble along sandy wash bottoms and up boulders and ragged fixed lines. Spring-fed ferns and algae wept down the canyon’s walls and an ankle-deep stream of hot water threaded its middle, curling periodically into deep, sand-bagged pools. By the time we had strapped the cornery bulk of the stove to my back, we were congratulating ourselves on the incredible luck of finding this place, and of finding a way to retrieve this key piece of gear. “Winning!” we called out with fist pumps. This battle cry would become our river-trip refrain, but it didn’t much jive with what had been happening down below.

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Conservationists join animal rights groups to challenge Idaho ag gag law

Christi Turner | Mar 26, 2014 10:55 AM

Idaho’s sweeping new ag gag law, enacted in February, raises so many red flags that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against it, only the second suit of its kind in the nation. But this time, in a new twist on ag gag litigation, the animal rights non-profit is joined by conservation groups, too.

That’s because this new statute – designed to prevent people from documenting what goes on in factory farms, like all of the now seven total ag gag laws in the U.S. – is alarmingly broad, according to senior ALDF attorney Matthew Liebman, affecting “virtually any place where there’s any interaction between humans and animals and plants.” The law defines an agricultural facility as “any structure or land, whether privately or publicly owned, leased or operated, that is being used for agricultural production” (emphasis added), and makes it a crime for virtually anyone to film or photograph in such places without express consent. But with such a broad definition, the law could potentially apply not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses like ag gag laws in other states, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public establishment and private residence in Idaho, according to the lawsuit.

The law’s definition of “agricultural production” is also a catch-all, referring to any activity related to the production of food, fiber and fuel, including everything from construction, maintenance, pesticide or herbicide handling, planting, irrigating, harvesting plants, raising or producing, animals, and processing or packaging any agricultural product – and more. Dan Steenson, an attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) and author of the statute, is quoted in court documents as saying that the law could even apply to an employee who photographs a non-animal related violation – a blocked fire exit, for example.

But according to Bob Naerebout, executive director of the IDA, "The bill protects farmers and their families from misrepresentation, lies and deceit by individuals that intended to damage what they have worked a lifetime to build.”  The law, he said, does not punish people for reporting illegal, unsafe or unethical activities – a direct contradiction to how ALDF and its 11 co-plaintiffs interpret the statute.

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New national monuments threatened by House attack on Antiquities Act

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 26, 2014 05:00 AM

When President Obama bestowed national monument status upon the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands — a 1,600-acre stretch of rocky California coast that teems with abalone and sea lions — earlier this month, the reaction was predictable as a high tide at full moon. While conservation groups rejoiced at the presidential protection, House Republicans snarled at what they considered egregious executive overreach. According to congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Obama’s decree was “purely political and undermines sincere efforts to reach consensus on questions of conservation.” To Bishop and his House peers, the monument designation was nothing but a federal land grab.

The designation of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands as a national monuments has conservationists celebrating – and Republicans fuming. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Now Bishop and other Republicans are seeking to restrict the president’s ability to declare national monuments through H.R. 1459, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act,” which will go to the House floor for vote on Wednesday. The bill, which Bishop sponsored back in July, would limit the president to creating one national monument per state in each four-year term and require environmental reviews for all monuments larger than 5,000 acres – gumming up the executive branch’s ability to swiftly conserve lands. The left-leaning Center for American Progress calls H.R. 1459 a de facto “No More National Parks” policy.

The executive power to create monuments derives from the Antiquities Act of 1906, a piece of legislation that’s no stranger to controversy. The Act has been used by every president since Theodore Roosevelt to conserve some 70 million total acres, including many of America’s iconic landscapes, from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley to Utah’s Bryce and Zion. Though those sites are now among our best-loved parks, monument proclamations have often been greeted with congressional fury at the time of their announcement. When Franklin Roosevelt established Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson called it a "foul, sneaking, Pearl Harbor blow.” (Bishop’s rhetoric has been mild by comparison – the worst he’s said is that President Obama “punked” the House. Evoking Ashton Kutcher isn’t quite as inflammatory as comparing the POTUS to Emperor Hirohito, but times change.)

Of course, the reason Congress has spent so much effort trying to rescind the Antiquities Act is precisely because it cuts the legislative branch out of the loop. Some might say that makes the Act unconstitutional – hi, Doc Hastings! – but, to others, that’s exactly why it’s indispensable in this era of congressional obstruction. Until it tabbed Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes this winter, Congress hadn’t created a single wilderness area since 2009, and it’s only designated one national park since 2004. If not for President Obama creating monuments at a respectable (albeit not quite Clintonian) pace, the last half-decade would’ve been a near-total wash for public lands protection.

