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Thinking broadly about dams in the West

Joseph Taylor | Jul 29, 2010 02:00 AM

It’s been a bad press week for dams.  Last Saturday the Lake Delhi dam gave way, and the previous Tuesday the Tempe Town Lake dam literally exploded.  The former disaster involved heavy rains swamping a 1920s-era dam on the Maquoketa River, while the latter resulted from a giant rubber bladder popping on the Salt River.  In Iowa, upstream residents  mourned the loss of a bucolic landscape as downstream residents mucked out mud.  In Arizona, officials vowed to refill a recreational reservoir even as they combed downstream banks for flood victims--likely transients who often camp in the normally dry river bed.

These incidents remind us of several salient facts about dams, people, and nature.  First, and especially in the American West, we fixate on a few large dams, yet most of us are more intimately entwined with the sort of structures that failed last week.  These small dams are ubiquitous and unconscious backdrops of daily life.  We rarely notice the irrigation gates along the roads of the San Joaquin, Snake, Uncompagre, and Yakima Valleys.  Nor do we often consider those dikes in central California or the lower Colorado River, or the storage lakes that some Westerners use for play and that many more rely on for domestic usage.  Until, of course, they fail, as has happened repeatedly since long before the St. Francis Dam gave way in 1928.

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A water economist's hot links

David Zetland | Jul 27, 2010 02:17 AM

Editor's note: This link roundup comes from David Zetland, a water economist at the University of California, Berkeley. We will be cross-posting occasional posts and content from his blog, Aguanomics, here on the Range.

David Zetland Speed Blogging for Tuesday, July 27, 2010

 

  • Food and Water Watch has a guide to understanding your utility's water quality report. It may be useful, but you will have to wade through their human rights and government-knows-best propaganda.

  • Many English speakers cannot understand the passive tense. That may explain why academics and bureaucrats like to use it (to sound smart), but it also explains why people have a hard time understanding them. That's a problem if citizens cannot understand laws or their rights.

  • Some interesting thoughts on subsidies vs user pays.

  • Pro-citizen groups have put together a tool to help people understand how to draw their own borders for congressional districts. This is a great way of seeing how far politically-biased boundaries drift from boundaries that are objective or that serve OTHER partisan interests.

  • The extra stuff in beer that they (Bud, Miller) don't tell you about.

  • Details on why clean coal isn't.

Hattips to RT and JWT

Originally posted at Aguanomics.

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The meaning of marmot whistles

Ed Quillen | Jul 23, 2010 06:20 AM

If I had to pick my favorite rodent, the choice would be easy: the marmot. Or more precisely, the yellow-bellied marmot of the American West, scientifically known as the Marmota flaviventris.

Mountain marmots are furry, about two feet long, and weigh around 10 pounds. They're closely related to other large ground squirrels, like groundhogs, gophers and woodchucks.

If you've ever hiked in high, rocky terrain, you've probably seen and heard marmots -- they chirp and whistle to warn their fellows of your approach.

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New national monument is an idea worth considering

Newwest.net | Jul 16, 2010 03:00 AM

By Bill Schneider, NewWest.net guest blogger, 7-15-10

Back in February somebody leaked seven pages of a “vision document” conceived within the Department of the Interior and created quite a political uproar. OMG! Top brass in the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service (all Interior Department agencies) and a few green groups were actually discussing the idea of creating 14 new national monuments using the same end-run strategy employed by President Bill Clinton when--only three days before turning over the keys to the White House to George W. Bush--he used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in north central Montana and 12 more monuments in other states.

Now, it appears as if President Obama might do the same thing, even though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar claims it’s all “false rumors.” But in an excellent analysis (click here), Great Falls Tribune capital bureau reporter John S. Adams verifies that Interior Department higher-ups have indeed been seriously chatting up the monument idea. Salazar should have been proud to admit it.

Now, all those people who didn’t vote for President Obama, particularly western republican politicos, have their shorts jerked up tight over the idea. They consider it an abuse of presidential power and insist that any monument designation must first have a local consensus and then be passed by Congress.

First off, let’s be honest about motivations. Republicans want this congressional process because they know it won’t happen, and since the Obama administration proposed it, they have to be against it. Democrats will maintain a neutral stance, publicly, but in the end, they’ll let it happen because it’s coming from their President. Conservationists and scientists in agencies support using the Antiquities Act because they know it’s the only way it can happen.

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Rants from the Hill: Greetings from Nevada

Michael Branch | Jul 15, 2010 05:15 AM

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

I live with my wife and two young daughters in the high desert of the western Great Basin, at 6,000 feet on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, on a desiccated hilltop so mercilessly exposed to wind, snow, and fire that our house appears to lean away from the trouble, like a tree canted by the blast of the Washoe Zephyr that sweeps these hills every afternoon. It is a stark and extreme landscape, utterly empty of any concern for our flourishing, or even survival. It is also, to us, the most remarkable home imaginable. I look forward to telling you more about this place and its human and nonhuman inhabitants in the monthly essays that will follow.

