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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Environment

01 Jun 2016
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Christina Benton loves the road. She loves it so much that she took her three home-schooled kids on a 64-day, 5,704-mile RV journey across the country in the middle of the winter. Starting in January in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C., they visited dozens of national parks—all the way to Santa Monica, Calif., and back. Why national parks? To deeply educate Joshua, 13; Averie, 10; and Nathaniel, 6, Benton says, and to raise awareness about a serious problem the parks face—a lack of visitors who look like her family. Before her trip, Benton, whose alter ego is Nomadic Mama of 3, contacted regional directors in the National Park Service to express her concern about the lack of diversity she saw during her travels. She said the directors shared her concern, and referred her to several people and organizations working on the issue. One was Teresa Baker of African American Explorations,…
30 May 2016
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Portland, Ore.’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through. Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge—dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers—ospreys fly into view. The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here; chemicals and pesticides were manufactured; petroleum spilled; sewage and slaughterhouse waste was allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks. Among the…
13 May 2016
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For 62 years, Teresa Flores lived in a small house across from a railyard in San Bernardino. The smell of diesel fuel permeated the neighborhood, and dust coated cars and driveways. Her neighbors suffered from skin rashes, asthma, cancer and maladies no one could seem to identify. Flores finally moved to the other side of town. Though she can breathe easier now, she knows there’s no real escape: San Bernardino and Riverside counties have some of the state’s worst air quality, blanketed as they are by the smog that blows eastward from Los Angeles and gets trapped by the San Bernardino Mountains. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is responsible for regulating much of that pollution, from stationary sources like oil refineries and power plants. With the state Air Resources Board, it also helps inform policy decisions by assessing public health in communities around refineries, factories and railyards. In…
10 May 2016
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Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted. For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet. “There’s…
13 Apr 2016
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The 90-mile drive south from Silicon Valley to Watsonville, Calif., runs mostly through coastal forest, with intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean. Then the road turns inland, and the redwoods and briny air give way to the aromatic strawberry fields of the Pajaro Valley. Though the two communities are geographically close, they feel very far apart. Silicon Valley is an overcrowded center of technological innovation, made up of mostly white, affluent residents, with a median income of more than $90,000. The quiet town of Watsonville is 81 percent Hispanic, with a median income of $44,000, and is culturally and economically defined by its strawberry crop. Jennifer Magana and her older sister grew up watching their parents work the fields for major companies like Driscoll’s. They came home exhausted every night, only to get up and do it again the next morning. Magana, now a high school senior, has no desire…
04 Mar 2016
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On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the building, shuttered in 2010. “I was on the school board; the grass was green; kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.” Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry, and farm-related jobs…
20 Feb 2016
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When the California Coastal Commission fired its executive director, Charles Lester, late on Wednesday, Feb. 10, most members of the audience in the community center in Morro Bay were left distraught. For seven hours, people from across California had taken the podium to declare their support for Lester. There were representatives from indigenous communities and organizations for underserved Hispanic populations in Los Angeles, former commissioners, and at least one resort executive. Almost 1,000 people gathered, nearly all of them in favor of Lester. But in a vote of 7-5, commissioners fired Lester—and they did so without offering any real explanation to the public. Many fear Lester’s firing could mean increased pressure from developers, closed-off beaches and environmental damage to a quintessential Western landmark—one that runs from the surf breaks of San Diego to the wild cliffs of Big Sur and beyond. Since the California Coastal Commission was established about 45…
03 Feb 2016
At the beginning of February last year, South Lake Tahoe in California was nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit—almost 20 degrees above its historic average. At that time, the drought had been dragging along for four years, and chair lifts at nearby ski resorts were swaying over barren slopes. Representatives from the California Department of Water Resources called the Sierra Nevada snowpack “dismally meager,” at only 23 percent of normal. This year, it’s a drastically different story. January has been California’s best month for the snowpack since 2011, and the state’s measurements are at 127 percent of normal. Still, it’s still not enough to make up the deficit from the persisting drought in the state. It is enough, though, to keep ski resorts running and reservoirs in the state from drying up. Above-normal snowpack measurements are tracking for most of the West, too. (See the chart below.) The season was off to…
26 Jan 2016
After one of the many attempts to plug the methane-leaking well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles suburbs, the thing erupted like a geyser, spewing not only natural gas, but also the muddy slurry that company technicians had pumped into the well. It reminded me of a phenomenon that disrupted small-town life in southwest Colorado in the 1990s, during a coalbed methane boom. An abandoned natural gas well, drilled decades earlier, would periodically erupt, shooting natural gas, water and debris some 200 feet into the air. Locals dubbed it Old Faithful. Aliso Canyon is a bit like a gigantic, catastrophic version of the geyser gas well of yore. Since the leak was first noticed in late October, some 4.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas have leaked into the atmosphere. Most of that is methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, along with smaller amounts…
12 Jan 2016
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Last summer, as California was struggling through its most severe year of the recent drought, two California members of Congress unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. David Valadao introduced, separately and respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide. Both seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for…