Last week, while speaking at lunch during the in Grand Junction, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board could have put his audience to sleep in their cannoli. He was talking about the narcolepsy-inducing topic of water planning, after all. Instead, James Eklund captured the room’s attention by quoting “the great water philosopher, Mike Tyson” who said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been punched in the face.” And there’s no doubt that Colorado’s been punched in the face.
Those blows have come from the combination of a 14-year drought, population growth, wild fires and floods. Now the state is figuring out how it will “pick itself off the canvas,” as Eklund described it, and move forward. But Colorado is one of the few Western states without a water plan.
In Colorado’s case, Eklund said, there are already enough glossy reports that sit on shelves. The state wants a document that analyzes the state’s water challenges and leads to meaningful action. So Colorado’s been working on one since this past summer, based on input from grassroots water planning groups called basin roundtables, which have been meeting for the last eight years. The first draft is due to Gov. Hickenlooper in December. Hopefully, having a road map will help soften the blows of further hydrologic bludgeoning.
When Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stood before the National Press Club on September 20 and announced draft rules for regulating carbon dioxide from new power plants, she said the proposal, “rather than killing future coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal.” That way forward is through carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, a technology McCarthy called “feasible” and “available today.”
McCarthy’s optimistic statement has garnered a lot of attention in the last six weeks, rising to the level of a congressional hearing in the House of Representatives in October, where the lone witness who stood behind McCarthy was Kurt Waltzer of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group focused on air pollution. Waltzer said that carbon dioxide captured from coal plants is poised to be a valuable commodity on its own by helping drilling companies get more oil out of the ground more efficiently, a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”
Initially, I was fairly skeptical of EOR. I mean, are we really going to mitigate climate change through a technology that will also enable more oil drilling? But the more I looked into it, the more I agreed with Waltzer’s support of EOR, and his assertion that “If there was ever a chance for a big idea to succeed in our current political climate – EOR is it.”
What started out as a simple request to alter the way Arizona residents are compensated for power generated by rooftop solar has exploded into a full-blown, national headline-making, wacky political war complete with shady dealings and nasty ads. But it should be all over soon. Perhaps.
Arizona Public Service is trying to get that state’s utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission, to alter its net metering program, one of the most robust in the nation, because they say that folks with rooftop solar are not paying their fair share to use the grid. That, they say, could cost non-solar ratepayers thousands of dollars (or $1 per month, according to an HCN analysis). APS submitted two proposals. They hope the ACC will choose one.
Currently, rooftop solar homeowners get paid retail rates for power generated by their panels. That is, each kWh generated offsets nearly an entire kWh used. Either of APS' proposals would result in a new net metering customer getting far less than retail, in effect significantly bolstering her monthly electric bill. The proposals would make it virtually impossible for someone to offset her entire bill with solar, and could quadruple the amount of time it takes to pay off the solar panels with savings on her bills. That, in turn, would clearly make rooftop solar less appealing, at least from a financial perspective. The ACC is expected to make a decision on this issue on Nov. 13.
Meanwhile, the political battle surrounding the proposal keeps heating up. The solar industry and environmentalists are livid, as one might expect. But strong opposition to slashing solar compensation has also come from some conservatives and free-marketeers; national conservative groups, with ties to the Koch brothers, have run over-the-top ads in Arizona attacking solar.
Here are some of the figurative fires that have flared up – mostly burning APS – in that war over the last couple of months:
• On Sept. 30, the ACC staff issued its report on the proposals, leaning toward keeping the current net metering program, at least for now. It recommended that the ACC reject both of APS’ proposals, and keep the current system in place until APS’ next rate case. In the meantime, the ACC should hold public workshops to try to assign a value to the non-monetary benefits of rooftop solar.
But if the ACC is hankering to do something now, the staff recommends, either: 1. Adjusting the way current fixed cost charges are levied, so that rooftop solar folks pay a reasonable amount for utilizing the grid; or, 2. instead of paying retail rate for rooftop solar, as is the case under the current system, have APS pay a rate based on current wholesale rates for utility-scale solar. Either would result in higher bills for rooftop solar folks, but it’s still a much better deal than what APS proposes.
A native Nevadan is expected to become the next overseer of much of the West’s public lands. Neil Kornze is President Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres, mostly in Western states. Kornze joined the agency in 2011, and has been its principal deputy director since March. He replaced acting director Mike Pool, who stepped in after Bob Abbey retired in May 2012 (see our interview with Abbey).
