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Big Ag wins big in California

Felice Pace | Nov 11, 2009 11:16 AM

Depending on who you listen too, sweeping water-related legislation recently enacted in California is either a solution to the states water conflicts, a recipe for increased conflict and the domination of corporate water brokers, or a partial step forward that will succeed or fail depending on future legislative and administrative actions.

Here’s how Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, described the package of bills and the $11.14 billion water bond needed to fund them:
           “This package represents a new approach for California---total water resource management, including conservation, water recycling, habitat restoration, water storage and many other water management actions….. This package represents a significant shift in water management that will serve as a platform to address 21st century water needs.”

Others – including the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) – believe that the legislation and bond package is a step backward for California Water Management. They believe the legislation could ultimately make it possible for powerful Southern California agricultural and development interests to grab more of Northern California’s water by building new reservoirs in the north and a large new canal to by-pass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Here’s an excerpt from a C-WIN letter to legislators about the package of bills which has now passed into law: 
            “C-WIN firmly believes that California has enough water to meet all its needs. California does not have enough water to continue wasteful and unreasonable uses that harm public trust resources and compromise our state’s agricultural, economic, and environmental future. There is no real surplus water anywhere in northern California to fill a Peripheral Canal, even if it is built.” (emphasis is from the original)

C-WIN’s concerns that the legislation will facilitate renewed efforts to divert more Northern California water south have been echoed in the Klamath River Basin where the Hoopa Tribe and others battled for years to restore some of the water previously diverted South in order to restore the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary. Part of the funds for removal of four Klamath River dams is included in the $11.14 billion bond package which will go to voters in 2010. However, some Klamath watchers fear that construction of new dams and reservoirs and the Peripheral Canal will result in renewed efforts by powerful agricultural and development interests to divert Klamath River water south

The package of bills contains a call for a 20% reduction in urban water use but contains no similar goals for agriculture. Agriculture currently consumes 80% of California’s water supply and numerous studies indicate that substantial water savings are possible in the agricultural sector. Irrigation interests, however, have resisted meaningful water conservation. By controlling more water these farm corporations will be in a stronger position to earn income as water brokers. It is the potential for substantial water savings in the agricultural sector which leads C-WIN and others to suggest that new dams, storage reservoirs and canals are not needed.

One of the most respected voices in California Water – Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute – has taken a different view of the water legislation:
       “What will be the ultimate outcome? Are we going to be better off with this bill than with no bill? Will California legislators now say they are done dealing with water, and refuse to tackle the unaddressed, partially addressed, or badly addressed issues? If so, then this package isn't going to be nearly enough. But if instead legislators and other water interests treat it as a beginning, not an end, and work to build and improve on the good pieces, it could be a major step forward. We'll have to wait and see how it changes our actual water problems.” 

Doctor Gleick identifies four major California water “problems” which the legislation has not addressed including:
       1. Insufficient monitoring of water use – especially groundwater use;
       2. Lack of adequate political will and funding to enforce existing water rights – including ending the epidemic of illegal water use;
       3. Lack of a requirement that the state’s largest water user – agriculture – implement water conservation, and
       4. Lack of user fees for water users which would incentivized conservation and provide stable funding for maintaining and improving California’s water infrastructure.  

Gleick believes these four issues must also be addressed if the new legislation is to prove out as “a major step forward.”

As generally happens when there is major legislation affecting the environment, the environmental community split over whether to support or oppose the legislation. And, as is usually the case, the split was generally along the grassroots-national divide. In spite of the fact that they are members of the Restore the Delta coalition which opposed the legislation, the Natural Resources Defense Council supported the legislation as did the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.  Opposing the legislation were a host of local and regional organizations ranging from the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance and Clean Water Action to the Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

Largely absent from the legislative debate over the future of California water were the state’s 108 federally recognized Indian tribes. Many of these tribes have potential reserved water rights which, if they were asserted, could be a significant wildcard in California water politics. Federal tribes could also begin pumping and selling groundwater supplies which are already being over-exploited without fear of interference from state or local governments.

While powerful agricultural interests were helping draft water legislation behind closed doors, however, tribal and other Native leaders were listening to speeches and attending luncheons as part of a “Tribal Water Summit” hosted by the California Department of Water Resources. Individuals who attended report that nothing of significance took place during the Summit.  For now at least, the tribal water wildcard is not being played in California. 

