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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Environment

06 Dec 2013
As I wrote last spring, the pumas of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains are dying—slowly, but quite literally—for lack of genetic diversity. Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator. That’s why it mattered so much that, during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range. When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they’re back, we know: This death…
07 Nov 2013
The spring of 2011 was wetter than usual in the Pacific Northwest. A huge snow year was followed by rain, and during the peak, runoff water was ripping through the hydroelectric turbines on Bonneville Power Administration’s dams. Spring is also the windy season, and hundreds of new turbines in the region were pumping juice into the electrical grid. Even when substantial electricity exports to California were taken into account, the combined wind and hydropower plants were generating more carbon-free electricity than the region’s residents and businesses could consume. But too much of a good thing is, well, too much. In order to keep the grid from being overloaded, the BPA forced the wind farms to shut down, bashing their bottom line. Controversy and lawsuits ensued: Both wind-farmers and salmon advocates would have preferred it if the BPA had spilled the water over the dams, rather than run it through the…
20 Sep 2013
Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group—the D.C.-based nonprofit that helps the green-conscious decide which sunscreen to wear and what to wash their dishes with—was rallying California followers to contact state legislators in support of a bill to regulate fracking. The sun was about to set on California’s legislative session without a single new law on the issue, despite an industry poised for potential boom on the Monterey Shale—1,750 square miles that extend from Central to Southern California containing two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale reserves. Two proposed bills had already died; one that would have imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing got just 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly. Only Senate Bill 4 still had a chance; it had cleared the Senate and was headed for the Assembly. And though some moratorium-or-bust environmentalists thought the bill didn’t go far enough, EWG—whose staff had worked for four years on the…
16 Sep 2013
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If you live in a California apartment or condo complex that doesn’t offer a recycling program, your complex is probably breaking the law. It’s been more than a year since July 1, 2012, when a new mandatory recycling program for businesses and multi-family residential dwellings went into effect. Under the mandate, which was passed as Assembly Bill 341 in 2011, all businesses and complexes that produce at least four cubic yards of solid waste per week, and all multi-family residential places with at least five units, must implement a recycling program. (A standard dumpster is three cubic yards, and if it is emptied more than once a week, the mandatory recycling law applies.) In total, the law targets 470,000 businesses and apartment complexes statewide, making green living a requirement for many—and mandating a hefty job for towns and counties given the task of enforcing it. AB 341 also declared that…
08 Sep 2013
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…
27 Aug 2013
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The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park. The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened. By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines. A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right,…
26 Aug 2013
Editor’s Note: On July 26, the Independent published a piece on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, a project by Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. The goal of their road trip was to examine how people across the country are adapting their lives due to climate change. On July 21 and 22, Howard and Goldstein spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s their story on the park. To read about their entire summer-long journey, visit adaptationstories.com. The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways. —Joshua Tree National Park visitors’ map Sweltering July is the off-season at Joshua Tree…
16 Aug 2013
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Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back. “On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards. The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the…
09 Aug 2013
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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…
06 Aug 2013
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For nearly six hours last week, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee gathered to hear comments about a bill that could overhaul the EPA’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals. Hailed by a panelist from West Virginia as “the best, perhaps last, chance to reform” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is the first such proposal to have won bipartisan support since the original law passed in 1976—and thus has a chance at becoming law. However, critics say that, as currently drafted, the CSIA could actually be detrimental to the cause of regulating toxins. California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the attorneys general from eight other states to submit a letter on July 31 to the Senate committee, raising concerns that the new bill will make it impossible for states to continue regulating chemicals themselves. They worry that existing regulations…