A hiker in Provo, Utah filmed a frightening encounter he had with a cougar as the big cat followed him for roughly six minutes.
The video, which has gone viral, was filmed by Kyle Burgess who was on a 10-mile run in Slate Canyon when he spotted small animals in the distance. He took out his camera to record them, thinking they were bobcats, but soon realized he had made a mistake when a large cougar (also called mountain lion) jumped out of the brush to protect them, as The Deseret News reported
"You see the two cubs and one kind of runs off, but then I didn't notice mom was right there and that's when I knew it was not a good situation to be in," he told CBS News.
Burgess retreated from the cougar quickly and let out a long stream of profanities as he continued to record as the cat followed him down the trail. According to NPR, Burgess maintained eye contact with the cougar while it hissed and growled at him. In one chilling moment roughly 3 minutes and 25 seconds into the video, she comes close to him and flails out her front paws as if she is intending to attack.
"Come on, dude," Burgess says to the cougar 10 seconds later. "I don't feel like dying today."
Burgess goes through a series of self-defense maneuvers in the video. He walks away, pleads with the animal, reminds her to return to her babies, and growls and woofs to make himself seem menacing. Toward the end of the encounter, about 5 minutes and 40 seconds into the video, Burgess picks up a rock and throws it at the cougar. She turns and darts back down the road, likely back to the cubs she left behind.
Burgess then sits and turns the camera onto himself to show his trembling hand.
Kate Remsen, who works with the Living with Lions, told CBS News that the mountain lion was not looking for an encounter or truly threatening him. Instead, she was pushing him away from her cubs. Remsen added that altercations with cougars are extremely rare.
"These mountain lions are not going to actively attack a human being unless they need to defend themselves or they're scared," she said.
Officials with Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources praised Burgess' strategy during the encounter. Scott Root, a conservation manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, suggested that runners and hikers always travel with someone else, but otherwise said Burgess did everything correct, as The Deseret News reported.
"He backed away. He didn't go toward the mountain lion or her kittens. He made a lot of noise ... He stayed large, he stayed loud and he backed away from the area for quite a while. I think he did everything really well."
The post included tips for encountering a cougar, including maintaining eye contact and making yourself look big and threatening.
By Tara Lohan
A sign at the north end of Kanab, Utah, proclaims the town of 4,300 to be "The Greatest Earth on Show."
It's a rare case of truth in advertising.
Kanab sits just seven miles north of the Arizona state line, at the crossroads of some of the Southwest's most beautiful places. In every direction a geologic wonderland awaits. To the north is Zion National Park with its breathtaking valley of 2,000-foot-tall rust and white sandstone cliffs. The sweeping expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument stretches to the east of town, and just to the south you'll find the Grand Canyon's North Rim.
You don't even need to leave Kanab, which is ringed by the famously red-hued Vermillion Cliffs, to get socked by jaw-dropping beauty.
It's this landscape that drew Susan Hand to Kanab 25 years ago when she opened Willow Canyon Outdoor to sell gear, maps, books and coffee to local and visiting adventurers. And it's this landscape and the community's gateway-to-the-wonderland experience, the economic bedrock of this tourism-dependent town, that she worried would be destroyed by a new industrial project proposed for development 10 miles north of town last year.
Kanab, UT is a popular tourist destination. Tara Lohan
There, a company called Southern Red Sands LLC had announced plans to build a facility to mine and process massive amounts of sand for use by oil and gas companies conducting hydraulic fracturing. The sand is a lesser-known but substantial aspect of the fracking process. Round grains of silica sand serve as a "proppant" to keep underground fissures in the shale open as oil and gas are pumped out. Fracking a single well can require thousands of tons of sand.
"I really wanted to keep an open mind, but the more I learned about the project, the more concerned I got," Hand told The Revelator when I visited Kanab in September.
She had reason to be worried. The first decade of the fracking boom relied heavily on so-called "frac sand" sourced mostly from Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where mining reduced verdant green hills to piles of dust.
Frac sand in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan
But mining in the Midwest has its limits. Sand is expensive to ship across the country, so as fracking has taken off in Utah, Texas and New Mexico, companies have looked to find more local sources to trim costs.
That's when the proposed mine in Kanab entered the story.
Southern Red Sands, a two-person start-up backed by Utah real-estate developer Kem Gardner, hoped to establish the region's next frac sand mine in a scenic area of state-owned lands outside Kanab called Red Knoll.
City and county officials quickly gave their blessing — and a combined 1,200 acre-feet of water rights a year — after only cursory consideration.
But residents became concerned about impacts to scenic beauty, water resources and local businesses. They teamed up to fight back, forming a community group called Keep Kanab Unspoiled.
It was beginning to feel like a familiar story.
The struggle between extractive industries and environmental protection is not a new one in Utah. A fight is still raging nearby over the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both of which President Trump slashed in order to increase drilling and mining opportunities.
Despite public pushback and some legal challenges, though, the frac sand mine seemed to be cruising toward approval as recently as October. It still needed an environmental impact assessment from the Bureau of Land Management, and the two water transfers needed approval from the state engineer. The project definitely wasn't a done deal, but in industry-friendly Utah, it had a good shot.
So it may have come as a surprise to a number of residents when Southern Red Sands announced at the beginning of January that it was abandoning the proposed project.
What happened? And are there any lessons that other communities fighting extraction threats can learn?
"Speak out, pull together like-minded neighbors, organize and don't give up," Hand told me after hearing the news. "But also, try to be nice."
Surprisingly, it's that last bit that may have made a big difference — along with a good hard look at the economics of the endeavor.
Von Del Chamberlain is a white-haired, soft-spoken Kanab resident. Born in 1934, he spent his youth exploring the red rock and his career studying the stars. The astronomer and former director of Salt Lake City's Hansen (now Clark) Planetarium retired to his hometown 15 years ago and hoped to start a public observatory.
He realized that Kanab's prized dark-night skies would be threatened by a 24-7 mining operation. But that wasn't even his biggest concern with the project.
"The beauty here is the thing that will sustain this area economically for as far in the future as we can possibly see," he said.
Opponents like Chamberlain usually cited two big concerns: environmental impacts, particularly the threat to water resources, and the local economy. But in Kanab it's hard to separate the two.
"It doesn't matter what kind of an economy you want to develop here," said Hand. "Even if you have an industrial economy or an extractive economy — if you don't have water, you're out."
The water supply, which draws on underground aquifers, currently supports the town's tourist-driven economy, ranching, and the county's biggest employer — Best Friends Animal Society, known worldwide through the Dogtown TV series on the National Geographic Channel. The nonprofit owns a 3,700-acre sanctuary, the country's largest no-kill animal shelter, and would have been the mine's closest neighbor.
Best Friends, which employs 400 locals and draws 35,000 out-of-town visitors a year to its sanctuary, came to see the proposed mine as an existential threat. Their property relies on wells, seeps and springs that come from the same aquifer the project's two wells would tap.
Groundwater seeps to the surface at the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Tara Lohan
Last July Kanab's city council approved a 50-year contract for 600 acre-feet a year of water rights for the project and Kane County Water Conservancy District, which oversees water servicing for the unincorporated areas of the county, agreed to provide an additional 600 acre-feet of water. That combined amount equals about 740 gallons per minute, although Southern Red Sands contended it would use only about a third of that.
