They’re as common as U.S. House bills repealing Obamacare, but far more successful: Earthjustice v. BLM. WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA.
They’re lawsuits brought by conservation groups against federal agencies when, environmentalists say, the agencies fail to enforce the law. A polluted river falls through the cracks; a species in peril remains unprotected; a Clean Air Act deadline for air-quality standards passes without action.
Sometimes, federal lawyers fight back all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as in Massachusetts v. EPA, the blockbuster 2007 case that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Other times, they surrender and hammer out the details of a settlement.
Some of those agreements represent conservation milestones: In the 1990s, scores of environmental groups settled cases with EPA over water pollution from diffuse sources; the agreements hatched hundreds of plans to clean up polluted lakes, rivers and beaches. In 2011, WildEarth Guardians got the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to agree to a six-year plan for protecting imperiled plants and animals with Endangered Species Act listings, establishing a systematic process to address the decade-long backlog of petitions.
None of these settlements have rewritten any laws; only Congress can do that. Instead, they’ve refined and put teeth into existing legislation. Still, they rankle industry and its conservative allies. In recent years, House Republicans, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have likened “sue-and-settle” agreements to mob tactics. Former Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle, introducing a bill to address the issue, told Congress the settlements amount to “backroom regulation” that robs environmental policy of “transparency and fairness.”
Quayle lost his seat in the 2012 elections, but his Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act lives on: A new version was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, legislators in 12 states, including Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, have filed two Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding all EPA documents pertaining to settled lawsuits between citizen groups and the agency. The EPA rejected the first request as too broad, so the states requested documents “that discuss or in any way relate to” communication anyone in the agency’s 16 offices had with any of 17 nonprofits concerning atmospheric haze. The EPA rejected the second request, too, citing legal precedent that says the law “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requestors.” Rather than narrow the request, on July 16, the states, led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, sued.
Eric Biber, a University of California at Berkeley environmental law professor, suspects federal regulators do sometimes welcome environmentalist pressure to enforce neglected laws. “Sometimes, an agency wants to do something but not take the political hit for it,” he says. If you have a settlement agreement in place, and Congress calls you into an oversight hearing, “You can say, ‘If you want a different outcome, change the law.’”
But the dynamic isn’t unique to environmental groups. “A lot of these lawsuits went in the other direction during the (industry-friendly) Bush administration,” Biber says. Earthjustice lawyers complained in 2003 of a “sue-and-settle pattern” when timber companies sued the government for access to northern spotted owl habitat. The settlement would have increased old-growth logging fourfold if environmental groups hadn’t fought it––and won.
“It’s increasingly used as a tool on both sides,” Biber says.
It should be noted that neither the Sunshine Bill in the House nor the document requests themselves allege collusion. Any such accusation would be fantastical, says John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has also litigated for both the EPA and industry. “Attorneys at the EPA uphold the interest of the United States government. They litigate vigorously, and that’s true whether they’re being sued by environmental groups, industry or states and cities.”
Only in public statements and press releases do lawmakers promote the notion of a secret environmentalist conspiracy within federal agencies. “If the EPA is making backdoor deals with environmental groups to push their agenda on the American people while bypassing the states and Congress,” Pruitt said in a press release, “we need to know.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman, Renny McKay, is more circumspect: “We’re concerned about the practice,” he says. “We’re trying to verify whether this concern is valid or not.”
Walke thinks that’s a little “like submitting a request to the IRS to reveal a campaign to torture puppies. The value of the lawsuit is the PR value of leveling charges for which there are no facts. When the lawsuit is quietly dismissed later, they won’t care.” The message is out.
A similar dynamic unfolded when solar technology startup Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving a $550 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department, launching a congressional investigation into possible conflicts of interest. The dustup yielded nothing and ultimately faded—but not before damaging Obama’s renewable energy campaign.
It’s still worth asking, though, whether taking federal agencies to court and forcing settlements is the best way to enforce—or roll back—environmental laws. In a better world, would another process accomplish the same goals? Biber doubts it: “Unless you pass a law saying people can’t sue to enforce the law, I don’t know if you can avoid having the problem.”
Says Walke: “The most obvious alternative would be for agencies to be funded adequately by Congress to carry out the law. In the meantime, we live under a system that’s governed by a rule of law. And that law that anoints citizens with the right to hold government accountable.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
Amphibians are vanishing at an alarming rate—even from areas we think of as pristine and protected. California’s Sierra Nevada range is a prime example of this global problem: Five out of seven amphibian species there are threatened. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly why ponds that once held mountain yellow-legged frogs or California red-legged frogs are now devoid of amphibians.
In a new study, a U.S. Geological Survey group focusing on how pesticides affect amphibians tested common Pacific chorus frogs and their habitats, including Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoia National Monument, for around 100 agricultural chemicals. Even though researchers have looked at pesticides in Sierra Nevada amphibians for years, the new study’s most commonly detected chemicals—two fungicides and one herbicide—have never been found in amphibians until now.
