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With Gila River deadline looming, New Mexico debates its water options

Ben Goldfarb | Feb 10, 2014 05:00 AM

In the Colorado River drainage basin, where states and cities routinely wrestle over limited water, and where a 14-year drought may portend long-term scarcity, new water sources are rare and precious. Thanks to a decade-old settlement, New Mexico has access to just such a resource. But, after years of debate, and with just months before a federal deadline, state officials still haven’t decided whether to use the water or let it remain in the Gila River.

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Farmers and ranchers say diverting the Gila would ensure long-term supply, but conservationists fear disrupting riparian ecology. Photo by Flickr user Chris M. Morris.

The settlement in question is the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a 2004 agreement that gave New Mexico annual rights to 14,000 acre-feet of water (over 4.5 billion gallons) from the Gila, a 649-mile-long tributary of the Colorado, and the Gila’s own tributary, the San Francisco. Taking the water would mean diverting the Gila – the state’s last free-flowing river – through dams, channels and pipelines for storage. Farmers, ranchers and municipalities say the project would protect against flooding and ensure long-term supply. “I really think this is a one-time opportunity to secure water for our kids and grandkids,” rancher David Ogilvie told the Albuquerque Journal last month.

Conservation groups and sportsmen, however, fear that diversions would do ecological harm without solving the state’s long-term water problems. Although the environmental impacts of diversion on the Gila haven’t yet been fully assessed, Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, says that preliminary analyses suggest that it would substantially alter natural flow. “These flows wet the floodplains, recharge groundwater and trigger spawning in native fish,” Siwik says. “This is one of the last intact riparian areas we have.”

The state only has until the end of 2014 to decide how to proceed. Complicating the situation is that, under the terms of the settlement, the federal government offered New Mexico $128 million to develop its water resources; around half of that funding can only be spent on diversion. Yet even if the state spends all the federal money on diversion, it won’t be enough to cover costs: according to an analysis by engineering firm Bohannan Huston, the recommended diversion project would come in at $348 million. That means the state could end up on the hook for around $200 million.

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A wildfire forum takes radical approach to protecting wildland-urban interface

Christi Turner | Feb 06, 2014 05:00 AM

Wildfire in the West is getting more severe all the time - burning longer, hotter and more frequently, destroying more homes, stretching federal funds to the limit, endangering more firefighters. Rising temperatures are driving the trend, and there's no indication things will change course.

Faced with these dire circumstances, 20 of the West’s most influential wildfire experts gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at a closed-door Wildfire Solutions Forum last month in an effort to generate radical ideas on how to lessen future fire danger in Western communities. The theme of the event centered on one question: How can we control the pace, scale and pattern of future development of the wildland-urban interface, or WUI? Across the West, 84 percent of this interface – where federal public land abuts private land within a 1/3-mile radius – remains undeveloped.

This “84 percent” was a rallying cry for the two-day forum, and symbolized a need to shift wildfire conversation away from the portion of WUI that is already developed. This is breakthrough thinking in the world of wildfire policy, where the priority has been to protect existing communities rather than venturing into the realm of future development.

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Headwaters Economics interactive graphic of the wildland-urban interface in the American West. Developed, undeveloped and high-risk zones are mapped by color. Click to explore the graphic.
“There’s this invisible line you’re not allowed to cross,” said the forum’s organizer, Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group focused on Western land management. “If you start talking about restricting private property rights, that’s sort of a career-ending conversation you’re having.”

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Service problems and pilot shortages plague rural air service

Emily Guerin | Feb 05, 2014 10:20 PM

Long-time residents of Cheyenne, Wyo., might remember the days when Frontier Airlines flew cushy commercial jets out of the city’s small regional airport. That was back in the 1970s and earlier, when the Federal Aviation Administration required airlines to prove they were servicing rural communities in order to keep their certifications. When the FAA deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the big jets took off from Cheyenne and didn’t come back. Instead, airlines concentrated on larger, more profitable hubs, leaving small airports around the country without dedicated commercial air service.

