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How San Francisco Cracked the Urban Composting Code

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

California’s environmental achievements are something to behold. The state ranks first in the U.S. for growth in solar power generation and battery storage. It’s the national leader in cumulative electric vehicle sales and public EV charging stations. And it’s one of a growing number of states that aim to run entirely on carbon-free energy in the coming decades – a goal it briefly met, for about 15 minutes, on April 30.

Now, California is once again setting the pace on a critically important (if somewhat less glamorous) climate imperative: urban composting.

compostA composting exhibit in San Francisco. Credit: Aaron Anderer / Flickr

On January 1, a law went into effect making it mandatory for every city and county in California to provide residents a means to separate and recycle their organic waste. The impacts could be enormous – according to climate experts, composting is one of the simplest low-tech measures humans can take to reverse climate change. Allowing food waste to decompose in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide. And landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S. Composting has other benefits as well, from sequestering carbon and helping farmers create drought-resistant crops to creating long-term revenue streams for city governments.  

Yet few big American cities have successful city-wide composting programs, particularly on the East Coast. How does a city fully integrate composting into its sanitation stream? Perhaps nowhere offers as clear a path forward as San Francisco, the first big U.S. city to offer composting to all of its residents. Twenty-six years later, its system remains the gold standard.

Building a system scrap by scrap

In 1990, when curbside recycling was still new to many communities, San Francisco was already recycling over 25 percent of its trash. Nevertheless, the city’s Department of the Environment was concerned about all the garbage still being sent to faraway landfills, so it authorized a “waste characterization” study in 1996 in which engineers looked at exactly what was being sent to the dump. What they found was shocking: 33 percent of it was organic material that could have been composted.

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“It was a combination of food scraps, sticks and leaves,” says Robert Reed, public relations manager at Recology, a resource recovery company that partners with the city. “We have 5,000 restaurants here, so we’re generating a lot of food scraps.”

All those scraps add up to a heap of emissions, plus the associated costs of disposal. “When you put materials in a landfill, you eventually fill that landfill and you have to build another landfill. And now you have to ship to greater distances,” says Reed.

So, at the city’s request, Recology, which has collected San Francisco’s refuse since 1921, launched a compost pilot program. It started at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market and on residential routes in the Richmond District. Soon after, it expanded to include some large convention hotels. By 2000, it had gone citywide. 

Nine years later, when cities like Seattle were just beginning their voluntary residential composting programs, San Francisco made composting and recycling mandatory for all residents and businesses. 

compostComposting in San Francisco. Credit: Hayes Valley Farm

Mandatory participation scaled things up dramatically. Recology began offering free composting pails, bin labels, signs, multilingual trainings and toolkits for commercial buildings. It also meant occasional fines from the city for non-compliance. All of it was part of the city’s ambitious plan to be “Zero Waste” by 2020.

Today, San Francisco’s pioneering program is world renowned. Over 135 countries have sent delegations to study the city’s compost and recycling systems first hand. The city collects more than 500 tons of compostable materials from its ubiquitous green bins every day, according to Reed, helping to divert some 80 percent of the city’s waste from landfills. All these organic scraps are turned into high-quality compost in just 60 days at a Blossom Valley Organics facility east of the city, and then sold to local farms, vineyards and orchards.

compostThe curbside composting and recycling bins used in San Francisco. Credit: Recology

The revenue from these sales helps offset the cost of the program. “If something goes into the landfill, there’s no sale!” laughs Reed. The system also creates jobs. According to a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, composting sustains four times the number of jobs as landfill or incineration disposal operations. In Maryland, a 2013 study found that composting operations provided more total jobs than the state’s three trash incinerators combined. 

And of course, all that compost enriches the region’s soil with nutrients, minerals and microbes, helping farmers grow healthy crops with fewer commercial fertilizers. Compost also acts as a natural sponge – Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute found that farms can grow up to 40 percent more food in times of drought when they use compost and follow other organic practices. In the West, where drought is common, this is a boon to both commercial farmers and backyard gardeners. Compost can even mitigate the threat of wildfire by retaining moisture from rain and irrigation. 

All of which begs the question: With the many obvious benefits and few apparent downsides, why, 26 years after San Francisco started composting, haven’t other major cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago followed suit?