At 34, Kornze would be one of the youngest agency heads ever, but he has a pretty impressive resumé. Raised in Elko, he's the son of a geologist who discovered major gold deposits near the town (now an open pit mine operated by mining giant Barrick). He graduated from Washington’s Whitman College with a degree in politics (seems he’s got some chops as a journalist too – he and another student shared a prize for Best Feature Story in the college newspaper). He earned a master’s in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, then went to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
As a policy adviser with Reid, from 2003 to 2011, Kornze worked on public lands, water, renewable energy, wildlife and mining. Reid is notoriously friendly to the mining industry (see our story “Nevada’s Golden Child”), but Kornze doesn’t appear to have been a mining booster (industry interests complained that he “fought the mining industry’s opposition of the Pine Grove-Esmeralda Wilderness efforts”). He helped put together the 2009 public lands omnibus bill. The bill designated 2 million acres of wilderness, codified the National Landscape Conservation System, and added 1,000 river-miles to the Wild and Scenic river system, among other things. He also helped reauthorize the program, which provides funding to rural counties that formerly relied on income from timber sales, and the sPayment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program, which compensates states with a lot of federal land for loss of property tax revenue from that land.
It’s been over a month since rain-swollen creeks tore through roads and flooded homes in Colorado’s Front Range. While the camera crews have long since gone home, the disaster isn’t over for families who suffered property damage. Of the 20,000 single-family homes in the Boulder area, only 3,504 had flood insurance – one of the highest ratios in Colorado. Four thousand homes were damaged in Boulder alone.
Homes within the 100-year flood zone backed by federal mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance, often at subsidized rates, through the National Flood Insurance Program, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But September’s flooding swamped uninsured Colorado homes well above the 100-year floodplain – just as homes in New York and New Jersey outside the flood zone were swamped by Hurricane Sandy last year, and Vermont homes were sunk by Tropical Storm Irene the year before.
Typically, a 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. As climate change continues to push weather patterns toward extremes, though, many climatologists are finding these once-in-a-lifetime weather events to occur more frequently: A report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that human-induced climate change played a role in several extreme weather events of 2012. There’s been a push among climate scientists and private insurance agencies to update federal flood maps to reflect what HCN contributing editor Craig Childs calls the “new high water mark:” areas beyond historical flood zones that are now at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, different runoff patterns and more intense storms.
"Old statistics on flood risk are obsolete," Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told InsideClimate News. "Increasingly, (FEMA) should be looking ahead."
On Nov. 1, President Obama issued an executive order mandating that FEMA and other federal agencies do just that. Obama’s “climate preparedness and resilience” order builds on the administration’s Climate Action Plan released in June which, among other things, seeks to reduce carbon emissions by regulating power plants. The latest executive order requires all agencies to “modernize” their approach to climate change, and creates a task force of governors, mayors and local leaders who will examine whether money spent on infrastructure stands up to extreme weather. It also requires land and water to be managed with an eye to climate change, and may mean that more federal assistance will be directed at state and local governments that invest in resilient infrastructure.
For 15 days last year, Renee Seidler, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, sat in a truck near a highway and watched the fall migration of Wyoming’s pronghorn. It was the first time since the construction of Highway 191 that the 300-head Teton herd had an alternative to dodging cars and trucks to get from Teton National Park to the Upper Green River Basin. But that alternative was scaring the animals rather than enticing them. Instead of their customary – and hazardous – path across the highway, the animals encountered a 13-mile-long, eight-foot-tall fence blocking the way. It opened only at two overpasses and six underground tunnels. For hours each day, Seidler watched as the pronghorn paced the fence and avoided the unfamiliar passes, searching for another way across.
It looked stressful for the animals, said Seidler, who watched them bobbing their heads in a way she’d never seen before as they looked for ways through the fencing. “In humans we would call it high anxiety,” she said. But with no alternative, all the members of the herd eventually found their way across. She expected that their return migration the following spring would be easier, but to her surprise, it was the same thing all over again – head bobbing, apparent confusion and sometimes days stuck on the south side of the fence. With the seasonal changes in vegetation and snow pack, Seidler realized it must have been like encountering the fences for the first time – again. It was troubling.
So when a co-worker watching this fall’s migration called, Seidler was excited to hear him say, “You’re not going to believe this. It’s going so smoothly.” The adults that crossed last year seemed to remember the new pattern and have been crossing, since late September, without any hesitation. In the process, the pronghorn are teaching this new route to their offspring who are trotting right behind.
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As I wrote in High Country News last spring, the pumas of Southern California's Santa Monica Mountains are dying — slowly, but quite literally — for lack of genetic diversity. Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator.
That’s why it mattered so much that, last month during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on the 101 freeway at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. When I blogged about that death then, several readers took the headline, “Who do you call?” to mean “who do you call to dispose of the body?” They offered advice, and even DIY techniques involving heavy gloves and netting.
I appreciated that. But what I really meant was, “who do you call to understand the magnitude of the loss? Where was the puma coming from and where was it going? What did its DNA say about its ancestry?” Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range; every loss here hits hard. I wanted to know what this one meant.
Unfortunately, there was no one around to ask. When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they're back, we have the answers. And it turns out this death is just about as tragic as it gets for the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains.