To avoid stranding rural residents, that same year the FAA started paying commercial airlines to fly into small towns. Not all airlines were interested, but some, like Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Airlines, found a niche in flying to Essential Air Service communities, as the program is known. Great Lakes is now the most heavily-subsidized airline in the country and the largest provider of Essential Air Service flights, receiving 42 percent of its revenue from the federal program. It services 13 states in the West and upper Midwest.

Yet despite its broad reach, Great Lakes passengers have recently taken to calling the airline “Great Mistakes.” Stories abound in places of cancelled flights, lost baggage and missed connections. According to WyoFile:

Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming, told WyoFile he once hosted a visitor who bought a ticket to fly out of Laramie to Denver. The flight to Denver originated in Worland, and would stop in Laramie to pick up passengers. But when Godby took his visitor to the Laramie airport, the plane never arrived. Great Lakes employees explained that the plane, “forgot to land.”

Great Lakes blames the service problems in Wyoming and elsewhere on a major pilot shortage caused by new FAA regulations. Last August, the agency began requiring all co-pilots to have 1,500 training hours before stepping into the cockpit of a commercial airline. Previously, co-pilots of smaller airlines only needed 250 hours. The change came in response to a pilot error that resulted in a 2009 crash of a regional jet flying to Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty people died in that crash. EAS subsidy by state

Since the new rules came into effect, Great Lakes has had trouble hiring and retaining employees. According to the Associated Press, in August the airline had to lay off 30 co-pilots who were just short of 1,500 hours. And co-pilots who do complete the extended training on their own are less willing to work for low-paying regional airlines like Great Lakes now that they have the experience to work elsewhere. Before the new law, co-pilots would work at places like Great Lakes until they could accumulate the amount of flying hours needed to move to a larger airline. Now, they jump straight to the big leagues, since they have to get the requisite hours anyway. As noted by one air industry blogger, “would a pilot with 1500 hours rather go to Great Lakes & fly a prop, or go to a Republic, Mesa, or SkyWest and fly a shiny jet?”

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Slew of public lands and sportsmen's bills debated on Capitol Hill this week

Krista Langlois | Feb 04, 2014 05:25 PM

It’s been an exciting year for public lands geeks. After nearly five years in which Congress failed to designate a single acre of wilderness (the first Congress since 1966 to earn that dubious distinction), the House this week is taking action on a slew of wilderness, public lands and recreation bills. But while it’s tempting to applaud lawmakers for making headway on conservation measures, the bills aren’t all rosy, and they may illustrate the environmental compromises necessary to pass legislation in today’s hyper-partisan climate.

Three packages of bills are making their way through Congress. Here’s a rundown of what we’re paying attention to at HCN, with gratitude to E&E News for much of the information:

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President Obama may invoke executive action to protect the Organ Mountains in New Mexico from oil and gas development if Congress doesn't act soon. Photo courtesy BLM.

PACKAGE 1 - Wilderness bills:

  • On Jan. 28, the House Natural Resources Committee approved bills that would designate 75,000 acres of new wilderness in Nevada. But though environmental advocates praised the Pine Forest and Wovoka wilderness proposals, last-minute amendments tacked on by Rob Bishop, R-Utah, weakened the measures, The Wilderness Society says. Bishop’s amendments would prevent federal agencies from closing roads in or near wilderness areas without opening an equivalent road nearby, allow logging for fire management, and prevent land adjacent to Pine Forest from being considered for future wilderness designation. Bishop claims the trade-offs are standard. But Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called them unprecedented. “You only want (them) to be standard because you hate the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he retorted.

    Yet while conservation-minded Democrats like DeFazio begrudged the compromise, industry backers like Bishop weren’t satisfied either. It pained him, he said, that “we are creating more wilderness than we are actually adding to economic development.” In exchange for the 75,000 acres of wilderness, restrictions will be eased on about 25,000 acres of Nevada public lands to encourage economic development, including a copper mine in Lyon County.
  • Rep. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican running for Max Baucus’ vacant Senate seat, says his bill to protect the North Fork Watershed west of Glacier National Park from future oil and gas leases is the first public lands bill in 30 years supported by each member of the Montana delegation. The bill passed committee with overwhelming support.  

    Other wilderness bills include 32,000 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and several smaller parcels in Nevada. All the wilderness bills will now go before the full House; companion bills have already passed Senate committees.

