Four Environmental Fights on the 2020 Ballot
By Tara Lohan
Maybe we can blame COVID-19 for making it hard to hit the streets and gather signatures to get initiatives on state ballots. But this year there are markedly fewer environmental issues up for vote than in 2018.
While the number of initiatives may be down, there's no less at stake. Voters will still have to make decisions about wildlife, renewable energy, oil companies and future elections.
Here's the rundown of what's happening where.
Return of an Apex Predator
Wolves are on the ballot in Colorado. Proposition 114 would require the state's Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan by 2023 for the reintroduction and management of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in areas west of the continental divide.
Gray wolves once roamed across the western United States but were mostly eradicated by the 1930s. Slowly efforts are being made to bring them back. The reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1996 has been hailed as a rewilding success.
"The argument is that by putting back in wolves — an apex predator that has evolved alongside their prey species — we're putting things back into ecological balance," University of Colorado Boulder ecology professor Joanna Lambert told The Revelator in a February interview about the science behind wolf reintroductions.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Colorado Farm Bureau are two of the top donors to the opposition groups.
The measure does include compensation for losses of livestock caused by gray wolves.
"What we're all hoping for is a landscape where we can coexist with the species that were originally here, but also acknowledging that humans need to make a living and that the costs of this initiative will be felt by some folks more than others," Lambert said.
Confusion Over Clean Energy
In Nevada voters will take a second swing at a constitutional amendment to require that electric utilities source 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. Voters passed the same measure, Question 6, in 2018, but state law requires that constitutional amendments be passed in two consecutive even-numbered election years.
More clean energy for the state may seem good. But there's concern that enshrining 50% renewables by 2030 in the state's constitution isn't that ambitious and it will make it harder to continue the push for 100% renewables in the future. To do that would be another constitutional amendment that would again take four years and two consecutive ballot wins to move the needle.
Also, the state is already on its way to the same renewable goal.
A legislative effort to achieve 50% renewables by 2030 — but with a slightly different timeline for the increments to get there — was signed into law in April 2019 by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. Renewable advocates hope the state will do even better than that benchmark, but passing Question 6 would make it harder.
Paying a Fair Share
If California's Proposition 15 passes, commercial and industrial properties will need to start paying taxes based on their current market value, instead of paying based on the purchase price from decades prior (which stems from Proposition 13 passed back in 1978). The initiative would exempt agricultural land, small businesses, renters and homeowners.
Reassessing the worth of large commercial properties could bring in between $7.5 billion and $12 billion a year that would go toward supporting local governments, school districts and community colleges.
Most of the opposition has come from big business and anti-taxation groups.
The California Teachers Association Issues PAC is the biggest supporter of the effort, but a number of environmental groups have also endorsed the measure, which would likely see oil companies and other big industrial polluters having to kick in more money.
"The oil industry has used Prop. 13 loopholes to evade tens of millions of dollars in property taxes," wrote Victoria Lome, California legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Companies like Chevron, Exxon, Phillips 66, Shell and Tosco are paying taxes based on assessments taken prior to 2000. Prop. 15 would end this hidden subsidy to dirty energy."
Oil companies could stand to lose in Alaska, too. Voters there will weigh in on Ballot Measure 1, which would increase taxes on big oil producers (those that have produced more than 400 million barrels overall or 40,000 barrels a day in the past year) operating in three established oil fields in the North Slope.
Taking the Wind Out of the Sails of the Electoral College
Colorado's Proposition 113 isn't about environmental issues directly but could cause big shifts in how presidential elections are run and what states and issues are considered important.
The initiative would add Colorado to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. That effort is aimed at ensuring the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote wins the election. It doesn't eliminate the Electoral College, but it saps its power.
The compact needs states representing at least 270 Electoral College votes to go into effect. It's currently at 196.
If Colorado's proposition is passed, and if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact eventually gets enough votes to go into effect, then Colorado's nine electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, not to the one who gets the most votes in Colorado.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
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