“As pesticide use changes, our studies have to evolve as well,” says Kelly Smalling, a USGS hydrology and chemistry researcher, and the lead author on the study. As new pesticides are approved, it's difficult to keep pace with where they end up in the environment, so the USGS group tested for a large batch of them in seven remote locations. “That’s how we stumbled across the fungicides.”
In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the two fungicides found in the new study, pyraclostrobin and tebuconazole, to combat a new soybean rust—the spores of which may have landed in the U.S. from South America during the 2004 hurricane season.
Pesticides, and diseases like the chytrid fungus, plus habitat loss and climate change, are among the possible reasons amphibians are blinking out in pristine areas. Earlier studies established that pesticides get into Sierra Nevada snow, water and sediments by wafting from the Central Valley, one of the nation’s most intensive agricultural regions. Frogs downwind of the valley are declining more rapidly than coastal or northern frogs.
Researchers also found in previous studies that pesticides commonly applied in the Central Valley—chlorpyrifos,and DDT-like endosulfan (which is being phased out)—showed upin declining populations of Sierra Nevada Pacific chorus frogs, and also in imperiled yellow-legged frogs. Smalling’s study only looked at Pacific chorus frogs, because they are not threatened, and so the population wouldn’t be harmed by a few sampling causalities. Yet the work still may point the way to research that could help narrow down what’s harming more rapidly declining species like yellow-legged frogs.
The next step, according to Smalling, is figuring out how the fungicides could affect, or kill, amphibians. That means a lot of difficult laboratory work, partly because every frog species may respond to pesticides differently.
As for how pathogens like the chytrid fungus might be interacting with pesticides to kill frogs, that remains a mystery.
“I think it’s quite likely that there is an interaction between pesticides and other stressors,” says Gary Fellers, a wildlife biologist on the study who has worked on amphibian declines since the ’90s.
Fellers, who recently retired from the USGS, grew up backpacking in Yosemite, where he still does field work. “I know of frog populations that are entirely gone now,” he says. “I’m incredibly anxious to find what’s causing these declines before we lose entire species.”
Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.
Peter Stehr is an apple farmer. But when he had a heart attack in 2002, he decided he needed to diversify his income, so he and some associates got a loan and put up a few .6-megawatt wind turbines in his orchard.
Today, one of them still spins over a row of apple trees, kicking out some 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which he sells to the grid for about $120,000.
Plenty of Western ranchers and farmers could use that sort of cash, especially in these days of extended drought, when the ditches run dry after the first cutting of hay. But Stehr lives in Germany, outside of Hamburg, and his wind-powered windfall is the offspring of that nation’s Energiewende—inadequately translated as "energy transition"—that encourages renewable energy and is phasing out nuclear power.
I joined 17 other European and American journalists to visit Stehr in June as part of a weeklong Energiewende immersion tour spearheaded by the Transatlantic Media Network. My mission was to try to answer the question: Can the West have its own Energiewende?
After delving into the details of Germany’s plan, and listening to all of the challenges, which are not unlike ours, I’ve got an answer: Yes.
From the many glowing reports on the Energiewende from journalists on this side of the Atlantic (including, I confess, my own), we might be led to believe that Germany’s progress on renewable energy is out of our reach: They’re simply greener than us, more inclined toward allowing government interference, with a political will to combat climate change that we lack. We drive Hummers; they prefer tiny Twingos. We love energy-gulping air conditioning; they don't even use fans. We have the Tea Party; they have the Green Party.
There’s some truth to this. But as one of our hosts emphasized, “Germany is not a renewables Disneyland.” What he meant was that as successful as their energy transition has been—on one day in June, solar and wind accounted for 60 percent of Germany’s power production—it hasn’t come without pain, conflict or, for that matter, a healthy dose of coal.
Germany’s Energiewende has two parts. One is the phase-out of nuclear power, which has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated in 2011. The second is the move toward renewables, driven primarily by the feed-in tariff (FIT), which guarantees renewable-power producers a premium price for their goods for 20 years, along with automatic access to and priority in the grid. The FIT turns everyone from the apple farmer with a turbine to the apartment-dweller with a solar panel into his own mini power company with a long-term, potentially lucrative contract with the utilities. To fund the tariff, a renewable surcharge is tacked onto power customers’ bills. Now, Germany has 30 gigawatts of installed solar—about five times the amount that the entire U.S. has—a good portion of which is individually owned. The FIT is almost wholly responsible for that.
Before you scoff at the potential for such a program in the U.S., consider this: Los Angeles recently implemented its own feed-in tariff (though limited in scope). And deep-red Arizona has long had a robust net-metering system in place, which is similar to a feed-in tariff. Meanwhile, the federal production tax credit has helped the U.S. install a whopping 60 gigawatts of wind capacity. Clearly, we in the West are open to such programs, as long as they don’t raise our electricity rates too much.