Many local residents were shocked by the water-rights transfer. A 2016 water needs assessment found that Kane County Water Conservancy District's reliable supply would be in deficit by 2035. And the district's executive director, former state representative Mike Noel, has been a vocal advocate for a pricy proposed pipeline to send Lake Powell water to southern Utah communities, including near Kanab, under the premise that the region is already running short on water.
"We knew that it would damage our seeps and our springs, and we weren't sure yet the full impact besides some drawdown to our groundwater, but we were really concerned," Bart Battista, an environmental engineer responsible for facilities management at Best Friends' Kanab sanctuary, told me. "It boggles my mind that the city wasn't as concerned."
But documents unearthed by local radio station KUER showed that officials at nearby Zion National Park already were concerned that the project could reduce flows into the East Fork of the Virgin River, which flows through the park, by reducing the amount of water from underground seeps and springs that feed the river.
Wanting to learn more about how the project could affect the region's water, Best Friends commissioned a study from hydrogeologist Kenneth Kolm of Hydrologic Systems Analysis, a firm that's completed water studies for other Utah towns.
Kolm found that the mine posed the potential for decline in productivity to wells owned by both Best Friends and the city's water supply. The project could also decrease flows into nearby Kanab Creek and dry up perennial streams and springs, including one that feeds an area of habitat that's home to the Kanab ambersnail — currently federally protected as endangered.
The amount of water being withdrawn wasn't the only issue. The proposed project site and its sandy soil are also vitally important to local hydrology.
"The sand is the first ticket to collecting water," said Hand. It captures rain and holds it in place long enough for it to sink into the water table and not run off. But the sand is exactly what would be removed from the site, further threatening the region's water supply.
"I realized for the first time how small and vulnerable our watershed actually is," she added.
Southern Red Sands hoped to start digging on 640 acres of land around Red Knoll, an aptly name rise of coral-colored rock and sand. The area is managed as part of Utah's School and International Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), where state-owned property can be leased (often for resource extraction), with revenue being funneled to education.
The operation would have started by bulldozing all the trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs, then scraped up to 30 feet of the earth from the exposed surface. The sand would then be processed — washed with water and chemicals, then dried and sorted — in a facility with up to six 120-foot-tall silos. After that it would be loaded into trucks and hauled out.
A small fraction of the remaining sediment — mostly the fine silts and clays — would be put back on the land. But that change in geology could mean a big change for the aquifer. How big would depend on the scope of the project, though.
In addition to the SITLA land, Southern Red Sands had acquired placer claims — mineral exploration rights — for 12,000 surrounding acres managed by the BLM. And although the company said it planned to mine only 700,000 tons a year from the SITLA property, the facility would have had the capacity and water rights to accommodate much more.
"If they're building a plant with a capacity of 3 million tons a year, that's presumably because they expect to be able to produce that," Dean Baker, a Kanab resident and opponent of the project told me in December. "They may never do that, but you don't build extra capacity without the idea that you might use it."
Water issues are paramount in arid Utah, but the mine was likely to come with some other potential problems.
If Southern Red Sands did build out to end of their claims, they'd be within 10 miles of Zion National Park and workers at Best Friends would be looking over their fence line at the operation — not to mention potentially breathing its dust.
Mining, processing and trucking frac sand can release tiny particles of crystalline silica into the air. Inhaling those particles regularly can cause lung disease, including cancer and silicosis, a chronic disease that, like "black lung" for coal miners, can be deadly.
Dust in the air at a frac sand processing facility in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan
The facility would likely run with lights and noise 24-7, which could be detrimental to wildlife. And adding more diesel-spewing, slow-stopping big rigs hauling 50,000 pounds of sand down the town's one main road concerned residents, too.
With so much at risk, opponents employed a number of tactics to try to fight the mine.
Keep Kanab Unspoiled held community meetings. They invited Kolm, the geologist who did the independent study, to report his findings, and started an online petition to discourage the company from moving forward.
Best Friends — an established national nonprofit with considerably more financial resources — took the lead role in mounting legal challenges. The organization filed an appeal of a conditional use permit approved by the county and formally objected to the water transfers, which needed to be approved by the state engineer.
But during the fall, Best Friends decided to shift tactics. Lawsuits could just lead to years of legal battles, something beyond the organization's longstanding mission.
"We might alienate our donors and members," Battista explained. "The appeal of Best Friends crosses party boundaries — animal welfare is something everybody can support." Apparently environmental action is not.
They decided the best approach was to sit down and talk with the company and its backers.
Battista couldn't disclose details of the negotiations — which went on for months — but on Jan. 9 Best Friends and Southern Red Sands released a joint statement saying that the company "had decided not to pursue its business ventures in Kane County."
The members of Keep Kanab Unspoiled were elated by the news.
"It's so heartening how so many people from our community came together to amplify a voice that is seldom acknowledged by our elected representatives and institutions," Hand tells me. "I'm relieved that an area I love won't be sacrificed on the altar of fossil fuel consumption. I'm grateful that this threat to our travel and tourism economy is diminished."
It would be comforting to think that the driving force behind the decision boiled down to preserving the scenic beauty or the region's groundwater resources, but it's more likely it had to do with money.
"Economics played some role," Battista said. "The market for frac sand has changed and [Best Friends] had financial viability assessments of the project to show that the mine wouldn't be a good idea. Economically it just didn't make sense to any of us. I think that our studies corroborated that."
This was a main talking point of Keep Kanab Unspoiled, bolstered by research done by Baker, who also happens to be an economist and cofounder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
The frac sand industry — and the larger fracking industry — is volatile. The number of rigs drilling for oil tends to fall when prices get low. Rigs plunged with falling prices from 2014 to 2016 and last year saw record declines in rig numbers. In addition, fracking costs more than traditional drilling — and the industry has also been overspending to keep the fracking boom from going bust.
A research organization in Norway found that the amount of money being spent to drill for oil by 40 U.S. shale oil companies outpaced the money being made by selling that oil. That deficit cost companies almost $5 billion in just the first quarter of 2019, DeSmog reported in August.
It's a scenario that's happened before.
With oil prices now around $60 a barrel, the industry is hanging on. If prices dip much lower, it could be trouble. A decade into the fracking frenzy, investors are worried that the best spots have been drilled and many debts won't be paid.
There's even more uncertainty when it comes to producing and selling the sand. Companies used to rely almost exclusively on Midwest sand, but now more areas are getting in on the game.
The consequences of failures in the fracking business model are real.
Falling oil prices and a shifting market for frac sand recently took down Emerge Energy Services — owner of eight frac sand facilities in Wisconsin — which filed for bankruptcy last summer and left behind unsafe levels of arsenic and heavy metal contamination for the community to clean up.
That's a scenario that Baker worried could happen in Kanab. Southern Red Sands said their intended market was in Utah's Uintah Basin 350 miles north, but a new frac sand mine just opened in the basin. "It's almost inconceivable they'd be able to compete with them because the biggest cost with frac sand is the shipping," said Baker. "There are some operations in the San Juan basin [in New Mexico and Colorado] but it's not clear to me that they could beat those out either."
Even though economics played a role in halting the project, he believes community efforts were important, too.
"The fact they faced serious legal obstacles at every step in their path had to be a factor," he said. "It is a nice, and unfortunately rare, victory for the environment."