But first, in this essay of greeting, I offer a few reflections on how we human neighbors greet each other out here in the rural high desert. The fact that we are so few and far between in this big country profoundly conditions our modes of communication, increasing our dependence upon each other even as it intensifies the isolation we have chosen in coming here to dwell. Our challenge is to affirm the bonds of mutual aid so as to have them ready in times of blizzard, fire, and accident, while simultaneously protecting each other’s elaborate fantasies of independence. This is more difficult than it might sound, and it accounts for the ubiquity of discussions of the weather, without which my neighbors and I—there are eight of us strung along this nearly impassable, three-mile dirt road snaking through the sage and juniper hills—would have a rough time getting along. We’re all isolatoes here, distinguishable on any given day by our varying degrees of orneriness—by where we might each be placed on a narrow spectrum ranging from Tolerably Genial at the Mailboxes on up to Sociopathically Misanthropic. Despite our curmudgeonliness, we also know how to help each other when the need arises, which it does out here.

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HCN Reader Photo - the Palouse

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Jul 14, 2010 02:06 AM

The Palouse

 
This reader photo spotlights a beautiful section of the Northwest, the Palouse. Photographer Joe Rocchio points out that the now-agricultural region was once a prairie; it must have been incredibly beautiful then, too. Browse eh existing images and add your photos to our HCN Flickr pool; we periodically feature them on the Range community blog.
 
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's social media editor.

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The Mojave National Preserve Conservancy

Seth Shteir | Jul 13, 2010 03:00 AM

Chris Clarke could see the entire northern part of the Mojave National Preserve from the summit of Kessler Peak. Light from that magical hour around sunset highlighted distant mountains and ridgelines. The view was spectacular. But as the sun dipped below the horizon he realized the path he’d taken to climb to the top was too steep to descend. Suddenly, he heard the melodic song of a canyon wren and saw a safe path open before him. “It was one of those moments when everything came together,” says Clarke. “The Mojave National Preserve took care of me.”

Mojave PreserveClarke has returned the favor. He’s a board member of The Mojave National Preserve Conservancy, a relatively new nonprofit friends group that seeks to protect the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve. The conservancy works to protect the preserve by supporting educational programs, restoration projects, and capital improvements at the park.

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Push polls in the Rockies

Ed Quillen | Jul 11, 2010 02:00 AM

I had read about "push polls," but until last week, I had never been exposed to one.

A "push poll" may sound like a real poll at first, but as the questions proceed, it's obvious that the pollster is trying to influence your thinking, rather than find out what you're thinking, which is what legitimate polls do.

My push-poll moment came after I returned from some errands and checked the answering machine, just in case an editor had called with the offer of some lucrative work.

No such luck. Instead, a robust voice started asking questions. Obviously this was a robo-call, since a human would have either hung up or left a message after getting the answering machine. I'm all for free speech, and I know the U.S. Supreme Court has decided corporations come under the First Amendment, but isn't there something we can do to make sure that robots don't have free-speech rights that annoy us?

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Environmental Law's Greatest Tragedy

Eric Jantz | Jul 06, 2010 02:37 PM

Ask John or Jane Q. Public about how the environmental laws in this country are implemented, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. No one really knows, but with the BP spill and Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant leaks in the headlines, people are sure the system isn’t working. As a practicing environmental lawyer, I’ll be the first to admit that this nation’s environmental law framework is dense and arcane. I’ll also be the first to second-guess its efficacy. So join me, won’t you, on a fantastic voyage into the murky underworld of environmental administrative law?

BLM LogoLike many others, I think the nation’s system of environmental laws and regulations, both at the state and federal level, is broken and its problems need to be addressed. One of the biggest problems can be summed up in two words:  “agency deference.” “Agency deference” is the judicial doctrine that precludes judges from revisiting administrative agency decisions (s/a those made by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service) except in the most extreme circumstances. It’s also the doctrine that has made it nearly impossible for there to be any independent and dispassionate review of decisions made by federal agencies that have become more like industry enablers than hard-nosed neutral regulators.  

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Going by the law

Ed Quillen | Jul 02, 2010 04:05 AM

With production supposed to start soon, I've encountered even more criticism of the Nestle bottled-water operation in Colorado's Chaffee County, where I live.

bottled waterIn brief, Nestle will take 200 acre-feet a year of water from springs near Nathrop, between Buena Vista and Salida, and transport it in tanker trucks to the Denver area. There it will be bottled and sold under the Arrowhead brand.

To make up for the water taken to the bottling plant, water that would have otherwise flowed down the Arkansas River to other users with senior water rights, Nestle made a deal with the City of Aurora, a suburb just east of Denver. With the economic downturn, Aurora doesn't need all the water it has rights to. So Aurora will lease "augmentation water" to Nestle. Thus the river flow is preserved, and downstream water users will not be harmed.

Now, I've never been a fan of this scheme. But I don't think it's fair to criticize our county commissioners for granting the relevant permits to Nestle. They have to follow the law, not the widespread disgust with the bottled-water industry.

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