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Vegas' new water czar has a tough row to hoe

Jonathan Thompson | Jan 27, 2014 10:35 AM

John Entsminger has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly. He will soon be responsible for keeping Las Vegas and its associated sprawl from drying up and evaporating back into the desert. Current Southern Nevada Water Authority director Pat Mulroy, notorious throughout the West for her water-grabbing ways, hand-picked Entsminger to be her successor upon her February retirement after two decades at the Water Authority’s helm.

LawnGobbler
A child plays the Lawn Gobbler video game at the Desert Living Center in the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. The Center intends to teach Las Vegans to live of the desert, not just in the desert. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.
When Mulroy became the first director of the Water Authority — a coalition of seven local water districts — in 1991, she quickly became known for her tenacity, particularly in going after water in other parts of the state. She spent millions on ranches for the water rights, and millions more in an attempt to pump groundwater from the rural eastern part of the state and pipe it to Vegas in order to shore up existing water supplies, 90 percent of which came and still come from the Colorado River. But as drought gripped the region, even Mulroy turned to conservation. I go in-depth into those efforts and more in The Vegas Paradox, featured in HCN’s urban sustainability issue. (Read it now!)

While Mulroy had her challenges, Entsminger’s are certainly more daunting. Drought has gripped the Colorado River for 14 years (Mulroy took the reins of the Water Authority on the heels of a particularly abundant water decade on the Colorado). The gargantuan effort to build a third water intake in Lake Mead — to replace the first intake, which will soon be marooned above low water — has been plagued with problems, danger, delays and mind-boggling expense. Both population growth and construction seem to be resuming in Vegas after a pause for the recession, even as Vegas, itself, is under a severely warm, dry spell: Only 2.96 inches of precipitation for all of 2013 amidst record-setting heat that killed 41 people. And a federal judge recently dealt a serious blow to the “Pat’s Pipeline” groundwater pumping project, delaying and possibly diminishing and maybe even killing Vegas’ main hope for a backup plan when the Colorado River gets too low to slake the region’s growing thirst.

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Final EPA report is the latest in a series of blows to Alaska’s Pebble Mine

Krista Langlois | Jan 25, 2014 05:00 AM

Last summer, the excavation of some of the world’s richest mineral deposits – and the degradation of some of the world's richest salmon habitat ­– seemed well within the grasp of global mining interests. But with the release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited environmental assessment on Jan. 15, the development of Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay slipped just a little bit further from reach – the latest and perhaps most significant in a series of defeats for the embattled project.

The EPA assessment confirms Pebble’s potential to severely damage salmon runs, using stronger language than previous drafts (“could” has turned to “would”) and describing in detail the acidic waste that could leach into watersheds even under routine operation. The report is also turning the tide of political opinion. "Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Anchorage Daily News after reviewing the report. Begich, a Democrat, is the first member of Alaska's congressional delegation to publicly take a stand against Pebble Mine, though previous politicians have also opposed it. Former Gov. Tony Knowles called it “terrifying.”

Despite its gargantuan size – the mine itself would consume up to 94 miles of stream and 5,350 acres of wetlands, with an additional 64 streams affected by road building, the EPA found – Pebble has come to represent more than just a fight for one place or one ecosystem. Even people who have never stood on the banks of a river teeming with salmon are deeply invested in this corner of Alaska as a symbol of wildness, a vestige of the ecological and cultural riches that were once bountiful across North America. As HCN senior editor Ray Ring wrote after visiting Bristol Bay last summer, "the restoration efforts I'd reported on (in the American West) were kind of desperate, almost pathetic" in comparison: "The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska."

Perhaps some backstory would be helpful. From the 1970s until 2005, Alaska managed most of Bristol Bay as key salmon habitat. Then protections were rolled back, and mining companies discovered more than 55 billion pounds of copper, 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum and 67 million ounces of gold beneath the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers – a net worth of $300 billion ripe for the taking. A consortium of mining interests from around the world joined financial forces to form the Pebble Partnership, promoting their vision of digging North America’s largest open-pit mine – the kind of project that could create jobs, boost the economy and expand U.S. copper production by 20 percent, reducing dependence on volatile foreign markets.

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From bison to birds, the National Park Service rethinks its approach to migratory species

Ben Goldfarb | Jan 24, 2014 05:00 AM

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Kittlitz’s Murrelet – a tiny seabird, feathered in salt-and-pepper. It’s summer, or what passes for summer in a field of Alaskan glaciers, and you’re relaxing in the lap of luxury: Kenai Fjords National Park, where nobody can shoot you, set their dog after you, or lay a finger on your habitat. You’re living large, or as large as an eight-ounce bird can live.

