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Environment

12 Oct 2015
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When John Fleck began covering water (among other things) in 1995 for New Mexico’s Albuquerque Journal, he assumed he’d be writing stories about dried-out wells and cracked mud. After all, as a Los Angeles native who grew up in a suburb that replaced an irrigated citrus orchard, he’d grown up reading books like A River No More, by Philip Fradkin, and Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner—essential reading for water nerds. As a journalist, he went looking for the kinds of stories these authors promised: stories of “conflict, crisis and doom.” But he found a very different narrative, and after nearly 30 years spent covering some of the most pressing water issues in the West, Fleck is now writing a book, which is due to be published by Island Press next year. He recently talked about the dilemma water journalists face these days—and why the West’s water problems aren’t as bad…
08 Sep 2015
Aaron Mair in May became the first African-American president in the Sierra Club’s 123-year history. Mair, most recently a research analyst with the New York State Department of Health, has been an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land for decades. One of Mair’s primary goals as president is to address critical socio-economic issues often neglected by the conservation community. An expert in spatial epidemiology with a degree in Southwest Asian and North African studies from New York’s Binghamton University, Mair is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. Mair is known as an advocate for thriving natural landscapes, not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives. At a time when the Sierra Club struggles to remain relevant to the cultural interests…
21 Aug 2015
On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts. “With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said. However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted. Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent. A bit more conservation success was realized by…
11 Aug 2015
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Aspen trees are the rock stars of the tree world. They have a bold fashion sense, gilding the mountains in gold each fall. And they engage in risky behavior: In the competitive world of plant biology, their strategy is to grow fast and die young. Juniper trees, which grow slowly, invest much of their carbon in building strong vascular tissue; aspen trees instead put carbon toward growing tall quickly. Yet the two trees adopt the same strategy when drought hits: Unlike pines, they leave their stomata open. Those tiny pores on their leaves allow the trees to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and photosynthesize. But the atmosphere demands water in return, which escapes through the tree's stomata. During drought, the process creates extra tension in the plant's tissue, since the trees have less water to give, and the parched atmosphere is especially thirsty. This is when the juniper's…
21 Jul 2015
If you tuned into the debate on a drought bill in the House earlier this month, you would have gotten a bleak picture of the agriculture industry in a state that fills the produce aisles in much of the rest of the country. You also would have heard the water shortage blamed on radical environmentalists who sacrificed farms to protect fish in California, and the failure to build any new dams over the last 40 years. The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, written to correct those problems, passed 245-176 on Thursday, July 16, with only five Democrats joining nearly all Republicans to support it. “We’ve watched our lawns turn brown; we’ve watched our water bills skyrocket; we’ve watched businesses shut down; we’ve watched thousands of farm workers thrown out of work,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We will not solve our…
14 Jul 2015
The water-energy nexus spans the world of electricity generation and water movement, particularly in Western states. It takes water to produce steam for coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, and they usually need water to cool them down. Huge amounts of electricity are needed to pump water across the desert; the Southern Nevada Water Authority is Nevada’s biggest user of electricity, and the Central Arizona Project relies heavily on the Navajo Generating Station to keep water moving through the canals. Surely the most obvious link between water and energy, and between climate and electricity generation, though, is found at the West’s numerous hydroelectric generation stations, and here in California—deep in a nasty drought—we’re feeling that link in a painful way. The relationship is pretty simple: More water in a reservoir or river equals more potential for generating electricity by releasing that water to turn turbines. All of California’s reservoirs…
07 Jul 2015
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When the Hoover Dam was built in 1936, it was the largest concrete structure—and the largest hydropower plant—in the world, a massive plug in the Colorado River, as high as a 60-story building. For nearly 80 years, the dam has been producing dependable, cheap electricity for millions of people in the Southwest, but as water levels in Lake Mead continue to drop, the future of “the greatest dam in the world” is more precarious than it ever has been, and utilities across the desert—including local power provider Southern California Edison—are taking notice. Lake Mead, the 112-mile reservoir created by the dam, was recently projected to hit 1,074.73 feet above sea level, the lowest it has been since it was filled in 1937. Thanks to a 16-year drought and serious over-allocation, Lake Mead is now just 37 percent full. Although a “miracle May” of rain means the water level will rise…
17 Jun 2015
A Senate committee has voted to overturn a new rule that defines which waters and wetlands the federal government can protect from bulldozing and pollution. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the bill, 11-9, on a party-line vote with only Republicans voting in favor. A new federal rule would protect tributaries, no matter how seldom they hold water. The vote came just two weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the new clean water rule, which would protect tributaries and wetlands, no matter how seldom they hold water. As previously reported, it also would offer protection for certain regional waters, such as vernal pools in California. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill to block that rule was part of his mission to prevent “EPA regulatory overreach.” But California Democrat Barbara Boxer,…
13 Jun 2015
The oil and gas industry has long claimed that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. But a new, major Environmental Protection Agency assessment has determined that fracking and another widely used drilling technique called horizontal drilling have the potential to contaminate drinking water. The study also identified the greatest risks to drinking water, including spills, water withdrawals, wastewater releases and migration of gas and oil underground. The nearly 1,000-page EPA study—a draft awaiting public comment and scientific review—found no evidence that “widespread” pollution of drinking water has occurred from these drilling techniques, which have driven a renaissance of the U.S. oil and gas industries over recent years. The number of known cases of well contamination and other impacts to drinking water sources was small compared to the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new wells that were drilled and hydraulically fractured between 2011 and 2014, and the…
02 Jun 2015
The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a long-awaited rule in late May that defines which streams and wetlands will be protected under the federal Clean Water Act. “Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “This rule will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.” Congressional Republicans and some industry groups attacked the rule as an overreach by the administration that would hurt businesses and job growth. But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said given the impacts of climate change on water resources, such as drought in the West, “it’s more important than ever to protect the clean water that we have.” Significantly for the arid West, the rule protects…