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Deadly efficiency

Emily Underwood | May 05, 2009 02:30 AM

Since the 1940's, farmers in the Mexicali Valley in Baja California have relied on leakage from the All-American Canal to irrigate their fields. The 80 mile-long channel runs from the Imperial Dam, north of Yuma, Ariz., along the U.S./Mexico border, ending near Calexico. It diverts about 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to nine Southern Calif. cities and waters 500,000 acres of Imperial Valley farmland every year.  

Because the Bureau of Reclamation originally dug the channel through sandy dirt, leaving it unlined,  about 67,700 acre-feet, or 2 percent, of that water escapes on a yearly basis through the absorbent walls of the canal, filling wells in the Mexicali valley across the border and watering thousands of acres of wetlands. However, this unintended generosity finally dried up last Saturday as California officials gathered to celebrate the completion of a new, $300-million  project which replaced a 23-mile section of the dirt canal with a concrete-lined channel. 

Conserving  67,700 acre-feet per year may alleviate some of the pressure on Southern Calif. to get more water from the Sacramento or Colorado Rivers. It will provide 16,000 acre-feet per year in water rights for the Mission Indians and other local groups. However, it will also dry up 3,000 acres of prime agricultural land in Mexico, and over 15,500 acres of  wetlands.  

Funded by the San Diego County Water Authority and the state government, the plan to line the canal was approved by Congress in 1988, but lawsuits from the Mexican government and protests from environmentalists have slowed its progress. See Matt Jenkins' 2007 story, "The Efficiency Paradox," for an exploration of how the canal's sloppy engineering has sustained ecosystems as well as thousands of Mexican farmers.

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Kickstarting salmon salvation?

Sarah Gilman | May 04, 2009 10:05 AM

After years of legal deadlock over the federal government's inadequate attempts to recover Columbia Basin salmon devastated by dams, the Obama administration appears to be steering a new course. Ken Olsen just wrote High Country News an extensive analysis of how this new political order -- combined with the efforts of a diligent federal judge, Congressional changes, shifts in attitude among dam beneficiaries, renewable energy gains and other factors -- could finally get federal salmon recovery rolling, potentially even leading to the eventual removal of four particularly harmful dams on the lower Snake River.

Just after Olsen's article went to press (it will appear in the May 11 issue and is now featured on our Web site), the Obama administration made a move that appears to bolster Olsen's analysis. In a letter to U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is overseeing the longstanding salmon case, Obama administration officials announced that they want extra time to review the outgoing Bush administration's final salmon recovery plan. The Associated Press reports:

The Justice Department said top officials in the Obama administration want a delay of up to two months to "more fully understand all aspects" of the plan.

. . .

Witt Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, said the delay would give officials of the new administration time to familiarize themselves with all the issues in the complex case. Jane Lubchenco, the new administrator of NOAA, was among those attending high-level meetings on the case in recent days.

Of course, that's not a definitive indication that the administration will change the plan, or finally include the option of breaching dams to save fish. But it may be among the first indications that major changes are in order for Northwest salmon.

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Blocked by concrete or killed by climate?

Terray Sylvester | May 04, 2009 09:15 AM

In the context of climate change, our energy appetite has shoved us into a corner. We've gotten used to a diet of cheap, energy-packed fossil fuels, and it will probably be impossible to find an alternative that doesn't bring along its own set of environmental impacts: Solar arrays will damage deserts, wind farms decimate birds and bats, and where the heck will we site the transmission lines? 

And now the Idaho Statesman is describing another twist to the general dilemma: when it comes to killing salmon, hydro power dams and climate change are in fierce competition. Right now, dams may be decimating smolts by the millions, but wait a few decades and warmer water temperatures may stop southerly salmon populations -- and those that spawn in the summer -- dead in their tracks.

In light of those facts, the article poses the question: do we demolish dams or not? After all, argues the Statesman reporter, if we remove dams, fossil-fuel powerplants might replace them. Some salmon populations will benefit from unimpeded spawning runs, but will the added carbon emission result in a larger threat to the species as a whole? Which is more dangerous: millions of tons of greenhouse gases distributed in the atmosphere, or all those tons of concrete sitting in a river?

