Growing Returns

Following Florence, lessons from Harvey in recovery and resilience

With the impacts of Hurricane Florence continuing to unfold, coastal communities in the Southeast will soon be looking to other coastal areas, like Houston, as models for rebuilding resiliently. By doing so, they can speed their recovery and build back in smart ways – because that’s what resilience is all about.

For Houston, it wasn’t a single event that triggered discussions of resilience. Houston residents have faced a decade of intense storms and floods, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Together, these repeat catastrophic events sounded the alarm that past approaches to managing flood waters are not sufficient.

Last week, I went to Houston to help decision-makers explore how the city can realize its aim to become more resilient. One year after Harvey, Houston is still learning from its experiences and building upon lessons learned from mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy to move more rapidly into resilience-building phases. That’s good news, because with more frequent, intense weather events, communities across the nation are going to have to rebuild smarter.

Once communities and officials in the Southeast begin thinking about recovery from Florence and preparing to rebuild, there are four key lessons they can learn from Houston after Harvey that will ultimately help them strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the region. Read More »

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As much as Trump would like, economics do not trump science. These laws say so.

The Trump administration has made several attempts to remove science-based decision-making at multiple federal agencies, including those responsible for keeping the American public and our nation’s vital ecosystems healthy.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The latest proposal to insert economic considerations into Endangered Species Act (ESA) decisions is not only illegal – prohibited by the act itself – it’s also a misplaced attempt at incorporating economics where they simply do not belong.

It’s the latest in this administration’s politicization of science and, if successful, will ultimately interfere with efforts to craft durable, realistic solutions to public and ecosystem health. Read More »

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The groundwater manager’s dilemma: How to comply with new California law without changing water rights

by Christina Babbitt and Daniel M. Dooley, New Current Water and Land

Over the next two years, more than 100 groundwater sustainability agencies in California will have to hammer out a plan to make their groundwater basins sustainable.

But as mangers in many areas work to combat decades of over-pumping, they face a major dilemma: In dividing the groundwater pie to avoid overuse, they can’t change Byzantine groundwater rights that date as far back as 1903.

In a new working paper, “Groundwater Pumping Allocations under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Environmental Defense Fund and New Current Water and Land – a California-based consulting firm – provide water managers with a recommended approach to navigate this challenge and develop plans that are more durable, and thus likely to succeed, under the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Groundwater pumps in California’s Pajaro Valley. Photo credit: USDA

Choosing which approach is best is a critical step for cutting back groundwater use, which many basins will have to do, and for creating water trading systems, which many basins are considering to better manage increasingly limited groundwater. Before you create a market, you have to define who has how much – in this case, groundwater pumping rights – in order to trade. Read More »

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What a New York Times op-ed misses about living with climate change

There’s so much that Dr. Erle C. Ellis gets right in his recent op-ed in The New York Times, “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That.

We’re exceeding Earth’s planetary boundaries. We need to adjust our expectations about what a new normal will look like. And there’s no single optimal solution for thriving in a changing climate.

Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library

But in making the case that it is people who will decide the future and not science or natural limits, Dr. Ellis falls into the binary trap he’s encouraging us to avoid. It’s not an either/or proposition.

We need both science and people to make our land and water systems more resilient so humanity and nature can prosper. Heck, we need every tool in the shed, including community engagement, flexible policy, money and good old-fashioned political will.

It may sound like an impossible order, but it’s already happening in some surprising places. Read More »

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Climate change will force us to make tough decisions. Adaptive management can help.

In the face of climate change, it can be difficult to balance environmental, economic and community needs, but it’s a challenge we must overcome to adapt, survive and thrive.

To do this, professionals from multiple sectors across the globe are increasingly incorporating adaptive management techniques into resource planning for all kinds of essential ecosystems – from major watersheds like the Mississippi River Delta to high food production regions like the Corn Belt.

The lessons learned from past management decisions in these places will help shape resilience strategies for communities and industries around the world as they prepare for a new normal. Read More »

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Critically low Lake Mead levels highlight need for Arizona action

Lake Mead water users this week learned we once again narrowly avoided water cutbacks by the skin of our teeth.

A 24-month projection released Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows we skirted federal mandatory water cuts for now, but prospects for 2020 do not look good. The forecast found Lake Mead water levels will end this month at 1,079 feet – a mere four feet away from the 1,075-feet threshold that would trigger a federal shortage declaration and mandatory cuts.

The report predicted Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019 – in nine months. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

An official shortage declaration has been staved off until at least August 2019. That’s when the next key projection comes out, for January 1, 2020.

Water elevation of Lake Mead has been declining in recent years. (Data: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

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How a farmer ‘think tank’ is shaping agricultural sustainability, far beyond the field

One of the best parts of my job at Environmental Defense Fund is working with our farmer advisory network – a group of 19 producers who farm across the Corn Belt and Great Plains on operations ranging in size from about 5,000 acres to 30,000 acres.

EDF’s advisers farm across the heartland, from Minnesota to Texas, and from Idaho to Ohio.

They’re brilliant business people who know how conservation can benefit their bottom line. With their guidance, we’re making real progress aligning economic and environmental outcomes for agriculture.

Here’s how this unique partnership came about, and three of the most important areas of progress we’ve made through our collaboration over the past eight years. Read More »

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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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This new technology allows you to visit coastal Louisiana from your couch

There is nothing like a boat ride through Louisiana’s Wax Lake Delta. This lush landscape, teeming with birds and wildlife, is an example of what Louisiana’s coast can look like if we use the Mississippi River to build land and increase the state’s resilience to storms and rising seas. It’s truly a beautiful place.

In stark contrast, a short plane ride over the region from New Orleans shows the true reality: Much of Louisiana’s coast is disappearing, as coastal wetlands cut off from the Mississippi River turn into open water. This Swiss cheese effect is startling when seen from the air. Read More »

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From satellites to artificial intelligence, how tech will change conservation as we know it

Wyoming is known for its panoramic landscapes, jagged mountains, and herds of pronghorn and bison. This imagery is associated with parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. But not all of Wyoming’s landscapes are encapsulated in iconic national parks.

In southern Wyoming, the continental divide splits to form an enormous arid basin marked by vast sand dunes and grey, alkali lakes. The largest unfenced area in the lower 48, this region is known by Wyomingites as the Red Desert.

The Red Desert stretches across 4 million acres in south central Wyoming. It is home to the largest herd of pronghorn in the continental U.S., the largest desert elk herd, and the longest migrating mule deer herd in North America. Nearly three quarters of the area is covered by sagebrush grassland, and sage-grouse leks are present in much of the region. In the Red Desert’s northeastern corner, a series of alkali lakes known as the Chain Lakes provide critical wetland oasis for migrating shorebirds like ducks, trumpeter swans and white pelicans.

What differentiates the Red Desert from Wyoming’s other iconic landscapes is the rapidly increasing land use for energy development.

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