Well, guess what? Germans feel the same way. Individuals, cooperatives and companies receiving the FIT, like those on net metering in Arizona, don’t pay infrastructure fees for using the grid, transferring that cost—critics say unfairly—to the ratepayers. The debate sounds remarkably similar to the one going on in Arizona right now. So some German politicians are working to change the pricing structure on the tariffs or even eliminate them altogether. That’s despite the fact that the FIT is really not the main driver of energy prices. Corporate welfare is: In order to keep large industry—which is thriving in Germany—from fleeing, the biggest energy-users don’t have to pay the renewable surcharge, pushing that cost onto individual customers. The pricing scheme is such that when wholesale power prices drop due to so much renewable power going into the grid, the ratepayers actually pay higher retail prices (meaning the utilities reap higher and higher profits).
These are mistakes from which we in the West can learn.
Germany’s grid, too, faces many of the same problems as ours: It was built around a centralized fossil fuel and nuclear system, and needs more “flexibility” in order to efficiently back up all that wind and solar. Natural-gas plants that would provide that backup are being mothballed because they are economically unfeasible (since they only run a few hours each month). Transmission lines are needed to link offshore wind turbines in the north with industrial centers in the south and west, just as we need new transmission to get wind power from Wyoming to California. Yet just as is the case here, grid expansion in Germany—along with big wind farms—runs into local opposition over aesthetic and environmental concerns.
Perhaps most worrisome is that even as Germany beefs up its renewable portfolio, it burning more coal. Last year, 45 percent of its electricity was from coal, slightly higher than the amount here. This is not solely, as some believe, the result of shutting down nuclear plants. It’s because coal is dirt-cheap in Germany. Meanwhile, natural gas prices in Europe are rocketing upward. Naturally, utilities are turning to the cheaper fuel and away from natural gas.
All of which is to say that in the end, Germany’s path to a carbon-free future is filled with as many cultural, political and economical obstacles as ours. Yet they are overcoming many of those obstacles, thanks in part to what I think of as American traits: innovation, locally owned energy, and seizing opportunities to make money in areas like energy efficiency. That means that we should be able to accomplish all that they have and then some, thanks to our abundant resources.
The West has more potential for wind power than Germany, and far, far more solar resources. (Germany is basically on par with Alaska when it comes to generating power from the sun.) Just imagine how much electricity the Southwest could generate with 30 GW of solar capacity. We have more rooftops on which to put solar panels, along with plenty of vacant land. And we’re in the midst of a shale-gas boom, which allows us to discard all that coal for slightly cleaner-burning natural gas.
What we have in resources, though, we’re lacking in a coherent and focused energy policy, one that sets tangible goals and provides the tools to reach them. Just as I was heading over to Germany for the energy tour, the Western Governors’ Association released its 10 year “Energy Vision.” It’s yet another “all of the above” energy plan, encouraging renewables along with everything else, including oil, coal and especially natural gas. To its credit, it gives a passing nod to net metering as a useful tool along with the production tax credit, but misses out on one of the most important aspects of Germany’s incentives: long-term certainty and grid access. Even the most generous incentive is worthless if it will disappear next year, or if you can’t ship your power to market.
Just ask Peter Stehr, the fruit and wind farmer. As he filled us up with cider, he assured us that he’s no environmentalist—he built the wind turbines solely for the 20 years of assured income. Then he bid us aufwiedersehen, and we headed down the road, only to pass a giant coal-fired power plant so new it hasn’t even started operating yet.
It was a reminder of how tough it is to shift away from our carbon-intensive energy system, both at home and abroad.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.
Si, buenas tardes?” Miriam Ceja chirped into the microphone at La Nueva Mix’s studio in Glenwood Springs, Colo. It was 5 p.m., “prime drive time,” on a Wednesday evening in late March.
La Nueva Mix is primarily a music station, playing Norteño ballads and other Latin-American tunes. But since its debut six years ago, program director Axel Contreras has also introduced talk shows on health, real estate and dealing with police encounters. By far the most popular, though, is Punto Legal, a weekly immigration-law call-in.
Ceja, an assistant at the law firm Hess and Schubert, is one of the show’s translators. Her boss, immigration attorney Ted Hess, who says he doesn’t speak “a lick of Spanish,” scribbled notes as she spoke.
“I’ve been working without a Social Security card,” said the anonymous caller, who sounded like a young man. “Will I still be able to take advantage of immigration reform?”
Hess replied: “As long as you haven’t committed a major felony, you should still be able to benefit from any reforms.” There was a pause.
“So, uh, can I go back to working with my fake documents?”
“I can’t legally advise you to do that,” said Hess, covering his microphone as he and Ceja stifled laughter.
The next 50 minutes were typical: For every call answered, two more blinking lights materialized on the switchboard. A woman whose sister was ripped off by someone she paid to “fix” her immigration papers wondered whether she could report the crime and qualify for a so-called “U Visa,” granting immunity from deportation. A man waiting on a green card learned about the federal government’s 20-year application backlog. Hess reassured a woman who’d been caught driving without a license and was afraid to show up for her court date, believing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would deport her.
The demand for free legal advice seemed endless.
Latino stations are nearly as old as radio itself. In the U.S., their success was initially built on immigrants’ nostalgia for the music of home, says Angie Balderas, vice president of sales for the Hispanic media company Adelante Media Group. Increasingly, though, Latino stations have come to resemble public-service organizations: Radio is cheap, accessible and omnipresent in the native countries of many immigrants.