Best Friends worked to ensure the hard-earned victory wasn't short-lived, either. It also purchased Southern Red Sands' 12,000 acres of mineral rights.
"We want to make sure that no one else comes in here in two years if the market's better and tries to put in another sand mine, we just don't think that it's the right thing for this area," said Battista. "We want to make sure that in perpetuity, there's not a threat to the sanctuary."
As for Hand, she's now looking at the bigger picture. She saw the fight over frac sand in Kanab as a microcosm of the global fight over fossil fuels and climate change.
"While we can embrace a sense of triumph, it's likely to be brief," she said. "When it comes to protecting wild places and using our resources carefully, our work will never be done. The next development project is already bubbling. I do feel more hopeful for each success, but climate change marches on."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Stephen Nash
The Trump administration's decision to keep many U.S. national parks open during the current federal government shutdown, with few or no staff, spotlights how popular and how vulnerable these unique places are.
Some states, such as Utah and Arizona, have spent heavily to keep parks open rather than lose tourist revenues. Unfortunately, without rangers to enforce rules, some visitors have strewn garbage and vandalized scenic areas.
The most urgent near-term priority for the park system is to either end the shutdown or cut off public access until it is over, and then restore order once staff can get back in. But beyond the shutdown, the park system faces broader threats, as I show in my book, Grand Canyon for Sale.
Climate change will force wild species in all national parks to adapt, often by migrating. The problem is that U.S. policies—especially under the Trump administration—are fragmenting connections between parks and other public lands that give natural systems better odds for survival.
Photo Evidence: Glacier National Park Is Melting Away | National Geographic youtu.be
External threats to national parks aren't new. Politicians started trying to protect the Grand Canyon from private interests in the 1880s. Finally, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt used his power under the Antiquities Act to designate the canyon as a national monument.
During a visit to the canyon, Roosevelt told onlookers, "I hope that you will not … mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the loneliness and beauty of the Canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it." A decade later, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that created Grand Canyon National Park on Feb. 26, 1919.
Aggressive and well-financed private industries, including logging, mining, grazing, energy production and real estate development, operate on other public lands, where they often pose threats to plants and wildlife. By expanding development and fragmenting existing tracts of land, they also shut down future survival prospects for wild species in the national parks themselves.
Parks in a Changing Climate
Over all of these issues looms the broadest threat: climate change. According to a meta-analysis of 123 research studies conducted between 1990 and 2010, nearly all the land administered by the National Park Service is located in areas of observed warming in the 20th century. And a 2018 study showed that the parks are bearing the brunt of climate change because many are located in regions that are hotter and drier than the nation as a whole.
Part of the National Park Service's mission is to conserve wild species and natural systems in the parks "by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Climate change makes this an epic challenge. For example, Grand Canyon National Park's climate change action plan warns of more frequent droughts, habitat fragmentation, more frequent and intense wildfires and floods, and shrinking waterflows in the Colorado River.
And, of course, the gathering heat. In effect, many national parks' climates will move two or three hundred miles south during this century. By 2100, if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, Grand Canyon will be as hot as the climate now is along the Mexican border. The climate of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular in the system, will slide nearly to Florida. As soon as two decades from now, according to the latest U.S. national climate assessment, the Grand Canyon region and its wild species could endure 40 to 50 more days with temperatures over 90 degrees yearly.
According to the 2018 national climate assessment, unchecked climate change could make many U.S. national parks feel like locations much further south by the end of this century. Chris Zganjar, based on 26 climate model projections, CC BY-ND
Similar changes are occurring throughout the park system.
Glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park in Montana. Giant sequoia trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California are threatened by heat, fire and insects. Rising seas are starting to inundate dozens of parks along coastlines, from Florida's Dry Tortugas to Alaska's Bering Land Bridge.
Creating Escape Routes
As climate zones shift, many plants and animals will need to migrate into or out of protected natural areas to stay within temperature and moisture ranges where they have evolved over thousands of years. Scientists are outlining plans to ensure futures for at least some of these species by making it easier for them to move to different habitats. But studies on "climate connectivity" warn that if public lands around national parks are used for drilling, mining, logging and commercial development, they won't function as survival paths for wild species.
"You can't manage a national park by itself. That's increasingly a strategy for failure," Northern Arizona University biologist Paul Beier told me. "Your park is embedded in the landscape, and we have to get smart about managing the entire landscape, because the climate is moving."
This research signals that if the goal is to guard the endurance of wild species for future generations, Congress and federal agencies will need to find new ways of managing the nation's million square miles of federal public lands. National parks will need to depend on healthy adjacent national forests, wildlife refuges, monuments and rangelands, maintained in their natural state.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that creating links among isolated preserves was a surprisingly effective way to maintain wild bird populations in Africa and Brazil. "The issues in the American West are the same," Duke University ecologist and study co-author Stuart Pimm told me. "A lot of the West is protected, but it's fragmented. Reestablishing that connectivity among public lands will give animals a chance to move, slowing down rates of local extinction."
Yellowstone to Yukon: 20 Years of Progress youtu.be
Promoting Extractive Use
However, the Trump administration is opening public lands in pursuit of "energy dominance." The Interior Department has removed millions of acres from national monuments and opened them for uses such as logging and mining. Oil and gas leasing on public lands has tripled since President Trump assumed office.
Public lands generate wealth for other private interests, too. In the West, some 400,000 square miles managed by the Interior Department and Forest Service are leased for cattle ranching. These acres provide only one percent of our national supply of beef, but studies have documented that livestock grazing across the west can foul water sources, erode soil and severely diminish survival chances for wild species.
The lease programs cost the government more than six times as much to administer as they bring in. According to data that I obtained from federal agencies, most leases are held by very large, often absentee cattle operators and by corporate interests.
In contrast, studies by federal agencies and private researchers show that even in raw economic terms, healthy and protected landscapes are worth tens of billions of dollars to their owners—the American public—each year.
Meanwhile, climate change ratchets up. Preserving the nature of U.S. national parks will require connecting and protecting all of America's public lands.
#ClimateChange Is Threatening Many Species, But One Is Getting a Boost https://t.co/0t7Uz0hdIF @truthout @savebutterflies @Buzz_dont_tweet— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1543370433.0
Stephen Nash is a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond.
Disclosure statement: Stephen Nash does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Tara Lohan
In the last few weeks of 2018, the Trump administration set the stage for a big battle over water in the new year. At stake is an important rule that defines which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration seeks to roll back important protections for wetlands and waterways, which are important to drinking water and wildlife.
This is just one of the upcoming water battles that could serve to define 2019. It's also poised to be a year of reckoning on the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. A long-anticipated multi-state agreement is close to completion after an ultimatum from the federal government. And it could also be a landmark year for water management in California, with several key issues coming to a head.
Big things may also happen on the water infrastructure front and in efforts to address clean-water concerns. Of course, underlying many of the water issues is the specter of climate change, which is bringing both severe droughts and floods and exacerbating water-supply problems.
Let's dive into some of the issues experts say we need to keep an eye on in the coming year.
Clean Water Rule Change
The biggest looming water issue this year has to do with a law passed nearly 50 years ago.
On Dec. 12 the Trump administration unveiled a proposal to redefine the Waters of the U.S. Rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, which was adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration to set clear guidelines on how certain waterways and wetlands are regulated under the 1972 Clean Water Act. The action came after two Supreme Court rulings in the early 2000s created some uncertainty about what the Clean Water Act protects.