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When Consensus Doesn't Mean Consensus

Michael Glenn Easter | Nov 11, 2009 06:10 AM

A few days ago a letter [pdf] written by scientists at Brigham Young University -- a traditionally conservative school -- plopped onto the desks of Utah’s governor and state lawmakers.  The letter is being called a “stinging rebuke” and criticizes how, in a recent session, legislators gave equal value to fringe, skeptical climate change views as they did to the broader scientific consensus that our climate is changing and we are to blame.

During their October meeting, the state’s Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee listened to two climate change scientists -- as HCN noted here.  The first, professor Jim Steenburgh, chair of the University Of Utah Atmospheric Science Department, presented the more scientifically backed view that climate change is man made.  The second scientist--professor Roy Spencer, climatologist from the University of Alabama, Huntsville--presented skeptical views, arguing that climate change is a natural phenomena, caused by natural cycles, not humans.  (Listen to the meeting)

Spencer was specially invited to the meeting by co-chair of the panel, Republican Mike Noel, and his views were reportedly well received.  Steenburgh, on the other hand, was attacked after his presentation—many lawmakers shunned his views, claiming global warming is a natural phenomenon.  One representative even accused the movement to address global warming as, “the new religion to replace Communism.”

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Back at the Table, Again

Lissa James | Nov 10, 2009 12:55 AM

The creation of Washington State’s current logging regulations may have been less spectacular that the infamous spotted owl timber wars of the early 90s (the President didn’t have to intervene, for instance), but they were still righteously complicated. Ten years ago, when salmon hit the endangered species list, stakeholders sat down to create a multi-trick pony: a plan to protect salmon, fulfill tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon, satisfy the federal Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts, and preserve the timber economy. They called it “Forests and Fish.”

The Forests and Fish negotiations lasted three years, and consensus was only reached after many environmental groups left the table over complaints that the timber lobby held too much sway. Key to the eventual compromise was something called ‘adaptive management,’ or a promise to adjust the rules according to best available science. Tribes and environmental groups expected that science would lead to stricter logging regulations to protect water quality, while many in the timber industry held out hope that science would eventually prove habitat wasn’t as important to salmon recovery as harvest or oceanic conditions.

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Can a border wall ever truly be removed?

Cat Lazaroff | Nov 09, 2009 03:38 AM

It’s been 20 years this month since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, marking the beginning of the end for the Iron Curtain that once separated Eastern Europe from much of the western world. But according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, some of the region’s wildlife still hasn’t forgotten the man-made boundary that interrupted their historic habitat. The findings of European scientists could have implications for America’s own southern border wall. 

Between Germany and the Czech Republic, where an electrified fence and armed guards once barred the passage of wildlife and people alike, a series of parks and nature preserves known as the Green Belt now safeguard forests and wildlife. Most animals take full advantage of the Green Belt, but one species, the red deer, refuses to cross the invisible line where the fence once stood. 

Data from radio-collared deer and the observations of wildlife biologists have shown that, with very rare exceptions, the German deer stay in Germany, and the Czech deer stay out. The deer have apparently passed down a sort of cultural memory of the barrier so that populations on either side of the former fence refuse to cross. That means the two populations are no longer sharing their genes with each other. And as the Journal article points out, the deer’s propensities are keeping them from taking full advantage of the Green Belt, “one of the biggest ecological projects in European history.” 

In the United States, some 650 miles of wall have already been built between the U.S. and Mexico. The wall, ostensibly aimed at preventing undocumented immigration from Mexico to the U.S., has been repeatedly shown to be a dismal failure at blocking human traffic. But the wall has done far too good a job at keeping wildlife from traveling through its native habitat.

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Reader Photo: Ice on Hall Mountain

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Nov 05, 2009 08:19 AM

Reader Photo: Ice on Hall Mountain

This week's HCN Reader photo looks like a magical sunrise in a winter fairyland. Although much of the West remains cloaked in the fall-to-winter transition, bits of winter peek through here - we thought this image offered a nice preview of what's to come.  Add your photo to our reader pool on Flickr - we pick one a week to post on the Grange blog.


All Science is Political

John Freemuth | Nov 02, 2009 01:40 AM

Earlier this month, I was privileged to be part of a keynote panel at the 10th Biennial Conference for research on the Colorado Plateau.  I chose, in part, to talk about the relationship of science and public policy making, because I had just finished writing an essay on that topic for the soon-to-be-published science assessment on the sage-grouse. In my talk, I referenced a sentence I helped write as one of several science advisors to BLM: "the use of the best-available science—along with a consideration of political, social, and economic information—will result in the best-informed decisions."