Then winter hits. Reluctantly you depart Kenai and fly west, to the Bering Sea. Your existence takes a sudden turn for the perilous. Gillnets threaten to snag you as bycatch; giant cargo ships steam across your flight path. You live in perpetual fear of oil spills, like the slick that killed hundreds of your cousins back in 1989. Yikes, you think to yourself. Migration is terrifying.

Okay. Stop being a bird. Now you’re a biologist at Kenai Fjords National Park, and you’re worried sick about why your murrelets have declined by more than 80 percent since 1976. They’re doing just fine inside the park’s borders, but every year fewer return to nest on Kenai’s scree fields. You know something is killing them, but the problem lies far beyond your jurisdiction, so forget about being able to help. You’re just responsible for Kenai Fjords.

Kittlitz's Murrelets are among the hundreds of migratory species that rely on America's national parks. Photo courtesy of Alyson McKnight, US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kittlitz's Murrelets are among the hundreds of migratory species that rely on America's national parks. Photo courtesy of Alyson McKnight, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

For scientists concerned about migratory species like the murrelet, the conservation challenge is simple in definition, complex in resolution: Animals move. Parks don’t.

“If you’re managing a park and you’re trying to protect its biodiversity, you have to start thinking outside your park’s borders,” says Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.

That’s the thrust of a new analysis, published by a team of wildlife experts last week in the journal Conservation Biology, that identifies a fundamental problem facing park managers around the country: “The fragmented system of national parks is not sufficient to maintain migratory species or processes.” Park-based migrants not only traverse private property, they also pass through an alphabet soup of public lands – USFWS, BLM, USFS­­ – where management strategies and threats may vary. Fortunately, the paper offers a blueprint for addressing that challenge – one that could substantially change how America’s best idea pursues its mission.

Among the paper’s strongest recommendations is for the “functional (not statutory) expansion of park boundaries” – expanding NPS’ influence without expanding its holdings. In practice, that means more cooperation with other agencies, land trusts and private landowners to secure conservation easements and protect adjacent areas. Under this new model, parks aren’t fortresses of biodiversity – as Elaine Lesline, Chief of the Biological Resource Management Division of NPS, puts it, parks must be “anchors for significant corridors” that span landscapes and are themselves managed by everyone from state governments to local conservation groups.

In a sense, it’s conservation for the austerity era. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to see the top-down hammer of the government doing conservation,” says Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) senior scientist Joel Berger, the paper’s lead author. “If we don’t engage with private property, we have issues.”

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Dust-on-snow update: 2013 moisture could mean a dusty spring

Christi Turner | Jan 23, 2014 12:25 PM

Dust has become a major concern for climatologists – and anyone who drinks water that comes from mountain runoff – in recent years. Yet while dust storms are cropping up in the eastern parts of the state this winter, the Colorado Dust-on-Snow Program (CODOS) on the Western Slope has yet to report any dust-on-snow events in 2014. In fact, there hasn’t been any dust recorded at a major study site at Red Mountain Pass in southwestern Colorado since September.

According to director Chris Landry, that's not too unusual about having no dust at CODOS thus far in 2014. And even if the recent drought conditions bring CODOS its first-ever January dust-on-snow event (that’s when dust blows onto snow and expedites melting), early season dust isn’t that problematic. When dust settles late in the season, say March, April, or May as is common, it has a bigger impact, since there's more snowpack to melt off.

CSASphoto2_SenatorBeckStudyPlot_PhotocourtesyofCenterforSnowandAvalancheStudies.jpg
The Senator Beck Basin study site measures dust-on-snow events in the San Juan Mountains. Photo courtesy of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Although dust on snow is becoming an increasingly stress-inducing topic for water managers, at least our winter snowpack is still not being dusted. Yet disaster could still strike this spring. It remains to be seen whether all the rain that fell late in 2013 will lead to more dust a few months from now. USGS geologist Harland Goldstein says that heavy rains – like Arizona's unseasonable late-November soakings – deposit sediment that, since it's unvegetated, can easily  blow away.

Nestled in the western San Juan Mountains, the first major mountain system downwind of the Southwest's vast deserts, the CODOS program at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton is aptly placed to monitor warming, drought, precipitation and other processes that affect the whole region’s environment. As a general rule, no dust at CODOS means no dust in the rest of Colorado’s mountains.