“It’s the first line of information for many immigrants,” says Balderas.
Shows like Punto Legal abound and have real value for non-English speakers struggling to navigate the Byzantine complexity of the U.S. immigration system. Programs about health, finance and real estate are also popular, says Luis Manuel Botello at the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists. “A lot of these immigrants don’t have health insurance, so the media becomes their source for information about health issues (instead of doctors). And personal finance is relatively new for many immigrants, because in their countries, the economies are not really based on credit.”
Contreras, a Guatemalan who came to the U.S. illegally 20 years ago and is now a legal resident, hopes that the news and information he airs help immigrants integrate into American society. “Our station is just a bridge for the Latino community,” he says.
Its approach has attracted a broad listenership: According to streaming data from La Nueva Mix’s parent company, the station routinely out-performs the company’s English-language holdings. In April, for instance, La Nueva Mix’s website had more than 28,000 hits, while KSPN, a popular local rock station, had just more than 3,000.
Frequently, there’s a political tone to Latino stations’ programming. Ramon Ramirez, a board member of western Oregon’s KPCN, is also the president of the Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers United labor union. KPCN serves the migrant farmworkers who harvest Oregon’s cherries, strawberries and blueberries, and Ramirez says the station is sometimes used to orchestrate protests and strikes.
“There was a grower here who banned their employees from listening to the station while they were working, because we used it as an organizing tool,” he says.
In times of crisis, Contreras converts La Nueva Mix into a sort of emergency warning system. In 2011, for instance, during the “Strawberry Days” carnival down the street from the station, federal immigration agents conducted a raid, disrupting the festivities and arresting several suspected undocumented immigrants. Immediately, Contreras took to the airwaves and urged people to avoid the carnival. “I’ve never seen it as empty as it was that day,” he recalls.
Officially, La Nueva Mix remains a commercial radio station. Advertisers include McDonalds, tax accountants, car dealers, fortune-tellers and money-transfer services. In practice, though, Contreras cultivates a community-radio sensibility, even when selling ads, often turning down offers from companies that might prey on vulnerable listeners—by claiming to fix immigration papers, for instance, or promising fake Caribbean vacations in exchange for “service fees” and personal information.
“A lot of people couldn’t afford to lose that money,” Contreras explains.
For advertisers he approves, access to the station’s audience can pay handsomely. Ted Hess says he gets the vast majority of his business through Punto Legal. In fact, the show is so successful that he recently replicated it on the Greeley, Colo.-based station Tigre FM. He also opened a new law office in Greeley, noting that many Latinos are moving to the area to work for northern Colorado’s ubiquitous gas companies, slaughterhouses and farms.
“You’ll see this trend in any emerging market,” says Balderas, of Adelante Media Group. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you soon saw part-time Spanish radio stations in North Dakota because of the oil boom there.”
Reached by phone at the new Greeley office in late April, Hess said he’d just closed his first show on Tigre FM with his signature tagline: “Don’t fight with your spouse; don’t let ICE into your house; and DON’T go back to Mexico.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
The Albuquerque ambiance, as we rolled into town to cover a tribal energy conference, was tinted with doom.
It was 7:30 on a June evening, and the car thermometer read 99 degrees. To the north, a massive plume of smoke rose up from the newly ignited Jaroso fire, joining the plumes of the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires that had been burning nearby for several days. Dust, kicked up by a vicious wind, shrouded the downtown buildings. The gusts tossed tiny pieces of Styrofoam, reputedly from a luxury condo project gone belly-up, like little pieces of snow.
“I’m not sure if this is a drought,” said Roger Fragua, of Jemez Pueblo and the former deputy director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, as he introduced the conference the next morning, “or our new reality.” The attendees could think of the scorching planet in the abstract for the moment, at least, as we were all ensconced in the cool, opulent Sandia Resort and Casino—the pueblo is not an energy tribe, but does OK with its own extractive industry, namely mining the pockets of gamblers.
The drought, and climate change, as both opportunity and threat, were recurring themes throughout the conference. But a much bigger menace, it seemed, was the sequester, and a general movement toward austerity on a federal level, which will deal a big blow to tribal budgets even as native populations grow. To face that threat, and to become financially independent, it was generally agreed that tribes must develop their resources, be they wind, coal, oil or sunshine.
Indian lands hold around 20 percent of the nation’s extractable fossil fuels, and 10 percent of its renewable resources. Yet only 1.3 percent of all fossil fuel production in the U.S. happens on tribal land; the figure for renewables is probably far lower. It’s clearly not because tribes don’t want to develop their resources; it’s just that they’re in an awkward position: Many lack the human capacity or capital to develop their own resources, leaving them, potentially, to be exploited by outside corporations and the feds, as has been done for decades. The bureaucratic red tape around resource development on tribal lands is especially thick, and tax incentives for renewable projects carry less weight for tribal projects because tribes aren’t taxed.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, wearing a straw cowboy hat and a pony tail, holds a bit of rock-star status for getting past that. His tribe’s land—situated atop the famous Bakken shale formation—has 800 oil wells with 30 rigs currently drilling, pushing it to the top of the oil-producing tribes in the nation. (He emphasizes that his tribe has strictly regulated drillers, and fines them substantially for violations.) The Navajo Nation has been an oil giant for decades, and president Ben Shelly made waves at the conference by demanding that the red tape be ripped down, threatening to leave the event if the assembled group of leaders didn’t come up with a plan to streamline the permitting process for resource development in Indian Country.
