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Environment

06 Mar 2015
Last fall, when California voters were about to go to the polls to weigh in on a complex proposition to improve the state’s water situation, some environmental groups balked. Though the bill—Proposition 1, to authorize the raising of $7.5 billion on the bond market—promised money for better parks, more wildlife habitat and the restoration of urbanized rivers (like maybe the one that runs through Los Angeles), it also set aside $2.7 billion for “water storage projects” that have a “public benefit.” It was never quite clear what those words meant. Would the $2.7 billion become seed money for two new dams on the state agricultural industry’s wish list? Or would it go toward groundwater storage projects that keep water closer to home? The bill was written to be “tunnel neutral,” meaning it wouldn’t automatically pay for a pair of canals that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build, to draw water…
10 Feb 2015
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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski opened her first legislative meeting as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by using talks on the Keystone XL pipeline to hint at a broader agenda. The statement helps inaugurate the political season, with a new Congress controlled by Republicans, many of whom aim to upset President Obama’s climate and environment agendas. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee—which legislates energy development, mining, public lands, water and other resources—is a key front where that fight could take place, especially as far as Western lands are concerned, so Murkowski’s comments are worth reading for the upcoming season. Putting Keystone XL aside, Murkowski, a longtime member of the committee who is considered one of the more progressive Republicans in Congress, told a Jan. 8 business meeting that she sees an opportunity “to embrace all aspects of the energy sector,” including nuclear-waste disposal, efficient energy…
08 Dec 2014
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The current House of Representatives may be one of the most environmentally unfriendly legislatures in U.S. history, but at least its lawmakers know how to make a bill sound good. As a farewell gesture to the 113th House, we’ve rounded up some of its most egregious measures and translated them to reveal what they’d actually mean for public lands and wildlife in the West. For the record, all of these are currently stalled in the Senate. Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America That Works Act H.R. 4899. Introduced by Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; passed June 26, 2014. What It Claims To decrease foreign energy dependency and lower gas prices “for the American family.” What It Would Actually Do Open the Arctic to mandatory annual petroleum leasing and nullify the historic 2013 decision to set aside key parts of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska for migratory shorebirds, polar bears and…
11 Nov 2014
Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that 67 percent of California voters approved last week, will provide millions of dollars for projects everyone likes. It sets aside funds to strip pollutants from valuable urban aquifers; it will bring in money to repair aging pipes that leach pollutants into drinking water. Locally, the Salton Sea could get part of the $500 million the measure authorizes for restoring damaged ecosystems. So what about it makes many environmental groups so mad? The Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, and San Francisco Baykeeper all took an explicit stand against Proposition 1, as did virtually every fisherman’s advocacy group in the state. The Sierra Club, though it officially opposed the legislative bill that produced the ballot measure, remainedneutral in theory, but the group’s position statement announcing neutrality also used the word hate. Chelsea Tu, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity,…
27 Oct 2014
So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end. Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1. “As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it. “The bad news is there are people who didn’t…
15 Sep 2014
The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl lives in the desert scrub and mesquite woodlands of central and southern Arizona, Texas and Mexico. It is a small bird with swaths of cream-colored feathers, measuring about 7 inches long and weighing a little more than 2 ounces. It eats insects, rodents and lizards, some of them as big as the owls themselves. It nests in the holes woodpeckers leave in cacti and trees. And it has now become an emblem in a fight over the meaning of a five-word phrase that has dogged the 1973 Endangered Species Act the way “waters of the United States” has muddied the Clean Water Act: If a species, like the pygmy owl, is at risk of being lost in “a significant portion of its range,” does it merit protection, even if the same species is holding on elsewhere? Or do the inhabitants of that “significant portion” need…
12 Sep 2014
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Most researchers studying grizzly bears are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or university ecology departments, not biotechnology companies. Still, Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the Southern California-based biotech firm Amgen, spends his days in a lab in Pullman, Wash., analyzing bear blood. He leaves the actual touching of the 700-pound predator to the capable handlers and their trusty anesthesia. Corbit chuckles as he reflects on his work: “I guess it’s not logical to study bears with a biotech job.” Maybe it is logical, though, judging from a study he recently published, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Bear Center. With the goal of developing a better long-term treatment for human obesity, Corbit strayed from the status quo of testing mice and rats, which aren’t great predictors of human response. Instead of trying medications on rodents, he decided to examine the genetics of grizzlies and their metabolism. The…
04 Jul 2014
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I first wrote about Pacific sea stars falling victim to a mysterious disease last fall for High Country News. The starfish are turning into goo and dying, and the aptly-named “starfish wasting syndrome” has not—as scientists hoped—subsided on its own. It’s gotten much, much worse. How much worse, you ask? Well, from the get-go, this iteration of starfish wasting was more widespread and severe than previous outbreaks, which have historically spiked during warm-water El Niño years and then quickly subsided. By the time it was identified late last summer, the disease had already caused localized die-offs of up to 95 percent of ochre sea stars in Santa Cruz, and was spotted as far north as Alaska. Tens of thousands of starfish simply wasted away and died, literally before researchers’ eyes. Yet it seemed for a while that Washington and Oregon would be spared. This May, just a little more than…
24 Jun 2014
Sustainability. It’s a word that often comes up when discussing the Salton Sea—but what does “sustainability” truly mean? On Saturday, May 24, environmental leaders and residents gathered at Second Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Thermal's Desert Mirage High School to learn about the sustainability plan being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as many other environmental issues. Bruce Wilcox, environmental manager at the IID, presented the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative at the event organized by Comité Civico del Valle and Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. This initiative seeks to develop more than 1,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, with solar, wind and biofuel projects to follow in phases following the initial geothermal project. According to the IID website, the Salton Sea possesses the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the nation. The agency's leaders believe the initiative would allow for the development of new jobs…
10 Jun 2014
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At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water. Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers. In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms. In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and…