New York’s composting conundrum

Not long ago, New York City briefly had its own in-home composting program. In 2015, then New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a Zero Waste initiative similar to San Francisco’s. Composting was its cornerstone. Pandemic-related budget cuts forced the city to suspend the service in May 2020. But even before that, the program was anemic, only diverting 43,000 tons of food scraps in 2017 – just five percent of the city’s total food waste. 

compostA New York City curbside composting bin in 2017 before the program was discontinued. Credit: Wikipedia

Theories abound as to what went wrong. One big one has to do with a lack of public outreach. Even the chairman of the city council’s sanitation committee admitted that no one in his own building knew how the system worked. “In my building, we received the brown bins, and some fliers,” he told the New York Times. “I guarantee I’m the only person in my building who knows how to use them.” 

Simply convincing residents to change their long-standing garbage habits was another hurdle. Former NYC Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told the Times, “The biggest challenge is asking New Yorkers to do something different.” She related a story about how, when the department was handing out brown bins one man didn’t want one. “But we were handing out compost at the same time, and he definitely wanted the compost. We said, ‘We really need your banana peels in order to make this in the future.’” The man took one of the bins, illustrating the importance of education and outreach.

New York re-launched its composting program in August 2021 in neighborhoods where interest was most concentrated, according to Vincent Gragnani, press secretary at the city’s Department of Sanitation. Soon, there will be 100 bins at schools across the city that can be accessed with a smartphone app or a key card. “Within the next two years, every public school in the city will be separating their organic waste for collection,” Gragnani told RTBC. New Sanitation Commissioner Jessica S. Tisch is in the process of reviewing what has and has not worked with the city’s program in the past, but is not ready to share this publicly.

Can California strike ‘black gold’?

Now, inspired by San Francisco’s trailblazing composting success, California is set to enact statewide composting for all. (Only a small handful of states mandate statewide composting). The goal of the law is to reduce the landfilling of compostable materials by 75 percent by 2025, thereby reducing methane emissions on a massive scale. CalRecycle, the department that oversees the state’s recycling and waste reduction programs, estimates about half of the state’s communities had food and yard waste collection programs at the start of 2022.

compost“We all have the same goal: to send as little as possible to the landfill,” says Reed. Credit: Sacramento State

There are several things the remaining cities and counties around California can do to emulate San Francisco’s success. One is to stay on message. In 2000, when Recology made green bins available to every resident in San Francisco, the response was mixed. “Some people said, ‘Come and take it back.’ Other people embraced it right away,” recalls Reed. “We were doing a lot of outreach and education in promoting the program and why we think it’s important for people to participate.” 

For instance, San Franciscans speak over 100 different languages, so Recology opted to put photographs on the green bins (in addition to a few words in English, Spanish, and Chinese), showing what can and can’t be composted. The company also produces a customer newsletter that comes with its bills, filled with articles about the benefits of composting and recycling. In addition, Reed, a former reporter, worked closely with journalists to get stories published early on about restaurants embracing composting and vineyards relying on compost from the city. 

 But according to Reed, the key to composting success is getting kids on board. “The best way to get adults to compost is to get composting programs running in schools,” he says. Recology donates compost to school gardens, which makes a big impression on children. “Those kids go home and say, ‘Why don’t we compost at home?’ The very next day the dad has a pail on the kitchen counter, and they’re rolling.” 

Prior to the pandemic, classrooms would visit the Recology Environmental Learning Center and even take tours of the composting and recycling plants. During Covid, Recology’s programming for students has shifted online. The company leads virtual field trips via Zoom and has produced educational videos and games about composting and recycling for kids from pre-K to high school. There’s even a “Better at the Bin” coloring book.

Finally, Reed says regular and frequent communication with the city is key to the composting program’s success. Every week, Recology staff members meet with a team from the Department of the Environment. “We all have the same goal: to send as little as possible to the landfill,” Reed says. At these meetings, they compare the tonnage that the city is sending to compost versus sending to the landfill, brainstorm ways of getting more residents to compost, and discuss messaging. 

