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Native discovery could save important fish

Terri Hansen | Sep 16, 2010 05:50 AM

The scientific discovery of an ancient stress hormone by a tribal member could lead to the survival of the most ancient of the native fish in the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific lamprey, an eel like fish that evolved more than 500 million years ago.

David Close, Ph.D. is a Cayuse and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla in Northeastern Oregon, a Columbia River treaty fishing tribe that’s been at the forefront in calling the Pacific lamprey’s restoration.

Close, a professor at the University of British Columbia discovered the corticosteroid hormone, which is important for monitoring environmental impacts that stress the lamprey like when they’re going down river in barges or trying to negotiate fish ladders designed for salmon.

LampreyLike salmon, the Pacific lamprey is born in freshwater and travels to the ocean for its adult life, then returns to the upper reaches of rivers where it forgoes food for a year before spawning. Before construction of the dams, tribal peoples fished for the once abundant lamprey in the falls along the Columbia and its tributaries. There are only an estimated 11,000 left in the Columbia River.

The lamprey is a culturally important subsistence and medicinal fish for the Columbia River tribes, who want it targeted for conservation in the way that endangered salmon populations are in Washington, Oregon and California rivers.

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Rants from the Hill: Guests in the house of fire

Michael Branch | Sep 15, 2010 01:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

For once, fire has remained absent from our home landscape this summer. Winter was so long and wet as to have repressed fire season, and it seems strange that our home mountain, valley, and foothills have remained unscorched even into September. After six years of calling in plumes, scrutinizing weather, spending July and August with a beer in one hand and binoculars in the other, there’s something almost disconcerting about this lack of fire. This fireless summer has made me feel like the urban dweller who flees to the rurals to escape the constant noise and then can’t sleep because it is too quiet. After all, this land was sculpted by burning, the natural fire cycle here having been as short as fifteen years. Wildfires are common, and their fuel is as much the intense aridity and desiccating winds as it is the sage, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush, the juniper, gooseberry, and desert peach. While a fire in town seems tragic and unexpected, out here fire isn’t accident, it is weather.

Last July a simultaneous trio of wind-driven wildfires burned more than 12,000 acres of our home mountain and valley, prompting evacuations along the wildlands interface where we live. The first two nights of the fire, which my wife and daughters spent in town, were relatively uneventful. I was fortunate to have a crew of wildlands firefighters occupying my two main firebreaks, and I spent those nights bringing them coffee and listening to their incredible stories about the unpredictable power of fire. Even as the glowing smoke clouds in the western sky reflected the flames marching up the valley on the other side of the foothills, I remained fairly confident that my defensible space and fuels reduction efforts would make it possible for these guys to save our house even if the fire ultimately burned over our home hill.

By afternoon on the third day, however, things were a good deal worse.

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How bad projects get built

David Zetland | Sep 13, 2010 05:01 AM

Editor's note: David Zetland, a water economist who recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley offers an insider's perspective into water politics and economics. We will be cross-posting occasional posts and content from his blog, Aguanomics, here on the Range.

RM sent me the "Review budget for Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Delta Habitat Conservation and Conveyance Program" [pdf] that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Met) has prepared.

I was interested to see that Met assumes it will pay less than 25 percent of short- and long-term project costs.

So who's going to pay the other 75 percent? Farmers who participate in the CVP and SWP and take 75 percent (let's assume) of the water from those two projects.*

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't have many examples of farmers paying the full cost of water infrastructure.

What if they don't pay? Well, then Met will pay the difference. Does that make sense? Yes, it does to Met, since their 25 percent share of the water is worth far more than 25 percent of the value of that water in use. In other words, Met will probably end up paying a larger share of the total cost because Met gets more value from the water.**

So here's my thought: If Met's directors believe these estimates and fund this project, and the project gets going, then they will have a hard time NOT spending more money when it comes time to pay a larger-than-25 percent share. That's because it's hard to shut projects down once they get started.

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The Public Trust makes a comeback in California

Felice Pace | Sep 10, 2010 03:45 AM

When the Mono Lake Decision  was issued by the California Supreme Court in 1983, environmental spokespersons claimed that it would revolutionize the way water is managed in California. Citing both the ancient Public Trust Doctrine (which dates to Roman Times) and a modern California Fish & Game Code, the state’s highest court stated unequivocally that those diverting water from streams must leave enough water in those streams to maintain aquatic ecosystems below the point of diversion. Environmentalists celebrated. Not only was Mono Lake saved, they crowed, but irrigated agriculture and municipalities would no longer be able to dry up living streams and rivers.

In the 27 years since the Mono Lake Decision, however, the dewatering of California streams has proceeded. Many streams which once provided valuable fisheries, recreation and other amenities are now bone dry much of the year. Salmon and steelhead fisheries and swimming holes used by generations of Californians are among the resources which have been sacrificed to water California’s agribusiness and its thirst for development. 

