Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West — @ColoradoClimate

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through April 10, 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

@AmericanRivers: Lower #ColoradoRiver most endangered #COriver

Las Vegas circa 1915

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Brooke Wanser):

The nonprofit American Rivers had placed the entire Colorado River and upper river atop its list of “most-endangered rivers” in previous years. But this is the first time the lower Colorado, which supplies Las Vegas with 90 percent of its water via Lake Mead, has been designated as in danger.

“The main criteria we use is whether there’s a key decision point in the year,” said Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for the group. In the case of the lower Colorado, much of the impact could come from President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut funds to the Department of Agriculture’s regional conservation partnership program and the Department of the Interior’s WaterSmart program, she said.

Trump also has issued an executive order that would eliminate a 2015 water rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which asserted federal power over small waterways like wetlands and streams for the purposes of controlling pollution under the Clean Water Act. The order had no immediate impact but could eventually lead to the rule’s repeal.

But Patricia Mulroy, who has worked within the international water community for 25 years, expressed frustration that the river is being used as “political arrow” to score public relations points.

“There was obviously a lot of emotion in this,” Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said of the river’s appearance atop the list. “It has now created an atmosphere where it will be harder, not easier, to forge the agreements that need to be forged this year on the river.”

Mulroy was referring to a 2012 agreement on the Colorado River between the U.S. and Mexico set to expire at year’s end and continuing negotiations on a drought contingency plan among Nevada, California and Arizona to keep Lake Mead from shrinking enough to trigger a first federal shortage declaration. That would force Nevada, which receives most of its water from the Colorado, and especially Arizona to slash use of river water.

“Those agreements have to be entered into,” Mulroy said.

Despite the political rhetoric, Bronson Mack, a Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman, said the agency expects the agreements will get done.
“Water cuts across party lines,” Mack said.

Boring machine for Las Vegas lower Lake Mead intake.

Mack said even if water levels do reach shortage, Nevada residents won’t go without water.

“Should Lake Mead get to that severe of an elevation, Nevada has taken steps to ensure that we would be able to access that supply,” he said.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

American Rivers’ annual report, published since 1984, ranks the 10 most threatened rivers nationwide. The group said it tries to spotlight rivers that are subject to influential policy decisions, not necessarily the most polluted.

This year, it chose the lower portion of the Colorado River for greatest attention based on ongoing concerns about dwindling flows due to increasing water consumption and adverse impacts from global warming.

It’s unclear what effect, if any, the spotlighting will have. For decades, all manner of people — federal and state officials, scientists, environmentalists, recreational organizations — have sounded the alarm about drought and excess user demand causing the Colorado’s water levels to keep dropping. Yet relatively little has been done to change those dynamics.

From The Arizona Republic (Brandon Loomis):

American Rivers focused its 2017 report on the part of the river that flows from Glen Canyon Dam and past Arizona, Nevada and California because federal support for water conservation is at a crossroads. The states are counting on federal leadership and financial support for conservation at a time when the Trump administration proposes slashing the Interior Department’s budget up to 15 percent, said Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River program director.

“There’s a real concern that the new administration has taken their eye off the ball on Colorado River issues,” Rice said.

Some water managers aren’t feeling quite the pressure they once did to reach a shortage-prevention deal thanks to a snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains that has reduced the urgency. But Arizona Department of Water Resources officials say it remains a priority for them because relying on favorable weather isn’t a plan.

The department had sought big cutbacks in consumption this year to keep water levels higher at Lake Mead through 2020. Now, spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said, the wet winter appears likely to have managed that on its own — for now.

The evolving drought plan “must adapt to the new conditions,” Moreno said, perhaps with a goal of forestalling mandatory reductions for even more years. The department is currently reviewing “an appropriate new target date and potential volume of water to get to that end.”

The department will not seek authorization for a drought plan from the Arizona Legislature this year, Moreno said. It previously had planned to do so, but, Moreno said, Central Arizona Project officials determined the state’s conservation proposal was no longer viable. The water delivery proposal has raised concerns about losing out on possible releases from Glen Canyon Dam upstream if the lower-basin states keep too much water in Lake Mead.

The federal government releases extra water through Glen Canyon Dam during wet years like this one to equalize the holdings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The higher Lake Mead is at the start, the less extra water it gets from Lake Powell that year. The result could be that conserving water in Lake Mead without regard to the year’s weather could actually result in less water filling the reservoir to last through future dry years, CAP Colorado River Programs Manager Chuck Cullom said.

