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Archives and legal precedents

Felice Pace | May 20, 2010 01:18 AM

Within the Currents offerings in the April 26th edition Matt Jenkins provide readers with a description (for subscribers only) of one of the West’s most important archives -  The Water Resources Center Archive at the University of California in Berkeley.  Matt tells us that historian Donald Worster was among those who did research at the archive. The resulting volume – Worster’s "Rivers of Empire" – is de rigueur for those who hope to understand Western water politics.

Jenkin’s piece invites us to consider one among the likely thousands of unintended consequences that are resulting from the current round of state budget crises. It also caused me to consider more broadly which sources end up in archives and which sources are not typically preserved for future generations. I’m betting, for example, that the papers of academics, politicians and bureaucrats make it into archives much more frequently than the papers of everyday people and grassroots organizations.

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HCN Reader Photo: Prisoner plantings

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | May 06, 2010 02:00 AM

Prisoner plantings

This week's reader photo is another photo contest submission. It shows the hands of inmates propogating plants to be used in restoration projects in Washington State. Check out this photo and many others at our contest site, and enter your photos of Western people into the contest before the deadline - May 9.

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Measuring progress in Native health

Mark Trahant | May 03, 2010 02:55 AM

Consider this from a White House memo: “While there have been improvements in health status of Indians in the past 15 years, a loss of momentum can further slow the already sluggish rate of approach to parity. Increased momentum in health delivery and sanitation as insured by this bill speed the rate of closing the existing gap in age at death.”

Progress is slow, though -- Dr. Ted Marrs wrote the memo on April 26, 1976, and the subject was the original Indian Health Care Improvement Act. “In 1974 the average age at death of Indians and Alaskan natives was 48.3. For white U.S. citizens the average age of death was 72.3. For others, the average age was 62.7.”

Dr. Marrs wrote that the “bottom line” was an unavoidable connection between “equity and morality” when there is a more than 20-year differential in age at death between Indians and non-Indians.

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Meditational rant on the word "pristine"

Felice Pace | Apr 29, 2010 07:25 AM

This morning my local radio station aired an ad which referred to the natural environments of California's North Coast. It was for an outdoor store; listeners were encouraged to enjoy our regions river, beaches and pristine mountain tops.

This really gets my goat. I've been on most of those mountain tops over the past 35 years and I can tell you that I have never been on one that fit the proper definition of the word pristine. Here is that definition:     pris·tine (pr s t n , pr -st n ). adj. 1. a. Remaining in a pure state; uncorrupted by civilization. b. Remaining free from dirt or decay; clean.

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The 2012 Farm Bill dance begins in DC

Felice Pace | Apr 28, 2010 12:14 PM

Last week the Agricultural Committee of the US House of Representatives began work on the 2012 Farm Bill with a kick-off hearing. I happened to be in DC at the time and I stood in line with lobbyists for farm groups waiting to get a good seat in the wood paneled hearing room.

I was not in DC to attend the hearing, however. My trip was intended to educate Members of Congress about the recently signed Klamath Dam and Water Deals. The Department of Interior – which orchestrated those Klamath Deals beginning during the Bush Administration – had just delivered draft federal legislation intended to get Congress to endorse the Deals without delving into the details.

My mission was to interest Members of Congress from Oregon and California and those who sit on committees which will consider Klamath legislation precisely in those details – to make them aware that serious questions have been raised about whether aspects of the Deals are in the Public Interest and in the interest of the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon. I’ve worked to clean-up the Klamath and restore Klamath Salmon for 35 years; I want Congress to fix what I see as bad policies, bad precedents and bad subsidies that are part of the Klamath Dam and Water Deals.

Those who want to see a report on my Klamath River work in DC can refer to the full report on KlamBlog; here I want to talk about the Farm Bill.

In most of the West’s river basins agriculture – including crop and livestock agriculture – directly consumes 80% to 90% of the base flow. Base flow refers to the lowest natural flow of a river or stream; in our region those flows occur during late summer and early fall.  Irrigation engineers tell us that water consumption by agriculture in western river basins can be reduced between 10 and 40% by implementing modern irrigation methods and equipment. Were that to actually happen, current and predicted water shortages in the West would evaporate like water in a shallow reservoir as would proposals for new dams and other massive infrastructure projects currently being promoted in states like California.

That fact is why I have worked since 2001 to promote, expand and – as it turns out –  reform the US Department of Agriculture’s program which is specifically designed to provide farmers and ranchers with money to purchase and install more efficient irrigation systems and to institute management approaches which will decrease consumptive water use. It is also why, while I was in DC, I met with the House Agricultural Committee staff members who will actually draft those provisions for the new 2012 Farm Bill.  