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Water world

Marty Durlin | May 01, 2009 06:10 AM

Imagine a water conference focused not on fluvial geomorphology, hydraulics, creek restoration, riparian grazing management, stream bank erosion, non-point source pollution, cumulative water resource impact assessment and the like, but instead on water as a mysterious, magical, extraordinary substance.

That’s what former Hopi chairman Vernon Masayevsa had in mind when he conceived “Braiding Through Water: Weaving Traditional and Western Sciences and Knowledge,” a conference held in Flagstaff, Ariz., last month.

In Hopi, water is life and energy, the connecting power that links living beings, islands and continents, and earth to other planets in the cosmic sea. To employ water as a mere commodity – as, for example, Peabody Energy did when it used the pure water of the Navajo Aquifer under Northern Arizona’s Black Mesa to make coal slurry – is to take the wrong path. In 1998 Masayevsa formed the Black Mesa Trust to save the dwindling aquifer, claiming the company had taken so much water that washes and sacred springs on Hopi land had begun to run dry.

“At first we had to play the game according to their rules,” says Masayevsa. “And there was no way for us to win (that way). So we asked the water and the water said: Bring the fight to your territory, talk about water as the ancestors talked about it. So we went to our ancient traditions and knowledge, and that was when Peabody could not fight us.”

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Desert disappearances

Jodi Peterson | May 01, 2009 06:19 AM

In mid-April, writer Laura Paskus told us of a dozen murdered women whose remains were found in the New Mexico desert. This week, the desert has given up additional bodies -- one an explorer who disappeared 75 years ago, the other a hiker missing only since November. 

Everett Ruess, artist, poet and aesthete, was 20 years old when he vanished on a solo mule trip through Utah in 1934. He left only his woodblock prints, letters to his family, and the word "Nemo" inscribed in various canyons. Theories abounded -- he'd run off with a Navajo girl, drowned crossing the Colorado River, been murdered by cattle rustlers. Finally, this week the mystery was solved when researchers revealed that human bones found by a Navajo man were a DNA match with Everett's living relatives. The Navajo had gone in search of the remains last year, after learning that his grandfather saw a young white man being killed in the '30s and buried the body.

The discovery puts decades of questions to rest for the Ruess family. And the discovery of a much more recently vanished wanderer -- Rose Backhaus -- has finally answered her family's questions. 

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Camelina, Montana's wonder crop?

Marty Durlin | Apr 29, 2009 08:40 AM

Camelina SativaHas camelina's time arrived? A new study -- funded by the camelina industry and conducted with jet fuel from seeds developed by a Bozeman company called Sustainable Oils -- says fuel made with the oilseed camelina could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 84 percent compared with fuel made from petroleum.

Just last September, the FDA granted permission to include two percent camelina meal -- a byproduct of producing the fuel -- in the mix given to feedlot beef cattle and swine. The meal has protein levels of 40 percent or more, and is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids. 

Camelina is well suited to Montana and other arid states because it can withstand cold temperatures and it needs very little water. In 2007, more than 20,000 acres of the crop was cultivated in the state -- but that number fell by almost half in 2008, probably because farmers could get more money from growing wheat, which hit record highs.

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Despite vandalism, road stays closed

Ed Quillen | Apr 28, 2009 04:20 AM

Back in mid-March, I wrote about a wonderful development on one of my favorite local dog-walking routes. The federal Bureau of Land Management had blocked motor vehicles from this half-mile stretch of old bad road along the Arkansas River just east of Salida.

I predicted that the closure sign would get knocked down, the blocking boulders would be moved, and there would be agitation to re-open the road to pickups, ATVs, motorcycles and the like.

The post with the closure sign hasn't fared well. Soon after it went up, it was pushed hard by a vehicle. It was cracked and leaning, but still standing, more or less. By last weekend, though, it was fully broken off and lying in the dirt.

However, the boulders are still in place, and we've seen only one violator, a motorcyclist who briefly intruded, then turned back.