CAP objected to a plan that would designate specific conservation volumes every year instead of parceling the savings out over drier years. But the agency still supports a state effort to save water, Cullom said…

Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert with Western Resource Advocates, said he remains hopeful that Arizona can still reach agreement among various water users this year, even if it can’t get immediate legislative approval. Putting off conservation makes little sense on a river system that is routinely overextended, he said.

“Fundamentally, Arizona is still on the hook first for the largest amount of water (losses) if there’s a shortage in Lake Mead,” Beckwith said…

One alternative to a drought plan is to wait and hope for more wet winters to keep resetting the clock and buoying Lake Mead above elevation 1,075 feet — the level at which a 2007 federal-state agreement starts curtailing Arizona’s water without any compensation.

That’s a plan that American Rivers considers no plan at all. A big snow year in 2011 broke a long string of dry years and raised hopes throughout the basin, Rice noted, but ultimately proved just a blip on the drought chart.

The three lower-river states still consume more than the river can give long-term regardless of any one winter, he said.

Conservation funding isn’t the only requirement for sustainability, Rice said. The Southwest also needs federal leadership to help strike new deals like the one that the last administration made allowing Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and help prevent an earlier shortage that could have affected Arizona, he said.

The Hispanic Access Foundation joined American Rivers in calling on state and federal leaders to keep water in the river and reservoir. Foundation president Maite Arce said the group held a gathering at the Grand Canyon and learned that Latino leaders from Yuma and San Luis feared the loss of river water threatened cultural and economic values, from riverside baptisms to farm jobs.

As a result, the non-profit produced a film, “Milk and Honey,” documenting generations of river users from the area. Its release online coincided with the American Rivers report.

From National Geographic (Alexandra E. Petri):

The Lower Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than 30 million Americans—including those in major cities like L.A., Las Vegas, and Phoenix—tops the list as the most endangered river this year. Second most endangered is the Bear River in California.

Similar to 2016’s list of the most endangered rivers, water scarcity, rising demand, and climate change put the Lower Colorado and Bear River at risk, says Amy Souers Kober, national communications director for American Rivers.

“The takeaway is that we can’t dam our way out of these problems,” Kober says. “On all of these rivers, we need 21st century water management solutions. We need political support and funding for water conservation.”

The Lower Colorado is challenged with water demands that outstrip supply and effects from climate change, the report says. Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture put the river at risk, the group argues. The reduced funding, if it passes Congress, could eventually lead to cutbacks on water deliveries to Arizona, California, and Nevada in the years ahead.

Additionally, the Lower Colorado is of particular importance to Latino communities, one-third of which live in the Colorado River Basin.

“From serving as the backbone for the agricultural industry to providing a cultural focal point for faith communities, the Lower Colorado River is essential to the livelihood of the Southwest,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, in a press statement.

From The Walton Family Foundation (Ted Kowalski):

Two years ago, when the American West was reaching peak drought, The New Yorker published a lengthy story rather depressingly titled, “The Disappearing Colorado River.” The article described a parched river in crisis, its water in such high demand that in most years it runs dry before reaching the Gulf of California.

Because more water is allocated to users than the river provides reliably, “even if the drought ended tomorrow problems would remain,” the story noted.

That admonition is well worth remembering this spring, following a wet winter that produced an above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. In some quarters, the prospect of a robust spring runoff is washing away persistent worries of impending water shortages.

Unfortunately the fundamental problems plaguing the Colorado persist and, if anything, require more immediate attention than ever.

The challenges are laid out in sobering detail in a new report from American Rivers that lists the Lower Colorado River – the section that runs through Arizona, Nevada and California – as the “most endangered” in the nation.

In its annual ranking of rivers in peril, the environmental group said the Lower Colorado has reached a “breaking point” that could “threaten the security of water and food supplies and a significant portion of the national economy.”

As recently as last August, the federal Bureau of Reclamation warned there was more than a 50% chance that water levels on Lake Mead – the Colorado’s measuring stick – would fall low enough to trigger a mandatory shortage declaration that would restrict water use in the lower basin.

While water levels at Lake Mead have recovered by about eight feet from the start of the year, the reservoir is still only 41% full. It’s expected Lake Mead’s level will begin falling again later this year as water is delivered to lower basin states and Mexico.

