Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): drought

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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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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California’s budget is not about resistance. It’s about resilience.

The California legislature has passed a budget bill that gives me great hope for the state and for the nation. That’s because the budget was not only passed with bipartisan support – it also proves that conservation has broad political appeal.

California has rebuked the Trump administration on a number of issues including healthcare, immigration and the environment, leading many Americans to see California as the ultimate resistance state. But when I take a closer look at this budget, I think it has less to do with resistance, and everything to do with resilience.

Resilient people, communities, institutions and, yes, environment. Read More »

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The year the private sector stepped up for land, water and wildlife

The private sector stepped up for land, water and wildlifeBy this time next year, I believe we’ll reflect back on 2017 as the year that the private sector stepped up to protect our land, water and wildlife for future generations.

I believe this because major retailers, food companies, agricultural businesses and farmers laid the groundwork in 2016, making sizeable commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), improve water quality and conserve habitat for imperiled wildlife.

President-elect Trump has made political theater by threatening to kill the regulations that protect our nation’s air and water. But in the real world, the private sector is going the other direction.

Forward-thinking businesses are rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to make those regulations work better by accelerating the uptake of practices that are good for the planet and the bottom line.

These are three areas to watch in 2017.

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

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

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. Read More »

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

Mother with childMany 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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Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson's hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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Trees are dying in California, increasing risk of fire. What can we do about it?

On June 22, the Forest Service announced that a record 66 million dead trees in the southern Sierra Nevada. Credit: Dawn Rain, Kings Canyon National Park, California, United States via photopin (license)

On June 22, the Forest Service announced that there is a record 66 million dead trees in the southern Sierra Nevada. Credit: Kings Canyon National Park, California (license)

Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service estimate that as many as 26 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada over the last eight months, creating a landscape at risk for massive wildfires.

Sierra Nevada forests require fire to maintain ecological integrity and periodic fires create patches of complexity that actually enhance biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. But tree mortality at this level creates an immediate risk to human communities and plant communities.

Why are trees dying?

Changes in weather that stress trees or exacerbate other stressors like bark beetle infestations are driving the current wave of tree mortality. Temperatures are increasing at a faster rate at higher elevations and precipitation patterns are changing. Specifically, more precipitation is falling as rain and less as snow, which leads to faster runoff and less percolation into the soil. And despite a relatively wet winter, California is still locked into its fifth year of drought.

These dynamics have been particularly acute in the southern Sierra Nevada, where precipitation continues to be below normal. Tree mortality is highest in the southern part of the range as seen in this map.

So what can we do about this? Read More »

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Despite drought, California agriculture is doing well. But there are hidden costs.

Water scarcity has affected California vineyards

Photo credit: Henrik Johansson

According to a new World Bank report, regions around the world could gain or lose up to 6 percent of their GDP by 2050 depending on how they manage for climate-driven water scarcity.

I was curious about how the report’s findings might apply to California, where I live.

Here in the Golden State, water scarcity is a familiar threat. And while the World Bank found that climate-water costs to North American GDP should be minimal, many Californians have suffered acutely from sustained drought.

In some cases, however, it isn’t entirely clear what the impacts of water scarcity have been. Read More »

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These reforms can unclog California’s water market and help the environment

Birds flying into the sunsetCalifornia has a long tradition of conflict over water. But after five years of drought and an El Niño that failed to live up to its “Godzilla” hype, the conflict has become a crisis. How will the state adjust to a changing climate, increasing demands and prolonged periods of water scarcity?

That’s the question my colleagues and I set out to answer in Better Access. Healthier Environment. Prosperous Communities: Recommendations for Reforming California’s Water Market.

We analyzed the state’s existing market and offered a set of policy reforms to improve the efficiency, accessibility and transparency of the market so that cities, rural communities and ecosystems can benefit without altering existing water rights.

We realize that it will take a portfolio of strategies to increase the state’s resiliency in the face of a growing population and increasingly severe weather. But markets have an especially important role in leveling what has become an uneven playing field. Read More »

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