Newspapers across the West have been replete with stories about California’s water woes. But almost all those reports – including my recent GOAT post - focus on California’s Central Valley where farmers from the North (the Sacramento Valley), the South (the San Joaquin Valley) and the Center (the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta) compete with municipalities, wildlife refuges and endangered fishes for a water supply which is insufficient this year to fill the region’s reservoirs.
Central Valley water issues center on the mammoth Central Valley Project managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the equally large State Water Project. Water issues in the remainder of the state are dominated by smaller federal, state, municipal and private water developments. And while they are no less controversial these other water conflicts have not been extensively reported even by local and regional media.
Nevertheless, these other water conflicts are arguably just as important to the future of California as high profile Central Valley conflicts. Here then is a brief description of one California water conflict which may erupt into public and media consciousness over the next year:
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There are few sights as lovely as a diatom. Single-celled, photosynthetic algae with intricate skeletons made of pure silica, they fascinated famous 19th century German zoologist Ernst Haekel, who painted this illustration in oils. Recently they have also become fascinating to scientists developing biologically-based solar panels.
Diatoms are ecological workhorses. For at least 100 million years they have formed the basis of oceanic food chains. They fix nearly a quarter of atmospheric CO2. (Rising acidity in oceans may affect their populations).
At Oregon and Portland State Universities, researchers are advancing the relatively new thin-film, dye-sensitized solar cells using diatoms' ready-made structural complexity. First, a transparent, conductive glass surface is coated with diatoms. Their organic matter is removed, leaving the skeletons, which are then impregnated with a nanoparticle solution containing highly absorbtive, photo-sensitive dye molecules and the semiconductor titanium dioxide.
The nanostructure of diatom skeletons increase the interaction between incoming photons and the dye molecules. Dye-sensitized solar is relatively environmentally safe, and scientists expect using the ready-made diatom shells will make the technology up to three times more efficient, and much cheaper.
Spam – not SPAM – is the stuff of evil Internet marketers. It’s bred in dark, dark spaces and spread to the intangible depths of E-mails and pop-up ads of YOUR computer. And today, I found out that spam’s got quite the environmental impact!
Well, I’d never actually eaten SPAM until today, but I thought it’d be the perfect occasion to make a SPAM & cheese melt and read through the new study put out by McAfee Inc. about spam.
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Thirteen years ago, when outgoing President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument, the outcry from some southeast Utah residents was deafening (and HCN was there to write about it). Angry ranchers called their representatives and demanded repeal, locals burned Clinton in effigy, billboards saying NO MONUMENT! went up along the highways. Garfield and Kane counties immediately set to work to undercut the designation, blading illegal roads, pulling out the BLM's "closed to motorized use" signs, and more. And, of course, they filed a lawsuit, complaining about unfair federal interference with access to water and roads.
Now, a federal court has (again) rejected their claims. The Deseret News reports:
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver shot down contentions by Kane and Garfield counties that the Bureau of Land Management's land-use plan for 1.9 million acres unfairly infringes on that access, saying such assertions were overly vague and failed to prove actual harm. The same ruling torpedoed claims by the Kane County Water Conservancy District that water rights were stripped away.
Rep. Mike Noel, unsurprisingly, blasted the court's decision as representing "faceless, nameless, unaccountable bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., who thinks they can hold sway over a sovereign state."
Noel's outrage reflects the Sagebrush Rebellion mindset that's slowly dying out as Westerners realize that natural resources aren't infinite, that complete lack of regulation leads most often to chaos. Their viewpoint was described astutely two decades ago by writer Wallace Stegner: “Westerners who would like to return to the old days of free grab, people of the kind described as having made America great by their initiative and energy in committing mass trespass on the minerals, grass, timber and water of the Public Domain, complain that no Western state is master in its own house.”
Even here in the boondocks, far from any place that Fox News has ever covered, it's impossible to escape the publicity about the impending "Tea Party on Tax Day."
First came a robocall on Saturday; a husky male voice advised me to "show that you care about our country" by "attending a Tea Party on April 15."
This morning I learned that there will be one just a few blocks away from my house. The local newspaper carried an ad, paid for by the Chaffee County Republican Central Committee, inviting me to "Join Us For a Teaparty/Taxpayer Protest Wed. April 15 at 3rd & D Streets 5-7pm."
Above the invitation was a headline, "Why the Rich Get Tax Cuts," followed by a list of income brackets and rates which implied that the rich, such as the top 1 percent of earners, were suffering from serious oppression as they were paying 40 percent of America's income taxes.
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In an ideal world, we'd be able to stash most of our planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions in underground formations, where they would turn to stone. As High Country News has reported in the past, the carbon in C02 can be incorporated into calcium carbonate, or limestone, through chemical reactions. That's a good thing for climate change because calcium carbonate stores carbon for the long haul. Few climatologists lie awake at night worrying that limestone will bubble out of the ground and into the atmosphere.Read More ...