Adding to the challenges, the report from American Rivers warns that possible funding cuts to important federal programs – including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Smart Program and the System Conservation Pilot Program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program – risks reversing the progress made in recent years to reduce water consumption in the Lower Colorado basin.

Thankfully, there is a path forward that can reduce the threats of a shortage on the Colorado and assure stability and water security for the region’s businesses, agricultural economy and environment.

The most immediate priority for the federal government and the lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – should be the completion of a Drought Contingency Plan to help stabilize water supplies in the Lower Colorado. If successfully negotiated, the states could agree to voluntary reductions of water deliveries if Lake Mead reaches certain critical elevations. This would benefit all of the water users in the Lower Basin because it would assure that there is a plan in place to stabilize Lake Mead if difficult hydrology continues to persist.

“One of the points we want to get across is that this is exactly the right time to push this drought contingency plan across the finish line, because we have a little bit of space with the hydrology this year basin wide,” says Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers.

“The Lower Colorado basin is kind of teetering on the edge. The heavy snowpack might stave off a shortage declaration for a year or two. But one good winter does not stabilize a system.”

In addition to supporting a drought contingency plan, the federal government should also prioritize the renewal of a U.S.-Mexico agreement, which was negotiated in 2012 and is set to expire this December. Under the agreement, both countries share water shortages and surpluses. They work together to conserve water, increase agricultural and municipal water efficiency and improve water management for a variety of purposes including benefiting the environment.

This binational agreement is a vital tool for managing water supply, with Mexico agreeing to receive less water from the Colorado in dry years while being allowed to store some of its water in U.S. reservoirs. No one should underestimate what’s at stake if new water-sharing drought contingency plans are not reached, or shortages are declared.

The Colorado River is indispensable to the prosperity of the Southwest. It provides drinking water to almost 40 million people in several of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland that grow $600 million worth of crops each year – including about 90% of the winter vegetables grown in the nation.

For native American tribes, it holds sacred and spiritual value. For millions of others, its landscapes inspire reverence.

The river’s problems are significant and can, at times, seem overwhelming. But over the past two decades, by the collective will and cooperation among water users, we’ve started to find ways to address them. Now is not the time to hit the pause button.

Salt and America’s freshwater lakes

From the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Kelly April Tyrrell):

Road salt is making North America’s freshwater lakes saltier, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, conducted by a team of 15 researchers with the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) Fellow Program – including Hilary Dugan, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison’s Center for Limnology – found that of the 371 lakes included in the study, many have undergone long-term salinization over the last 10-to-70 years.

“The picture is sobering,” says Dugan, who completed the work while a postdoctoral researcher at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “For lakes, small amounts of shoreline development translate into big salinization risks.”

Since the 1940s, road salt has been used to keep winter roads navigable by melting away snow and ice. Today, some 23 million metric tons of sodium-chloride-based deicer is applied to North America’s roads each year. Much of this road salt washes into nearby water bodies, where it is recognized as a major source of chloride pollution to groundwater, streams, rivers, and lakes. Its use has increased over time.

Most of the lakes tested (284) are in the North American Lakes Region, which includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ontario, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. The study represents the first large-scale analysis of chloride trends in freshwater lakes.

The team compiled long-term data and compared chloride concentrations in North American lakes and reservoirs to climate and land use patterns. Dugan says the goal of the National Science Foundation-funded study was to reveal whether salinization is changing across broad geographic scales, and to identify how and why.

To gauge road salt exposure, the researchers assessed road density and land cover within a 100-to-1500 meter buffer around each of the 371 study lakes. Roadways and impervious surfaces such as parking lots and sidewalks are reliable proxies for road salt application because as developed areas, they are susceptible to high levels of salting and runoff.

The researchers found that roads and other impervious surfaces within 500 meters of a lake’s shoreline were strong predictors of elevated chloride concentrations. In the North American Lakes Region, 94 of 134 lakes with more than 1 percent impervious land cover in their 500-meter buffer zone had increasing chloride trends. By extrapolation, some 7,770 lakes in the North American Lakes Region may be at risk of rising salinity, the team concluded.

For instance, Dugan says that in Madison, Wisconsin “we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the chloride concentrations for our local lakes. Background levels in the Madison lakes were around 2 mg/L in the early 1900s, and now they’re at 50 mg/L in Lake Mendota. We’re also seeing incredibly high concentrations in streams, ponds, and even groundwater.”

