Having endured the driest year on record in both Texas and California, I cannot resist comparing them. The biggest lesson is that long after the rains return, water supply problems remain. Read more from my Daily Beast piece, here.
The most fundamental element of life is water. So why aren’t newsrooms covering it like a beat? Read more in my feature in the new issue of Columbia Journalism Review.
Much has been written about the problems with marine preserves, where fish can, in theory, swim relatively free from human threats. There are few of them, especially on the high seas outside of national jurisdiction; their quality is highly variable; and governments’ ability to enforce fishing restrictions is limited.
A new study to be published on Wednesday in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems hones in on another issue: that officials tend to create reserves in the least useful areas for conservation. For example, they may favor areas where biodiversity is relatively sparse so as not to hurt local fishing industries. As a result, hitting a target for the *amount* of ocean preserved can result in a “false sense of achievement for conservation,” the study warns. My International New York Times Green column has more on this subject.
I’ll be learning more about oceans this week at the Economist World Oceans summit in California.
Much of this blog falls in the category of “features I’d write if only I had time.”
This one’s been on my list for months: What the West could learn about wildfire management from the South. As it turns out, Southern states oversee huge prescribed-burn programs, with private landowners often voluntarily burning their land every several years, in addition to government groups. “The Florida Forest Service boasts one of the most extensive prescribed burning programs in the nation,” Jim Karels, the head of the service, said recently. Winter is the season for it. A massive prescribed burn just began in the Everglades. The South, like the West, is timber country — recall the huge blaze three years ago in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp — so prevention is key.
Landowners have obvious concerns about liability lest a fire get out of control. And no one wants smoke blowing across a highway or settled area, which is an increasing challenge as people build homes deeper in the woods. But liability can be potentially limited if the landowners take certification courses on burns or have their burn supervised by someone who’s certified. These rules will vary state to state, and are often evolving. New Jersey, for example, is currently working on rules about liability and certification.
Differences between the South and the West abound, of course. Most significantly, the West has a lower percentage of private land. Doubtless there are important weather differences too. But as the Western wildfire season approaches — and it’s going to be a severe one, because of the big bad drought — perhaps federal land managers should study Florida’s example.
One item caught my eye in the Casper Star-Tribune‘s rundown of coal’s 3% production drop in Wyoming in 2013. One of the key factors, besides the weather, was the rising number of oil-carrying trains. ”Increasing oil shipments mean rail constraints [for coal] are expected to persist into 2014,” the Tribune reported.
There has been a lot of reporting on the hazards of oil trains. But this is a new angle — at least to me. Oil train shipments have risen by 40x since 2008. So how much are they crowding out other shipments, including different energy fuels like coal? How much are prices for rail transport rising?
When it comes to the West’s unending water woes, a key element is always missing from the discussion: price. Water is incredibly cheap. Actually, it’s basically free: household bills (which generally cost less than cable TV) reflect the cost of pipes and pumping and treatment, not the commodity itself. For all the talk of water being more valuable than oil — it’s not.
Water must of course remain affordable for people at the low end. But when things cost more, people use less. And it’s interesting to me how rates are a third rail of sorts in local politics. Water is basically taken for granted. As the chief financial officer of San Antonio’s water system once told me, “We have people come in and say: ‘I’m really struggling to pay my water bill. Just a minute, let me answer my cellphone.’”
Rates have been going up in California and around the country — by 23 percent on average between 2000 and 2010, according to one study. The gurus say it’s almost certainly not enough, as local utilities cope with rising debt burdens and the need to find new supplies in an era of climate change and population growth. Price is far from the only tool to help deal with shortages, but it’s a little-used one. The general recommendation is for tiered pricing that increases depending on use, so that heavy users pay higher per-unit charges than light ones. While common, this is far from universal.
In times of drought, rates often go up anyway. Midland, Texas, is one recent example. That’s partly because water utilities want to encourage conservation, but they also get caught in a conundrum. Revenue falls as restrictions cut into usage, yet the utility still needs to maintain its infrastructure and, if desperate, find more (expensive) water. So rates end up rising on those who’ve obeyed orders to conserve. That’s unpopular, to say the least.