Here's how it works: When dust collects on snow at the Senator Beck Basin near Silverton, Colo., CODOS takes samples and sends them to scientists at Goldstein’s USGS lab in Denver, who analyze its particle size, distribution and chemical makeup of the dust, combining the analysis with satellite imagery of blowing dust events to pinpoint the dust's origins.


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Ocean acidification is already driving changes in Northwestern marine ecology

Cally Carswell | Jan 22, 2014 09:00 AM

For a time, Pseudolithophyllum muricatum was king of the kelp forest understory around Tatoosh Island, a rocky blip of land off the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. In experimental "bouts" staged there by famed ecologist Bob Paine that pitted the crusty, milky red algae against other species of coralline algae it lived amongst, P. muricatum "won" almost 100 percent of the time, growing more abundantly than any of its competitors. Its edge was its especially thick crust, which allowed it to slip over the lip of its more thinly crusted neighbors and overtake them.

In 2012, Sophie McCoy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, collected samples of P. muricatum from Tatoosh Island and compared them with samples Paine had collected in the 1980s. Her samples were only half as thick as his. Now, by repeating Paine's experimental plant battles, McCoy has shown that P. muricatum has indeed lost its competitive edge. "It's now winning only about a quarter of the time," she says. "It loses to basically everybody some of the time. That's a huge change."

Algae plots
The experimental bouts between different species of coralline algae on Tatoosh Island are performed by transplanting specimens onto marine cement in kelp beds and watching their growth over time. Courtesy Sophie McCoy.
The cause of this paradigm shift? Most likely, says McCoy, it's the downward creep of the ocean's pH, caused in large part by the vast amounts of carbon dioxide the ocean has absorbed since humans began burning fossil fuels. This phenomenon, known as ocean acidification, was once described by former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco as the "equally evil twin" of climate change.

The waters that lap Tatoosh Island are already experiencing pH creep at a rate 10 times faster than models predicted. Combine that fact with the decades of detailed ecological data collected there by Paine and his disciples, and you've got an ideal place to study the ecological consequences of changing ocean chemistry.

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Bakken oil trucks can kick up carcinogenic dust similar to asbestos

Emily Guerin | Jan 21, 2014 08:45 AM

Since the oil boom in western North Dakota began several years ago, the roads in this sparsely-populated corner of the state have been taking a beating. A typical shale oil well requires 2,300 truck trips in its lifetime, driven mostly over gravel roads. With nearly 6,800 wells currently operating in the Bakken oil field, that’s a lot of heavy traffic. County road commissioners are struggling to keep up with all the maintenance, and dust has become a major nuisance. Now there’s concern that the dust clouds could have negative health effects: in certain areas, the road dust contains a carcinogenic mineral called erionite.

Erionite -- which an August 2013 study called "an emerging national public health concern for respiratory disease" -- naturally occurs in rocks and soil around the West, and is only hazardous when disturbed. Driving, walking and even sweeping in certain areas can cause erionite to become airborne and enter the lungs, causing respiratory problems and malignant mesothelioma, a type of cancer also associated with asbestos exposure. Though lesser known to the public, erionite is believed to be a more potent carcinogen than asbestos. In the 1970s, scientists linked erionite exposure to abnormally high rates of mesothelioma in Cappadocia, Turkey, where people live in stone houses embedded with the poisonous mineral.

erionite map
A map of known erionite deposits in the West. Courtesy USGS.

Geologists have known about erionite deposits in the West for decades, but until recently, no one thought people were being exposed to it. However, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “evidence has slowly accumulated linking exposure to erionite with serious adverse health effects in North America, and suggesting that some workers may have a greater potential for exposure than previously recognized.”

According to Myron Levin, editor of the consumer watchdog news website FairWarning, it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that North Dakota geologists began connecting the dots on their state’s geology and the health risks of erionite exposure. For decades, people unknowingly dug gravel pits near erionite deposits in western North Dakota. A 2011 study found that in Dunn County, N.D. alone, over 300 miles of roads were surfaced with contaminated gravel.

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New study maps carbon footprints, comes to surprising conclusions

Jonathan Thompson | Jan 20, 2014 05:00 AM

One could lose oneself for hours in the patterns and erratic splotches of colors. Do I live in a swath of self-righteous green? Or in guilt-ridden, fiery orange? Does urban density really reduce our environmental impact? And how gluttonous are those McMansion-dwelling exurbanites, anyway?

