Are you feeling water whiplash?
This story originally published in Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
California was dry. Then it was wet. Now it’s been dry again. What is going on?
If you’re feeling water whiplash, you’re not alone. My colleague Hayley Smith explained why so many Californians still face water restrictions despite the state getting its deepest snowpack in 40 years. The short version is that while we may have a decent amount of water now, it almost certainly won’t last — and we should “conserve as much as we can so we can save water to have it available when we need it,” says Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Another big part of the answer is the Colorado River, which supplies much of Southern California’s water and is still in bad shape, with a long-term drying trend driven by climate change continuing apace. Experts say the two huge reservoirs on the Colorado — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are unlikely to refill in our lifetimes, The Times’ Rong-Gong Lin II and Ian James report.
Efforts to stave off collapse at Mead and Powell haven’t led to much progress thus far. California is battling the six other Colorado River Basin states over how best to prevent those reservoirs from falling to crisis levels, with a courtroom battle looking increasingly likely. Golden State leaders appear to be banking on their senior water rights to protect them from draconian cuts — a strategy that relies on the century-old Law of the River, whose origins Hayley Smith and Ian James explain here.
So yes — against that backdrop, we should all keep saving water.
It’s not just homes that bear that responsibility. A new report from advocacy group Food and Water Watch calls on Gov. Gavin Newsom to end new oil and gas drilling and ban new mega-dairies, arguing they use far too much water and make it harder for California to guarantee clean, safe and affordable water for all. Details here from Dorany Pineda and Hayley Smith.
If you’re sick of reading scary news articles — I wouldn’t blame you — go watch The Times’ sheep puppet explain the latest on Colorado River negotiations. (No, I’m not making that up — we’ve got a sheep puppet.) Or try this short video of me explaining the Imperial Valley’s role in supplying America’s winter vegetables — and why it requires so much Colorado River water.
Another solution to too many scary news articles: reading something hopeful. In my favorite story of the week, Ian James went up over the North Pacific Ocean in a jet called Gonzo (named for the Muppet!) with highflying scientists as they dropped tracking capsules into an atmospheric river, to help improve storm forecasts and save lives and water in California. And be sure to watch Jackeline Luna’s video for footage from the air. If that’s not journalism worth supporting, I’m not sure what is.
Much more news below — and as a reminder, we’re now sending two editions of Boiling Point each week. The first, on Tuesday, will feature my usual roundup of the latest Western climate and environment news. The second, on Thursday, will feature original writing and reporting. Check out last Thursday’s edition, about how art lovers helped defeat America’s largest solar farm.
On that note, here’s what else is happening around the West:
POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
In Ontario, there are an estimated 95,000 daily truck trips — nearly two for every household. The Times’ Rachel Uranga wrote about the lung-damaging pollution spewed by trucks driving to and from 4,000 warehouses in Southern California’s Inland Empire — with more warehouses getting built every year to serve online commerce demand. Dorany Pineda, meanwhile, wrote about a new study finding that Chevron’s El Segundo oil refinery releases more nitrogen and selenium pollution than any other refinery reviewed by the researchers. Together, their stories serve as a reminder that every facet of the fossil fuel economy can have deadly consequences — with low-income communities and people of color disproportionately harmed.
The fossil fuel industry gathered enough signatures to put on hold a California law banning new oil and gas wells near homes and schools. Voters will decide the law’s fate in November 2024 — meaning drilling will be allowed for at least another two years. Environmental justice activists hope Gov. Gavin Newsom will crack down and reject new drilling permits even in the law’s absence. They’ll be looking to see whom he chooses to replace Uduak-Joe Ntuk, who stepped down as California’s oil and gas supervisor last month. They were hopeful when Ntuk was appointed that he would go to bat for marginalized communities, but they were ultimately disappointed in his tenure, as John Cox writes for the Bakersfield Californian.