Recently, however, Public Trust claims appear to be making a comeback. In June the Environmental Law Foundation and commercial salmon fishing interests filed a Public Trust lawsuit aimed at ending the dewatering of Northern California’s Scott River – a major Klamath River tributary.  

And this month, the California Water Impact Network  filed a Public Trust lawsuit aimed at restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The lawsuit claims that pumping from California’s largest delta to supply Southern California’s corporate agribusiness and cities violates the ancient law and therefore must be curtailed.

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A new twist in an old contention

Ed Quillen | Sep 09, 2010 05:30 AM

For more than a century -- the first court case was filed in 1901 -- Kansas and Colorado have fought over the Arkansas River, with Kansas claiming that Colorado keeps too much of its water.
Now there's a new twist in the long dispute. (The two states can't even agree on how to pronounce the river's name. It's "Ar-kan-saw" in Colorado and "Our-Kanz-us" across the state line.)

Sunflower Electric plans to build a new coal-fired electrical generating plant in southwestern Kansas. It will consume 3.9 billion gallons of water a year. But most of the electricity it generates will go to Colorado.
Critics charge that in effect, this is exporting water to Colorado, since Kansas water gets consumed to produce something consumed in Colorado. And that doesn't seem right, given the years of Kansas litigation to get water from Colorado.

Others point out that even if the water remained in agriculture, it would effectively be exported to other states where the products are consumed. I ran some numbers on this last year. A farm-fresh potato is about 80 percent water, so a ton of potatoes contains about 200 gallons.  Every 700-pound yearling steer that leaves my county, and most of them do, is 65 percent water. 

So maybe there's no way around the persistent truth that the two major exports from rural areas are smart kids and water -- either flowing, used to make electricity, or contained inside potato skins and cattle hides. 

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

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Mystery Salmon

Joseph Taylor | Sep 08, 2010 02:00 AM

Pull up to any fish buying station in the Salish Sea and you will likely spy many stupid grins.  The reason, as Mary Ellen Walling crowed last week, is that “The Sockeye are back!”  The news is as good as it gets in this long suffering fishery.  In the last few decades sockeye runs have underperformed so often that the dominant question among researchers and fishers has been what happened to the disappearing salmon.  In fact, last year there was no fishery at all.  Thus for anyone who pays attention to salmon, the last month has represented a violent cognitive rupture as Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had to repeatedly up its estimate of the number of sockeye running into the Fraser River to the now historic figure of 34 million.  Nobody alive has seen this many salmon, not since the ill-fated year of 1913, when a railroad-induced landslide at Hells Gate effectively destroyed an already declining fishery.  There are no experiential reference points.  We instead lean on aging stories of the good times told by people now long dead, and we struggle with, as one native fisher remarked, “overwhelming emotions.”

Indeed, this is the best of times, and as is wont in such circumstances, the spin has been fast and furious.  The DFO Minister cited the run as evidence of the Conservative government’s dedication to conservation.  A. Brian Peckford, who works in the offshore oil drilling industry, claimed the run proves that the problem with Fraser River salmon is not decline but “variation.”  Walling, who is executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmer’s Association, pummeled critics of aquaculture, including biologist and activist  Alexandra Morton, who has linked industry practices to sea lice outbreaks and devastated pink salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago.  According to Walling, the run proves salmon farms are not a problem.  Boldest of all has been the Marine Stewardship Council, which in late July, in an act that can only be described as stunningly prescient, anointed the Fraser sockeye fishery as an MSC-accredited sustainably managed fishery.

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Remembering Labor on Labor Day

Ed Quillen | Sep 02, 2010 08:00 AM

Labor Day comes on Monday. It inspires thoughts of picnics and mountain outings, but it also brings to mind a conversation I had years ago with my state representative -- the rare Republican who carried a union card.

Several mines had closed. Our area had lost a lot of well-paid steady jobs with excellent benefits. We talked about how seasonal tourist jobs -- work that paid poorly and offered no benefits -- were not much of a replacement.

"But you have to remember," he said, "that mining jobs didn't become good jobs because mining companies are run by philanthropists. It took about forty years of bloody industrial warfare."

Much of that warfare was in the West, with armed rebellions stretching from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to Globe, Arizona. Colorado's most famous labor battle came in the coal camp of Ludlow in 1914 -- one good book about it is The Great Coalfield War by George S. McGovern (yes, it's the former senator) and Leonard F. Guttridge.

Ludlow participants included John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Mother Jones and John L. Lewis, so it's a big story. But it's not the only one. The silver mines of Leadville and the gold producers at Cripple Creek also saw guns and dynamite. The union struggle was especially fierce in Telluride, as explained by MaryJoy Martin in The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor, 1899-1908.

The most militant of the miners' unions was the Western Federation of Miners. One of its officers, Big Bill Haywood, argued that the mine owners "did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy, all the gold belonged to them."

