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Forecast for drought continues Westwide

Cally Carswell | Jan 07, 2014 11:53 AM

El Nido is a small settlement of some 300 souls located almost right in the middle of California, in the grand agricultural enterprise known as the San Joaquin Valley. Translated into English, El Nido means "the nest." It's a fitting name for the place, though its founders couldn't have foreseen how. Today, El Nido is also located near the center of a 1,200-square-mile bowl-shaped depression in the land. Year-by-year, it's becoming evermore nest-like. Between 2008 and 2010, the center of the bowl sunk more than 21 additional inches, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.

What's happening around El Nido – the sinking – is, in technical terms, known as "subsidence," and it's common in the San Joaquin Valley. Subsidence is caused by farms that pump large amounts of water from aquifers to wet their crops. Their thirst for groundwater tends to grow in drought years, when water supplies in aboveground canals are constrained. ("That’s possible," explains Legal Planet blogger Richard Frank, "because California, unlike other Western states, has no statewide system of groundwater regulation.") Ironically, reports the USGS, groundwater mining and the rapid subsidence it causes now threatens to crumble aboveground water infrastructure, quite literally.

Absent rapid delivery of major groundwater regulation reforms -- and don't hold your breath for those -- this year is shaping up to be another in which drought begets subsidence in California, among other undesirable things. Last year was the driest in the state's recorded history. Now, California's statewide snowpack holds only 17 percent of the water, or "snow water equivalent," that it typically does on this date. For California, this will mark the third consecutive drought year. And each year hurts a little more than the last. As the Modesto Bee recently reported: "In 2013, State Water Project allocations were at 35 percent of requested deliveries. The initial allocation for 2014 is 5 percent, the lowest on record."

CA snowpack map

The numbers are especially skimpy in Oregon and Washington, too, as the map below showing the amount of water in Western snowpacks as a percentage of normal indicates.

snowpack 2014

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Navajo Nation’s purchase of a New Mexico coalmine is a mixed bag

Emily Guerin | Jan 07, 2014 05:00 AM


The Navajo Nation got coal for Christmas this year – literally. On December 30, a Navajo tribal corporation finally completed its drawn-out purchase of the Navajo Mine, the sole supplier of coal to New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant. Depending on whom you ask, this is either a historic milestone for tribal energy independence, or a soon-to-be millstone hanging around the tribe’s neck.

Let’s consider the naysayers first.

Diné CARE, a Navajo environmentalist group, has opposed the purchase from the get-go, arguing that previous mine owner BHP Billiton was trying to dump an unprofitable asset on the Navajo people. Indeed, the reason the mine is for sale at all is because BHP couldn’t agree on a coal price with Four Corners Power Plant’s operator, Arizona Public Service. And now that Four Corners has shuttered its three oldest coal-burning units to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s haze regulations, the plant will buy 30 percent less coal from the mine than it used to. That means less profit for whomever operates the mine.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is also reviewing the potential environmental impacts of extending the life of the power plant to 2041 and expanding the mine, which the tribal corporation plans to do. Initial findings aren’t expected until later this year, which worries Lori Goodman of Diné CARE. BHP Billiton is “trying to jump ship” before the environmental impact statement is finished, she says. “Why don’t we wait until after the EIS is done (to buy the mine)?”

dying coal mine
A young protester outside the Navajo Nation council chambers in October. Courtesy Emily Guerin.

Other Navajos have protested a liability waiver that the tribal energy company signed, absolving BHP Billiton of all future responsibility for any “known or unknown” damages, liabilities, or costs associated with operating the Navajo Mine. And still others say the timeline of the deal itself was rushed by one of the West’s largest utilities, Southern California Edison. Edison needed to sell its shares in Four Corners to meet California’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires utilities to get 33 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020, and to comply with a California law that prevents utilities from continuing to invest in coal plants. “The timing of this (deal) comes from others, not from us,” Craig Moyer, an attorney consulting on the purchase, told Navajo council delegates last April.

Finally, many opponents say it’s simply a bad time to be buying into the coal industry. Coal-fired power has historically been the largest source of electricity in the country, but that’s changing as natural gas increases in popularity and EPA regulations clamp down on air pollution from coal plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal, which made up 37 percent of electricity generation nationwide in 2012, is expected to drop to 32 percent by 2040. “The coal industry is on the decline and that’s what the Navajo Nation needs to realize,” says Jihan Gearon, the president of the Navajo environmentalist group Black Mesa Water Coalition.