The California Air Resources Board is moving toward banning hexavalent chromium in decorative plating. The chemical gives classic cars their distinctive shine, but it also causes cancer, my colleague Tony Briscoe reports. I’ll admit I’m not much of a car person, but that feels like a poor trade-off. In other toxic chemical news, CalMatters published a mind-bending investigation by Robert Lewis finding that California classifies hazardous waste more strictly than the federal government to protect human health. But rather than dealing with the toxic garbage itself, California mostly ships its waste to states with weaker disposal laws.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
A controversial solar farm just outside Mojave National Preserve is back — and it’s only the latest conflict between clean energy and conservation. Activists say the Soda Mountain solar farm would destroy “a deceptively delicate and vital ecosystem rich in wildlife: tortoises, foxes, badgers, bobcats and bighorn sheep,” my colleague Louis Sahagún writes. In related news, Emma Foehringer Merchant wrote a fascinating story for Undark about researchers creating a repository of birds and bats killed at solar and wind farms, to better understand why they’re getting killed and how to prevent it. One prevention strategy would be to build fewer large solar farms and more solar panels on rooftops. That’s part of the reason why environmental activists are appealing California’s controversial cuts to rooftop solar incentives, as Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
General Motors will invest $650 million in the company planning to mine for lithium at Nevada’s Thacker Pass — if the project isn’t derailed by legal challenges from conservationists and Native American tribal leaders. Here’s the story from Scott Sonner at the Associated Press. Yes, this is another conflict between clean energy and conservation, because lithium is a vital component of batteries for electric cars and energy storage. But in more encouraging news, a new study estimates the U.S. could reduce additional lithium mining by 92% through strategies to promote smaller cars, public transit, battery recycling and denser, more walkable cities. The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani wrote about the study.
Several technologies that could help keep the lights on 24/7 without fossil fuels are taking slow steps forward. In New Mexico, the “enhanced” geothermal drilling company Eavor recently drilled a record-deep hole, per Kevin Robinson-Avila at the Albuquerque Journal. In Colorado, utility giant Xcel Energy has agreed to install a first-of-its-kind long-duration energy storage system at a soon-to-be-former coal plant, Michael Booth reports for the Colorado Sun. And in Idaho, federal officials approved a small nuclear reactor design for the first time, per the Associated Press’ Jennifer McDermott. In a setback for nuclear energy, though, the AP’s Michael R. Blood reports that federal regulators rebuffed a request from Pacific Gas & Electric that would have made it easier for the company to keep the Diablo Canyon power plant running past 2025.
The Biden administration is poised to allow a huge new Alaska oil drilling project known as Willow. Climate advocates say it’s exactly the kind of new fossil fuel extraction that science shows is totally incompatible with maintaining a habitable planet, as Nicholas Kusnetz reports for Inside Climate News. Also in Alaska, federal officials exercised a rarely used power under the Clean Water Act to ensure the Pebble gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay doesn’t move forward, per the Washington Post’s Timothy Puko. And the Biden administration banned logging and road building across much of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. It’s a huge carbon storehouse, and a place “where eagles are as abundant as house sparrows, salmon clog streams like rush-hour traffic and wolves feed on salmon carcasses,” as one biologist told the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman.
California lawmakers are making another effort to require public disclosure of climate pollution from major companies and bar state pension fund investments in the fossil fuel industry. The bills in question haven’t received enough support to pass in previous years, but several legislators are trying again, Sophie Austin reports for the Associated Press. Their bills could help the Golden State meet its climate goals. But in a potential setback to those goals, the fossil fuel industry is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a decision blocking fracking off the California coast, Niina H. Farah reports for E&E News.
Federal officials are distributing $580 million to help Native American tribes secure and use water that’s legally theirs. The half-billion dollars for water rights settlements includes $176 million to improve access to clean drinking water on the Navajo Nation, as well as $79 million for Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community and $157 million for Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, according to Suman Naishadham at the Associated Press. The Biden administration has also prioritized tribal co-management of federal public lands. But Congress hasn’t appropriated any money to help tribes do that, Anna V. Smith reports for High Country News. For an example of what co-management looks like, see this story by the Desert Sun’s Erin Rode about a new agreement for the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians to co-steward Joshua Tree National Park.