Obama's rule slightly widened what was protected under the Clean Water Act (much to the chagrin of many industry groups and developers). For example, the 2015 rule included automatic protections for wetlands and ponds that are "within 100 feet or within the 100-year floodplain of a protected waterway," Vox reporters Brad Plumer and Umair Irfan explained. And they wrote last month, "In the past, tributaries of navigable rivers were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But under the new rule, they're automatically protected if they have a bed, a bank and a high-water mark." Overall the change amounted to clarifying protections for about 3 percent of waterways.
The newly proposed Trump administration rule, however, would swing widely in the other direction, limiting protections to only major waterways, tributaries and adjacent wetlands. As written now, the new rule would strip protections from 18 percent of streams and just over half of the country's wetlands, but there's concern the final rule could be even more restrictive.
Industry officials praised the Trump plan. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the Trump administration's proposal, "The Christmas present of a lifetime!"
Environmental groups had a very different opinion. The loss of protections, they said, threatens drinking water and wildlife, with the western U.S. poised to be affected most. In Nevada 85 percent of streams would lose protections, as would more than half in New Mexico and Arizona.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, NevadaCyndi Souza / USFWS)
"The rollbacks to the Clean Water Act the Trump administration is proposing are the greatest threat to this nation's waterways in 50 years," said Dan Estrin, Waterkeeper Alliance general counsel and advocacy director. This industry-supported proposal would "incentivize polluters to move pollution upstream, where they won't have to worry about federal or citizen enforcement," he said.
A 60-day public comment period on the proposed regulation is underway. Meanwhile Republicans in the legislature are already attempting to push through their own version of what kind of wetlands and waterways should be protected by the Clean Water Act—in this case, it would only cover permanently "navigable" waters.
It's not clear what will happen on this front, but however things move forward it will be critically important. "The Waters of the United States law will be tested, implemented, suspended or revoked," said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the global water think-tank the Pacific Institute. Expect the debate over the rule change to be contentious and the final product legally contested.
Colorado River Agreement
2019 will be a year of reckoning for the Colorado River. It has to be—both nature and the federal government have issued ultimatums.
First, nature's part: With the basin in a drought for nearly two decades, the river's flow has dropped almost 20 percent (human-caused warming is responsible for at about a third of this reduced flow). By 2020 Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the watershed, could fall low enough to trigger shortages to Arizona, Nevada and eventually California. In 2020 the water users must also begin a massive renegotiation of how the Colorado River is managed and how we prepare for a future with less water—an epic task that needs to be completed by 2026, when the current agreement expires.
The three states have been busy working on a drought contingency plan to slow the decline of Lake Mead, a process that will need to be completed before the larger negotiations begin in 2020. One major snag has come from Arizona, which is trying to resolve in-state disputes.
Things are about to get even more interesting, though. At a recent meeting of Colorado River water users, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a deadline of Jan. 31 for the three states to settle their plan or else the federal government will step in, which would be a widely unwelcome scenario.
"This could be very messy," John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program, wrote recently on his blog about Colorado River water issues. "It suggests that either voluntarily (through interstate agreement) or imposed by the feds, we'll have new shortage guidelines in place by 2020 to slow the decline of Lake Mead."
Even if a new shortage agreement is reached in the next month, Gleick said we're still likely to see political conflict among basin water users as water levels in Lake Mead continue to fall. It's not just California, Nevada and Arizona duking things out—the river is also shared with upstream states Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, as well as with Mexico downstream. What happens to the Colorado affects much of the West, including cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
And the drought contingency plan is also only a stopgap measure to give all the water users time to pause the crisis until the elephant in the room needs to be officially addressed: The Colorado River simply doesn't have enough water for all the claims made to it.
"Now, whether through ignorance or malfeasance, we now have communities that have come to expect that fictionally large supply, and few rules to determine who gets less, and how much," wrote Fleck.
This year's work will be a crucial one for setting the stage for these future talks and better understanding the new climate reality.
2018 ended with some momentum on climate action. International climate talks in December at COP24 in Poland limped to a close with an agreement in hand, but one that fails to meet the urgency and scale of the problem.
And while the U.S. was conspicuously absent from international dealings, more movement to address climate challenges are afoot on the home front, with increasing calls for political action and a Green New Deal.
Significant climate legislation will likely be out of reach with a Republican Senate and White House, but climate change impacts will continue to make a mark, regardless, and could help to motivate more public action and pressure on elected officials and corporations.
"Somewhere in the U.S. we'll see unprecedented flooding and somewhere else, unprecedented drought, as climate change continues to worsen extreme hydrologic events," said Gleick. "Temperatures will continue to rise." And all of this will compound water woes like declining flows in the Colorado River, harmful algal blooms across the country, the vulnerability of our croplands and declining groundwater levels.
Drought-impacted forests in California's Sierra NevadaPhoto by USGS
"I think that the overall story is that catastrophic times are here," said Kimery Wiltshire, CEO and director of Carpe Diem West, a nonprofit that tackles water and climate issues. We need to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration to meet our ecological challenges, she said. "Fortunately, there are a number of communities taking smart, positive steps for water resiliency in the face of climate change."
California's Grand Bargain
In California several long-term and contentious decisions over future water management will be headline-generating in the coming year, and we could see either compromise or conflict between the state and the Trump administration.
California's Water Resources Control Board has been working on a plan that would increase the amount of water left in key rivers that drain to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the linchpin in California's vast water infrastructure network, to try to protect water quality and wildlife. It's a move that has made municipal and agricultural water users concerned.
Snow geese take flight above a field on Twitchell Island in the California Delta. Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources
But just before 2018 closed out a new "grand bargain" was beginning to emerge between state agencies, federal agencies, irrigation districts and urban water agencies.
If the deal comes to fruition, "it could be revolutionary" in terms of the region's water management, said Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and director of the PPIC Water Policy Center. The parties have committed to hammering out the agreement in 2019. "Federal, state and local parties are on the threshold of something really different and potentially much more impactful than what the regulatory situation can do on its own," said Hanak.
The plan would provide a funding stream for habitat restoration projects for ailing fish populations and also trim water exports from the watershed by urban and agricultural water users. Environmental groups, which were not part of the negotiations, think those water cuts are not nearly enough to protect fish, some of which are endangered.
"It appears that California's salmon, thousands of fishing jobs and the health of the Bay Delta estuary are the sacrificial lambs in these series of agreements between the Trump and the Brown administrations," Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Sacramento Bee.
As the possible settlement is further negotiated this year, the Trump administration could throw another wrench into the plan as it attempts to roll back environment regulations for the delta in an effort to appease the agriculture industry.
"What's the state water board going to do if they enact stricter regulations just as Trump is undoing a bunch of environmental protections?" asked Chris Austin, publisher of Maven's Notebook, which chronicles California's water issues.
There are also two other major infrastructure issues where California may butt heads with the Trump administration (and others) in the new year. The first is an effort to raise the height of Shasta dam. Another is a $17 billion project to construct new water conveyance tunnels. Both will also be big decisions for the future of imperiled species.
Infrastructure and Clean Water
There's one more key issue that should dominate water discussions and policy in the next year: Many Americans still don't have access to safe drinking water. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given our nation's water infrastructure a D grade, and billions are needed to upgrade aging pipes, pumps and plants.