PACKAGE 2 - Sportsmen’s bills:

  • The Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act – an eight-bill package promoting hunting, fishing and target shooting on public lands – is expected to pass the House this week with bipartisan support, but is predicted to encounter hiccups in the Senate. The most contentious provision would prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead ammunition or fishing tackle. As HCN has reported, California condors can die from lead poisoning after feeding on carrion embedded with bullets; California became the first state to ban lead bullets last year. Some hunters oppose such regulations because lead-alternative bullets are more expensive and aren’t manufactured for all guns.

    Another provision in the package would allocate firearm and ammunition tax revenue to fund promotional outreach of shooting ranges on public lands. And another would allow the importation of legally killed polar bears. (Because, truly, there’s nothing more comforting than a stuffed polar bear in your living room when you’re reading scary stories about climate change.)
  • Related, but not part of the sportsmen’s package, Montana’s Daines tackles the issue of public lands that aren’t really public at all – an issue Jodi Peterson covered for HCN. Nationally, more than 4 million acres of public land are off-limits because users simply can’t access them. Daines’ proposal – which mirrors a Senate bill from Jon Tester, D-Mont., – would ensure that at least 1.5 percent of Land and Water Conservation Fund money goes to improving recreational access to these places.

  • Also on a related note, the House unanimously passed a “good Samaritan” bill by Joe Heck, R-Nev., designed to expedite search-and-rescue groups’ access to federal lands. The legislation was introduced last May after private search teams waited nearly a year for permits to recover the bodies of two people missing near Lake Mead. A companion bill is now before the Senate.

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A bill to protect the North Fork of Montana's Flathead River overwhelmingly passed a House committee this week. Photo courtesy Flickr user Sunburned Surveyor.
PACKAGE 3 - (More) public lands bills:

  • Of all the public lands’ packages before Congress, the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act is perhaps the most controversial. It includes a bill from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that would salvage 1 billion board feet of burned timber from Yosemite’s Rim Fire. As I reported for HCN last fall, salvage logging is always a controversial practice – some say it clears fuel and adds economic value, while others claim it destroys valuable habitat – but McClintock’s suggestion to commercially log 257,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest without public notice, environmental review or litigation has raised ire among some environmental groups.

  • Fewer public lands: A bill written by Bishop would forbid the Bureau of Land Management from acquiring any new lands until it creates a database of public lands it could get rid of; while another Utah Republican, Jason Chaffetz, has a separate bill (not part of the package) requiring the Interior Department to sell 3.3 million acres of lands identified as “excess” during the Clinton administration.

  • The package also includes a bill from Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to expand human-powered boating on off-limit rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Kayaking enthusiasts have complained for decades that some of the world’s best whitewater is locked up behind outdated Park Service policies, but officials say the strict boating rules protect wildlife and uphold park policies. The same officials strongly oppose the bill for siphoning policy decisions from park managers. See more HCN coverage of the controversy here.


Though it’s heartening that lawmakers are taking a look at public lands – and may even protect some of them, albeit with strings attached – the past few years have made many of us skeptical of counting on Congressional action. Lately, President Obama has been dropping hints that he’s thinking the same thing. In his State of the Union address last week, Obama said he would employ executive action on issues with legislation stalled in Congress, a course of action that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has closely echoed.

So far, Obama’s public lands legacy favors development: as of December, he’d protected 2.9 million acres of federal land, while leasing 7.3 million acres to oil and gas companies. But as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, anonymous White House sources say Obama is “poised” to protect 500,000 acres of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region near Las Cruces, N.M., and 1,600 acres of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands on California’s central coast from development if Congress doesn’t act soon on similar protections.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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Enviros and industry agree: Keystone XL means more oil. Why does the State Department disagree?