ON THE LANDSCAPE
The dice are loaded for a (relatively) weak fire season in California following recent storms, but lots of stuff could still go wrong. Details here from The Times’ Hayley Smith. In other dour fire news, a growing body of research suggests working as a firefighter could have negative repercussions on women’s ability to get pregnant and on male sperm count, Jessica Kutz reports for The 19th. At least we have some solutions to reduce wildfire risk, such as forest thinning. But with billions of dollars in federal funding coming down the pike for those projects, will logging of Southern California’s “sky island” forests offer a blueprint or a cautionary tale? I really enjoyed this in-depth story by Joshua Emerson Smith at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Thousands of people packed L.A.’s Greek Theatre to celebrate P-22, the iconic Griffith Park mountain lion euthanized in December. “The world has lost a magnificent creature, and the humans of Los Angeles have lost their chance to catch a glimpse of you in the wild,” said DJ and music producer Diplo, as reported by my colleague Laura J. Nelson. The question now is whether Californians will rally to save our remaining pumas. The outlook isn’t great, with Louis Sahagún reporting that we may be turning mountain lions into roadkill faster than they can reproduce. In the last eight years, 535 pumas have been reported killed on California highways. In better wildlife news, a rare Sierra Nevada red fox was spotted south of Yosemite, James Rainey writes.
The National Park Service is years behind on more than two dozen studies mandated by Congress — including one looking into a possible new national park along the Southern California coast. Details here from Rob Hotakainen and Kevin Bogardus at E&E News. I don’t know about you, but I’d love a new national park. I’d also caution that if you’re going to spend time outdoors — and you definitely should — take care to protect yourself, and the plants and animals around you. The Times’ Jack Dolan had a gripping tale on the dangers of hiking in snowy, icy conditions, which have helped make Mt. Baldy one of the nation’s deadliest peaks. I also read about a new study focused on Glacier National Park, finding that even an activity as seemingly low-impact as hiking can change wildlife behavior. We should all take care to leave as little trace on the landscape as possible.
HOW WE GET AROUND
“How many deaths should we consider acceptable as part of our car-centric way of life?” So asks Ryan Fonseca, author of The Times’ Essential California daily newsletter, in a piece taking Los Angeles officials to task for not making our streets safer, and exploring what they can do better. Ryan also wrote about why we need to accept streets that are slower for cars, and what the state is doing to make e-bikes more affordable for low-income families. In another question of safety, L.A. County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is looking to fund public transit expansion with new digital billboards across the city — a move that critics say would result in more distracted, dangerous driving, as my colleagues David Zahniser and Rachel Uranga report.
Nearly 19% of cars sold in California last year were fully electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell vehicles. That’s up from 2% a decade ago, AFP’s Huw Griffith writes. To encourage more people to make the switch to electric cars, state officials are developing standards to prod charging-station companies to ensure their facilities actually function more of the time, John Voelcker writes for Car and Driver. In another move that could help get people out of gasoline cars, the Biden administration is making more electric SUVs eligible for tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act, responding to pleas from the auto industry, Matthew Daly reports for the Associated Press. But that brings us back to safety, because SUVs tend to be more dangerous than smaller cars.
Wyoming is turning down millions of federal dollars to build electric vehicle charging stations — but this isn’t a red state thumbing its nose at a climate initiative. Wyoming officials want to build chargers near national parks, where tourists drive electric cars in higher numbers than locals elsewhere in the Equality State. The Biden administration has insisted on sticking to funding rules that Wyoming officials say simply don’t work for them. Here’s the fascinating story by David Ferris at E&E News.
ONE MORE THING
You might remember I wrote last year that more TV shows and movies should incorporate climate themes. So I was intrigued by a new deal between Netflix and General Motors that will see Netflix feature GM electric cars in its programming. The companies will promote the initiative with a Super Bowl ad starring Will Ferrell, as Alex Weprin writes for the Hollywood Reporter.
I was also intrigued to discover that Disney’s latest animated film, “Strange World” — which was released in November, but which I watched only last week — is a movie about sustainable farming, unsustainable energy use and living in harmony with nature. As my colleague Tracy Brown writes in her review of the film, “It’s a bit heavy-handed but the message is clear: Being self-absorbed is not good for your family or the planet, so you need to adjust for the sake of the future.”
That’s all for today. We’ll be back in your inbox on Thursday. If you enjoyed this newsletter, or previous editions, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues. For more climate and environment news, follow @Sammy_Roth on Twitter.
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