The answers to all these questions and more are now just a mouse-click away thanks to an exhaustive household carbon footprint study, complete with those colorful and hypnotic interactive maps, recently published by University of California Berkeley researchers. Drawing on all sorts of data, from the amount of time folks spend in their cars to the number of rooms in their homes to the sources of energy that power their homes, they were able to determine how much greenhouse gases the average household in a particular geographical area is spewing into the atmosphere. The more you consume, the bigger your carbon footprint.

DenverCarbonFootprint
The colorful carbon footprints of Denver, Colorado, and its surroundings. Orange shades represent higher footprints. The top inset shows the footprint for downtown Denver, a relatively slight 34 tons per household per year. The bottom inset shows the much larger footprint of the exurbs. Source: Christopher M. Jones and Daniel M. Kammen, 'Spatial Distribution of U.S. Household Carbon Footprints Reveals Suburbanization Undermines Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Urban Population Density,' Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013.

At first glance, the findings aren't so surprising: If you live in a very densely populated urban area — say San Francisco proper or even downtown Los Angeles — your household carbon footprint is likely to be lower than just about anyone else’s. That’s because city-dwellers live in smaller homes, don’t have to travel as far to get to work or run errands, and are more prone to walking or riding public transport than they are to hop in their car and drive. Meanwhile, the California city folk have a relatively low energy-related carbon footprint because California’s electricity mix leans more on hydropower, solar and wind, and less on coal, than other parts of the country.

Yet there is also a bit of a twist. Earlier studies had found a direct, negative correlation between density and carbon footprints — that is, emissions decrease as population density increases. Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen, the Berkeley researchers, however, “reveal a more nuanced relationship between population density and HCF.” The suburbs just outside those green cities, it turns out, are colored a deep orange on the maps, signifying an unusually large carbon footprint, whether they are densely populated or not. Indeed, the suburban emissions "shadow" tends to blot out the efficiencies of the urban core, making the per capita carbon footprint of big metro areas just as big or bigger than those of smaller, sprawling cities or rural areas.

“As a policy measure to reduce GHG emissions,” Kammen and Jones write, “increasing population density appears to have severe limitations and unexpected trade-offs. In suburbs, we find more population dense suburbs actually have noticeably higher HCF, largely because of income effects.” Yes, income effects: Rich people have bigger carbon footprints, mainly because they live in bigger houses, have more cars and generally consume more of everything.

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Tale of two states: Utah's a model for reducing homelessness, Wyoming lags behind

Krista Langlois | Jan 17, 2014 10:15 AM

What happens when you give a homeless person a subsidized apartment? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. But in Utah, it’s proven a resounding success – out of 17 chronically homeless people who took part in the state’s 2005 pilot program, all were still off the streets two years later, spurring a long-term “Housing First” initiative that’s reduced Utah’s homeless population by 74 percent while saving the state millions of dollars.

Lloyd Pendleton, Director of the Utah Homeless Task Force, remembers one woman who took part in the pilot program. She’d been on and off the streets for over a decade, but after she was given a place of her own in Salt Lake City, still chose to sleep outside next to a dumpster. Eventually, she started crashing on the floor of the apartment. And after a while, she began sleeping in the bed. Today, she lives near her family, 70 years old, sober and happy.

Had she lived just across the border in Wyoming, her story might have ended very differently. Though its rate of homelessness isn’t particularly high, Wyoming falls dead last in the nation for sheltering its homeless, with only 26 percent receiving shelter, compared to 61 percent nationally. Plus, Wyoming’s homeless population has been on the rise: According to official data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s more than doubled over the last three years, though Mary Randolph of the Wyoming Rural Development Council says it’s hard to know what the exact numbers are because the state’s record-keeping has been so inconsistent.

Still, she adds, the homeless population has indeed increased: “When the economy tanked, people heard there were (oil and gas) jobs in Wyoming and flooded out here. There weren’t jobs, and weren’t homes either, so a lot of people ended up on the streets.”

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Hopi lawsuit against wastewater snowmaking gets green light in Arizona

Leslie Macmillan | Jan 16, 2014 05:00 AM

The Arizona Supreme Court has greenlighted a lawsuit that the Hopi Tribe brought against the city of Flagstaff, Ariz. for selling wastewater to a local ski resort to make fake snow.