What followed the panel was a lively discussion about the role of science in public policy; a discussion that led me to conclude that my friends in biology, ecology, conservation biology and related fields are light years ahead of other scientific disciplines in appreciating the complexities within the use of science in public policy making.

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A Halloween Horror

Rob Capriccioso | Oct 30, 2009 05:20 AM

This is my first Halloween as a dad. As the October days have waned, I’ve grown increasingly excited to check out the nearby Halloween costume store to find a perfect trick-or-treat outfit for my new baby girl.

The other day, with permission from baby’s mama, we finally went. The ghoulish masks, wicked wigs, and gory décor were truly a site to behold.Warrior Halloween Costume

But then the real fright came.

Nestled between a swarm of cute bumble bee costumes and a pen of little piggy noses, a display of “Native American Warrior” costumes, complete with headband and mock tribal designs, stared back at me. Intended for kids aged 5 through 14-years-old, the packages said. Bloody tomahawks and plastic black hair, next aisle.

I immediately thought of all the reporting I’ve done involving Indian mascots and team names that some Native Americans have decried and have worked for decades to have removed and changed.

The West has been home to some of the most famous of these controversies, including battles over the long-time Fighting Sioux logo of the University of North Dakota.

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More gas, less grouse | Oct 29, 2009 06:16 AM

By Courtney Lowery, guest blogger, 10-27-09

A new study shows that sage grouse, up for Endangered Species listing in February, will face even bigger population declines in the Mountain West if energy development progresses as Bureau of Land Management expects it to.

The three year study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed PLoS One science journal as well as here on, warns that energy development plans on BLM land in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and North and South Dakota could lead to a 7-19 percent loss of population for the bird.

The study’s authors, which include The Nature Conservancy in Lander, Wyoming, the National Audubon Society in Laramie, Wyoming and the University of Montana’s Wildlife Biology Program are clear about the goal of the research: To help decision makers craft a better oil and gas development pattern that would shift exploration to less sensitive grouse habitat. If done right, the authors say, oil and gas development could keep the sage grouse safe and off the ESA list.

One of the co-authors, David Naugle, a wildlife landscape ecologist at the University of Montana, tells the New York Times: “The answer to energy development in the West is not ‘no,’ but rather ‘where.’ I think our nation’s energy independence is paramount. Thus, the way we designed this study was to be helpful.”

Scott Streater’s piece in the Times’ Greenwire blog does a good job of summing up the report here. And, you can read the full report here.


The debate that drags on

Mark Trahant | Oct 28, 2009 05:55 AM

How long will the health care reform debate drag on? The Hill newspaper says “deep into December and possibly beyond by a lengthy floor debate.”

If that seems like a long time, consider that the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act has been pending since 1999.

Last week hearings were held in the U.S. House of Representatives to move that legislation forward. Again.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, opened hearings on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2009 by once again saying that, yes, there is a federal obligation to provide health care, and, no, the United States doesn’t deliver.

“Putting all the legal aspects aside, I think the trust responsibility can be summed up by saying that something is owned to American Indians for the lands that were both voluntarily given to the United States and forcefully taken, as well as the atrocities that were committed against their peoples,” Pallone said. “But the federal government has consistently failed to live up to this responsibility in almost every respect.”

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The Delta Blues

Felice Pace | Oct 28, 2009 05:35 AM

There is a saying in the West that water flows toward money. That saying seems to be playing out in California this fall.The California legislature is currently considering legislation that some say will fix California’s water woes and others say is intended to result in more North State Water going to powerful agricultural corporations and urban developments on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in Southern California.

Governor Schwarzenegger and leaders of the legislature have been meeting with some of those water interests behind closed doors. But farm, fishing and conservation groups that make up the Restore the Delta coalition say the interests they represent – and legislators who represent the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – have been locked out of the process.

Earlier in October California Senator Diane Feinstein announced that she was preparing legislation to address California’s water problems.  Feinstein is considered California’s pre-eminent water broker and she has consistently favored corporate farms on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Those corporate farms have junior water rights but senior political influence. Recently Feinstein echoed Fox News personality Sean Hannity in calling for suspension of the Endangered Species Act in order to move more water to the farms.

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