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Environment

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…
06 Jun 2014
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Wayne Hare’s 11 years as a backcountry ranger included stints at Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks and, most recently, at the Grand Junction, Colo., field office of the Bureau of Land Management. Hare grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, where, he says, “As far as I knew, we were about the only black family in the state.” His father took the kids hiking, camping and biking, giving his son a love of the outdoors that would shape his life. Four years in the Marines were followed by two decades at a big computer corporation; then Hare went to work for Outward Bound in Massachusetts and directed outdoor programs at Dartmouth College. Whenever he led students through the woods, he was struck by what he didn’t see—“other brown people.” So he began writing about non-white Western adventurers and working with the National Park Service to create programs…
03 Jun 2014
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In 2010, Ed Hendrycks, a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, was examining his museum’s collection of caprellids with José Guerra-Garcia, a researcher visiting from Seville, when the Spanish scientist noticed an unusual specimen. One of the caprellids—tiny crustaceans whose slender, translucent bodies have earned them the nickname “ghost shrimp” or “skeleton shrimp”—didn’t look like the others in the collection. To a layperson, the odd creature, smaller than a grain of rice, would have been indistinguishable from other members of its genus, Liropus. But to the scientists’ trained eyes, the tiny projections jutting off the animal’s body segments made it distinct. Furthermore, while past species of Liropus had been found in Mediterranean, Japanese and African waters, this one came from Santa Catalina Island, 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. A diver had collected the specimens in the 1970s, in a submerged cave 30 feet below the…
09 May 2014
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In 2013, New Belgium Brewing, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based purveyor of libations like Fat Tire and Ranger, whipped up exactly 792,292 barrels of beer. Considering each barrel is capable of filling somewhere in the range of 60 six-packs, that production made for plenty of happy drinkers (including, on more than one occasion, yours truly). But New Belgium also satisfied non-human consumers, too, by selling 64 million pounds of “spent grain”—the ingredients left behind after the brewing process—to beef and dairy farmers, who feed the porridge-like substance to their cows. “For hundreds of years, brewers have had this great symbiosis with farmers,” says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s director of media relations. “It’s a very elegant system.” While many operations give away their used grains, selling the stuff can be a lucrative sideline: Spent grain goes for about $50 per ton nationwide, and total annual sales add up to around $160 million…
06 May 2014
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Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves. The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.” This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic. This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out…
05 May 2014
The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding. Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy? This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District. This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority…
21 Mar 2014
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When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it. The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross. But this estuary did the opposite: As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out. “Crossing these rivers by boat or…
06 Mar 2014
Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California. Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years. “Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management. Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could…
24 Jan 2014
As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?” To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River. Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that…
30 Dec 2013
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As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters. It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land. I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way. “I’ll answer some questions!” Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of…