One conundrum recently tackled in these meetings was how to encourage more participation in apartment buildings, which have lower rates of composting and recycling, and where 65 percent of San Franciscans live. Their solution: recruit volunteers at these buildings to distribute Recology’s monthly newsletter, as well as encourage composting in neighborly ways, like with composting contests or quizzes. “These are very creative people!” says Reed. “They keep composting part of the conversation.” There are now advocates in 100 buildings around the city.  

One of these is Madeleine Trembley, who lives at the Gateway Complex in the city’s Financial District. A year ago, Trembley, who refers to compost reverently as Black Gold, started a newsletter for her 1,255-unit building called Trash Talk. “The newsletter immediately got a lot of peoples’ attention,” Trembley says. “It was educational, practical. We give tips that people can implement easily, understand easily.” As a result of her newsletter and the topics it covered, more young residents have gotten involved in the Board — and one of them is even making video tutorials about composting to share with residents. “It just makes no sense to create more methane gas to stow it away in the landfill. And I think a lot of people realize that.” 

The post How San Francisco Cracked the Urban Composting Code appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Little-Known Tool Protecting California Towns from Polluters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

Ana Carlos likes to ride her horse down the semi-rural streets of Bloomington, California, where she bought a beautiful home on two acres for her family. “Everybody has fruit trees here, everybody has horses and goats,” she says. But five years ago, the school teacher and mother of three got a letter asking if she and her husband were willing to sell their home. 

When she looked into the reason for the offer, she discovered that a developer had big plans. “They want to put over one million square feet of industrial zoning right in the middle of our community, bordering on three schools. The new warehouses will bring more than 7,000 daily vehicle trips to our town, including Diesel trucks.” Shortly thereafter, she found out that her small Inland Empire town was in the top one percent of a list no community wants to be on top of: Bloomington scores 99 on the CalEnviroScreen (CES), meaning the air pollution is worse than in 99 percent of the state. “We simply cannot take any more,” Carlos says. “If their plan goes through, it ends our community. I will no longer be able to play with my kids outside if the air gets even worse. Our lifestyle is over.”

The CalEnviroScreen map allows users to see how environmentally burdened their community is compared to others in California. Credit: California OEHHA

John Faust, who built the CalEnviroScreen, has a unique perspective on California. On his computer, he pulls up a map of the state. On the left and right, along the Pacific Ocean and mountains, are various shades of green. Between these is a cluster of orange and red patches: the state’s industrial and agricultural areas, with their dusty sunbaked plains, warehouses and refineries.

A toxicologist by training, Faust helped develop the CalEnviroScreen over the last two decades and now manages it for the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is also chief of the Community and Environmental Epidemiology Research branch of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). But these bureaucratic titles threaten to obscure the groundbreaking impact of his research: The 25 percent of census tracts with the worst CES scores must receive at least 35 percent of the investments funded by California’s cap-and-trade program. This enormous pot of money – some $20 billion – comes from polluters who must reduce or offset their emissions by paying into the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. It is used to finance a wide array of environmentally beneficial investments for the most polluted communities across California — everything from agricultural worker van pools to electric school buses to community air grants. In addition, CES data is increasingly being used in lawsuits — some of them propelled by the state’s attorney general — to block projects that would add even more pollution to communities already burdened with it.

The pragmatic use of this tool becomes apparent when Faust zooms in on one of the darkest red spots, an area southwest of Fresno. “98 ozone, 88 particulate matters,” he reads, which means that this district has more ozone and particulates in the air than 98 and 88 percent of the state, respectively. This finding correlates with the health and socioeconomic data the screen also displays: “Asthma 88, unemployment 98, and nearly 70 percent of the residents are Hispanic,” Faust reads. This, too, corresponds to the results in most of the state: The worse the air quality, the higher the rates of asthma, heart-related emergencies and underweight babies — and more often than not, the most polluted areas affect Black and brown people disproportionately. As Ana Carlos says, “What makes it really unfair is that these developers just see the cheap land and think it will be easy for them because we are primarily a community of color.”

A separate map shows communities designated as “disadvantaged.” Credit: California OEHHA

The CES, which launched in 2013, is being used as a powerful corrective to such historic injustices. “As the state of California was developing its cap-and-trade program and polluters are paying into a fund as they’re emitting carbon emissions, we wanted to make sure that we can prioritize communities that are most heavily impacted by those polluting facilities,” says Sona Mohnot, the Climate Equity Associate Director at the Greenlining Institute, an economic justice public policy organization based in Oakland. “We know that environmental pollution is one of the many injustices that resulted from not just redlining, but a lot of other discriminatory land use policies and discriminatory environmental policies.”