Republicans love to talk about “public involvement” – heck, it’s right there in the name of the bill – but if they were truly paying attention to recent developments in the West, they’d know that the public wants more monuments. New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, designated last April, has been instantly embraced by everyone from ranchers to Taos Pueblo tribal officials, thanks largely to the 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenues that the monument is expected to generate. (That’s typical: while conservative leaders enjoy grumbling about the cost of maintaining public lands, virtually all parks are powerful economic engines.) Another 2013 monument, in the San Juan Islands, was similarly popular. Meanwhile, designation for Colorado’s Browns Canyon is gaining momentum; check out Iraq War veteran Garett Reppenhagen’s recent op-ed on why public lands protection is about more than just money. (Though, okay, the economic engine thing is nice!)

Given the wide and growing imbalance between conservation and energy development on our public lands, it’s vital that Congress preserve the executive’s ability to swiftly protect America’s special places. Though H.R. 1459 would probably be D.O.A. in the Senate, let’s hope it doesn’t even get that far.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.


Drought gives one of the West's thirstiest crops an ironic boost

Tay Wiles | Mar 25, 2014 08:00 AM

“We farmers here in the United States might as well recognize that we are a minority group, and that the prevailing interest of the nation as a whole is no longer agricultural,” wrote Dust Bowl farmer Caroline Henderson in a letter to a friend later published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936. She lived in the eye of the eight-year drought, in the Oklahoma panhandle, and farmed wheat. She is now credited with creating one of the best written-records of Dust Bowl history. “Hay for the horses and the heifers remaining here cost us $3 per ton, brought by truck from eastern Oklahoma,” she wrote.

Photograph by Flickr user Art Siegel.

That was a lot of money back then. Hay prices are much higher today – the national average is always over $100. But dire drought conditions in California have driven them way up in recent months, putting dairies and ranchers in a pinch similar to Henderson's. Many livestock producers in the corridor between Bakersfield, Calif., and Merced are buying hay that would normally be under $200 per ton, for as much as $325, and are looking to Pacific Northwest states and as far away as Texas and Colorado for competitive prices. Prices in California have risen by $50 per ton in just the past two months.

In similarly drought-stricken Nevada, where alfalfa accounts for 90 percent of the crops grown, hay producers are preparing for a difficult season for the third year in a row. Some counties’ water supplies are less than half of their normal size. Yet the dry conditions also have a silver lining: High prices have brought much-needed financial relief for producers, according to Jay Davison, an alternative crop specialist with the University of Nevada –even if they’re a nightmare for dairies and livestock producers in California.

“This has been a lifesaver,” he said. Since Nevada hay farmers have struggled with a weaker market in past years, many were in desperate need of improved prices, Davison said. And though alfalfa is a particularly water-intensive crop, the high prices incentivize farmers to grow as much of it as they can – long-term water supply be damned. 

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Hatcheries make for happy anglers, but at what cost to wild fish?

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 21, 2014 05:00 AM

This spring, millions of Americans will snap together rods, tie flies and spinners to monofilament, and, from a boat or streambank, cast to a rising fish. In many places, their quarry will be the born-and-raised products of hatcheries, facilities in which fish are artificially bred for the benefit of anglers. Nevada will stock a million trout in its waters this year; Oregon, 7 million. Washington plans on releasing a remarkably precise 17,140,634 trout and kokanee. A few years ago, California turned nearly 50 million fish loose in its lakes and streams.

Hatcheries have their advantages: According to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, every dollar spent on rainbow trout hatcheries generates around $37 in net economic value. And that’s to say nothing of less tangible gains – the kids, lured to rivers by fat, hatchery-raised trout, who later advocate for watershed conservation. But as scientists uncover the damage that captive-bred fish can inflict on wild ecosystems, it’s becoming clear that, used unwisely, hatcheries can yield more costs than benefits.

According to Douglas M. Thompson's "The Quest for the Golden Trout," state and federal hatcheries around the U.S. release a combined 150 million trout every year. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

The latest evidence comes from Kristy Bellinger, a PhD candidate at Washington State University. Bellinger bred five separate lineages of cloned rainbow trout, from totally wild trout to fish whose ancestors had been hatchery-raised going back over 100 generations. She placed fish from each lineage in a tank and then startled them into “sprint speed” – the quick burst of movement that fish use to dodge predators and catch food. Typically, big fish are also the strongest and fastest, and Bellinger figured that the hatchery offspring, which had been bred for size for generations, would be the best sprinters.

But that’s not what she found. “As they grew bigger,” she says, “they were slower.” Fish that came from the highly domesticated line – the one descended from 100 hatchery generations – were sluggards; in fact, it was hard to get them to sprint at all. Other, slightly-domesticated lineages didn’t swim as poorly as the hyper-hatchery line, but were still slower than wild trout.

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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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