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As the economy recovers, many Westerners are left behind

Jonathan Thompson | Jan 06, 2014 05:00 AM

Las Vegas is filled with symbols of how drastically the economic landscape of the West has changed over the past decade. Drive out into the city’s fringes, and you’ll see vast swaths of land for which developers — visions of master-planned tract home communities dancing in their heads — paid the Bureau of Land Management millions during the boom. Today, many of the developers have gone bankrupt, and most of the land mercifully remains open desert. Or head down to The Strip and check out the Fountainebleau, a 68-story, 3,900-room, $2.9 billion mirrored-glass-sheathed monolith. Construction on the beast was halted in 2007, and it now stands as if frozen in time, cranes still perched on its peak. It’s as likely to be leveled and scrapped as it is to be completed and opened for business.

More disturbing, though, is something you see on many a street corner, whether it’s in the old Downtown or out in the suburbs next to the Starbucks: abject poverty in the form of the homeless, quasi-homeless, panhandlers, drifters and dilapidated homes.

While this deprivation is more apparent in Vegas, juxtaposed as it is against a backdrop of decadence, it’s visible all over the West, whether in the dire housing situation on the Navajo Nation, or in the shadows of the glitzy mountain resort towns, where droves of working poor scrape by on measly wages and commute for hours to semi-affordable housing. It’s visible in Wal-Mart, where, while waiting to get a tire fixed, a man told me how he had plummeted from working on a gas rig and making a big salary — enough to put him in the top 10 percent — with a home chock full of equity in southwestern Colorado, to the bottom 10 with a slip in the mud while carrying a heavy pipe on the job. He was seriously injured, lost his job, and is now fighting to try to get his former employer to help out with his gargantuan medical bills, even as he fights to hang on to his house, which, like so many others around here, is underwater.

For the national economy, 2013 was a year of semi-recovery from the battering recession. But it was also a time when many folks and sectors of the economy continued to get left behind. Over the last five years, income inequality has risen to unprecedented levels, poverty refused to diminish, and some parts of the West remained stuck in the economic trough.

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The price of a loud world: How road noise harms birds

Emily Guerin | Dec 31, 2013 05:00 AM

Last fall, a team of researchers from Idaho's Boise State University hiked into the mountains outside of town with backpacks full of batteries and speakers. The unusual cargo was not for a backcountry dance party, but rather for a unique experiment to determine the impact of road noise on migratory birds.

The scientists hung speakers from trees and blasted sounds of cars passing, creating a “phantom road.” They blared the road noise for four days, turned it off for four days, then repeated the cycle. The experiment took place as yellow warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, American robins and other birds passed through on their journey south, its conclusions were striking: On the days when the road was “on,” bird abundance declined by more 25 percent, and two species, cedar waxwings and yellow warblers, avoided the area almost entirely.

In other words, the researchers found that anthropogenic noise alone can reduce the amount of stopover habitat available to migratory birds. And because 83 percent of the land area in the U.S. is within one kilometer of a road, they wrote, “it is likely that noise-sensitive species such as the yellow warbler avoid substantial areas of otherwise suitable habitat simply because they are too loud.”

city bird
Photo courtesy Flickr user Ava Lowery

How bad can noise really be? It's a question that researchers in the burgeoning field of soundscape ecology are constantly asking. And their growing body of research is starting to show that the noises humans and our machines make can have significant and widespread effects on animals. For example:


Top 10 reasons not to move to Bozeman

Ray Ring | Dec 30, 2013 05:00 AM

In my role as a journalistic curmudgeon, today I'd like to tell you some of the drawbacks of living in a trendy Western town that often makes the Top 10 lists drawn up by the likes of Outside magazine, Entrepreneur magazine, and

I'm talking about Bozeman, Montana – and how the conventional wisdom is only part of the story. In the 19 years I've lived in Bozeman, I've watched my town gain an international reputation as some kind of paradise. Click on any award-giver in the first paragraph – along with the American Planning Association, CNN Money, Fodor's Travel, National Geographic Adventure magazine, and the American Cities Business Journals – to get a sense of the distant experts expressing quick and easy attitude about my town.

bozeman aerial_4
Bozeman, Montana. Photograph from Flickr user Dan Nguyen.

Of course there's a lot to like about Bozeman – a Western university town in a scenic valley rimmed by mountains, near ski slopes and fishable rivers. We have a nice downtown, a small airport that's surprisingly well-connected, few traffic jams, and tech entrepreneurs mixing with conservationists and hipsters -- and a few actual cowboys.

On top of that, our homegrown entertainment includes a group of local women who create edgy comedy routines – check Broad Comedy on YouTube, singing "I Didn't F*ck It Up" or imitating inner-city rappers in "Soccer Mom Ho." You can even buy a Bozeman T-shirt letting the world know that you're a supporter of our very own Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.