If current salinization trends continue, many North American lakes will surpass Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-recommended chloride levels in 50 years. According to the study, 14 North American Lakes Region lakes are expected to exceed the EPA’s aquatic life criterion concentration of 230 mg/L by 2050, and 47 are on track to reach chloride concentrations of 100 mg/L over the same time interval.

Dugan says Madison’s Lake Wingra has already achieved a chloride concentration of over 100 mg/L.

In lakes, elevated chloride levels have been shown to alter the composition of fish, invertebrates and the plankton that form the base of the aquatic food web. Aquatic species richness and abundance can decline, and in extreme cases salinization can prevent lakes from mixing – causing low oxygen conditions that smother aquatic life and reduce water quality.

“In the North American Lakes Region – where road salt is a reality – roads and other impervious surfaces within 500 meters of a lake’s shoreline are a recipe for salinization,” says study co-author and fellowship advisor Kathleen Weathers, an ecosystem scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and co-chair of GLEON. “We need to manage and monitor lakes to ensure they are kept ‘fresh’ and protect the myriad of services they provide, from fisheries and recreation to drinking water supplies.”

While many states and municipalities acknowledge the importance of shoreline management, the study authors note that zoning regulations are often only enforced within 300 meters and many lakes lack the monitoring programs needed to adequately track lake health. Shoreline management should extend well beyond a lake’s perimeter.

“These results are likely an underestimation of the salinization problem, as a number of regions with heavy road salt application, such as Quebec or the Maritime Provinces of Canada, had no long-term lake data available,” says study co-author Sarah Bartlett, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In Wisconsin, Dugan says, state and local agencies are aware of the environmental threats of road salt on lakes and have been instrumental in implementing policy changes.

“There’s a great website called Wisconsin Salt Wise, which provides a wealth of resources available to understand the issues locally,” says Dugan. “Most municipalities are on board with reducing salt application, because it saves them money, but obviously, this has to be balanced with public safety.”

However, citizens can also play a direct part in reducing the amount of road salt making its way into Wisconsin’s lakes, Dugan says. “What I don’t think people realize is that a large quantity of road salt – in some areas more than 50 percent – is applied by private citizens and businesses, to sidewalks and parking lots, and there has to be an effort to reduce this load as well.”

From The Washington Post (Ben Guarino):

During the past half-century, annual U.S. sales of road salt grew from 160,000 tons to about 20 million tons, as a group of environmental scientists pointed out in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of the Sciences. NaCl kept roads free from slippery ice, but it also changed the nature of North America’s freshwater lakes. Of 371 lakes reviewed in the new study, 44 percent showed signs of long-term salinization.

Extrapolating that finding for all of North America, at least 7,770 lakes are at risk of elevated salt levels — a likely underestimate, the researchers said.

Theirs is the first study of freshwater lakes on a continental scope. “No one has tried to understand the scale of this problem across the continent in the Northeast and Midwest, where people apply road salt,” said study co-author Hilary Dugan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison freshwater expert.

No federal body tracks how much salt gets spread on our roadways or makes its way into our lakes. So the researchers hoovered up a vast number of different data sets, produced by states, municipalities and universities. The study was the product of several “big, nasty, hairy heterogeneous databases,” as co-author Kathleen Weathers, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, described it.

Each lake in the report had chloride measurements going back 10 years or more, was at least four hectares in size (about nine football fields or larger) and was in a state that regularly salted its roads during winter. The study authors also analyzed what percentage of the lake was surrounded by an impervious surface. This could be any combination of roadways, sidewalk pavement, boat launches or other hard surfaces.

Impervious surfaces, critically, allow dissolved salt to slide into lakes rather than soaking into soil. If at least 1 percent of the surface circling a lake was impervious, the lake was at risk of high chloride concentrations, the environmental scientists found.

@MooreCharitable: The #ColoradoRiver waterkeeper network #COriver

From Moore Charitable:

Threats to the Colorado River – climate change, proposed dams and diversions, rapid human population growth, fossil fuel extraction, endangered species protection – occur across the basin from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah to New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. These threats occur not only on and near the main stem of the river, but on many of its tributary streams.

The Moore Charitable Foundation is part of the stimulus behind the strategic Colorado River Waterkeeper Network, which will help develop and support collaborative Waterkeeper organizations on local streams and rivers in the Southwest US to protect and restore the entire Colorado River watershed, addressing unique and interwoven interstate issues.