Shelly’s tribe derives a huge portion of its budget from fossil fuels, including some $48 million from oil and gas and $55 million from coal. “We are dependent upon coal,” Shelly says, and the feds created that dependency by foisting oil and coal leases on them in the first place. Now he says wants time to wean his tribe off the fuel by, yes, investing in it. He’s interested in buying the Navajo coal mine, which fuels the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico. The purchase would help keep both the mine and plant—providing a total of 800 jobs, mostly held by Navajos—alive, and would entail building a rail line south from the mine to the main BNSF Railway line to enable the mine to sell coal to distant markets. Shelly’s also fighting to keep the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., going, because of the revenue and jobs—critical given the 50+ percent unemployment rate—that it and the mine that supplies it provide.
Which is not to say that everyone at the conference was in a fossil fueled frenzy. A handful of gadflies were on hand to call out Shelly and his coal boosterism. Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi Chairman and founder of the Black Mesa Trust, was there, along with Milton Bluehouse Sr., former Navajo president. Both asked tough questions about the environmental and cultural impacts of coal. Glenn Manygoats, an engineer from Flagstaff, described the activists’ plan to replace Navajo Generating Station with a combined cycle, solar and natural gas power plant, with wind and hydropower backup, using natural gas from the Southern Ute Tribe’s wells. Jemez Pueblo, over which one of New Mexico’s big fires now looms, is making a second, more-ambitious attempt to build a utility-scale solar plant after the first one flopped. It’s relying on help from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute and its students, including some from Jemez.
Perhaps they can use the radical turbine designed by Johann Steinlechner, who stood out in the bolo-tied, dark-suited crowd with his big black cowboy hat, a Western sort of polo shirt with a graphic of a horse herd trampling across it, and a thick Austrian accent as incongruous as the wing tips he was wearing. He retired at 40, went on a tour of casinos, “living the high life,” until a friend was killed in Iraq “for da oil,” inspiring him to delve into the wind industry. Now he’s invented a giant turbine that lies flat—from the outside, it resembles a parking garage, while the turbine looks like a giant roulette wheel—reducing bird kills and aesthetic concerns.
For the time being, though, it appears that drill rigs will outnumber wind turbines in Indian Country. T. Greg Merrion, president of Merrion Oil and Gas, seemed ready to burst from his skin with enthusiasm over the riches in the mostly untapped Mancos Shale formation that underlies a huge swath of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona—and several Indian reservations. Though most of the land in question is already pocked with thousands of conventional oil and gas and coalbed methane wells, the hunt for Mancos Shale oil will require horizontal drilling and “very very large fracking jobs,” with each $5 to $10 million well requiring as much as 1 to 2 million pounds of sand and 5 to 10 million gallons of water. This is no Bakken, said Merrion, but “our future looks bright.”
As he said this, golf carts rolled by outside the wall-sized window of the room, along a path carved from the emerald green grassy hilltop. Sprinklers sprayed a glimmering stream into the smoky air all day long, in a desperate attempt to keep the desert at bay.
In one of those unscripted moments that such conferences can produce, Shelly worried that global warming and rising sea levels would force urban folk inland, and they'd seek out Indian land for their new homes. The only way to avoid such a fate, he said, would be to develop the land, and develop the economies. It's a bit far-fetched, and contradictory. But outsiders have long gone after the resources on tribal lands; it's only natural that the tribes would want to have some control over the onslaught, and to get as much from it as they can.
After all, said Monique LaChappa of the Campo Band of Mission Indians, a small tribe about a three-hour drive from the Coachella Valley, near San Diego, that has a 50 MW wind farm: “Whoever has the water and the energy, in the end, is going to win.”
Cross-posted from High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.
It’s springtime in the West (and almost summertime), that time of year when brooks babble abundantly with snowmelt; cute baby animals prance around; verdant meadows' blossoms cover tree branches like virgin snow; the temps cross triple-digits every day here in the desert—and it all goes up in flames.
Hoping to keep as close an eye on the burning West as I do, I scoured the Intertubes for the appropriate apps. Zillions of these things saturate the cyber world, and a lot of them are downright duds. But after many a download, I came up with a select few that I can recommend.
1. Weather Underground (FREE): This is my go-to weather app, for sure. The home screen has just about all the relevant information you could want: current conditions, a forecast for the next several days, a radar map, a “Find Your Love” ad, and a weather watch/warning icon that displays the entire warning at a touch.
The app also has an hourly forecast, which has proven to be fairly accurate. The map screen includes radar, but also a huge network of webcams that allow one to see the weather, just about anywhere, at any given moment, allowing you to track storms across the landscape.