Judith Lewis Mernit | Feb 04, 2014 08:00 AM

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking the U.S. State Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement on the controversial Keystone XL, the transcontinental pipeline that has been proposed to transport heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. On one hand, the document admits that from "wells to wheels" — a lifecycle analysis that includes extracting, refining and burning — crude from landlocked Canada is 17 percent worse for the climate than the other kinds. On the other, moving any oil, no matter how polluting, along a pipeline is better than transporting it by rail or tanker. No one wants to repeat what happened last summer at Lac-Mégantic, the small Quebeçois village where 47 people died when a train derailed carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, nor do the residents of Casselton, N.D., want to be forced to flee another fiery rail crash, as they did in December. Build the pipeline, goes the ominous Hobson's choice the State Department report offers, or get ready for more horrific railcar explosions to rock rural North America.

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The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Whether that's really the tradeoff, however, remains a matter of debate. There's no question that as flammable petroleum fills up tank cars designed for more benign cargo, rail disasters have mushroomed. Since March, the New York Times reported recently, “there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents.” Keystone XL would be contractually obligated to carry off about 100,000 barrels per day from the Bakken development, thus reducing the railcar risk from North Dakota as well Alberta. The pipeline, then, clearly wins on the issue of transportation risk.

But as a project that crosses an international boundary, the pipeline's approval hinges not on the opinions of rail-safety experts but on a decision to be made by President Barack Obama, who announced in his landmark June speech on climate that "the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward." And that net effects calculation gets tricky.

On its face, the State Department's analysis says the pipeline will have no significant impact on climate, which is different from saying the oil itself won't contribute to carbon pollution when it's extracted and burned. Instead, the report concludes, the pipeline won't exacerbate the greenhouse effect for the simple reason that oil producers will still develop the fields without it, moving their oil to export terminals in the Gulf by rail or truck. In other words, no matter how "GHG intensive" the tar sands' oil might be, access to the pipeline won't exacerbate climate change because access to the pipeline will have no effect on oil production. Several environmentalists opposed to the pipeline, including NextGen Climate Action founder Tom Steyer, say that's bunk. And most investment analyses argue that without the pipeline, Canada's oil will cost so much and sell for so little it won't be worth the trouble.

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Closed roads remind Silverton and the West of our dependence on transportation

Jonathan Thompson | Feb 03, 2014 08:05 AM

Since Jan. 12, rocks have been raining down on Highway 550 on the north side of Red Mountain Pass in southwestern Colorado. Cold nights and warm days created a freeze/thaw cycle that pried loose a huge chunk of the rocky mountainside, which then broke into thousands of boulders. In order to stabilize the rocks to keep them from shooting through windshields at terminal velocity, the Colorado Department of Transportation closed the road for more than two weeks.

The so-called Million Dollar Highway is one of two transportation arteries into the small town of Silverton, Colo., and its closure essentially cut tourism in half during that time, dealing a huge blow to the meager mainstay of the former mining town’s economy. Quality of life has declined, too, as some residents have had to make a 400-mile round trip to go to the doctor or run other errands. (Map)

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A recent rock slide on Red Mountain Pass that prompted the road to be closed for two weeks in January. The top arrow denotes where a Colorado Department of Transportation crew worked to install fencing. CDOT photograph.

It’s a reminder of how important transportation is in shaping our communities and the lives of those who live there. Be they roads, airports, subways or rail lines, transportation rules: It can give life to a community or neighborhood. And it can take it away.

Unlike many cities that popped up solely to service the railroad, Silverton, located in a mountain-ringed park at 9,318 feet in elevation, was born of minerals. The ancient, collapsed volcano in which it sits is infested with veins of silver, gold and other metals, which captured the interest of prospectors in the 1860s. It was the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s, however, that provided a strong link to the outside world and the farms, smelters and lumber to the south, transforming the isolated mining camp into a somewhat civilized city. And the extension of the rail lines further into the mountains solidified Silverton’s status as the mining hub of southwest Colorado’s San Juan mountains.

While many hardy pioneers were involved in “settling” this rugged landscape, it’s no accident that one of the most renowned is Otto Mears, a Russian-born Jew who was orphaned as a youngster and sent to America. He is known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans for his ability to build road and rail, linking up towns and mines across inhospitable terrain. Perhaps his most famous accomplishment was the toll road that has evolved into the nasty northern side of Red Mountain Pass.