Take the San Joaquin Valley, which has the worst air quality in all of the U.S. When the district issued yet another free pass in 2019 to exempt its four petroleum refineries from complying with state air quality requirements, a broad coalition of community members and activists sued. They found a powerful ally: California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined the lawsuit and they won, in part by leveraging CES data, which factors in not only the individual impact of each refinery, but the cumulative impact of all the polluters in the region. As a result, the refineries now have to comply with the state air quality regulations.

“This is a low-income, Hispanic community where a lot of the people are foreign laborers who are not going to say anything,” resident Jose Mireles, who lives down the road from a Kern Oil & Refining Co. facility that processes 25,000 barrels of crude oil daily, told the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes you are inside your house, the doors are closed, the windows are closed, and you can still smell it.”

The CES has been used successfully in several other cases, including to block a cement factory in Vallejo and to upgrade facilities in the highly disadvantaged community of Stockton. “These are really good examples of how we can use data to address the multiple injustices communities are facing,” says Mohnot. “We have to make sure that the state walks the walk. How can we put our money where our mouth is, and ensure that 100 percent of those funds actually go into the most historically disinvested communities?”

In other lawsuits, CES data has led to compromise, in which the development it challenged wasn’t halted outright, but instead had to be built more responsibly. One example can be found in Fontana (which borders Ana Carlos’s Bloomington neighborhood), where residents are conflicted about the approval of another 200,000 square feet mega-warehouse next to a high school. In April, the courts decided that the Fontana warehouse can be built, but the rulings mandated ecological features such as solar panels, zero-emission trucks and a large donation the city can use for mitigating measures such as air filters. 

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While the CES has helped environmental advocates rack up victories, critics point out that legislation that directly forces polluters to curb emissions would be more effective, because lawsuits aren’t always successful. For instance, a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration and developers relied on CES data as it challenged the expansion of a former Air Force Base in San Bernardino that Amazon plans to use as a 650,000-square-foot cargo hub. More than 500 additional trucks and two dozen cargo flights are projected to pollute the area daily once the hub is fully up and running. Already, thousands of trucks buzz through the neighborhood most days, often forming long queues in front of the warehouses, spewing Diesel fumes while waiting to unload their freight. Again partnering with lawyers from the Earthjustice Institute, Bonta’s office used the high asthma and bronchitis rates in the nearby communities as proof that the residents should not bear any more pollution, but his challenge was rejected.

The project sparked contentious debate. Ninety-five percent of the residents near the new Amazon hub live below the poverty line, and some argued they would rather breathe bad air than sacrifice the jobs. Mohnot believes this to be “a false choice. No one should have to pick between their safety and being able to provide for their families.” More than one billion square feet of warehouse space now covers the Inland Empire, much of it built on former farm and ranch land, and offering mostly low-paid temp jobs, according to the Robert Redford Conservancy. “None of my neighbors want these jobs; you can’t build a career on it,” Ana Carlos says. “We spoke to hundreds of community members and out of hundreds, only one said, maybe it’s good for the jobs.” 

This speaks to the other aim of the CES, which activists are using as a tool not just to support lawsuits and force companies to reduce emissions, but to bring investment to communities overburdened by environmental hardship. Mohnot says her colleagues at the Greenlining Institute are working with entrepreneurs and startup companies to use the CES to pilot clean energy innovations in these communities and work with local manufacturers to increase economic opportunities there. “We want to work toward a policy solution where we can create an oil and gas transition fund, so that folks who are dismissed from those jobs are able to access funding and training opportunities into similar work but in renewable energy. We want fewer gas and oil industries but also make sure folks aren’t jobless at the end of the day.” However, this is not happening yet.

