« Return to this article

Know the West

Horse catheters in classrooms, a crackdown on toxics, and an update on the Animas River

HCN.org news in brief.


For generations, an abundant aquifer in south-central Colorado’s San Luis Valley provided enough water to sustain the arid farming community. But beginning in 2002, a multi-year drought shrank nearby streams and the water table. Some wells stopped working. In 2006, water users developed a program that pays farmers to fallow their fields, funded by new taxes on groundwater. Today, water users in Subdistrict 1 have pumped one-third less water, about 200,000 acre-feet last year, down from more than 320,000 before the project. Area farmers have fallowed 10,000 acres that once hosted thirsty alfalfa or potato crops — and the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water.  
-Paige Blankenbuehler

Watch for more from the “Small towns, big change” project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

Irrigated crops in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where a program that pays farmers to fallow fields has helped restore the aquifer.
John Wark


“When Americans go to the grocery store and hardware store, they assume products they buy have been tested and are safe; they aren’t.”

—Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., following passage of a bill that will overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, giving the Environmental Protection Agency broad new authority to regulate chemicals in millions of products Americans use every day. “For the first time in 40 years, we will have a working chemical safety law,” he said. How the EPA implements the new law and how much funding the agency gets to do the work will have a huge impact on whether it can live up to its sponsors’ high hopes.
-Elizabeth Shogren


A new mapping effort quantifies the rapid decline of natural landscapes across the West and identifies the type of development involved. The report — conducted by researchers at the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners and funded by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank — is the most recent in a series from progressive groups defending the value of public land, as some conservative politicians argue for increased local control and potential transfer of federal lands to states. The maps show roads, energy development, urban sprawl, and agriculture and forestry leaving ever-smaller splotches of open land. Among the takeaways are the speedier development happening on state and private lands, compared with federal lands, and a sense of how different types of development are impacting local communities. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell promoted the new research in a speech in April, calling for a “course correction in how we approach conservation.” The study’s backers hope it will be used to influence land-use planning decisions and to inform citizens.
-Elizabeth Shogren  

1: Number of horse catheters science teacher Tori Hellmann uses to show high school students in Colorado the basics of fracking. (The demo also requires a pop bottle and Jell-O.)
-Bryce Gray

In 1846, the Oregon Treaty demarcated the border between Canada and the United States — and isolated Point Roberts, a sliver of the U.S. on the Canadian side of the border. Roughly 1,000 Americans live there year-round, traipsing across the border for school, doctor’s visits and trips to the DMV. But it’s also a bit of an idyll, surrounded by beaches and woods.
-David Ryder

Women watch orcas at Point Roberts, a sliver of the U.S. abandoned on the Canadian side of the border.
David Ryder

On May 23, New Mexico sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the owners of the Sunnyside Mine near Silverton, Colorado, over damages caused by last year’s Gold King Mine blowout, which turned the Animas River orange. It’s likely the start of a long legal fracas over the spill and an impending Superfund listing for the Gold King and surrounding mines. The complaint alleges that the blowout “wrought environmental and economic damage” and deposited sediment that could be stirred up again. Water sampling and fish counts conducted since the spill have shown that the river’s condition didn’t change significantly.
-Jonathan Thompson

You say

Jenni Hart: “If the mine wasn’t leaking, the EPA wouldn’t have been there. So how can they be at fault?”

Mike Zobbe: “None of this would seem a bit off if all these states hadn’t embraced lightly regulated mining. All this is a inevitable result of the mining legacy all the states fell over themselves to promote.”

Loki Wednesson: “Nobody will gain from this, except the lawyers.”

Ann Snyder: “All involved parties need to be held responsible and pay.”