Haywood had the most American of backgrounds -- he was born in Salt Lake City and his father was a Pony Express rider -- but he ended up buried in the Kremlin wall.

Wikipedia offers a fair account of the rise and fall of the WFM. The mine owners and the state governments were so eager to squash the union that they kidnapped the WFM's leaders from Denver to put them on trial in Idaho for the dynamite killing of a former governor by terrorist Harry Orchard. They were defended by Clarence Darrow, and the story is exhaustively told in Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas.

This part of our history doesn't get much local attention. I've visited many old mining towns and their museums, and found only one that gives the WFM more than a passing mention. The museum with a WFM wall is in Victor, Colo., six miles from the casinos of Cripple Creek. It's fitting, since Victor was the district's labor town where the state militia tried to shut down its newspaper.

So that's an appropriate destination for a Labor Day road trip, and a way to remember that mining corporations are not run by philanthropists.

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What will the Indian health system look like?

Mark Trahant | Sep 02, 2010 02:00 AM

What will the Indian health system look like a decade from now?

That’s an impossible question to answer. There is the potential of a court ruling striking down at least part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And, there is always the possibility of Congress will rewrite the law (I view this as remote because there would have to be a Super Majority to enact something else.)

But in the meantime there is a new foundation already under construction. The building that will rest on that structure will not be the same as the one in place now.

Let’s start with the patient. Right now, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, [pdf] nearly half of all American Indians and Alaska Natives are either uninsured or rely solely on the Indian Health Service. But health care reform changes that. Big time. Beginning in four years, hundreds of thousands of people will become eligible for insurance through government programs (such as Medicaid) because of new income rules. This insurance can be used to pay for services at Indian health system facilities – or at competing health care centers. (Think about how many private walk-in clinics promise no waiting.)

Another huge change is that states have more at stake than ever in the success of the Indian health system. Let’s start with the premise that everyone who should be covered by these government insurance programs will be. (I know it’s a leap.)

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Enchanted with carbon caps

Bruce Frederick | Sep 01, 2010 02:00 AM

New Mexico is known for its stunning desert and mountain landscapes, vibrant mix of cultures and unique history. But this month the state is perched on the brink of becoming a leader in climate change regulation and plays a major role in moving the nation to a greener, stronger economy.

The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board began hearings on an innovative proposal from New Energy Economy, an environmental non-profit. The proposal requires major carbon emitters, such as the oil and gas industry and electric utilities, to reduce emissions by 3 percent below a 2010 baseline each year. Unlike the confusing thousand-page cap and trade regulations under consideration at the federal level, and already in place in some states, our five-page proposal [PDF] focuses on immediately reducing emissions.

Initiating a carbon cap regulation in advance of any federal laws is a critical opportunity for not just New Mexico, but all western states. Sooner or later, whether through congressional action or through EPA Clean Air Act regulations, there will be rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions. States getting an early jump on emissions reductions may qualify for early reduction credits in these future policies. And setting the curve on innovative carbon reduction strategies will give New Mexico businesses a competitive edge. It will make our state a prime location for other states to purchase offsets for their own emissions. By regulating carbon now, we encourage New Mexico’s businesses to find the simple emissions reduction strategies -- like increasing energy efficiency -- while making long term plans for more substantial emissions reductions that will serve them well under future federal regulations.

Critically, climate science suggests that Western states, especially New Mexico, will face major consequences from global climate change. Less snow, earlier snow melt, bigger and more frequent flash floods, and summer droughts are all on the horizon. Climate change will also shift fragile mountain ecosystems to higher elevations, straining conditions for both wildlife and farmers. Between water shortages and shifting climatic patterns, New Mexico’s outdoor recreation and agricultural industries will face significant challenges.

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The role of higher education

John Freemuth | Aug 31, 2010 02:00 AM

Recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote “We should be able to….establish a set of concrete understandings about what government should and shouldn’t do. We should be able to have a grounded conversation based on principles 95 percent of Americans support.” Instead, as former congressman (and now Chairman of the National Endowment on the Humanities) Jim Leach has pointed out “it looks like increasingly people are lining up on one side or the other and they're, in effect, forming camps where the great American middle is at least proportionately very poorly represented in legislative bodies, particularly in Congress. “

Mr. Leach points us to an institution that might help us work ourselves out of this problem, but first we need to rethink that institution just a bit. That institution is the modern American university. As Leach notes: “I was told today, a university president was saying more students were lost at his university due to debt than bad grades. And that is one of the real challenges of our time: How we can afford a good university and public education at the post-secondary level?”

The simplistic answer is of course, by making a commitment to our universities. But we are in the throes of doing the opposite. I somewhat humorously, in my email signature line, refer to myself as a professor at Boise “State” University, because our funding from the state of Idaho is at 20% percent and declining. Public funding for other universities can be even lower. Where do we find the additional funding? What we do right now is chase huge research grants, like every other university. Those grants fall primarily in the area of what some call Big Science and Big Engineering.

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