Hanak thinks that more progress will be made in efforts to address water inequities in California, where hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in low-income and communities of color, have chronically contaminated drinking water.
Issues abound elsewhere, too.
"The ongoing saga of Flint, Michigan, will go on, and the discussion about the country's failing water infrastructure will continue, with new urban water quality challenges," said Gleick.
Will there be any progress this year? "There is a chance for some bipartisan action on water infrastructure as part of the broader push to pass infrastructure funding in the U.S. Congress," said Gleick. Like all of these issues, though, that could evaporate quickly as the Trump administration continues its attacks against environmental regulation and protection.
New EPA Rule Would Sabotage Clean Water Act https://t.co/HpPkePSyYy— Enviro Voter Project (@Enviro Voter Project)1544465047.0
What water issues do you think will matter most in the coming year? Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #Water2019.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
On Tuesday the Trump administration offered more than 150,000 acres of public lands for fossil-fuel extraction near some of Utah's most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Dozens of Utahns gathered at the state Capitol to protest the lease sale, which included lands within 10 miles of internationally known protected areas. In addition to Arches and Canyonlands, the Bureau of Land Management leased public lands for fracking near Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep national monuments and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
"Utahns have demonstrated their commitment to transition away from dirty fossil fuels through clean energy resolutions passed in municipalities across our state. Yet, these commitments continue to be undermined by rampant oil and gas lease sales, which threaten our public health, public lands, and economy. While Utah's recreational and tourism economies continue to flourish, these attempts to develop sacred cultural, environmental, and recreational spaces for dirty fuels remain a grave and growing threat." said Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club. "Utah is our home and the reckless sale of our public lands with limited public engagement is simply unacceptable and short-sighted."
Fracking in these areas threatens sensitive plants and animals, including the black-footed ferret, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and Graham's beardtongue. It also will worsen air pollution problems in the Uinta Basin and use tremendous amounts of groundwater. Utah just experienced its driest year in recorded history.
"This is a reckless fire sale of spectacular public lands for dirty drilling and fracking," said Ryan Beam, a public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. "These red-rock wonderlands are some of the West's most iconic landscapes, and we can't afford to lose a single acre. Fracking here will waste precious water, foul the air and destroy beautiful wild places that should be held in trust for generations to come."
This lease sale is part of a larger agenda by Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ramp up fossil fuel extraction on public lands, threatening wildlife, public health and the climate. This year the BLM has offered more than 420,000 acres of public land in Utah for oil and gas extraction. The agency plans to auction another 215,000 acres in March. The Trump administration also has issued new policies, which are being challenged in court, to shorten public-comment periods and avoid substantive environmental reviews.
"BLM's shortsighted decision threatens Utah's red rock wilderness as well as significant cultural and archaeological resources," said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "BLM's 'lease everything, lease everywhere' approach to oil and gas development needlessly threatens iconic red-rock landscapes and irreplaceable cultural history in the ill-conceived push for 'energy dominance.'"
Fracking destroys public lands and wildlife habitat with networks of fracking wells, compressor stations, pipelines and roads. Injecting toxic wastewater into the ground pollutes rivers and groundwater and causes earthquakes that damage infrastructure and property. Oil industry activities also pollute the air with dangerous toxins linked to human illness and death. The federal government's own report shows that oil and gas production on public land contributes significantly to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Kara Clauser / Center for Biological Diversity
By Zoe Woodcraft
The sound is like a low, steady rumble, soothing yet powerful. Imperceptible to the human ear, the hums of red rock arches in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments carry with them the deep patterns of the earth's plates sparked by events like ocean currents colliding in the open Pacific that pump the ocean floor. On the surface, wind spilling over the arches amplifies the vibrations, giving voice to movements in the earth that began thousands of miles away.
Scientists like Jeff Moore have only recently discovered the arches' hum. We are one year into the legal battle to defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, and while we fight in the courts, life and discovery continue in these special places. Now, more than ever, the arches need our voices to protect them.
Moore, a professor at the University of Utah, has always been fascinated by what makes rocks break and move. That's how he describes his particular niche in geology, geohazards.
"The earth is teeming with these sorts of mysteries, and it's my job to uncover them," said Moore.
Hardy sandstone gives Utah its famous rock formations. Its layers can split open like an accordion and gently erode over millennia into shapes nearly impossible in earthquake country. Moore began to log the swelling and contracting of Utah's arches as temperatures rose and fell during the day. He wanted to understand their stresses, and know how long their spans will extend out over open air before inevitably collapsing.
"Most people are in awe of these geological wonders, but they don't recognize how fragile they are," said Moore. "They think rock is strong. But if you lay your hand on an arch, you get a sense that it is just hanging on. You can see the cracks … and you quickly realize how tenuous the structure is."
Soon, Moore got to wondering if the ear would be better than the eye at measuring the arches' movements. He spent hours recording the vibrations of the rocks with seismometers the size of camping thermoses. In the lab, he sped up his recordings to make them audible to humans.
[Listen to Soundcloud clips posted at the bottom of this story. Headphones recommended.]
"It sounded like nothing I'd heard before," said Moore, adding that the arches' hum is dependent on factors like their size. "Some of the smaller arches have a higher tone, and are a little squeaky."
In several arch recordings, a mysterious tapping appears on the soundtrack. Asked about the sound, Moore laughed. "It's probably my team walking as we backed away from our equipment. It's humans scurrying from the perspective of the arch."
In late 2017, President Trump threatened to silence the arches' hum after shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by roughly 2 million acres. Mining companies started eyeing monument lands. Earthjustice went to court.
Within those evicted 2 million acres are ancient cliff dwellings and living ceremonial sites sacred to more than five Native American Tribes fighting for these lands. It's places like Valley of the Gods, where no one can travel without getting a crick in their neck staring up at red rock spires. It's dinosaur fossil beds in the Kaiparowitz Plateau of Grand Staircase, where scientists discover new species almost every year. It's the steep habitat for Utah's only native herds of cliff-happy bighorn sheep.
It's also 115 unique arches stripped of their national monument protections.
Arch Hunting in the Monuments
Jeff got to work with his research team planning expeditions in the monuments for the summer of 2018. Aamon Hatch, a local high school science teacher on break, joined. They pored over arch hunting websites where amateur geology enthusiasts share their discoveries by dropping coordinates.
"I began to call them 'the abandoned arches of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase,'" said Moore. "Grand Staircase's arches had been protected for the last 20 years. Bears Ears' arches were newly protected. Now they're left high and dry."
Determined to document as many abandoned arches as they could, the team ventured into the gutted national monuments. It was like no place Moore had been before. The Henry Mountains in Grand Staircase were the last mountains to be mapped in the lower 48. The Escalante River, which feeds into the Colorado, was one of the last rivers to be mapped. In Navajo, the range is called Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní or "mountain whose name is missing."
Moore worries about the impact of human development near these lands—like mine blasting, or the heavy truck traffic new mining roads would bring. The arches evolved in southern Utah partly because the land experiences little seismic activity.
"I worry about them in the way you worry about something you love," he said.
He isn't wrong to worry. The Trump administration is rushing through new plans that could open roughly 700,000 acres of Grand Staircase to mining and drilling. It's a cynical strategy to speed along plans for industrial exploitation that's often worked against public lands. Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh is fighting to hit the brakes on those plans in court.