But any town has drawbacks, whether we're talking Paradise, Utah, or Paradise, Calif., or Paradise, Nev., or the various versions of San Francisco and Aspen and so on. That's why many local governments have adopted a new "Code of the West" officially warning any paradise-seeking immigrants of the problems they'll encounter when they move in, such as – egads! – rough roads, dangerous wildfires and the aroma of cattle.

The hyped-up Top 10 lists don't admit the drawbacks of my town. They just encourage paradise-seekers to move in – and thousands of people have apparently followed the advice by moving to Bozeman since I got here.

So, tongue in cheek, here's my rebellion against the hype: The Top 10 Reasons Not To Move To Bozeman.

(1) Begin with the town's name – it's lame. John M. Bozeman was a grandiose hustler who helped establish the town in 1864, while he was promoting the "Bozeman Trail," a dangerous shortcut for white settlers traveling through Wyoming and Idaho to Montana gold camps. John M. Bozeman hoped that his new town would "swallow up all the tenderfeet ... from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of," one immigrant reported. But the whole Bozeman Trail quickly became a fiasco, as tribes including the Lakota Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne and the Northern Arapaho resisted the intrusion on their turf; within only four years or so, Native warriors wiped out 81 U.S. Army soldiers in the infamous Fetterman massacre and shut down the trail for good. As for John M. Bozeman himself, he had abandoned his wife and three young daughters in Georgia when he headed west to seek his fortune – setting the pattern for all the schemers and lone wolves who've come to this town since then.

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A data junkie's look back at the West in 2013

Jonathan Thompson | Dec 26, 2013 05:00 AM

’Tis the season of cheer and light and of gorging ourselves and then getting in life-threatening sledding accidents. And, of course, it’s also the season of looking back on the year that has been and futilely trying to learn from all the stupid mistakes we made. Yes, it’s Year-in-Review time. My colleague, Sarah Gilman, wrapped up the important stuff of 2013 in a lovely, context-filled package elsewhere in this cyber-space. If that’s the bike-under-the-tree gift, think of these as numeric stocking stuffers from a data junky. Numbers before the new year is a kind of a tradition around here, like drinking too much at the family dinner and passing out face first in the pumpkin pie.


6,087: Housing starts in Las Vegas, Nev., this year as of October.

3,931: Housing starts in Las Vegas in 2011.

30,605: Housing starts in Las Vegas in 2005.

Home-building across the West is coming back, but remains sluggish in comparison to past booms. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Yes, believe it or not, construction crews are back on the job in Southern Nevada, which was probably the area hit hardest by the housing bust that started to take a serious toll in 2008, and houses are again sprouting in the desert. Of course, the construction is moving along at a more reasonable pace these days, mostly filling in all those lots that were abandoned after the bust, i.e. zombie subdivisions. It’s an indicator of what’s happening nationwide: A slow comeback. Westwide, single-family home construction is up about 25 percent from last year, but still pales in comparison to the boom times.

12 million: Estimated dollars lost in potential spending at the Grand Canyon and nearby communities as a result of the October federal government shutdown.

14: The number of points by which Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s favorability rating among his state’s party members dropped between June and October 2013. Lee was one of the ideological leaders of the shutdown effort.

40 million: Dollar amount of reported monthly oil-revenue received by the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

7.6: Unemployment percentage rate in the West, Nov. 2013, making us the most unemployed region in the nation.


17,131: Megawatt hours of solar energy put into the California power grid on Dec. 15, 2013.

8,500: Megawatt hours put in on June 21, 2012.

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The Wilderness Act at 50: In 2014, what makes a place wild?

Emily Guerin | Dec 24, 2013 05:00 AM

In December 1960, the iconic Western author Wallace Stegner wrote a letter to a University of California, Berkeley researcher in support of what would become the Wilderness Act. Wilderness is important, he wrote, because it “was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.”

Stegner’s eloquent urging helped pass the Wilderness Act four years later. The act defines “wilderness” as an area 5,000 acres or more that retains its primeval character, provides opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation, and where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Since 1964, the feds have created more than 750 wilderness areas and designated over 100 million acres of federal land as wilderness (see here for more wilderness facts).

2014 will mark the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary. To get a sense of public perception of wilderness today, as well as current management challenges, HCN spoke with Dr. Troy Hall, professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho. Hall spent 13 years as a wilderness ranger in Oregon while she pursued advanced degrees in anthropology and forest resources, focusing on management and visitor experience of wilderness. She’s currently helping Yosemite National Park assess how visitors are using its wilderness areas.

troy hall
Dr. Troy Hall, professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho.

High Country News Tell us about the context in which the Wilderness Act was passed. What was going on in America at the time?