But the CES findings have already provided the basis for innovative strategies. For instance, the Greenlining Institute co-sponsored bill AB 2722 that created the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, which relies on the CES to prioritize the most vulnerable communities. “If you’re a small or under-resourced community and you want environmental services, whether it’s recycling, urban tree canopy, access to better transportation, bike lanes, whatever, you may have to apply for six different grants to get those holistic benefits,” says Mohnot. “This can be very cost intensive and lead to fatigue, so we wanted to streamline that process. Now that community can apply for a slew of greenhouse gas reducing services through one grant program, and it’s meant to be at a neighborhood scale.”

Keeping CES data current is a challenge. “Some data is continuously updated, and some only available annually or every couple of years,” John Faust acknowledges. In other words, the CES won’t tell you the current air quality in your hometown this very minute. “We’re looking at big picture trends,” is how Faust puts it. Most of the effects of the pandemic and the recent wildfires haven’t been included in the latest version of the CES. Also, not all data is readily available. For instance, the CES factors in the agricultural use of pesticides but not the non-agricultural use because this information is hard to gather. Moreover, Mohnot believes that California needs a similar tool that measures climate risk, not just pollution and poverty. 

California’s strategy of prioritizing communities hardest-hit by environmental injustices is now about to become national policy: Last week, the administration announced it is launching a new Office of Environmental Justice to address climate change and pollution in low-income and minority communities. The new office will identify places that “bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland, and focus enforcement efforts on mitigating those effects. 

In addition, earlier this year, the federal EPA entered into a partnership with California to share tools and resources. Other states are taking note, as well. New York just launched an environmental justice unit that is looking into building a New York version of the CES. And in February of this year, the Biden Administration released a beta version of the “Justice 40” program, which stipulates that at least 40 percent of the benefits from the government’s investments in climate-related programs, including infrastructure and clean energy, will go to underserved communities. The administration modeled its tool for assessing these needs, the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), on California’s CES.

Meanwhile, Ana Carlos hopes that the supervising board of her small town, Bloomington, “will vote in the interest of their constituents who voted them in — that they will make the decision that is best for our health, our families, our homes, our community.” But when she asked about the prospect, she was told that the board has never voted down a major business development.

However, this school teacher has learned that she is not alone. “We have learned how to organize a community. If the developers think they can just push us out of the way, they are wrong.”

The post The Little-Known Tool Protecting California Towns from Polluters appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Colorado River: Devoured by Growth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 12:49am in
by Gary Wockner

“The nature of consumption is the consumption of Nature” – Jordan Perry

Map of the Colorado River Basin

The Colorado River Basin, a life source for the Southwest, is being drained for growth. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Shannon)

The natural environment of the American Southwest is sending out a loud call of distress, but few people in positions of power are listening. Economic and population growth are straining nature, especially across the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

From 2010 to 2020, Colorado gained about 725,000 people, Arizona gained 760,000, and California gained a whopping 2.3 million. At the same time, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico grew considerably, and the population even inched upwards in slow-growing Wyoming, the least populous U.S. state.

Similarly, the GDP of each Colorado River Basin state increased by two to four percent annually in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Despite the pressures of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the collective GDP raced upward even faster.

Growth in the Southwest is largely due to state and local policies that incentivize, subsidize, or otherwise lure people into the area. A researcher could craft an entire career out of cataloguing pro-growth policies in just one state.

In Colorado (where I live), a succession of governors—including incumbent Governor Jared Polis—have promoted and celebrated every uptick in statewide GDP, consumption, and population. Thanks to these pro-growth attitudes and initiatives, the Colorado River Basin’s water, landscape, and biodiversity are continuously under assault.

GDP Goes Up, Water Goes Down

The Colorado River, which sustains over 40 million people across the Southwest, has been hit hard by climate change, drought, and resource exploitation. Nearly every month, news reports paint a worsening picture for river flow and the water levels of reservoirs. The two largest reservoirs in the USA—Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both on the Colorado River—are at their lowest levels in history with further decreases predicted.

Lake Mead levels are at historic lows.

Lake Mead water levels have dropped to historic lows. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Bureau of Reclamation)

The Bureau of Reclamation has announced “emergency” measures to increase Lake Powell’s water level so electricity turbines may continue spinning at Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower plant. Meanwhile, California, Arizona, and Nevada have decreased their water diversions out of Lake Mead. Yet, as drought and climate change intensify, upper basin states—Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming—continue building more dams to support the growing population.