By the way, since we’re talking conservation, it helps to measure water use. A fascinating fact to emerge from the Sacramento Bee’s excellent reporting is that only about half of Sacramento’s water customers have meters. In other words, the capital of the nation’s most drought-ravaged state cannot measure the water use in half the homes and businesses it serves. Without knowing how much each location consumes, the city cannot technically enforce its 20 percent mandatory cut for everyone. Instead it’s focusing on compliance with outdoor watering restrictions (which is sensible, to be sure). Nor can it get much fancier than a flat rate for water for unmetered properties (about $42 per month for modest-sized homes). By 2025 all California homes must by law have meters, which certainly aren’t cheap — a few hundred dollars per installed meter, if memory serves.
All of this matters because municipalities are the fastest-growing major users of water, with very roughly half of cities’ water use going to lawns. Agriculture is a bigger consumer overall, however. I’ll save thoughts on that for another day.
Call me jaded. But if I read another headline about tomorrow’s matchup being the greenest Super Bowl ever, I’m calling Omaha Enough.
Don’t misunderstand — it’s great that MetLife stadium is composting food waste, using low-flush toilets, adding native plant landscaping and so on. They’ve put a lot of thought into it, and officials at other stadiums are doubtless taking note.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The Super Bowl is the ultimate display of American consumerism. Well, maybe it’s topped by Black Friday. But fundamentally, tens of millions of electricity-hungry television sets will be turned on while their viewers happily munch takeout and pound beer, with or without recycling. That’s not counting the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who fly to New York for the event, rent cars, etc. The Super Bowl’s real carbon footprint, in other words, comes not at the game itself, but at all the second-order events that feed the spectacle.
I’m planning to drive an hour and a half to watch the Super Bowl with family. It’s going to be fun.
Groundwater fascinates me. It’s a vast, invisible resource that we know so little about. And it’s free, if you’ve got it under your land and can afford a big pump. California and the rest of the country are going to be talking a lot more about groundwater in the coming years. That’s because as cities expand and surface supplies run low, everyone’s going to drill more wells.
Herewith a few recent tidbits I’ve found especially interesting on US groundwater.
*Nate Blakeslee has an important piece in Texas Monthly on the weird disconnect between the regulation of surface water and groundwater in Texas. More precisely, groundwater basically isn’t regulated. And that doesn’t make sense, Blakeslee argues, because the ground and surface reserves are interconnected. (A similar regulatory disconnect can be found across the West, as I understand it.)
*Much was written last year on some Kansas farmers’ decision to limit their own agricultural pumping, as the Ogallala Aquifer in that area declined. But similar policies pop up occasionally around the Great Plains. One I just read about is in Nebraska, where the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District is limiting farmer to a certain amount of groundwater (seven inches of irrigated water per acre per year). Interestingly, the district also has imposed a moratorium on new wells, which may stop newcomers from taking advantage of high crop prices to plant more acreage.
A few groundwater districts in the Texas Panhandle have also imposed limits, most interestingly the North Plains district, as I wrote about last year. But it’s very politically tough for a district to reduce the amount farmers can pump, as another battle in the High Plains district of the Panhandle has shown.
My take on the California drought appears in The Daily Beast today. Key line: ”The Golden State should probably be panicking more than it is.” Read it here.
All eyes are on the Keystone XL — will Obama approve it or won’t he? But meanwhile, a little-noticed pipeline controversy is brewing in Kentucky. It’s got a wonderful name, the Bluegrass Pipeline, and if approved it would carry natural gas liquids across 13 counties in Kentucky. These liquids would be going from the Northeast to the Gulf Coast.
But many locals aren’t happy. They have the usual fears about leaks or explosions, and they packed a meeting yesterday (Thursday) to voice them. The natural gas liquids are hazardous, they say, and should not be moved through areas of karst geology. The pipeline’s developers say the project is safe and will bring tax revenues and construction jobs; they also note the dangerous of alternative transportation, by road. The crucial question of whether the company can condemn land through eminent domain is in the courts.
What’s interesting about all this is that it’s Kentucky. Even in a coal state, people are anxious about oil and gas products running under the land. Moreover, I’d bet there are a number of other local pipeline controversies across the US that fall under the radar, overshadowed perhaps by the Keystone XL megafight. Because as fracking continues to proliferate, pipelines are presumably proliferating as well. I remember a local in Texas telling me her concerns about a new route for a pipeline called “Seaway,” for example. And a quick Google search reveals another pipeline controversy in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Nobody’s heard of these, either.