With traditional business models for local journalism near collapse in the digital age dominated by Facebook and Google, more Colorado communities are becoming “local news deserts” with very little original, independent, local news.
Research shows that civic impacts abound when local news outlets close or reduce coverage – the public lacks independent information about important issues, voter turnout lags, local officials have fewer avenues to inform voters and residents, and the perception of reduced government transparency has been linked to higher municipal bond rates and other costs.
What strategies exist for local communities and elected officials to address these issues? How might existing institutions like libraries and higher education expand their roles in addressing community information needs? What new opportunities exist for public-private partnership in this space?
This panel and audience discussion will include a summary of research findings and recommendations from a October 2019 report by the Colorado Media Project, which convened national, state, and local leaders in journalism, government, libraries, higher education, technology, and law to study Colorado public policy pathways for sustaining local news and civic information.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A UC BERKELEY SYMPOSIUM EXPLORES APPROACHES AND CHALLENGES TO MANAGED AQUIFER RECHARGE AROUND THE WEST
To survive the next drought and meet the looming demands of the state’s groundwater sustainability law, California is going to have to put more water back in the ground. But as other Western states have found, recharging overpumped aquifers is no easy task.
Successfully recharging aquifers could bring multiple benefits for farms and wildlife and help restore the vital interconnection between groundwater and rivers or streams. As local areas around California draft their groundwater sustainability plans, though, landowners in the hardest hit regions of the state know they will have to reduce pumping to address the chronic overdraft in which millions of acre-feet more are withdrawn than are naturally recharged.
It’s not a new problem, but one that is emblematic of California’s long-standing separation of surface water and groundwater in its management oversight. Some say it’s a problem the state should have been working on long ago as other states around the West have done.
“We are so far behind everybody else,” said Felicia Marcus, former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “As we get to the point where managed aquifer recharge is the obvious answer to a regular person, a regular person would assume we’re already doing this.”
Until the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, there was no statewide governance regulating groundwater pumping. California was the last state in the West to address its groundwater crisis with regulation.
Landowners could take as much as they wanted, if it was put to a beneficial use. In good times, with stable imported water deliveries and relatively healthy aquifers, pumping is not a problem. But decades of overdraft have put a significant dent in parts of the San Joaquin Valley. The land surface has literally sunk in certain areas because of the large-scale pumping of water. Finally, in 2014, lawmakers sought to put the brakes on the problem with SGMA. Sustainability plans required under SGMA for the most overdrafted areas are due in January 2020.
Heavily opposed during its introduction and still facing resistance today, SGMA emphasizes a ground-up approach that requires local leaders to devise the means to bring the most severely depleted aquifers into balance in the next 20 years.
One way to do that is by managed aquifer recharge, or MAR. Surface water or flows from storm-swollen rivers are steered onto land where the water percolates into the ground. It is a straightforward process that works within the right parameters, experts say.
On average, aquifers provide about 40 percent of the water used by California’s farms and cities in a normal rain year, and significantly more in dry years. There’s a growing recognition that surface water and groundwater are connected: Surface waters gain volume from the inflow of groundwater through the streambed. That volume is lost when groundwater pumping rates exceed natural recharge.
Managed aquifer recharge projects strive to replicate the natural process in which winter rains soak into the ground and replenish water above and below ground. However, projects require extensive monitoring and management to be successful. Farmers for years inadvertently recharged their aquifers through flood irrigation of certain crops and orchards. If they’re asked to act intentionally to recharge, they want assurances they can reap the benefit.
“If we put water in, we want to retain the right to take it out,” Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, 25 miles southwest of Fresno, said at the Berkeley symposium. Terranova has been a leader in using winter runoff to flood its fields for groundwater recharge. “To me that’s the incentive for a grower to do groundwater recharge. I want water security just as much as anyone else does.”
In the West, managed aquifer recharge projects in Colorado, Idaho and Washington state are looking to boost depleted aquifers while at the same time strengthening streamflow and benefiting the environment. “Any time you have more water in the river, it’s good for everyone,” said Jennifer Johnson, hydrologic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region’s Water Management Group, which is working to replenish aquifers in the Yakima River Valley in south central Washington.
Leaving Water in the Ground
In California, every drop of surface water is accounted for, even the bonus flows that come during very wet years.
In the strict, defined world of the state’s water rights, quantity, beneficial use and avoiding wasteful use is paramount. Beneficial use means exactly that. It’s the water people use at home each day, the irrigation that raises crops and the hydroelectric power so crucial as a renewable energy source.
It’s also the water that pulses through major waterways, keeping fish like salmon alive and healthy as they migrate to and from the ocean.
While helpful, the act of storing water to recharge aquifers is not a designated beneficial use, according to the State Water Board. Obtaining a water right to divert water to underground storage means identifying the eventual beneficial use of that water, the board says. That could include uses that allow for water to remain in the aquifer, such as to prevent land subsidence.
That process is not as difficult as it sounds because a wide interpretation exists for beneficial uses, especially as it relates to avoiding some of the undesirable results identified in SGMA.
Managed aquifer recharge and groundwater banking are essentially the same practice with different outcomes. Managed aquifer recharge boosts overall health of aquifers and nearby rivers and streams. In some instances, some of the water can be pumped back up. In groundwater banking, water is intentionally injected or percolated strictly for later withdrawal. Groundwater banks such as those in the southern San Joaquin Valley store vast quantities of imported water that faraway partners use through a complicated exchange process.