Troy Hall The automobile has taken off. We have big initiatives putting highways all over the country. We’ve got increasing population. We have affluence after the war. We have major extractive uses of forests, together with some big development projects like dams that really galvanized environmental activists. The writers of the Wilderness Act were concerned we’d lose these unique opportunities that were dependent on wild places.

HCN The Act seems difficult to manage for because it is a bit vague. How have land managers coped with that challenge?

TH The Wilderness Act says we should maintain wildernesses in an essentially pristine way, but that we should also manage them to be untrammeled, to be wild. Well, a lot of folks say those things are incompatible. Fire is a good example. We’ve been suppressing fires and people describe fuel accumulations as unnatural, so to “restore” (to natural conditions) requires active management. The one I wrestle with is solitude. In a really heavily used wilderness, you might say we are not providing opportunities for solitude. How can we do that? You could limit use like they do on (Idaho’s) Selway River, where they allow one launch a day. But that’s confining.

HCN You’ve extensively studied visitor attitudes towards crowding. How much does it bother people to see lots of other hikers in the wilderness?

TH People are really adaptable. Even where they run into a lot of people they often will say, “it was busy on the trail but when I got to a lake I could find a beautiful area where I was by myself.” We often hear people say, “sure, would I like it better if there were more solitude, but I don’t really want to accept the trade offs that would entail. I’d rather run into a few people than (have use limits or a permit lottery).”

HCN How does technology impact solitude and primitive and unconfined experiences provided for by the Wilderness Act?

TH It clearly reduces self-reliance and challenge. If you know that you can push a button on some device and somebody will come find you, that is a very different experience from hiking seven days where you told somebody the day you’re leaving and if you don’t show up we’ll start looking for you. But GPS also allows people to get to places where traditionally they haven’t gone. If you feel comfortable you can navigate by GPS to some remote meadow and spend a few days by yourself, potentially you could have more solitude.

HCN Here at HCN we’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and how to make national parks relevant to America’s growing minority populations. I assume wilderness areas face that same challenge?

TH The majority of people who visit wilderness tend to be upper-middle class, white, and male to a certain extent. But some of the national surveys that have been done suggest that wilderness and things like watershed protection, clean air and wildlife habitat are extremely well-supported across demographic groups in society. So even demographic groups that don’t visit wilderness tend to place very high value on it.

HCN What challenges do you see on the horizon for wilderness areas?

TH The challenges we face moving forward are on a different scale all together. What does climate change mean in terms of managing wilderness? What do you do when a major species drops out of the ecosystem? Should we allow that to happen? There are some huge challenges that can’t be dealt with on a wilderness-by-wilderness basis. We may need some fundamental re-thinking about the role of wildernesses in connecting different ecosystems.

Interview conducted and edited by HCN correspondent Emily Guerin. She Tweets at @guerinemily. Photo courtesy Troy Hall.


California Energy Commission says no to desert solar plant that could kill birds

Judith Lewis Mernit | Dec 24, 2013 05:00 AM

It came as a shock last spring, at least to me, when BrightSource Energy decided to suspend its Hidden Hills Solar project near Pahrump, Nev. For starters, I had a story going to press whose conclusions were somewhat tied to the looming specter of Hidden Hills, a large concentrating solar “power tower” project which would have occupied five square miles of the Mojave Desert just north of Death Valley National Park. Plus, I’d always had the impression that the Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource subscribed to Winston Churchill’s apocryphal dictum for success: “Never, never, never give up.” But while the company's ambitions have weathered controversies over funding, cultural artifacts and desert tortoise, it appears they have finally met their match: Birds that die in the specific kind of facility BrightSource specializes in. And not simply by colliding with towers or mistaking shiny solar panels for water. They die by burning.

The problem figured prominently in public hearings over Hidden Hills, where researchers with the California Energy Commission described the bird-death problem in detail. That wasn't what derailed Hidden Hills, then-BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs reassured the media; instead, the company just wanted to focus on a different project: A collaboration with Spanish developer Abengoa on a project in Riverside County, Calif., close to Southern California’s border with Arizona, called the Palen Electric Generating Station. Another developer, Solar Millennium, had won approval in 2009 to build a solar plant at the Riverside site, using parabolic solar trough technology — no towers, just long tubes of mirrors that heat water in tubes. After Solar Millennium went bankrupt, BrightSource and Abengoa took over, figuring that building Palen using BrightSource technology would only require an amendment to the prior application, allowing for the change to a new technology. 

A bird that died at Ivanpah solar plant in California. Courtesy California Energy Commission / BrightSource.