2. Dark Sky ($3.99): OK, I’m a cheapskate, and usually just stick with the free apps. But a lot of folks out there in the tech world rave about Dark Sky, so I figured I’d check it out. The interface is nice and uncluttered. The home page simply tells you the current temperature and weather, and what’s likely to happen in the next hour. That’s it.
The forecast only goes out 24 hours, which is not enough for me. Since the weather hasn’t varied from hot and “clear” since I got the app, and may never do so in the future, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of the forecasts. The reason I forked out $4 for this was to play around with the crowdsourcing—it allows you to submit your own weather report, with a photo—a concept in which I’m interested. There’s no way, as far as I can tell, however, to look at the crowdsourced reports or photos from other users. They apparently just integrate your report into their report.
Earlier this year, I tried out Weathermob, which is entirely crowdsourced: The only reports they have are from the “mob” out there, which would be you and me. Great idea, but not great execution, in my opinion. It’s really more like a weather-oriented social media app than a weather information app, and as much about how you feel than about an accurate accounting of the current weather.
3. Dust Storm (FREE): Wanna know when the next haboob is going to hit? This app, developed by Northern Arizona University, will tell you, as well as give you helpful tips about what to do once the wall of dust envelopes you. I had hoped that it would allow me to track dust storms as they moved across the desert or something. But this thing’s way more bare-bones than that, doing little more than sending you current weather alerts for your area. And that’s about it. It could be helpful if you’re actually in the path of a dust storm, but not so great for the generally weather-obsessed.
1. Wildfire Pro ($4.99), Wildfire Home ($1.99), Wildfire Info (FREE): One needn’t search far to find a bevy of apps relating to wildfires. Finding one that’s useful is a bit harder, especially if you don’t want to pay for it. But Wildfire Info costs nothing and delivers what most of us want: a map and list showing all of the active, and some inactive, fires in the U.S., along with details and a perimeter map for each fire. I forked out for the Pro version, which also includes a fire/weather overlay map, weather/fire danger calculators, and other stuff that a firefighter might need, even if I don’t. It appears that the info is not updated quite as often as the Inciweb site for some fires, but it’s never more than 24 hours old for active fires.
2. Wildfire From American Red Cross (FREE): If you live in the wildland-urban interface, this might be the app for you. It allows you to monitor as many areas as you choose, and sends alerts when there are fires in those areas, along with a detailed description of the fire. It gives a check list of what to do as the fire approaches, a “toolkit” that can instantly turn your phone into a flashlight or strobe light, an immediate link to the Twitter feed for particular fires, and links to various social media to do a quick notification letting friends know you’re safe.
I also tried out Burnt Planet because, well, who could resist a name like that? Relying on data from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers aboard NASA satellites, it pinpoints “hotspots”—which could be wildfires or someone burning their field—around the world. It’s good for a broad, global overview, but that’s about it. There are no data about individual fires.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: These apps are just another waste of time thrown at us by the Internet, like our “friends” telling us on Facebook what they had for breakfast—a high-tech form of disaster voyeurism that draws us into our electronic devices and sucks us away from the real world. After all, I can figure out the weather simply by stepping outside. And if a fire’s approaching, I’ll see the plume of smoke long before my gadget sends me a warning.
If I bother to look up from my phone’s glowing, beckoning little screen, that is.
Cross-posted from High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.
On April 14, a Sunday, the Colorado ski resort Vail Mountain celebrated closing day in the invariable way: Skiers and boarders sported neon onesies and mullet wigs. The less modest squeezed into denim short shorts to flaunt calves and quads sculpted over a winter on the slopes. Alcohol was over-consumed and confiscated in lift lines. But even without it, the mood was buoyant: It was, unusually, a 13-inch powder day. By Wednesday, 24 more inches had fallen.
Skier spirits were still soaring the following Sunday, when Vail hosted Closing Day: The Sequel. Pleading for a third closing day via Facebook, one powder hound goaded: “I dare you to close more times than Brett Favre has retired.”
Colorado snowpacks—which supply the Colorado River, a crucial water source for millions of Westerners, including those of us here in the Coachella Valley—began April at 72 percent of their average heft. Thanks to storms and frigid temperatures, instead of starting to melt as they typically do, north and central Colorado snowpacks ballooned last month. In late April, Old Man Winter was forcing Major League Baseball cancellations in relatively temperate Denver. Boulder set a record with more than 4 feet of snow that month. By May 1, the statewide snowpack weighed in at 83 percent of average.
In the end, though, the spring storms were momentary distractions from the Southwest’s real weather story: The region’s major river basins, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, are still mired in a decade-plus-long drought. It’s often said that persistent drought is the “new normal” here thanks to global warming, but that’s something of a misnomer. Using tree rings, scientists have found that the region has experienced droughts lasting decades, and even centuries, long before humans began meddling with the climate. The aridity we’ve experienced of late isn’t any more extreme than it was then. But the heat is—and it bears a human fingerprint. The combination leads scientists to call it a “global-change-type drought,” meaning more of the same can be expected in the Southwest as extreme heat exacerbates the region’s characteristic dry spells.