Anyone who has driven Red Mountain on a good day knows how scary it can be. In winter, it can be deadly. Massive, potentially car-crushing avalanches can whack almost every section of the 23-mile stretch between Silverton and Ouray when conditions are right. A single slide, the East Riverside, has killed six motorists over the years — a minister and his two daughters and three plow drivers. Dozens of others have had close calls. The West Riverside slide, right across the gorge, left a wall of snow 30 feet deep on the highway in January of 2005, requiring explosives and some pretty hefty bulldozers to clear it.


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'Ag-gag' law that thwarts investigations on factory farms is challenged in Utah

Christi Turner | Feb 01, 2014 05:00 AM

Last year was a good one for whistleblowers on factory farms: not one of the 11 “ag-gag” bills introduced across the U.S. in 2013 became law, and so far in 2014 two such bills, in the New Hampshire and Indiana legislatures, have been defeated by animal rights activists. What agribusiness calls farm protection laws – and what animal rights and First Amendment proponents call ag-gag laws – are regulations that make it a crime to photograph, videotape or otherwise investigate industrial farms while undercover. The front lines of the battle are now in Utah, whose ag-gag law is the first ever to be challenged in court. The outcome of this landmark litigation may help determine the treatment of animals raised for food, and ultimately the safety of our food supply.

Ag-gag laws have made headlines in the past few years, but they first appeared in state legislatures in 1990, when Kansas passed the first-ever gag law by criminalizing trespass specifically on agribusiness property, soon followed by Montana and North Dakota. (States already have laws against trespassing on private property, but critics say ag-gag laws are purposely redundant in order to intimidate activists or journalists.) Since another surge began in 2010, 19 more states have introduced similar bills, with just four becoming law – including in Utah.

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Activist Amy Meyer filmed the illegal and inhumane handling of animals on a factory farm in Draper City, Utah. Pictured here is a sick cow being pushed by a farming loader. Image courtesy Amy Meyer.

What makes these bills so important is that undercover investigation is often the only way to get meaningful information about how animals are treated in factory farms and how safe the meat might be that comes out of them. Surreptitious information-gathering has a history of exposing food safety and animal abuse, as far back as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a muckraking exposé of the meatpacking industry that sparked the first federal inspection standards for meat and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906. Government regulation has historically fallen short of ensuring humane conditions for animals and food safety. Federal inspectors themselves are often discouraged from reporting unsafe conditions, exemplified by the case of former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector Dean Wyatt, whose reporting of industry violations nearly cost him his job – even though reporting violations was his job. Wyatt’s diligence led to a new procedure designed to allow inspectors “to voice their concerns when the standard reporting mechanisms do not adequately address outstanding issues.”

But the agribusiness lobby group Animal Agriculture Alliance says that so-called farm protection legislation is necessary to protect large-scale farmers from what they say are animal rights extremists. The AAA claims that activists manipulate photos and videos taken undercover to “to influence public opinion and fundraise” for the fight to end all industrialized food production. Yet the AAA has yet to substantiate these photo manipulation claims with evidence.

With ag-gag laws losing traction, earlier this month the AAA announced a new gag strategy: quick-reporting laws. This means forcing anyone who witnesses animal abuse, including at factory farms, to report it to authorities within as little as 24 hours or face a jail sentence. The industry claims their intent is to root out violations as soon as they happen, but for activists and journalists, quick-reporting laws would simply make long-term investigations – which are the only ones that can expose systemic violations – essentially impossible.

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New farm bill still favors big ag

Jodi Peterson | Jan 31, 2014 12:20 PM

We’ve been following the glacial progress of the latest Farm Bill for three years now. This massive bill, passed every five years, doles out nearly $1 trillion for food stamps and school lunches, farm subsidies, and conservation programs.

The Farm Bill got its start during the Dust Bowl years, when it was meant as temporary emergency assistance for beleaguered family farms.

Dust bowl scene.
The Farm Bill was originally meant to help small family farms recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years.

But since then, it’s become a permanent fixture of the agricultural landscape, with three-quarters of its subsidy assistance going to giant agribusiness corporations. It’s also become a major source of nutrition assistance for the poor and children – 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes to food programs.