In many Western cities, municipal water management is a job tied to the mountains. In Salt Lake City, for example, 80 percent of the city’s water supply comes from snowpack in seven Uinta and Wasatch Mountain watersheds.
Yet it’s becoming all too clear that the mountains’ water yield will decrease, come earlier in the year, or both. Cities and local water managers across the West – not just researchers looking at regional trends – are now trying to address those shifts. “We’ve observed changes in the climate in Salt Lake, and around the region, and it’s appropriate to think about how climate change is going to impact water supply,” says Tim Bardsley, a Salt Lake City-based hydrologist with the Western Water Assessment.
In the past, water resources managers could look at historical data and use that to make decisions about the future. Now that the future will surely look vastly different from the past, that approach is no longer valid.
But even as climatologists have provided climate predictions, they haven't been specific enough for many local water managers. For example, regional-scale research already portrays a warmer Intermountain West where more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, runoff will peak earlier, and streams will carry less water by late summer and fall. But because of how global climate models average data over large regions, they have painted with too broad a brush to be considered useful for the specifics of local water planning.
This is changing as finer scale climate data have become more readily available. Plus, local water managers and scientists are working in tandem to identify risks to water systems, and to create water plans that will work within a range of climate scenarios. Acknowledging the increasing demands on local leaders to deal with this global issue, and their prominence as problem-solvers (see the book “If Mayors Ruled the World”), President Obama issued an executive order last week on climate preparedness, focusing on state, city and county governments. As a nod to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s progressive sustainability agenda, he was selected for Obama’s climate adaptation task force.
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Driving through southwestern New Mexico this summer, I passed one of the area’s wolf-proof school bus stops. I’d heard about the enclosures for years and couldn’t resist pulling off Highway 180 onto State Road 32 to check one out in person. More recently, the cages have been featured in a new documentary film, “Wolves in Government Clothing.”
Walking up the gravel road, I tried to envision leaving my own seven year-old at the remote intersection. Even if I did drop her and drive off – with no homes close by, I doubt many kids hoof it there – I wouldn’t leave her in the cage.
Peering into the eight- or ten-foot high wood and wire enclosure, we found its bench smashed and the dirt floor covered with trash. To be fair, school had been out for over a month. But the flimsy, trash-filled box didn’t convince me it sheltered many schoolchildren. The first of the cages were built in 2007 by a local school district; a picture of children looking out from a cage near Reserve, N.M. appeared in newspapers at the time. Both then and now, the cages smell of a publicity stunt.
A vocal group of citizens in southwestern New Mexico have long fought the Mexican gray wolf recovery program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners – a program that hasn’t actually been a resounding success. Despite more than a decade of planning and 15 years of on-the-ground work, only 75 wolves roam the recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico. Thanks to political wrangling, local opposition, a pledge to remove or kill wolves that prey on livestock, and a highly restricted recovery area, the program remains far below its goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2006.
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It was almost a normal drive home. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in the Colorado Rockies, I’ve completed variations on the same 4.5-or-so-hour route dozens of times on my way down to the plains and my hometown, Boulder, Colo., without major incident: Highway 24 from Leadville to I-70; Highway 82 from Aspen to I-70; Highway 133 from Paonia, High Country News’ headquarters, to I-70.
This one, on my way back from my nephew’s first birthday party in the last days of October, had pretty much everything going for it. The weather was good, crisp and edged gold with the last aspen and cottonwood leaves. Westbound traffic on I-70 streamed along at a fast clip; winding, two-lane 133 from Carbondale into the West Elk Mountains was pleasantly snow-, rockfall- and elk-free in the deepening twilight. Crossing 8,755-foot-high McClure Pass, I yelled along to a dance tune by The Shoes to stay alert on the last dark stretch of the drive.
To the west, I could see a line of headlights approaching. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon me, coming around a long bend, that I realized one set was in my lane and approaching fast. I slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road into the grass just in time to clear the windshield-level bumper of a lifted pickup, which swerved into its own lane at the head of the pack of cars.
When I was done panic-shouting at my steering wheel, I realized that, all things considered, I’d been forced off the road in the best place possible. If it had been on the east side of the pass, I would’ve gone off a cliff. If it had been a few miles farther to the west, I would’ve hit a vertical rockface. If the shoulder had been steeper, I could have easily rolled. “I swear it’s like you live in The Road Warrior,” a friend remarked after I arrived safely home and texted him what had happened.
Indeed, there’s very little margin for error on your typical two-lane highway. You probably know this from experience if you live in the back-corners of the rural West, where even going to the grocery store can involve a windy, multi-mile, suicidal-deer-ridden drive at high speed (though admittedly probably not mohawked pursuers in dune buggies). According to a comprehensive report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, rural areas claimed a whopping 55 percent of all traffic fatalities and 54 percent of fatal crashes in 2011, despite hosting only 19 percent of the U.S. population. From 2002 to 2011, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.5 times higher in rural areas than urban.