The USDA program to which I refer is EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. This is the program which USDA and Congress have designed for the stated purpose conserving water in the West by improving on farm irrigation efficiency.

It all began after the famous Klamath Water Crisis of 2001 when the water needs of salmon and other fishes for the first time trumped the water needs of irrigation and other water users who receive water from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project. As farmers testified at the time, they had been able to count on “Reclamation” delivering all the water the irrigators desired for over 90 years no matter how little rain fell and how little snow pack accumulated on the mountains above. The Bureau of Reclamation had effectively abolished drought for these water users even though they live in the high desert of Eastern Oregon where rainfall rarely tops 15 inches per year. It was a great ride for those federally favored water users but it was killing the Klamath River and it ended in 2001 as a result of Endangered Species Act implementation.

The great Klamath Water Crisis of 2001 prompted rallies, protests and civil disobedience reported across the country - most notably by Fox News. In fact, the well-orchestrated Klamath Water Crisis was the model for a similar media circus last year when – as a result of multiple-drought years - the politically powerful Westlands Water District in California’s San Joaquin Valley was denied federal water because it does not have high priority water rights and the water was needed to provide for the ESA-listed Delta Smelt, Sacramento River Salmon and other fishes.

Last year Westlands was promptly granted massive EQIP funding to conserve water. This is also what happened on the Klamath in 2002. Klamath EQIP was included in the 2002 Farm Bill. It allocated $50 million dollars to conserve Klamath River water by improving irrigation efficiency. This was supposed to make more water available for the river flows needed by Klamath Salmon. The $50 million was quickly expended but the promise of reduced demand for Klamath water has not materialized.  Furthermore, in spite of the fact that information on taxpayer financed irrigation improvements is protected as “proprietary”,  I have been able to document that much of the $50 million was used by irrigators to develop new sources of irrigation water or otherwise to increase, rather than reduce, consumptive use of Klamath River water.

Many recipients of Klamath EQIP funding used it to drill wells into an aquifer that the US Geological Service had already declared was being pumped “unsustainably” resulting in a lowering water table. Others used the funding for new wells equipped with center pivot irrigation sprinklers. These are very efficient systems but they replaced diversion ditches which previously went dry with the end of the snowpack in July or August. With the new center pivot wells and sprinklers these irrigators could pump right through October thereby increasing both yield of crops or forage. Since the groundwater, however, was closely connected with surface flow, these EQIP projects INCREASED consumptive water use rather than reducing it.

I responded to the abuse of Klamath EQIP by working to assure that EQIP in the 2008 Farm Bill would require actual substantive reduction in consumptive water use on those farms and ranches receiving taxpayer assistance under EQIP. It was a sobering experience. Farm Bill language that issued from the House Agriculture Committee would have required a “minimum 15% reduction in consumptive water use” in order for a farmer or rancher to qualify to receive EQIP water conservation funding. But something happened on the way to the floor of the House. EQIP language was changed; the 15% required reduction became “minimum reduction…in consumptive water use.”  EQIP water conservation had been gutted; there would be no real conservation but rather taxpayer assistance to private businesses to improve irrigation systems in the interest of their own bottom lines, not the public interest.

Waste, fraud and abuse in the implementation  of USDA Conservation Programs has been documented in  Congressional Testimony by the USDA Inspector General and in several IG Reports over the past decade. But the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate have shown little interest in reforming the programs. The members of Congress who run these committees – folks like chairs Colin Peterson in the House and Blanch Lincoln in the Senate – apparently have absolutely no interest in reforming EQIP and other Conservation Programs. In fact - judging from the manner in which these congresspersons have changed Farm Bill language in conference and rules committees where their work is hidden from the public - the members of congressional agriculture committees appear to be intent on completely transforming the so-called “Conservation Programs” into pure pork which deliver little to no conservation benefits and in some cases actually harm the environment as was the case in many Klamath EQIP projects.

One reason there is no movement to reform USDA Conservation Programs is indifference on the part of  environmental and conservation organizations. In fact, most of the environmental establishment is content to lobby for increased funding for Farm Bill Conservation Programs but they do not pay attention to how the legislative language they support will play out on the ground. When more funding is obtained these organizations declare victory and move on.  Some of the environmental establishment  –  most notably The Nature Conservancy – are major recipients of Farm Bill Conservation program funding.