Precipitation in the Rio Grande Basin is expected to decline by more than 2 percent at midcentury. It’s highly uncertain how climate change will impact the moisture that falls on the upper Colorado, if much at all. But dust-on-snow events have already caused snowmelt to happen earlier in the year, a trend that reduces overall runoff by about 5 percent, as more water is evaporated into the atmosphere from plants and soils. That’s a significant amount for overstretched water supplies, and warmer temperatures are likely to intensify the effect.
Troublingly, at the same time, water demand is on an upward trajectory.
This spring, the effects of hot, dry year upon hot, dry year are already beginning to make themselves painfully plain. That’s especially true in New Mexico. Seventy-seven percent of the state is suffering “extreme” drought, which is only a little better than “exceptional” drought—as bad as it gets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year ago, most of the state was in drought of the “moderate” variety. Even so, more than 30 miles of the Pecos River, in southeastern New Mexico, went dry last summer. This year, Carlsbad farmers are pressing the state to shut off Roswell farmers’ groundwater wells, which they say are illegally draining the Pecos of water that belongs to them.
Drought has a way of bringing simmering conflict to full boil, and it did so concurrently on the lower Rio Grande. “The river here looks a lot like the Sahara Desert,” says Phil King, water engineer for south-central New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which wets the chile and onion fields and pecan orchards around Las Cruces. Though Rio Grande Basin snowpacks were 67 percent of average in early April, runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir through July was conservatively forecast at a pitiful 5 percent of normal, and after a decade of drought, the reservoir sits 90 percent empty. The “river” below it is a sand channel and will remain that way until June 1, when releases begin, and will dry up again in early July when they end. Farmers are surviving on groundwater, but it’s a safety net of diminishing returns. Wells are beginning to go dry or produce brackish water, and irrigators downstream in Texas have asked the Supreme Court to shut them off for the same reason Carlsbad wants Roswell’s pumps idled. The system is dangerously near a breaking point.
“It’s the most critically short year we’ve ever had in the history of the Rio Grande Project,” a series of dams and reservoirs in New Mexico and Texas, King laments. “Each successive year of short water gets worse and worse.”
That principle holds true on the Colorado River, though things aren’t nearly so dire. Since 2000, demand for water has outpaced supply. Reservoir storage has made up the difference, ensuring the states below Lake Mead—Arizona, Nevada and here in California—get their full annual supplies. (Ironically, upstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell—where most of the water supply originates, but storage is less formidable—water-users have experienced shortages.) But the cushion the wet ’80s and ’90s provided is thinning. Lake Powell, the basin’s second largest reservoir, was 85 percent full in 2000. Today, it’s about 45 percent full. And this year, runoff in most of the Upper Basin is forecast lower than you might expect given the late boost to snowpacks, because after a dry year—in 2012, Upper Colorado snowpacks topped out below 70 percent of normal—the landscape has cottonmouth: Parched soils take a cut of the snowmelt that would otherwise fill rivers. After snowmelt, the water line of Lake Powell will likely sit below even last year’s modest peak.
“The more severe the drying with climate change, the more likely we will see shortages and perhaps empty reservoirs despite our best efforts,” said Ken Nowak in 2009, upon the release of a study he co-authored on whether smart management could mitigate the risk of water shortages on the Colorado River. It found that the risk of the Colorado’s big reservoirs emptying in the next 15 years or so was slight. Still, Nowak’s cautionary note remains as true today as it was then: “The important thing is not to get lulled into a sense of security with the near-term resiliency of the Colorado River Basin water supply. If we do, we’re in for a rude awakening.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
On six evenings—from Friday, May 24, through Wednesday, May 29, including all of the Memorial Day weekend—three bright planets will form a “trio,” fitting into a 5-degree field of view, low in the west-northwest sky at dusk.
Ordinary binoculars, with magnifications of 7- to 10-power, will take in all three planets—Venus, Mercury and Jupiter—simultaneously. Due to the differences in the speeds of the planets in their orbits around the sun, the arrangement of the planets will change from one night to the next.
Illustrations of the nightly arrangements of the planets appear on the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, available online at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar.
Saturn will also be visible, well up in the southeastern sky on the dates of the trio, May 24-29. A telescope will easily show Saturn’s rings.
On Friday, May 24, the first evening of the trio, Venus is within 4 degrees (to the lower right) of Jupiter, while Mercury passes within 1.4 degrees to Venus’ upper right. (As a side note: The full moon tonight will be the brightest of the year.)
For the next several evenings, while the planets are in their tightest gatherings, it will be easy to notice changes in their arrangement. If you observe at the same stage of twilight each evening—for example, 30 minutes after sunset, or 45 minutes after sunset—you’ll notice the distant, slow-moving outer planet Jupiter dropping about 0.7 degrees lower each night, while the brighter inner planet Venus—on the far side of its orbit and gaining on Earth—climbs about 0.2 degree higher each night. Speedy Mercury, during the six evenings of the trio, climbs 0.6 to 0.8 degrees higher each night.