There’s not enough water to support the population and economy that already exists in the Southwest, but continued growth means stretching water supplies further by transferring water from farmers—who control about 75 percent of water in the basin—to cities. The city of St. George, Utah, for example, is struggling to find alternative water sources to accommodate growth. Officials recently warned that the “stalled water supply could put the brakes on the growth economy.”

The ecological health of river systems across the basin has been deteriorating for as long as I remember. Now, flows are at historically low levels, fish and aquatic life are suffering from low flows and warmer water, and pollution levels continue increasing. Furthermore, the parched landscape is burning more frequently and intensively, increasing the runoff of river-clogging soot and debris into the rivers and reservoirs.

Landscapes, Open Space, and Farms Disappear

Growth in the Southwest is devouring open space, farms, and wildlife habitats. A March 2022 comprehensive report, published by Numbers USA (which advocates for U.S. population stabilization) is titled, “From Sea to Shining Sprawling Sea.” The report offers state-by-state insights into the way growth is devouring the landscape in basin states. According to the report, from 1982 to 2017:

  • Colorado lost 1,126 square miles of open space, farms, and wildlife habitats due to growth and sprawl
  • California lost 3,420 square miles
  • Nevada lost 498 square miles
  • Utah lost 713 square miles
  • Arizona lost 1,744 square miles
  • New Mexico lost 1,018 square miles
  • Wyoming lost 251 square miles

Some policymakers and activists concerned about this loss of open land for growth argue that the solution is to pack people in more densely to reduce sprawl. However, as I have described in other columns and posts, dense housing increases the ecological footprint of growing economies and human populations as surely as sprawl does. The Global Footprint Network describes how Americans’ environmental impacts extend far beyond our housing choices and spatial arrangements.

Our ecological footprint includes the roads we drive on, the malls we shop at, and the pipelines that bring natural gas to our homes. It also grows with plane trips to Europe, electronic devices imported from China, produce shipped from South America, granite countertops sourced from Brazil, and even the various materials extracted to construct our houses. Any additional activity producing the goods and services we consume entails a larger ecological footprint.

Biodiversity and Habitat Fragmented and Diminished

In March, the New York Times published a series of maps illustrating the threat to biodiversity across the USA. The report included a disturbing image of nature being destroyed in the Southwest. Healy Hamilton, chief scientist at NatureServe, said, “There are hundreds of species known to be globally critically imperiled or imperiled in this country that have no protection under federal law and often no protection under state law.”

Panoramic view of a Southwest desert city overtaken by urban sprawl.

Natural landscapes across the Southwest are being overtaken by urban sprawl. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, scaredpoet)

The map shows the basin states as having some of the most imperiled biodiversity in the USA, most notably the Colorado River’s aquatic diversity. California—including Southern California, which receives Colorado River water—appears particularly stressed. The New York Times report quotes Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary as saying, “We have this tremendous biodiversity, but we also have these major stressors, including that we built ourselves into the fifth-largest economy in the world with 40 million people.”

Several NGOs work throughout the Southwest to protect biodiversity. One NGO, Defenders of Wildlife, catalogues the biodiversity threats as “urbanization, agriculture, water diversion, fossil fuel extraction/conveyance/processing, and open-pit mining.” And, the so-called “green economy” is creating new threats.

Proposed lithium mines in Nevada and Arizona are some of the latest flashpoints of enviro-political controversy. These mines further destroy the landscape, pollute streams and rivers, and imperil biodiversity that relies on intact and healthy ecosystems.

America the Beautiful?

Given the extreme threats to water, land, and biodiversity throughout the Southwest, the U.S. government appears to be making an effort to manage the degradation caused by growth.

In May 2021, President Biden launched the “America the Beautiful” initiative with the goal of “conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” Sometimes called the “30 by 30” (or “30×30”) campaign, this initiative has been broadly embraced by conservation leaders, nonprofit groups, tribal governments, and eleven U.S. states. Further, in April 2022, Biden doubled down on the campaign, pledging a $1 billion investment to bring the 30×30 campaign to fruition.

Beyond the 30×30 campaign, however, other U.S. policies are absurdly designed to pursue more growth. It will be increasingly difficult, if not completely impossible, to accomplish the goals of the 30×30 campaign if the U.S. population and economy continue to grow.