In a procedural victory, the tribe has won the right to proceed with its lawsuit challenging Flagstaff’s 2002 decision to sell reclaimed wastewater to the Arizona Snowbowl ski area, on claims that the wastewater snow creates a “public nuisance.”

The Arizona Court of Appeals last April had overturned a trial judge’s dismissal of the case in 2011. The city then asked the supreme court to review the appeals court ruling, but the petition was denied on Jan. 7.

San Francisco Peak, near Flagstaff, Arizona and the Arizona Snowbowl. Photograph by Sam Minkler.

The ruling means that the Hopi can go forward with its claim that the wastewater – pumped up the mountain directly from Flagstaff’s sewage treatment plant – creates a “public nuisance” by “interfering with the public’s enjoyment” of the mountain wilderness area on the San Francisco Peaks mountain range, where the ski resort is located. A Hopi win would mean Flagstaff would have to cancel its water supply contract to Snowbowl.

The development is the latest chapter in a decade-long legal saga between Arizona Snowbowl, 14 miles north of Flagstaff, and a collective of environmental groups and Native American tribes who say the wastewater snow will harm the delicate alpine ecoystem and potentially human health, if skiers ingest it. The Peaks are sacred to 13 Native American tribes, who view the wastewater snow as a desecration.

"Using wastewater harms the use and enjoyment of these areas and degrades the pristine nature” of the area, then-Hopi tribal chairman Leroy Shingoitewa said in the Navajo-Hopi Observer after April’s ruling.

But Snowbowl manager J.R. Murray has said that – with diminished snowfall due to climate change – the resort needs to supplement natural snow to maintain its season and stay in business. He declined to comment on the latest lawsuit because the resort is not a party to it.

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A snowmaking machine that uses wastewater at Arizona Snowbowl. Photograph by Katie Nelson.

The City of Flagstaff contends that the Hopi’s public nuisance claim doesn’t apply because “the alleged nuisance” – snowmaking – is already authorized and regulated by federal and state authorities.

Indeed, in 2002 when Snowbowl contracted with Flagstaff to purchase reclaimed water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant to use for snowmaking, it required the permission of its landlords, the U.S. Forest Service, which conducted a lengthy environmental review.

The water used for snowmaking is also regulated at the state level, through Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality. After wastewater snowmaking began in December 2012, the agency required Snowbowl to post signs around the resort telling customers not to eat the snow, among other things.

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If the gas industry wants enviro cred, it should embrace methane regulation

Sarah Gilman | Jan 15, 2014 05:00 AM

Shift more of the nation off coal-powered electricity and onto that supplied by natural gas, and what do you get? A significant reduction in the carbon emissions driving the alarming climatic shifts we already experience in our daily lives. That’s the theory anyway, based on the fact that natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. And if you put aside concerns about drilling’s impacts to air and water quality, it’s an important one, since this electricity switch may account for a significant portion of the overall decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas releases that’s occurred over the last few years.

Trouble is, the climate benefits of natural gas hinge on just how much is leaking from the wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure used to extract and deliver the fuel. But due to the paucity of comprehensive data, the large margins of error in the findings and the wildly disparate conclusions of various researchers, nobody’s quite sure what the percentage is. Methane, natural gas’s primary component, is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, though more short-lived; as Sarah Keller reported for High Country News last summer, as little as 3 percent loss could cancel out the emissions reductions achieved by moving from coal to gas. Recent studies certainly don’t stoke confidence. One based on thousands of actual air samples, published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, concluded that U.S. methane emissions were actually 1.5 times higher than previously thought, and that those for the oil and gas industry in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were 5 times higher, reports The New York Times.

Methane leak
An infrared camera picks up methane and volatile organic compounds leaking from a tank. Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Given this, you’d think the industry would be falling all over itself to do away with leaks and thus help ensure its place in the U.S. energy pantheon long into the future, as well as improve its dismal public image. Presenters and attendees at an industry conference I went to last summer certainly beat the hey-enviro-hypocrites-we’re-reducing-greenhouse-gases! drum almost to the point of being annoying. And when President Obama made natural gas a key part of his climate strategy, energy companies and trade groups were more than happy to toot their horn.

You even might think that the industry, which in some cases is becoming more openly environmentally progressive in response to public concerns about hydraulic fracturing, would embrace Colorado’s landmark proposal to rein in fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations, announced last fall as part of a larger effort to tighten air quality rules. After all, doing so would make the industry’s recent concern about climate change seem more, um, well, genuine.

So is it? Nope.

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