From Tennessee to the arid West, water runs through my work

Banks of the Shasta River, Siskiyou County, California (Mount Shasta in the background)

Eastern Tennessee, at the edge of Appalachia, is a beautiful part of the country. Abundant rainfall and a humid climate have created a lush, green landscape filled with thriving streams and rivers. As an adolescent living in this environment, fishing was one of my family’s favorite pastimes. I have such great memories of floating these rivers and catching smallmouth bass and walleye.

But not all streams were great for fishing in Eastern Tennessee. Runoff and sedimentation from widespread coal mining and manufacturing would turn some rivers red. The sight of rivers nearly devoid of life disturbed me and marked the beginning of my slow evolution toward a career in water management.

My career has been a journey, exploring and addressing the nuances that define water, particularly in the western United States. The lure of water led me to Colorado State University, where I received a doctorate degree in watershed sciences. There I immersed myself in water issues, with a big focus on agricultural water use. I made my way back east to teach geology at Radford University before moving to California to begin work as a watershed engineer and consultant.

Today, as an associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, I am focused on developing collaborative solutions for managing water scarcity throughout the West.

This task will not be easy. For more than a hundred years, water use here has been defined by a complex maze of archaic rules, confusing policies and misaligned incentives.

Fortunately, change is in the air. Read More »

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Ranchlands: An untapped reservoir of monarch butterfly habitat

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the "Texas Funnel." Source: Journey North

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the "Texas Funnel." Source: Journey North

As monarch butterflies have returned to Texas on their fall migration south, so have my colleagues and I to Shield Ranch for another round of field testing for the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, a new conservation program we expect to launch in key states in 2017.

Texas offers a lot of potential habitat for monarchs, being a critical layover on the species’ annual migrations north and south, and having a number of landowners willing and eager to find a solution for the iconic butterfly’s decline.

During our visit to Shield Ranch, we saw dozens of monarchs and other butterflies, as an unusually high amount of rain in August sparked a profusion of fall wildflowers in central Texas. With targeted conservation funding through the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, we can make rapid progress on the ground. Read More »

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What was left off the menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

jenny-ahlen-croppedMany of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many executives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff – but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale. Read More »

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What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Journalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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New project guarantees payment for growers who implement conservation measures


Arkansas rice farmers participating in agricultural carbon markets. Credit: Adam Jahiel

Early adopters of innovative land-based conservation measures are rarely given an adequate reward for participating in agricultural carbon markets. But that’s all about to change, thanks to a nearly $1.2 million USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) that will leverage private capital investment into agricultural carbon offset practices and ensure that producers are paid for their efforts.

These efforts will guarantee the sale of at least 100,000 tons of credits over the next three years. Here’s how it will work. Read More »

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California’s new law means more bang for every buck invested in wildlife

The Swainson's hawk was listed as a threatened species in California in 1983 due to loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state.

The Swainson's hawk is one of the at-risk species that AB 2087 benefits.

Prudent investors know to keep a few key things in mind. They anticipate the timing of spending priorities, like retirement, and evaluate investment risk accordingly. They might spread resources across funds to meet different objectives. And of course, they look to maximize their return on investment.

Why shouldn’t these same principles apply to investments in our natural resources?

Thanks to a new bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, these principles will now apply to regional conservation investment strategies for wildlife and other resource management activities in California.

AB 2087: A new approach to conservation planning and mitigation

Assembly Bill (AB) 2087 (Levine), will establish voluntary, non-regulatory strategies to help conservationists, local agencies and the state apply core investment principles when planning conservation or mitigation projects.

This legislation comes at a critical time. Expanding development in California has supported a growth in food production, flood protection, transportation and housing, but it has also resulted in various impacts on the environment. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat, in particular, has created a need for the state to restore and maintain at least 600,000 acres for multiple at-risk species in the coming decades. Read More »

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    Meeting growing demands for food and water in ways that allow people and nature to prosper.

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