At local and state levels in the Southwest, we routinely see tax incentives for new businesses, subsidies to cut development fees, and aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at luring new residents. Eliminating these growth subsidies and pro-growth campaigns is critical for any semblance of sustainability, but that elimination is almost unheard of in any local or state-level discussion throughout the region.

Steady-state policies, including an ethical approach to stabilize population, are the only options that can protect water, land, and biodiversity across the Southwest. We’ve been warned, “The nature of consumption is the consumption of Nature.”

Gary Wockner, CASSE's Colorado River Chapter DirectorGary Wockner is CASSE’s Colorado River Chapter director, and an environmental activist and writer.

The post The Colorado River: Devoured by Growth appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

How Cap-and-Trade Keeps People in Their Homes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

This podcast was produced by Next City.

California’s cap-and-trade program collected more than $2 billion from polluters in 2021 alone, and cities are using that money for a range of programs, including one in Oakland that sends counselors to help people stay in their homes.

The Oakland initiative — Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors — targets a five-square mile neighborhood for $28 million in improvements, including a 1.2-mile-long community trail, expanded bike-share, 2,000 trees and the creation of one of the largest urban aquaponics farms in the country. In this episode of the podcast, Next City Executive Director Lucas Grindley talks with Housing Correspondent Roshan Abraham about his story on the team of housing counselors dispatched to ensure that those improvements don’t lead to the displacement of East Oakland residents.

We also meet one of the counselors, Bee Coleman with East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative. One resident told Coleman that she felt her prayers had been answered by the housing counselors and “you were sent by God.“

“That was her takeaway after having been alone, literally, in the fight for years and feeling like she did not have support,” said Coleman.

Listen to this episode below or subscribe to Next City’s podcast on Apple and Spotify.

The post How Cap-and-Trade Keeps People in Their Homes appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

California’s Floodplains Are Coming Back, and So Are Their Salmon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 7:00pm in

Until just a couple of centuries ago, inland California was a lush tapestry of wetlands and floodplains that nourished a thriving ecosystem of fish. But as the state — and its vast agriculture industry — has grown, its waterways have been modified drastically. Rivers have been drained, fields dried out, levees and dams constructed. These engineering feats, coupled with extreme drought, have decimated natural habitats. Today, a shocking 83 percent of native fish species in the state are in decline.

Chinook salmon is one of these. “Winter runs used to have returns in the hundreds of thousands. Now a good year would be 10,000 fish,” says Andrew L. Rypel, a professor of fish ecology at UC Davis where he co-directs the Center for Watershed Sciences. Today, two of California’s three recognized Chinook salmon runs are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. “We have had years that have just been in the hundreds. It’s a species on the precipice of extinction.”

Now, Rypel and his colleagues are helping the Chinook rebound by working with California rice farmers to recreate the natural floodplains in which the fish used to thrive.

salmon rice“One of the critical parameters that salmon managers are interested in is out-migration survival. Do they make it to the ocean? And how many?” Credit: Center for Watershed Sciences

 The so-called “salmon-rice project” began a decade ago, when a motley group of scientists, rice farmers and conservationists joined together to answer a simple question: if they were to flood rice fields with water from the Sacramento River — effectively mimicking the region’s original ecological rhythms — would juvenile salmon take to the fields and grow? 

First, they conducted some basic experiments to see whether salmon even lived in floodplains. Turns out, they did. The Nigiri Project – which began in the early 2000s, is still ongoing and involves some of the same people working on Rypel’s project — set out to determine whether salmon can survive on rice fields. In Asian countries, freshwater fish are often raised on flooded rice paddies, but it wasn’t known if salmon in particular were suited to that environment.

“The answer was that they not only survive, they grow extremely well,” Rypel says. “The fish were feeding on lush zooplankton that develop off the decomposed rice straws.” Rice straw is a rich source of carbon, and Rypel says that the density of zooplankton (normally microscopic) that develops in these winter-flooded rice plains is so high that you can actually see them with the naked eye, swimming around. 