In this gridlocked Congress, it’s surprising to see any piece of legislation move toward passage, but the Farm Bill cleared the House this week and is now headed to the Senate, and President Obama has indicated that he’ll sign it. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., reportedly called the compromise version “a miracle”.

Following is a summary of some of HCN’s concerns about the bill as it was being negotiated, and how those issues are addressed in the current version of the bill.

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For better or worse, feds’ Columbia River Salmon plan stays the course

Ben Goldfarb | Jan 31, 2014 10:55 AM

There’s no arguing that salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers have had a tough century. Habitat loss, overfishing, and, most of all, dam construction have reduced the prodigious runs, which once averaged 16 million fish per year, to a fraction of their former glory. What’s up for debate is whether the federal government is finally taking adequate measures to protect the ones that remain.

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Sockeye are among the five species of salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Columbia Basin. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

That ongoing dispute was renewed this month with the release of NOAA Fisheries Service’s latest biological opinion, or“BiOp,” an assessment of whether the federal government’s plan for managing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin is successfully protecting fish. By NOAA’s own admission, the 2014 opinion doesn’t much differ from its 2008 BiOp and a 2010 supplement, which a federal judge struck down in 2011 for their lack of specificity. In this latest court-ordered version, NOAA concludes its salmon plan doesn’t need an overhaul because its core conservation strategies – especially habitat restoration – are indeed staving off extinction for threatened and endangered fish. But salmon advocates complain that, while the status quo might be maintaining populations, it’s not recovering them; and that by not considering more aggressive actions, NOAA’s new BiOp consigns the Columbia’s salmon and steelhead to permanent jeopardy.

Conservationists and fishermen have long advocated for breaching the Columbia Basin’s dams – especially the four in eastern Washington that interrupt the lower Snake River, dams whose hydropower and transportation benefits are, they say, outweighed by their cost to salmon. Federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region’s hydropower, have for years fought to keep the dams in place. Nonetheless, in 2009, Ken Olsen reported in High Country News that, thanks to a new generation of politicians and fisheries administrators, dam removal just might be nigh. “There are signs that the balance is tipping,” Olsen wrote.


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Preserving ancient art in land marked for solar energy development

Jeremy Miller | Jan 30, 2014 05:00 AM

Like a great eye of reflective silicon, the largest utility-scale power plant in the United States is rapidly materializing in the Mojave Desert. According to company officials, when fully complete, the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility will come on line early this year, supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours. The Ivanpah plant is in many ways the centerpiece project for dozens of large-scale solar facilities planned across the region.

In spite of the carbon-free energy generated at Ivanpah, the 4000-acre plant on the California-Nevada border has drawn the ire of environmentalists who cite a host of problems, from disturbances to critical habitat for endangered desert tortoises, to plumes of superheated air – or “solar flux” – generated by the circular array of 170,000 heliostat mirrors, which, some fear, could potentially kill large numbers of birds.

While ecological considerations have dominated the discussion, utility-scale solar development also poses serious challenges to the desert’s rich cultural resources – an issue taken up by a 79-year-old activist and former civil rights worker named Alfredo Figueroa.

On a searing day last August, I met with Figueroa in a Mexican restaurant tucked into the back of a gas station on the outskirts of Blythe, Calif. He regaled me with stories about the labor rights struggle in the farm fields of California. In the 1960s, Figueroa took the stage with luminaries of the movement, such as Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, working with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and, later, the United Farmworkers Union to improve conditions for migrant agricultural workers across the state.

Activist Alfredo Figueroa in the Palo Verde Valley in southeastern California. Photograph by Jeremy Miller.

Over the last decade, Figueroa’s activism has turned toward the desert landscapes that surround his small stucco bungalow in southeastern California, a region besieged by large utility-scale solar projects.  The Palo Verde Valley, three hours east of Los Angeles along the Arizona-California border, is one of the most sunlight-rich areas in the country and has become the de facto epicenter of the solar energy rush – a phenomenon that Judith Lewis Mernit recently reported on for High Country News .

In these rugged valleys, Figueroa has discovered what he says are fragmented depictions of scenes from the Aztec codices, ancient texts that tell the story of the exodus of the Mexica people from their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, to Lake Texcoco, the location of today’s Mexico City.

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