On Sunday, May 26, the evening of the most compact gathering, two planets appear within 2 degrees of Venus (the brightest planet): Jupiter to Venus’ upper left, and Mercury to Venus’ upper right. On the same evening, Mercury passes 2.4 degrees to Jupiter’s upper right.
On Monday, May 27, the compact gathering is still striking as brilliant Venus moves 1.2 degrees to the right of Jupiter, while Mercury stands 2.4 degrees above Venus, and 2.7 degrees to the upper right of Jupiter.
On Tuesday evening, May 28, the two brightest planets appear closest to each other, as Venus passes just more than 1 degree to the upper right of Jupiter. Find Mercury 2.8 degrees above Venus.
By Wednesday, May 29, the planets will have reversed their order of a week earlier. Now Mercury is the highest (within 3.3 degrees above Venus), and Jupiter is the lowest (1.7 degrees below Venus). This is the last evening all three planets fit within a 5-degree field. However, the three planets will remain in a nearly straight line for several more days as they spread farther apart.
Within the first few days of June, Jupiter will be gone, as it sets ever earlier in bright twilight before its conjunction on the far side of the sun on June 19.
Mercury will linger about 5 degrees to the upper left of Venus from June 3-10, before heading down to pass within 2 degrees lower left of Venus on June 19. Mercury will fade from view within a few days later, as it heads between the Earth and sun and becomes more backlit.
Venus will keep us company at dusk until early January 2014. In November and December 2013, Venus will attain its highest position in the evening sky this time around, with its greatest brilliancy, and will display its visually most-interesting crescent phases.
Saturn remains in the evening sky, passing through the south at dusk in June, and sinking into the west-southwest twilight glow in October. Before then, Venus will pass 3.5 degrees to the lower left of the ringed planet on Sept. 17 and 18.
Observing the trio from the Coachella Valley
Any place with a good view of sunset is fine for viewing the planet-gathering on the evenings of May 24-29. Among the best places in the Coachella Valley are those with a view of Banning Pass toward the west-northwest.
Start looking for the planets early, low in the west-northwest, where twilight is brightest, within 30 minutes after sunset. By then, brilliant Venus will be visible, closely accompanied by Jupiter. Continue until at least 45 minutes after sunset. As the sky darkens, Mercury will also be seen. Sunset in the western Coachella Valley occurs at 7:47 p.m. on May 24, and at 7:50 p.m. on May 29.
An astronomer will be on hand to assist folks in viewing the compact gathering of planets from 8:15 to 8:40 p.m. on the following evenings. Bring binoculars for the best views. After following the trio of Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury, we’ll use a telescope to view Saturn’s rings:
Saturday, May 25: In the northern part of Palm Springs, meet in Victoria Park on Via Miraleste just south of Vista Del Monte Elementary School at 8:15 p.m.
Sunday, May 26: In Idyllwild, location to be announced.
Monday, May 27: In the northern part of Cathedral City, meet on the west side of San Eljay Avenue just north of 30th Avenue at 8:15 p.m. That’s across San Eljay from the southwest entrance of James Workman Middle School. The location has a fine view toward Banning Pass.
How unusual is this gathering of planets?
The compact gathering of Venus-Jupiter-Mercury low in the west-northwest at dusk is a rare event especially worthy of observation. There will be only 14 other trios of planets (when all fit within a 5-degree field) before 2050. Of these, the next one, of Venus-Mars-Jupiter in the morning sky in October 2015, will be the most impressive, more 30 degrees up in dawn mid-twilight. With daylight saving time in effect in October, planet-gazers won’t have to get up very early to see that wonderful gathering in autumn of 2015.
For the next evening trio as good as this month’s gathering, with the planets clustering more than 4 degrees up in the middle of twilight, we’ll have to wait until September 2040.
So take advantage of this weekend’s opportunity to see three planets gather. Many years will pass before planet-watchers can enjoy as favorable a view of a similar event in the evening sky.
Robert Victor is the former as staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University.
Hundreds of attendees came out to peruse the offerings of dozens of local authors at the Palm Springs Writers Guild's annual Desert Writers Expo.
The event—held at the Rancho Mirage Public Library on Wednesday, March 20—included about 42 authors who have penned books on topics ranging from "cyber thriller" to travel to past-life regression.
The Independent stopped by and took a few snapshots of the event. Enjoy.
Temps in the 40s and 50s? Who cares?
The sun was out on Sunday, Jan. 13, so that meant the crowds still came to the College of the Desert Alumni Association's Street Fair. Several hundred vendors sold everything from children's toilet seats to handcrafted art to socks—just as they do every weekend.
The College of the Desert Street Fair takes place every Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (October through May) or 7 a.m. to noon (June through September). Fun fact: It'll also be open on Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 18.
The fair takes place at College of the Desert, at the intersection of Fred Waring Drive and Monterrey Avenue in Palm Desert. For more information, call 636-7957, or visit www.codstreetfair.net. And, of course, scroll down to see more pics!