Currently this newly launched network has six local Waterkeeper organizations inside the watershed, with seven more connected to the river as its water is piped, diverted and imported:

  • Colorado Riverkeeper in Moab, UT
  • Green River Action Project, a Waterkeeper Affiliate in Vernal, UT
  • Animas Riverkeeper in Durango, CO
  • Roaring Fork Riverkeeper in Aspen, CO
  • Black Mesa Waterkeeper in Kykotsmovi, Arizona
  • Friends of the Santa Cruz River, a Waterkeeper Affiliate in Tubac, AZ
  • Poudre Waterkeeper in Fort Collins, CO
  • Boulder Creek Waterkeeper Affiliate in Boulder, CO
  • San Diego Coastkeeper in San Diego, CA
  • Orange County Coastkeeper in Huntington Beach, CA
  • Inland Empire Waterkeeper in Riverside, CA
  • Los Angeles Waterkeeper in Santa Monica, CA
  • Ventura Coastkeeper in Ventura, CA
  • We are looking forward to the knowledge sharing and collaboration that will come out of this network and from the connection to larger Waterkeeper Alliance, including communications assistance,Information and education about threats, news updates, and connections to potential funding sources. Congratulations!

    Read more about The Colorado River Waterkeeper Network here.

    Urban farming

    From The Ringer (Alyssa Bereznak):

    The future of agriculture is happening in cities. After years of experimentation, Silicon Valley may finally be making urban farming viable. But will residents be able to afford the crop?

    The town of Kearny, New Jersey, is a small industrial desert, populated by warehouses, factories, and twisting freeways filled with hulking cargo trucks. Its natureless landscape and the decrepit remains of 19th-century textile factories make it so uninviting that it was occasionally used as a filming location for HBO’s The Sopranos. In other words, it’s the kind of place where you’d expect to see a mobster toss a dead body into a dumpster — it is not where you’d expect to see a nice man in plaid harvesting baby kale. But the day I visited a warehouse on a concrete lot in Kearny, I watched Irving Fain, the CEO of a new urban farm named Bowery, do just that.

    “Are you a kale fan?” Fain asked me excitedly.

    I met the 37-year-old Fain, who’s tall with messy brown hair and an enthusiastic grin, in a tidy waiting room at the back of the building. He was wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and comfortable tennis shoes. But that was not what he wore when we headed into the adjacent room. Instead, we zipped our bodies into papery hazmat suits, tucked our hair into nets, and placed protective booties over our shoes.

    The moment we walked into the spotless, brightly lit room, occupied with rows of tall remote-controlled towers that contained trays of leafy greens under LED lights, Fain morphed into a giddy, considerably healthier Willy Wonka. A single attendant had ordered the farm’s autonomous robotic forklifts to lower the portable crops onto conveyor belts and send them toward us. We walked up to their landing table, and with a pair of mini scissors, Fain began snipping leaf after leaf for me to taste. First came the arugula (which he called “crisp and peppery”), then the purple bok choy (“It’s, like, amazingly good”), then the spicy mustard greens that the executive chef at the Manhattan restaurant Craft had specifically requested (the owner, Top Chef star Tom Colicchio, is an investor in Bowery). Each sample was a pristine vision of plant life, with zero sign of the unsightly deformities that come from bugs and dirt — the risks of being grown outdoors.

    And then there was the kale.

    “One of the compliments our kale gets a lot is: ‘Man, I never liked kale, but I had to like kale, and I actually really like your kale,’” Fain said.

    A begrudging kale consumer myself, I took a skeptical bite and was pleasantly surprised. I tasted no hints of the bitter chalkiness associated with the superfood. It was light and sweet and unusually fresh compared with the produce at my local Key Food. All this, without ever coming into contact with the outside world.

    But the kale wasn’t delicious simply because it was grown without pesticides, or because Fain, who previously ran a customer loyalty software startup, has a green thumb. The kale was delicious because, in addition to maintaining a mostly autonomous farming system, Bowery uses proprietary software that collects data points about what influences a plant’s health, growth rate, yield, and factors that affect its flavor. According to Fain, it analyzes the information in real time, and automatically pushes out changes to the treatments of crops as it sees fit. I liked the kale in part because its growing conditions were dictated to a microscopic degree by machine-learning software that Fain lovingly calls “FarmOS.”


