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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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Why is this guy kayaking the San Joaquin River?

Krista Langlois | Jun 27, 2014 09:35 AM

John Sutter is kayaking the San Joaquin River. He’s gone from this:


To this:

dry river

Along the way, Sutter — a journalist who’d never kayaked a river before — has capsized, lost his GoPro camera, been washed through overhanging trees and had his food eaten by raccoons. He’s talked to farmers, migrant workers, biologists, environmentalists and others living along what’s been deemed the most endangered river in the country. And he’s documented it all on Twitter:


goddamn it was beautiful

The trip is part of a CNN series called “change the list,” and its premise is simple: Last year, readers chose five issues, from wildlife trafficking to income inequality, and Sutter plans to use digital storytelling to raise awareness about a location or species that’s at the “bottom of the list” for each topic. He’s gone to Vietnam to document the plight of pangolins — “the most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of” — and to Alaska, the state with the worst rates of documented rape.

Now, Sutter’s kayaking the length of the San Joaquin River, which flows from the Sierra Nevadas to San Francisco Bay and passes through the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley along the way. The river was once the second largest in California and home to a thriving salmon run, but over-allocation of water has sucked more than 100 miles completely dry.

Still, in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever known, advocates are optimistic that with better management, the river could flow again. We’re at “a crucial turning point,” Sutter says. “It could be a huge success story, this river that’s brought back from the brink, or it could be too far gone.”

High Country News caught up with Sutter as he sat on a riverbank yesterday in the town of Patterson, "the apricot capital of the world." The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Is the Clean Water Act under attack?

Brian Calvert | Jun 24, 2014 10:30 AM

In Washington, DC, last Thursday, the House Committee on Agriculture held a small hearing on an obscure permitting rule under the Clean Water Act. But in that hearing chamber rumbled the voice of Big Agriculture girding for a fight against federal regulation of the nation’s waters.

The Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry hosted the hearing to discuss a so-called interpretive rule the feds issued in March. The rule clarifies exemptions to the Clean Water Act enjoyed by farmers, ranchers and foresters when it comes to digging out or filling in waterways. However, the rule has earned the ire of major agricultural lobbies and is caught up in the current political climate of Washington, pitting opponents of President Obama against his regulators.

These might seem like just more quibbling between our elected leaders and federal regulators, but at stake is clean water and how it is protected, particularly in the arid West, where waterways defy old legal definitions. Ranchers and farmers fear losing authority over their ditches and fields, but other Western water users—boaters, anglers and other sportsmen—see a chance for better execution of the Clean Water Act, one that might better preserve rivers, wetlands and other critical habitat for wildlife.

Agriculture is concerned over the EPA's water rules, but ag is the only industry with exemptions under the Clean Water Act. Photo by Flickr user Sam Beebe.

Thursday’s hearing provided a platform to groups like the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation to hammer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its attempts to clarify agricultural exemptions for “normal farming” practices. Regulators say they hope to better define these exemptions to better keep up with modern farming and soil conservation practices.

Yet agriculture industry representatives say the rule does more harm than good. In statements typical of Thursday’s events, Don Parrish, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said regulators had “confused policymakers, the media, and farmers and ranchers” and had narrowed—not just clarified—exemptions.

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A 700,000-gallon replica of the Sea of Cortez in the Arizona desert

Tay Wiles | Jun 24, 2014 09:25 AM

The coral reef that once lived in the 700,000-gallon tank of ocean water in the Arizona desert, hauled in from Belize after breaking off in a storm in the late 1980s, is now pretty much dead. It met the same fate as another Biosphere 2 experiment, which involved eight men and women living off their own crops inside a 3.1-acre glass sphere for 24 months in 1993: It was good while it lasted and was just a blip in the ever-evolving science wonderland that is Biosphere 2.

To replace the defunct coral sanctuary, scientists at the University-of-Arizona-owned research facility are madly drafting designs for a new desert ocean, this time to emulate the Sea of Cortez. Instead of pumping heat into the tank to keep its temperature in the mid-to-high 70-degree range for tropical reef, they’ll allow the new sea to fluctuate in temperature to replicate something more like the gulf. Cortez wildlife such as sea stars, small sharks and possibly sea turtles will populate the 6,000-square-foot tank (that’s a bit larger than two Olympic swimming pools).

An early sketch, by Dr. Raphael Sagarin, of the new ocean at Biosphere 2.
Dr. Raphael Sagarin, who is heading the new ocean project at Biosphere 2. Photograph by Paul Ingram.
A wider view of the research facility Biosphere 2, which is 35 miles north of Tucson.

So why build a living, breathing, semi-tidal, salty, cool ocean in the bone-dry desert? It makes perfect sense, says marine ecologist Raphael Sagarin, who’s leading the project. The Sonoran desert and Gulf of California share an intimate symbiotic relationship. Every July and August, southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico experience much-needed monsoons that provide nearly half of the region’s annual precipitation. That moist deposit, airlifted yearly from the Sea of Cortez and sucked several hundred miles north to summer low-pressure systems, makes the thriving desert ecosystem possible.

“These desert plants are really adapted to the large pulse of rain,” says Sagarin, who grew up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and hoofed it to the West Coast at his first chance, where he says the marine biology was much more fascinating. “It’s the crux of why the Sonoran desert has such rich plant and animal life.”

Seeing this direct connection between the ecosystems in the Gulf of California and the Tucson desert motivates Tucsonans to learn about conservation challenges facing the gulf, Sagarin says. A problem for the ocean is a problem for the desert. That’s the point of the new desert sea – to research and problem-solve issues like coastal pollution, climate change, over-fishing and new zoonotic diseases.

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