While Trump's executive branch is trying to outrace the courts, Earthjustice will also be defending our monuments lawsuits against the Justice Department's motion to dismiss them this month. (The weighty question of whether President Trump had the authority to dismantle Bears Ears and Grand Staircase under the Antiquities Act may well be decided, at least preliminarily, at this point.)
Moore's team ultimately found 37 arches in Grand Staircase and 78 in Bears Ears in the territory stripped out of the monuments. Though their initial project is done, Moore suspects there are many more arches in these wild lands.
"When you stand out there today, you have the feeling 'this is where the road ends,'" he said. "In between you and the mountain there are no roads. You can feel the vastness."
Headphones may be needed to hear the lowest tones in this recording of Sunset Arch.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earthjustice.
- Rare Fossils Discovered on Lands Cut From Bears Ears National ... ›
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The Department of Interior's (DOI) Office of Inspector General (OIG) was investigating whether or not Zinke had altered the monument's boundaries specifically to benefit Utah Republican Congressman Mike Noel. Noel had petitioned for the monument to be shrunk and also owned property nearby, including 40 acres that fell inside the old monument boundaries and outside the new ones. The OIG, however, ruled there was no evidence that Zinke knew of Noel's interest in the area or redrew the boundaries with him in mind.
The OIG report "shows exactly what the secretary's office has known all along - that the monument boundaries were adjusted in accordance with all rules, regulations and laws," Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Associated Press.
Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger was skeptical that Zinke had done nothing wrong. He told The Associated Press that photos taken of Zinke and Noel together during a tour of the shrunken monument last year "seem to contradict" Zinke's innocence and urged the OIG to release the report "and let the public judge the merits of the findings."
Environmental groups like the Western Values Project have criticized Zinke for shrinking public lands like Grand Staircase to benefit fossil fuel and mining interests. Even if Grand Staircase was not redrawn with Noel in mind, DOI documents obtained by The New York Times in March did show that the Trump administration decided to reduce it and fellow Utah National Monument Bears Ears in order to increase access to deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium and coal.
Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who will chair the House Natural Resources Committee in January now that the Democrats have taken the House, said he would investigate the controversial decision to shrink the two monuments.
"Secretary Zinke should have known the people he was listening to while destroying our national monuments had disqualifying conflicts of interest," he told The Associated Press, while saying he accepts the reports findings.
Zinke is still facing other investigations into his conduct in office. One involves a real estate development owned by the son of the chairman of oil giant Halliburton, which the DOI regulates. Another concerns claims that Zinke met only with opponents of a Native American casino project in Connecticut and might have given false information to the tribes behind the project.
A third investigation looks whether Zinke reassigned a former DOI official for criticizing him, The Associated Press reported.
By Rosalyn R. LaPier
Forty years ago the U.S. Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act so that Native Americans could practice their faith freely and that access to their sacred sites would be protected. This came after a 500-year-long history of conquest and coercive conversion to Christianity had forced Native Americans from their homelands.
Today, their religious practice is threatened all over again. On Dec. 4, 2017, the Trump administration reduced the Bears Ears National Monument, an area sacred to Native Americans in Utah, by more than 1 million acres. Bears Ears Monument is only one example of the conflict over places of religious value. Many other such sacred sites are being viewed as potential areas for development, threatening the free practice of Native American faith.
While Congress created the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to provide "access to sacred sites," it has been open to interpretation. Native Americans still struggle to protect their sacred lands.
Native Americans have land-based religions, which means they practice their religion within specific geographic locations. As Joseph Toledo, a Jemez Pueblo tribal leader, said, sacred sites are like churches; they are "places of great healing and magnetism."
For thousands of years, tribes have used Bears Ears for rituals, ceremonies and collecting medicines used for healing. The different tribes—the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni—have worked to protect the land. Together they set up a nongovernmental organization, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, to help conserve the landscape in 2015.
The tribes believe Bears Ears is one of the last large undisturbed areas in the lower 48 states and contains the spirits of those who once lived there. Bears Ears Navajo elder Mark Maryboy emphasized, "It's very important that we protect the earth, the plants, and special ceremonial places in Bears Ears for future generations—not just for Native Americans, but for everybody."
My great-grandparents, Páyotayàkχkumei and Kayetså'χkumi, (translated as Aims-while-flying-through-the-air and Hollering-in-the-air), were well-known religious leaders on the Blackfeet reservation. They lived in the foothills of the south side of the reservation. However, they went into the mountains and onto public lands in an area now called the Badger-Two Medicine in northcentral Montana to practice their religion.
My great-grandfather traveled into Badger canyon to trap eagles and gather their feathers which he used in ceremonies and for divine protection. My great-grandmother gathered medicinal plants used in healing ceremonies. Together they prayed and sought solitude in this sacred landscape.
Similar to Bears Ears, the Badger-Two Medicine, a 130,000-acre area within the Lewis and Clark National Forest, became embroiled in a controversy over potential natural resource development between 1982 and 2017. The Blackfeet tribe argued that these lands were sacred. And that tribal members, such as my great-grandparents, had used these lands for years for spiritual purposes.
The Blackfeet tribe ultimately succeeded in stopping development, but only after a 35-year-long fight with the Department of the Interior, which initially approved almost 50 oil and gas leases. In 2017 Interior Secretary Jewell canceled the last of these leases. This means these public lands will not be used for natural resource development in the future.
Now my family and other Blackfeet, who have used the Badger-Two Medicine for millennia, can use these public lands for their religious practice in solitude.
Forty Years Later
The reality is, however, that not every dispute between tribes and the U.S. government ends up in favor of the tribes. Historically, Native American tribes have struggled to explain why certain landscapes are sacred for them.
In 1988, just 10 years after the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Supreme Court considered a case involving the construction of a U.S. Forest Service road through undeveloped federal lands sacred to northern California tribes in the Six Rivers National Forest.
The lower court had ruled in favor of the Yurok, Karok and Tolowa tribes, stating the road would impact their religious practice.
However, the Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that building a road through a sacred landscape would not prohibit the tribes' "free exercise" of religion.
The tribes lost, because the Supreme Court viewed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act as a policy and not a law with legal protections.
Ultimately, the road was not built because Congress stepped in and added this sacred area to the existing Siskiyou Wilderness, which is a protected area by federal law.
What was noteworthy in the SCOTUS deliberations, though, was the dissenting opinion of Justice William Brennan, who defended land-based religions. He said,
"Native American faith is inextricably bound to the use of land. The site-specific nature of Indian religious practice derives from the Native American perception that land is itself a sacred, living being."
At a time when the Trump administration has created a new task force to address discrimination against certain religious groups, the exclusion of Bears Ears and other places of religious significance from these discussions raises important questions about religious freedom in the U.S. and also the legacy of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
For Native Americans, a River Is Sacred https://t.co/YXQawDP518 @foodandwater @Waterkeeper @billmckibben @foe_us @IENearth @MarkRuffalo @350— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1507567731.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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Twenty-nine uncontained wildfires are blazing in the Western U.S. right now, raising concerns that 2018's fire season could rival 2017's record-breaking season for devastation, The New York Times reported Monday.
The fast-moving County Fire in Northern California, which started Saturday and has burnt more than 60,000 acres of land as of late Monday, has belched smoke into the skies over San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma and San Mateo counties, National Public Radio (NPR) reported.