    Aside from the chance to, as one farmer I spoke to put it, “disrupt the industrial food system,” supporting urban farming is especially appealing to Silicon Valley investors. As mega tech entrepreneurs have colonized Northern California over the past few decades, they have internalized elements of its collective environmental conscience and crunchy farm-to-table culture. (After all, it’s hard to snag a reservation at Chez Panisse without first learning who the hell Alice Waters is.) When climate change skeptics questioned Tim Cook’s 2014 pledge that Apple would invest in renewable energy, the typically mild-mannered CEO reportedly became “visibly angry” and told them to sell their shares. Cafeterias at corporations like Google have long offered organic, hormone-free meals made with ingredients sourced from local farms. In 2011, Mark Zuckerberg even announced a new “personal challenge” to eat meat only from animals he’d killed himself. Tech industry titans are so enamored with healthy, tasty, ethical food, that they once invested $120 million to develop a $700 machine that makes an eight-ounce glass of organic juice. Silicon Valley’s decision to invest in urban farming startups is just about as inevitable as Steve Wozniak checking in at the Outback Steakhouse in Cupertino on a weeknight. It comes with the territory…

    Agratech.com photo via Todd McPhail

    These new-age agricultural businesses have found it helpful to update the language of an ancient industry to emphasize their innovative approach, and better cater to their ideal audience. Along with naming his facility’s operating system “FarmOS,” Fain has also coined the term “post-organic” to describe Bowery’s completely chemical-free produce and elevate its cachet in the competitive world of gourmet salad. The difference, as he explains it, is that the United States Department of Agriculture technically allows organic farmers to use certain pesticides and organic produce is sometimes exposed to chemicals spread from nearby farms, while his product is completely “pure and clean.” Last year, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal lifted the startup incubator model popularized by Y Combinator and applied it to farming, launching the Brooklyn-based company Square Roots. (In his obligatory Medium post announcing the endeavor, he cited evidence that microwave sales were declining and declared that “Food is the new internet.”)


    Not only have these startups modernized agricultural terminology, their marketing teams have also cozied up to the altruistic image of America’s modern-day agriculture movement. The history of urban farming in the United States has always been inextricably linked to the availability of food, and a community’s ability to grow that food itself. The earliest modern American urban farms were plotted in 1893, amid an economic recession. To aid the swaths of industrial workers who had recently lost their jobs, the mayor of Detroit, Hazen Pingree, launched an initiative that provided unemployed residents with vacant lots, materials, and instructions that they could use to establish their own potato farms. “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” as they were known, were so helpful in feeding needy residents that both Boston and San Francisco modeled programs after them until the economy improved. Similar programs were recycled in the 1930s, during the Great Depression…

    The latest urban farming startups are not charities, though. They’re businesses. But they have not hesitated to co-opt some of the same talking points about local collaboration and healthy families heralded by their grassroots counterparts. The words “HEALTHY PEOPLE, HEALTHY COMMUNITY, HEALTHY PLANET” appear at the top of the BrightFarms website in all caps. Beneath them is the company’s mission statement: “For the health of the planet, by improving the environmental impact of the food supply chain. For the health of our society, by encouraging the consumption of whole and fresh foods.” AeroFarms goes one step further, declaring “We want to be a force for good in the world.” Square Roots’ explanation of why it exists is fittingly dramatic for a Musk brother’s operation: “Our cities are at the mercy of an industrial food system that ships in high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed food from thousands of miles away. It leaves us disconnected from the comfort, the nourishment, and the taste of food — not to mention the people who grow it. But people are turning against this system. People want real food — food you can trust to nourish your body, the community, the farmer, and the planet.”


    So, to what degree can these startups actually help? Even if vertically grown warehouse operations like Bowery, Square Roots, and AeroFarms help supplement a salad shortage here and there, their considerable output thus far still couldn’t come close to feeding, say, the entire city of New York, let alone the United States. (Especially since the average American craves a considerable amount of meat and dairy.) Unlike your average community or rooftop garden, typical vertical farms are located indoors, so they do nothing to help what environmental scientists call the “urban heat island effect,” a phenomenon that shows cities tend to be warmer than their surrounding landscape because of human activities and concrete structures. So far, Santo says the most significant effect commercial vertical farms might have on global food system issues is influencing the culture of food consumption and encouraging communities to learn more about where their food comes from.