“It turns out that this kind of food is like an awesome steak for the growing salmon,” he says. UC Davis scientists found that these juvenile salmon survived at high rates in the flooded rice fields — 50 to 80 percent over the course of a month. “That’s excellent for baby fish,” Rypel says. They also grew two to five times faster than they grow in the Sacramento River.

With these data points in hand, Rypel and his colleagues teamed up with the California Rice Commission and California Trout in 2018 and began studying the viability of raising juvenile salmon in small experimental fields. The work was funded, in part, by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a wing of the United States Department of Agriculture that pays farmers and ranchers to do conservation work. 

The researchers found that juvenile salmon grew two to five times faster on the rice fields than they grow in the Sacramento River. Credit: Center for Watershed Sciences

In 2021 the California Rice Commission and the UC Davis scientists got an additional $550,000 grant from NRCS to continue and expand upon their work. (The California Rice Commission and its partners are matching this grant.) Though this is the first year scientists are trying this out on production-scale rice farms, preliminary data is encouraging. For instance, in years like the past one, when the rice fields around the Sacramento River don’t flood naturally, farmers flood their fields with water from the adjacent canals and then scientists stock them with hatchery fish. They then track the fishes’ growth, survival and movements. Data so far indicates that these fish survive at a rate four to five times higher than lab-raised fish. 

In the coming months, they’ll continue to track these hatchery salmon with tiny acoustic transmitters as they make their way out to sea. “One of the critical parameters that salmon managers are interested in is out-migration survival,” Rypel says. “That is: do they make it to the ocean? And how many?” The plan is to track 600 of the salmon to see if they make it to the Golden Gate Bridge and conduct a side-by-side comparison with lab-reared fish of out-migration survival.

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Rypel says it boils down to two words: Big and early. “Being a baby salmon kind of sucks!” he laughs. “It’s really hard. Most of the fish die. You are dodging predators, you have to migrate a super-long distance. You need fat reserves.” Giving the salmon a head start while they’re still very young can have huge knock-on effects. “We think that by rearing them on these rice fields, we can get fish very big, very quick. If the fish can become smolts [juvenile salmon] earlier in the winter, they can ride the flows better and have better survivorship.”

Raising fish in rice paddies is nothing new. Rice farmers from China, Thailand, India and Northern Vietnam have been doing it for centuries – according to some evidence, for as long as 2,000 years. 

According to Rypel, the unusual collaboration between farmers and ecologists is “a good example of how farms can work together with conservation scientists to make a difference.” Credit: Center for Watershed Science

But the project in California is actually more directly inspired by a series of bird conservation efforts dating back to the late 1980s and early ’90s. At the time, Pacific flyway birds — ducks, snow geese, egrets and all the other migratory birds that over-summer up in Alaska or Canada, and over-winter in the Central Valley — were in decline. For decades, rice farmers in the area regularly burned their leftover rice straw after the fall harvest. “People who lived in the area at that time will remember when the skies were black with smoke,” Rypel says. The air quality was poor, and carbon was being released into the atmosphere, as well.

Residents frustrated by poor air quality campaigned to stop this practice, and in 1991 a state law banned it. “Some smart people got together at that time and figured out that if you re-flooded the rice fields, you could naturally decompose the rice straw,” Rypel says. “At the same time, you could potentially provide habitat for the migratory birds that were on the Pacific flyway.” The NRCS began a program where they paid rice farmers to flood their fields instead of burn them, which was a win for the locals, a win for the birds and a win for the farmers, as it gave them a new revenue stream.

“I’m not a bird ecologist, but I work with a lot of bird scientists who have worked on this, and it’s probably one of the big conservation success stories in our country’s history,” Rypel says.

It was that program’s success that got fish ecologists scratching their heads. “Hey, if you can do this for birds, why can’t you do that for fish?” Rypel recounts. “We’ve got 83 percent of species declining in California. We know salmon use the floodplains. Is there a way to do this with fish?” 

The answer appears to be a resounding yes. There are roughly 500,000 acres of rice under cultivation in the Sacramento Valley. “That’s a lot of habitat that’s potentially on the table there,” notes Rypel. He and his colleagues at UC Davis hope to replicate the model on more farms in years to come. “It’s a good example of how farms can work together with conservation scientists to make a difference.”

The post California’s Floodplains Are Coming Back, and So Are Their Salmon appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.