It has created dramatic images, as Bay Area residents woke up to smoke and ash over the weekend.
"The sky is very dark, even in the middle of the day. It's a little scary," a Sausalito Shell station employee Sergio Garcia told the Associated Press, according to NPR.
For residents of California's wine country, it is also bringing back memories of the fires that ravaged the area last fall.
"A lot of friends and family were texting today and saying they were having some PTSD," Savannah Kirtlink told the Associated Press, according to NPR.
So far the County Fire has forced 300 people from their homes and threatened 700 buildings, ABC News reported. It is only three percent contained and growing, according to NPR, fueled by dry weather and southwesterly wind.
"We didn't really get a lot of rain this year, so the fields dried out quickly," Captain Mark Bailey told The New York Times. "A big fire like this in early July is the new normal for California."
The County Fire isn't the only one raging in California. The nearby Pawnee Fire, which began a week before, is still burning, though CalFire told NPR it is 75 percent contained.
Dry conditions in other Western states are also fueling flames. In Colorado, there are currently more than a half dozen fires which have forced 2,500 homes to be evacuated, ABC News reported. Most of the evacuations were due to a fire accidentally started by a Danish man named Jesper Joergensen.
"We've never seen any fires like this. Ever," grocery store owner Felix Romero, whose business is a few miles south of the blaze, told The New York Times. "We're just afraid the fire will start heading south. If it does, we're in deep trouble."
Firefighters have also been battling a blaze in Wyoming, near the Colorado border, since June 10, according to ABC News. It is about 80 percent contained.
In Utah, a fire near Strawberry Reservoir, a popular fishing destination, has forced evacuations from seven to 10 summer cabins.
And in New Mexico, a fire forced authorities to order the entire town of Cimarron, home to around 1,000 people, to evacuate in June, The New York Times reported.
The National Interagency Fire Center said the Southwest could see some relief from fire-causing drought conditions in early July, as rain is expected. However, hot, windy weather is projected to maintain fire risk in parts of California, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington through the end of the month, ABC News reported.
California Wildfire Risk Grows as Cloud Cover Is 'Plummeting' https://t.co/TdMEz69PTb @ClimateCentral @YaleClimateComm— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1528236029.0
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By Sam Schipani
With rainfall at record lows, water is an increasingly precious commodity in the deserts of southern Utah. But in the driest reaches of redrock country, one long-waged water war thunders even louder than the rest.
Utah legislators and water managers have spent nearly a decade trying to break ground on the 140-mile-long Lake Powell Pipeline, which will carry 77 million gallons of water annually from the Colorado River to nearby Washington and Kane Counties. When all is said and done, the project is estimated to cost somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. The specifics are unclear as to who is paying for the project, and delays continue ratcheting up the price tag, but part of the burden will probably be borne by Utah taxpayers through raised property taxes, impact fees and spiked water rates; the rest will likely come from state borrowing.
According to Lisa Rutherford, a public lands activist in Washington County, "it is the moneyed interests that are pushing for the pipeline." She said that while 22 economists wrote to the state legislator in 2015 questioning the exorbitant costs the pipeline would impose on Washington County residents, developers stand to make millions of dollars from the project.
Pipeline proponents argue that Utah is merely drawing its rightful allocation of water from the river based on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, and that if it doesn't, other states will take that water. But Rutherford and other conservationists argue that the state has already used its share because the allocations were based on the Colorado River of 1922, replete with 16 million acre feet flows instead of today's 12 or 13 million acre feet. Rutherford believes that the politicians and developers who support the Lake Powell Pipeline project have blinders on. "They want to get that water flowing sooner rather than later in hopes that if the politics change around the river, they'll already have that straw in there," she said.
Anti-pipeline conservationists are concerned about the impacts of the Lake Powell Pipeline on the Colorado River. Different parts of the river—sometimes the upper portion, sometimes the lower, and other times the whole body of water—have been included on American Rivers' annual Most Endangered list several times. The demands on the river for potable water outweigh its supply–nearly 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles drink water from the Colorado River, and it currently irrigates 15 percent of the nation's crops. According to Dan Mayhew, conservation chair at the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, climate change is expected to further exacerbate the supply issue, with flows expected to decrease between 10 and 30 percent by 2050.
"We're looking at the health and longevity of the Colorado River, which is critical to the life of humans and wildlife alike," he said. "The data clearly exists and demonstrates that the Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States."
And Washington and Kane Counties (which currently source their water primarily from the Virgin River watershed) are veritable water guzzlers. Due to a perfect confluence of climate, geography, and funding, water rates in the area are incredibly cheap. Without incentives to conserve, the counties have the highest per capita water use in Utah, which has one of the highest per capita water use rates of any state in the country. Add that to the fact that the city of St. George in Washington County is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the U.S., with retirees and vacationers alike seeking a desert oasis close to a wealth of national parks and recreational opportunities. As retirement communities, golf courses, and resorts proliferate, water consumption will likely increase.
"They call St. George Utah's Dixie," Mayhew said. "Everyone knows water is an issue. But at the same time, the culture is very pro-development."
Instead of draining the Colorado River, some groups advocate for smarter use of local sources like the Virgin River, Navajo Aquifer, Sand Hollow Reservoir, and Quail Creek Reservoir. "The alternative is basically managing our local waters better," said Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah. In 2013, his organization along with the Western Resource Advocates submitted a Local Waters Alternative to the state and federal agencies in charge of the Lake Powell Pipeline project, which suggested redistributing the area's water withdrawal across local sources while reducing the consumption per capita by nearly half. Butine said the water district and the state division of water resources didn't recognize the proposed alternative.
"They use water as if it's an unlimited resource, and our local governments charge for water as if it's an unlimited resource," Butine said. "Water conservation is an environmental issue, and so we think we should instill a conservation ethic for water here."
The Washington County Water Conservancy District sees it differently. Karry Rathje, the water district's public information manager, says that after the governor of Utah established a water conservation goal for all cities to reduce their use 25 percent by 2025, Washington County was the first county to meet and exceed that bar. Their seasonal newsletter, she points out, includes tips for both indoor and outdoor water conservation.
Ron Thompson, general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, adds that drawing from local water sources will stress those river systems and fail to meet the needs of the growing population. The Virgin River, for example, is a small river system with limited watershed at a much lower altitude (read: without the cost-saving benefit of gravity to transport it). Moreover, it is home to a number of native species, including two listed fish that are currently thriving.
Thompson acknowledges that the Colorado River flows are not quite what they were in 1922, but he said, "That water was set aside for these communities to sustain them in the future, and we have as much right to it as anyone else. It's Utah's water; we're entitled to it by the compact."
The long fight over the pipeline has involved its share of political dealings. The state applied for the project in May 2016 through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, even though the project's main purpose was clearly for water delivery and not energy generation. Even the six hydroelectric facilities along the pipeline are slated to be used primarily to power the pipeline's pump stations.
"I think the state asked FERC to do it because traditionally it is a much less public process," Butine said. "I think the state thought it would be much easier to get FERC to grant it than any other agency."
This assumption seems to have been correct. The state's 6,000-page licensing application for the Lake Powell Pipeline cost $33 million to prepare but was submitted to FERC as an unfinished draft that had not been reviewed by the Utah Division of Water Resources. Nevertheless, FERC gave its initial approval to the project in December 2017. FERC later put the review on hold over questions of the agency's jurisdiction over the project.