I’m looking for environmental organizations to partner with in an effort to secure language in the 2012 Farm Bill sufficient to assure that taxpayer financed Conservation Programs actually deliver the conservation they promise. I am not optimistic that i will find such partners. I did not find employees of the environmental establishment’s DC offices in line waiting for a seat at the 2012 Farm Bill’s first hearing. Nor has any establishment group responded to direct inquiries. I did, however, encounter 30 or so of these employees at a cocktail party on the rooftop garden at the DC Hyatt. The party had been planned by DC employees of the Environmental Establishment to celebrate Earth Day. The hors d’ouvres were sub-par but the beer and wine were excellent. 


New West, New Dust Bowl? | Apr 28, 2010 09:06 AM

By Courtney White. Originally posted on, 4-28-2010

The apparent declining interest in the environment among Americans was much on my mind as I attended the 21st Annual Southern Plains conference in Lubbock, Texas, recently. Organized by the nonprofit Ogallala Commons, the event focused on a famous date in environmental history. No, it wasn’t the upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but the 75th anniversary of ‘Black Sunday’ – April 14th, 1935 – when a massive dust cloud arose from the Great Plains like a biblical vision and blew topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., and out to sea.

It was the Dust Bowl, of course – a national calamity of epic proportions that still reverberates today. It was a ‘perfect’ storm of ecological and economic havoc. Massive tilling of prairie topsoil, abetted immensely by the introduction of diesel-powered tractors, followed by a series of unusually dry years in the early 1930s, followed by big winds put hundreds of millions of tons of fertile soil into the air. Nearly one-third of the human population left the area as a result, most never to return.

It wasn’t an act of God. The 1920s were a period of ‘irrational exuberance’ in the nation, characterized by rapid technological innovation, crazy speculation in real estate markets, a bull run on the stock market, distracted regulators, social excess, widespread consumerism, cheap products, fast deals, and an uncritical faith in Progress. On the land, this translated into the ‘big plow-up’ where nearly every acre of the Great Plains that could be planted to wheat or other grains was planted, whether there was a cloud in the sky or not. In their exuberance, farmers transformed a healthy, functioning prairie ecosystem – fabulous country for herbivores of all stripes – into a tilled-over wasteland. Then they prayed for rain.

Unfortunately, God lost his temper.

“The dust storms that swept across the southern plains in the 1930s,” wrote historian Donald Worster in his seminal book titled The Dust Bowl, “created the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent. In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the Depression was more devastating, economically. And in ecological terms we have nothing in the nation’s past, nothing even in the polluted present, that compares.”

Not yet – but it could be coming.

That was the message of the conference, and its keynote speaker, Dr. Worster. He said climate change is on its way to dwarfing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s by an order of magnitude. He noted that according to climate models, one of the worst ‘hot spots’ in the nation for drought sits directly atop the area of the previous Dust Bowl, which means we could lose America’s breadbasket, for good possibly.

That wasn’t all. According to Dr. Kevin Mulligan, a professor of Economics and Geography at Texas Tech, and another speaker at the event, serious trouble lurks underground. His sobering presentation focused on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a vast underground reservoir of fresh water created over the span of millions of years and which has been drawn down dramatically in less than a century by irrigators up and down the southern Plains. Mulligan and his students have mapped the Aquifer extensively, discovering that not only is it shallower in places than people originally thought, it is also being drawn down (often at a rate of 800 gallons a minute) faster than anticipated.

In fact, they have determined that in many spots industry will run out of useable water (i.e., 30 feet of water or less) not by the end of the century, as predicted, but by 2030 – only 20 years from now.

“This will certainly mean the end of pivot irrigation in the region,” he announced calmly to the audience.

Of course, Dr. Mulligan’s maps, much like Dr. Worster’s history lessons and climatologists’ prognostications about global warming are disputed by Industry, dismissed by politicians, and ignored by an apathetic public. One local activist I spoke with said this about the future: “When they run out of water, the irrigators will simply leave, and we’ll have a different economy. Again.”

This, of course, is the pattern of New West economies – exploit a resource until it is nearly exhausted and then move on. It doesn’t matter if the resource is pelts, bison, gold, oil, trees, water, scenery, people, or climate – the desire to use until used up is powerful and terrifying. The trouble is we’re beginning to run out of exploitable stuff, such as ancient aquifers. The question now, I believe, is whether the next New West will be “moving on” to the next exploitable commodity, if one can be found, or something more enduring and resilient.

Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site,

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HCN Reader Photo: Wrangler and Little Cowboy

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Apr 27, 2010 09:31 AM


This week's featured reader photo is one of the entries to our current photo contest, The People of the West. You can enter your photos that capture the West's people to this contest until May 9, 2010. Check out our contests page for more information on this and other writing and photography contests celebrating HCN's 40th anniversary.

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Listing the wolverine

Rebecca Watters | Apr 20, 2010 04:00 AM

On a sunny day in late March 2010, a young wolverine known as F3 poked her head out of the mouth of a log-box research trap in Montana’s Absaroka Range, looked around, and then, in a blur of snow, surged off into the wilderness. Around her neck was a new GPS collar that we’d fastened in place two hours earlier, after determining - to our disappointment - that she hadn’t given birth this year. This device will download locations via satellite at two hour Wolverine F3intervals until October 2010, when the collar will fall off and the information that it contains will become part of the sparse but growing collection of data on wolverines in the Lower 48.
The meaning of existing data on the wolverine is in question yet again as the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on April 15th that it is undertaking a fourth review of the species’ status. A paucity of information has twice stymied attempts to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, in 1994 and 2001. A third petition was turned down in 2008, despite the publication of a wolverine-focused edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management  that essentially doubled the number of existing peer-reviewed articles on wolverines in the contiguous US. These papers hinted at genetic fragmentation, loss of habitat, and threats due to mortality, but the USFWS concluded that wolverines were not warranted for protection because the US population was not distinct from the Canadian population. The current review is in response to environmental advocacy groups’ lawsuit following the 2008 decision, which they allege was based on politics rather than science. Much of the information under review will be the same that was considered in 2008, but two substantial research articles have been added to the literature in the past six months.

Last month, shortly before we collared F3 and watched her disappear into the snow-draped forest, scientists linked wolverine distribution to persistent spring snow in a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. Female wolverines den in snow, and rely on snow caves to protect and insulate their kits until the babies are ready to emerge in late April or early May. The paper’s authors found that all of the world’s known den sites occur in areas with persistent spring snow, and that 95% of telemetry locations during the summer also occur within this range. Researchers writing in Ecology in November of 2009 take this connection one step further by modeling Rocky Mountain wolverines’ dispersal routes among their high altitude habitat islands and showing that the most efficient paths follow landscape features that also have persistent spring snow. These models conform to data on genetic distance among populations. Put simply, wolverines need snow not only to den, but to reach each other to breed in the first place.

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HCN Reader Photo: Teton Summer

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Apr 14, 2010 02:27 AM

Teton Summer

We might be a little premature in posting this photo, in April, since it represents the Tetons in August. But it's such a lovely picture, and gives us something to look forward to: long summer days with beautiful views. It's great to live in the West. Add your photos to our Flickr pool; we pick one a week to feature on the Grange blog.

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Waste not ... or get nukes

Eric Jantz | Apr 13, 2010 04:00 AM

A few weeks ago the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s media director, Juana Colon, suggested I should write a blog post about policymakers’ recent embrace of nuclear power as just a way to enrich the world’s economic elites while at the same time continuing to subject poor and minority communities to various kinds of radioactive pollution, and therefore continue to encourage wasteful energy consumption.  Her words were actually a lot angrier and profanity-laced, largely because the office had been preoccupied with a series of preposterous pro-nuclear pieces of legislation during the state legislative session (Such as declaring nuclear power green energy [PDF] and seeking that it become part of the governor's clean energy efforts [PDF]) Adding to that, President Obama had also just announced his intention to increase the subsidies the public would lavish on the nuclear industry.

I’ve thought a lot about Juana’s suggestion and there are a lot of interesting aspects to the nuclear power puzzle that deserve some ink.

To begin with, there’s the issue of who benefits from increasing nuclear power generation.  At every point along the nuclear fuel chain, the flow of money reinforces current economic and social power disparities.  In an interesting case of metaphorical biomimicry, public handouts to the nuclear industry tend to get larger as they move up the nuclear fuel chain, much the way bioaccumulated toxins become more concentrated the higher they move up the food chain.  At the beginning of the fuel chain – uranium mining – economic benefits go either to large multinational corporations and their executives, or just to the executives, in the case of junior mining companies who subsist on speculation.  At the generation phase of the fuel chain, corporate elites accrue even more benefits.  As President Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees demonstrate, when the taxpayer is handing out money, the really big bucks go to a few corporate interests, in this case the Georgia utility, Southern Company.  Exelon, GE and Areva will no doubt not be far behind with their hands stretched out.  

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