Today and tomorrow only, fellow intern Terray Sylvester and I will be guest blogging at the National Recreation & Parks Association Blog. The forum is called Y Become Involved?
Basically, we'll be discussing a big issue that public lands are facing: How to get young people involved in parks, recreation, and conservation activities. As with industries like farming and fisheries, parks are experiencing a "graying" trend. That means the average age of their employees is getting older and older, which is a problem if conservation and land ethic are to remain top priorities.
Drop by the blog, have a glass of ice tea and give us a few comments. I'm sure all you High Country News readers have a fair bit to say!
It's National Library Week (April 12 - 18), and here in HCN's hometown of Paonia, Colo. we just celebrated the opening of our brand-new public library. After 5 years of hard work, the old, dingy, 3,700-square-foot library has been replaced by an 8,000-square-foot building with tall windows that let in plenty of light and a view of the mountains. The chairs are comfy, the kid's corner welcoming.
I remember small towns by their libraries: The moss-covered cottage in Inverness, Calif., where I curled up on the window seat and worked on my thesis for a week; the old train depot in Lyons, Colo., with the moldy collection of historic silverplates that made me sneeze. Anyone who grew up in a small, rural town knows how important these oases are. They provide crucial access to the internet, and many other services like ESL and literacy classes. They are havens for difference and intellectual growth in sometimes harsh, inhospitable surroundings. They are often poorly funded and staffed, with erratic hours.
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California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) – which serve the vast Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California - have projected dramatically reduced water delivery to all water users. Municipalities, wildlife refuges and farmers who hold water rights can expect to receive 50% to 60% of what has been requested. Most agricultural operations without water rights (so-called “contract farmers”) are expected to get between 15 and 20% of requested water. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are the last in the water line; water managers say these farmers will receive no water deliveries this year unless spring rainfall increases dramatically – an unlikely event.
Delivery of CVP water to west-side San Joaquin Valley irrigators was approved based on the availability of “excess water” in some wet years. Nevertheless these irrigators have planted orchards, vineyards and other permanent crops. Many of them have also developed irrigation wells which they utilize when water from the federal Central Valley Project is not available. However, groundwater pumping is more expensive, groundwater levels have been constantly dropping and land subsidence is a problem.
West-side San Joaquin water users include corporate farms in the politically powerful Westlands Water District. In the past these powerful water users received water despite state-wide shortages. Typically it has been wildlife and endangered fish which have been shorted to provide water to Westlands farms. But this year federal and state officials say they will not cave-in to political pressure. Additionally, environmental groups including the California Water Information Network are on alert to quickly challenge any federal-state backsliding.
But Westlands and its allies have not given up. In fact they have planned what they hope will be a massive protest march for April 14-17 .
Protest organizers are calling for suspension of the federal Endangered Species Act which has mandated less pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and for the development of new reservoirs. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to attend in order to push his plan for more reservoirs and a peripheral canal to by-pass the Delta. Senator Diane Feinstein – who in the past has promoted legislation designed to guarantee water to Westlands Irrigators – will also attend part of the 4-day event.
This week, the Montana Senate is voting on legislation that could give gas companies much more control over water pumped out of coalbed methane wells in the Powder River Basin. Senate Bill 505, if passed, will legitimize what many Montanans consider "water theft."
A single coalbed methane well can produce around 16,800 gallons of water every day. Water lawyer Ken Wonstolen called the copious runoff a "gift" to the West at the Colorado Water Congress. Why not, he asked with a gleam in his eye, treat this water and sell it? Although children in Montana are often told not to use water from coal seams for watering plants due to its high salinity, and it is often contaminated with chemicals like lead and arsenic, it can be treated, or used for stock and dust control.
The main obstacle to gas companies treating and selling produced water, or just dumping it, is the question of who that water actually belongs to. In Montana and Wyoming, groundwater is often subject to senior water rights held by property owners. If the produced water is defined legally as surface water, on the other hand, it becomes fair game. Consequently, there's been quite a bit of wrangling over the definition of produced waters-- are they groundwater or surface water?
Counterintuitive as this may seem, the bill designates methane company pipes the legal source of produced water, rather than the aquifers those pipes draw the water from. This redefines the water as "surface water" and makes it available for use by gas companies if they file for a "temporary" use permit and promise to put it to "beneficial" use.
The Northern Plains Resource Council protests that a) water doesn't come from pipes and b) "temporary" actually just means that companies can use the water until it runs out, leaving farmers and ranchers in the lurch.
A March Journal of Hydrology study predicts that aquifer drawdown in the Powder River Basin due to gas development could be 290 feet deep in the middle of the drilling fields, sucking water from more than 46 miles away. The depletion could affect aquifer recharge, river flows, wells and springs for 200 years.