One pipeline proponent, Utah representative Mike Noel, owns 700 acres of land and substantial water rights in Kane County's Johnson Canyon, where the pipeline will pump 3.5 million gallons a day. He failed to disclose the holdings in state filings as potential conflicts of interest, and claims no such conflict exists. Meanwhile, Noel also served as executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, where he was paid a $120,000 salary and often argued on Capitol Hill that the Lake Powell Pipeline is the only way to meet the water needs of Kane County. The proposed pipeline route also crosses lands recently stripped from Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, whose reduction Noel had pushed in the state legislature.
Noel announced in March that he will not be seeking reelection. He will, however, continue serving on the four-member management committee overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Between the paused FERC review and the lack of financing, the Lake Powell Pipeline project appears to be on hold for now—Butine notes that where the project's website once showed specific dates for beginning construction, they have since been removed—but after a decade of pushing, pipeline proponents are not likely to falter. While the waters have calmed, environmental groups are still on alert.
"This is one of those things that moves slowly and you keep your eye on, but you're never really sure what will happen next," Mayhew said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Sam Schipani
While the Ancestral Puebloan people of the Southwest were building citadels like Chaco Canyon, the Fremont people were carving mysterious petroglyphs depicting horned, broad-shouldered triangular men and sweeping carvings of desert snakes. Nowhere is their legacy more apparent than in eastern Utah's Molen Reef. Fremont artifacts dominate this cultural heritage site, but its rock art ranges from 3,000-year-old panels from the Barrier Canyon tradition to etchings by Mormon pioneers crossing the Utah desert.
They aren't easy to see, but that's not a bad thing. You won't find these cultural treasures on a map, and Jonathan Bailey, a Ferron, Utah-based photographer and author of Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape, thinks it should stay that way. "There are hundreds of rock art panels in the Molen Reef, and maybe a dozen are known," he said. "They are mostly pristine, unexcavated sites that have very little vandalism."
Bailey worries about the resources being compromised by human activity before they can be cataloged and protected. But the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has different plans for the area. In January 2018, the agency approved the leasing of 32,000 acres for mineral exploration between the San Rafael Swell and Molen Reef—just as it has in many other places in Utah. In Molen Reef, instead of highly publicized conservation efforts led by environmental organizations, tribal groups, or multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation outfitters, the resistance is being led by a scrappy group of rock art enthusiasts fighting to save the sites they love to explore.
The Utah Rock Art Research Association (URARA) has been protesting oil and gas leasing in the area for years. The group works with environmental organizations and others because "wilderness concerns cross over with rock art concerns." But it avoids taking partisan stances. "We're an organization of both Republicans and Democrats," said Diane Orr, cochair of URARA's conservation and preservation committee. "Our concern with oil and gas leases is when the leasing process does not carefully look at all the resources in the area and really evaluate what needs to be protected."
In the past, Orr, Bailey, and other rock art enthusiasts have been able to persuade the BLM to defer leasing while they conduct field work to document petroglyphs, habitation sites and geoglyphs that might be impacted by development. But in 2018, guided by the Trump administration's "energy dominance" agenda, the BLM's Price field office has overruled URARA's protests.
"This is the first year we have not been able to withdraw these leases," said Bailey.
Federal law obligates the BLM to analyze lands nominated for leasing and offer them at auction if it determines that leasing will not harm non-energy resources. Despite the determination of his two predecessors that leasing could damage the rock art, current BLM state director Ed Roberson concluded it would not.
"BLM conducts additional site specific analysis before any surface disturbing activities can occur," maintains Heather O'Hanlon, BLM's Utah information officer, in an email. "Strong stipulations ... give us confidence that we can protect the cultural resources entrusted under our care."
The rock art army is not reassured. Though O'Hanlon claims that "the BLM-Utah completed the most intensive pre-lease inventory survey that we have ever done," Bailey said that the agency has yet to inventory many rock art sites around Molen Reef. "They have not inventoried a good chunk of this land, so they can't judge the impacts," he said.
"In this instance, BLM has essentially punted on that issue," said Landon Newell, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "They've deferred the majority of their analysis to a future date, even though they're required to inventory and document the presence of cultural resources in the beginning."
Following January's decision to proceed, the BLM put 15 parcels east of Molen Reef up for auction. After none received the minimum $2-an-acre bid at auction, the leases opened up for noncompetitive sale. Liberty Petroleum out of Great Neck, New York, was then able to buy 4,934 acres for $1.50 each, in what the rock art community considers the three most sensitive lease areas. The company has a history of holding on to leases without developing them (opponents believe the company is waiting for a more favorable market), but once a lease is issued, the BLM is contractually obligated to accommodate extraction.
Local Utah officials hold out hope that they can have it all. "We believe we can enjoy all the resources," said Ray Pederson, public lands director for Emery County, where the San Rafael Swell and Molen Reef are located. "We don't want to sacrifice certain resources to develop others, we just want to develop them in a manner that allows us to enjoy all of them. We believe we can do that."
Rock-art enthusiasts and conservationists strongly disagree. Oil and gas exploration will irreparably impact the area's cultural and natural resources, they say. Since Molen Reef is largely untouched, speculators would have to start from scratch, with new roads, new pipelines, new well pads. The development would prevent the area from ever achieving protection under the Wilderness Act, and the dust kicked up from developers driving in and out would damage pristine rock art panels, not to mention the fact that new roads would likely bring looters and vandals.
In a curious footnote, on May 9, Utah representative John Curtis and senator Orrin Hatch introduced a bill that would set aside more than a half million acres of wilderness in Emery County and create a national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry as well as 383,380 acres of national conservation areas, mostly in the San Rafael Swell. Sierra Club Utah chapter director Ashley Soltysiak calls the legislation a "faux-conservation bill" that "simply does not protect enough of the wilderness areas." She notes that the bill conspicuously excludes some key areas, among them Molen Reef.
"We know they are interested in the Molen Reef for energy development, and we know they are aware of the cultural significance of Molen Reef," said rock art photographer Bailey, "so we have to wonder why it's left out."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
A federal judge Tuesday struck down the city of Oakland's ban on coal shipments through a planned export terminal.
U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ridiculed the city for violating its contract with the developer of the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal in its 2016 ban, writing in his opinion that there is no "substantial evidence" that coal shipments "would pose a substantial health or safety danger" to Oakland residents.
"This is a fight for environmental justice and equity," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement. "Oakland's most vulnerable communities have unfairly suffered the burden of pollutants and foul air for too long." The terminal's developers plan to source coal from the Powder River Basin region to store in Oakland before shipping overseas, and the judge's ruling was celebrated by local officials in coal-producing towns in Wyoming and Utah.
As reported by Bloomberg:
As demand for coal in the U.S. declines, miners depend increasingly on overseas markets. Yet Wyoming and Montana's Powder River Basin, home to the nation's largest reserves, is largely cut off from the world market without West Coast ports.
Oakland is among several terminals in California and the Pacific Northwest that environmentalists have pushed to close to miners in an effort to keep U.S. coal off the international market. Reversing the ban could increase exports by as much as 19 percent, according to the Sierra Club.
Renewable Energy Dominates Early 2018 Power Plant Construction https://t.co/52VSzo9jID @RenewablesNews @cleantechnica— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1524873608.0
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