The changeover proved more difficult than predicted. Fearing that the Palen project would “very likely result in significant and unmitigable impacts to biological resources,” the California Energy Commission issued a decision to deny the amendment to the application December 13. The commission was particularly concerned with potential injuries to birds who might fly through the field of solar flux, the intense heat and energy field that forms around the particular kind of plant BrightSource builds, in which fields of supplicant mirrors reflect sunlight up to a 500-foot tower. The sun's concentrated radiant energy  zaps birds in mid-air — while they're migrating, feeding, or just flying around.

The theoretical safe level of solar flux for birds is one minute of exposure at 5 kilowatts per square meter. In the skies above the Ivanpah Solar plant the Mojave on the California-Nevada border, solar flux near the tower is a hundred times higher than that. The facility has not gone into full operation — it's 99 percent complete and only partially online — and already dozens of birds have been found dead just in the the last few months. Some of the dead and injured are not species common to the Mojave; they may have been seduced by the illusion of water the mirrors present from the sky, and drawn into a death trap during migration.

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2013 in environmental news, from the darkest to the most hopeful

Sarah Gilman | Dec 23, 2013 05:00 AM

A few weeks ago, High Country News contributing editor Craig Childs dropped me a note asking for some help with his annual winter solstice production, Dark Night. Would I write and read a series of poems about descending into darkness – specifically “death, ice, fear, what is inside the deep, blue, scarier crevasses of your mind” – and then wrap up with one that clawed its way back out into exuberance or revelation or some such?

Dark Night poster

It is the purpose of the show, after all, to nod to all the dark in the world on the darkest night of the year, even as performers call back the light by sharing stories, music and a big thrasher of a dance party.

In these first lightening days after solstice, then, this seems a fitting frame to apply to some of the year’s biggest Western environmental stories. And if you care about how the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change, 2013 has been a dark year indeed. Advances in technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have cracked once troublesome shale formations and caused oil and natural gas production to surge, in the West drawing from big plays like North Dakota’s Bakken formation, Colorado’s Niobrara, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, and, coming down the pike, California’s Monterrey shale. According to the federal Energy Information Administration’s 2014 energy outlook, U.S. crude oil production will likely average 7.5 million barrels per day for 2013, the highest since 1991, and by 2016 will break 9.5 million barrels per day, nearing and later possibly slightly surpassing the U.S.’s all time peak production level, set in 1970. Meanwhile the EIA anticipates a 56 percent increase in natural gas production over 2012 levels by 2040.

That explosive growth led many energy experts to declare dead and irrelevant the theory of Peak Oil – the point where global oil production will max out and then steadily decline, necessitating the development of alternative fuels and approaches to transportation, now a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In some ways all of this is good news: The U.S. is cruising towards the holy grail of energy independence, oil patch communities have been a flamingly bright spot in our otherwise guttering economy, and, in theory, we no longer have to scramble to innovate in the face of apocalyptic scenarios involving the steep decline of our favorite drug, good old crude. Except these developments also further forestall urgently needed action to curb the emissions that are warming our planet – a much larger threat to our economy in the long run than a waning fossil fuel industry could ever be. And the U.S. is encouraging yet more drilling by steadily moving towards exporting its hydrocarbons, permitting liquid natural gas terminals and even considering lifting its moratorium on exporting domestic oil.

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Peabody mine expansion coincides with Navajo and Hopi artifacts battle

Leslie Macmillan | Dec 20, 2013 05:00 AM

Ten years ago, Jennafer Yellowhorse picked up an out-of-print archeology book titled A View from Black Mesa and read about a vast trove of artifacts unearthed on a lonesome plateau of Navajo land near the Four Corners. “Right in my backyard,” as she says, “but I’d never heard of it; no one had. So I started asking questions.”

Her questions would lead to the heart of the Southwest’s energy infrastructure and the largest archeology project ever conducted on U.S. soil.

In 1967 Peabody Energy needed to clear land it was leasing on the Navajo reservation to strip mine coal, but ancient Indian dwellings and graves were in the way. So, as required by law, it hired a team of archeologists and they dug up roughly 1.3 million Navajo, Hopi and ancient Anasazi artifacts – including the remains of 200 Native Americans – which have been warehoused at two universities ever since.

The warehousing of human remains is a particular affront to many Navajos and Hopis, who believe the spirits of their ancestors cannot rest until their bones are properly buried. "Digging them up was a violation of natural laws. They were never meant to be in a museum,” Norris Nez, a Navajo medicine man, said through a translator.

Navajo medicine man Norris Nez. Photograph by Sam Minkler.
Navajo medicine man Norris Nez with his wife, Lena Nez. Photograph by Sam Minkler.

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