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When it blows, the snow goes

Michelle Nijhuis | Apr 27, 2009 10:08 AM

Last night, I flew home to Colorado to find that my car had changed color. During my weekend away, a wild dust-and-rain storm had rolled over Grand Junction, covering my car -- and the rest of town, it seemed -- with bright orange splotches of desert dirt. “Yep, half of Utah blew through here,” said the attendant at the airport parking lot.
It’s been a dusty winter here in western Colorado -- spooky orange clouds keep busting in from the west, leaving layers of grit on cars, people, and our snowpack. And since darker snow absorbs more heat, dirty snowpack melts faster -- a lot faster, researchers find. The Washington Post recently published a story on our dusty skies, including their causes and implications for Western snow and water -- well worth a look. A couple of winters ago, I trekked into the San Juan Mountains with snow scientist Tom Painter, who studies the effects of dust on snow -- check out the HCN story I wrote about our trip, and his and his colleagues’ disturbing findings.


Of Gods and Sea Kittens

Emily Underwood | Apr 24, 2009 06:51 AM

How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world — the paragon of animals!  ~ William Shakespeare

In the Sacramento Bee today, Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California's 19th District accused environmentalists of fish idolatry: calling regulations that protect endangered smelt in the Sacramento Delta "draconian," because they "turn simple fish into the worshipful gods of the environmental community...We need the government to protect the safety and happiness of people, not fish."   

 "All men are equal before fish," noted Herbert Hoover.  "Fish recognize a bad leader," observed Conan O'Brien. What do the Delta smelt think of Mr. Radanovich? 

Poor smelt. Caught in the crossfire of California's water wars, they never asked for adulation. Smelt are an indicator species and their disappearance bodes ill for the Delta ecosystem. Enviros say the California drought is being used politically to push new hydro projects — it's not that there isn't enough water, it's that the whole system has been so badly planned. Moving forward, conservation and better irrigation practices are in order, not sacrifice of the ecosystem. 

Republicans like 4th District Rep. Tom McClintock are also skeptical of the drought, but for opposite reasons, saying that environmental regulations, not farming or conservation, are the problem. McClintock seems to have inherited his predecessor John Doolittle's talent for subtle analysis: "The question comes down to a very simple choice between people and fish." (Doolittle, who is now under investigation for corruption, is famous in my hometown of Coloma, Calif.,  for his obsession with building the Auburn Dam on the American River. He called opponents to the dam "conniving environmentalists"). 

It must be acknowledged that certain fish fans are fanatics. PETA, for example, has gone off the deep end with its "Sea Kitten" campaign.  Obviously geared toward children, PETA's propaganda stretches, nay, snaps the cords of reason: 

"Contrary to popular belief, the technical term for sea kitten offspring is "baby sea kitties," not "caviar." Many sea kittens build nests where they can raise their baby sea kitties, and others collect small rocks off the sea floor to made widdle hiding pwaces where they can rest."

Oh, retch. 

Perhaps we should turn to Lao Tzu for answers about the Delta smelt:  "Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it."





After the crash

Jonathan Thompson | Apr 24, 2009 04:35 AM

The housing/growth boom of the last decade was a wild ride for the West, feeling a bit like a euphoric all-night meth binge. Only the drug in this case was easy credit and an unshakable belief that the good times could never end. Nearly three years after the housing bubble reached its bursting point -- easy now to pin at mid-2006 -- we're still suffering from serious withdrawal. The rash of foreclosures may have slowed a bit at the end of last year, but now they appear to be jumping back up again (Krissy Clark at American Radio Works did a great series on Las Vegas' foreclosure nightmare). Housing starts are lower than ever. Check out these building permit comparisons:

                            March 2006          March 2009

Phoenix                    4,658                     544

Las Vegas                 5,353                     278

Albuquerque               873                     120

Denver                          398                    278


Home sales are so low, and values along with them, that people aren't even moving anymore -- the great, mobile America is stuck. Given how crucial in-migration was to the West's growth machine, this will just slow the slowdown to the speed of cold molasses. It's gotten so bad that golf courses in Phoenix are going into foreclosure.

What I'm really interested in is: What's next? Some folks believe that as soon as the economy turns around (if it turns around), the Western growth machine will kick itself back into gear. I, for one, am not so sure. I tend to believe that things were shifting even before the crash, and that the downturn will totally readjust how we think about and do growth. But I'm really interested in your thoughts. Read our stories on the topic -- which focus on Phoenix -- and let us know what you think, either in the comment section of the story, or at our Facebook pages.


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