The key is having the available water to get into the ground — not always an easy task. “We’ve had two very wet years recently, but in most years, we don’t really have excess surface flows that can be recharged to groundwater, at least not in significant amounts,” said Dave Owen, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “And even when we do have flood flows, they aren’t always in the places that most need” the water.
Incremental Implementation – Colorado and Idaho
Managed aquifer recharge is instrumental in preserving the health of the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado, where groundwater pumping has been depleting flows in the river. There, well owners have been paying taxes and annual assessments since 1973, in part to construct groundwater recharge sites.
In 2006, due to a drought and changing legal parameters, the annual assessments were increased 400 percent and about $100 million of bonds have been approved since then by voters. Some of those funds were used to construct recharge projects, said Cech with Metropolitan State University in Denver.
In Idaho, about a third of the state’s economy relies on the agricultural products from the region known as the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer in southern Idaho. A decade ago, with the water table dropping, lawmakers saw the coming crisis and adopted a comprehensive water management plan for the area.
“The declining spring river flows as a result of the declining aquifer would have resulted in curtailing most of the groundwater users in the area,” said Wesley Hipke, recharge program manager with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. “This would not only have affected agriculture, but also the cities and towns and related industries that are currently in place.”
Idaho decided to tackle managed aquifer recharge from a state perspective because of the scale of the project (10,000 square miles), the aversion to a new tax and the realization that the cost of doing nothing was not acceptable, Hipke said.
“Obviously without a stable water supply, the prospect of future growth is slim,” he said.
The state’s plan outlined the means to manage overall water demand while increasing aquifer recharge and reducing withdrawals. Grabbing as much natural flow as possible, the plan’s aim is to reach 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge by 2024.
Challenges and Potential for MAR in California
As vital as groundwater is to California’s water supply, the extent of expanded managed aquifer recharge remains to be seen. Aquifers are recharged naturally every time it rains and snows, but carefully managed recharge is happening on a limited basis.
“There’s no question it can expand. The question is by how much,” said Owen with UC Hastings.
In its review of groundwater recharge, the Public Policy Institute of California noted in September that a key challenge is inadequate conveyance for moving storm flows to suitable recharge locations. There is “significant potential” to increase MAR on farmland if local agencies adopt better incentive systems and water accounting, PPIC wrote.
Getting water in and out of aquifers using MAR is a big challenge, from an infrastructure standpoint of getting the water when it’s available and moving it to where it can sink into the ground, Owen said in an interview. In addition, there’s not a perfect accounting process for tracking those water molecules. Even in cases where groundwater is being banked, getting the water back out that someone has put in can be complicated in aquifers with “unrestrained, poorly regulated” pumping.
“If you put water into a bank, you may have a legal right to withdraw it,” Owen said, “but that legal right does you no good if someone else has pumped out the physical water.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
Know someone else who wants to stay connected with water in the West? Encourage them to sign up for Western Water, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Big ideas about energy and agriculture on the Kansas prairie and the hard deadline of climate change
Bill McKibben didn’t always make a habit of getting arrested. He was a wunderkind, a Harvard graduate who became a staff writer at the New Yorker at the age of 25 but also was a competitive cross-country skier, ran a homeless shelter, and taught Sunday school at a Methodist church.
One Sunday morning in late September, the 58-year-old McKibben was at The Land institute in the middle of Kansas farm country, preaching about the imminent crisis of climate change. It is, he said at the Prairie Festival, a cause of such existential importance to civilization that some people, especially those who are older, with less to risk, should join him in civil protests that will likely cause them to be jailed, as McKibben had been the month prior to his Kansas visit.
McKibben’s 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was arguably the first general circulation call to curb greenhouse gas emissions caused primarily, but not exclusively, by the burning of fossil fuels. Since that book came out 30 years ago, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased 65 parts per million. That compares with the estimated increase of 70 ppm during the first two centuries after the industrial revolution. Climate scientists for several decades have warned that greenhouse gases could trigger wild climatic gyrations and, of course, rising temperatures.
It was getting hot on the Sunday morning he spoke, the temperature in nearby Salina, a farm town of 47,000 people, approaching the low 90s and humidity close behind. It wasn’t a record, but it has been a year for record heat, each year now seeming to surpass the previous one.
Heat and a sinister beauty
Humans can do 10% less work outside on a given day now as compared in the past, but productivity will decline 30% a half-century from now, he said.
In this record-setting spree of heat, some places have struggled more than others. He cited new individual marks of 129 degrees F on the Asian subcontinent.
“The human body can survive at 129 degrees for a few hours, but after that, your ability to cool off disappears. You just can’t do it. On the trajectory we’re on — scientists are clear — that kind of temperature will not become record-breaking and rare, but will become normal across much of the Asian subcontinent and central China plain. If that happens, it really means that people won’t be able to live there any more than they will be able to live in the cities along our coasts that are already beginning to see the rise of sea level.”
Seas have been rising, in part, because of melting glaciers. McKibben described seeing chunks of ice the size of 12-story skyscrapers calving off glaciers in Greenland last year. The waves, 60 to 70 feet high, had a “kind of sinister beauty,” he said. Those melting glaciers raise ocean levels some tiny degree.
If all of Greenland’s ice melts, however, oceans will rise 23 feet, submerging low-lying places like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
The Prairie Festival is the Land Institute’s signature annual event, this year drawing upwards of 900 people who assembled on chairs in an unpainted barn, its floors still of dirt, the overflow crowd spilling out to sit on portable lawn chairs and on hay bales placed under trees and around grain bins.
The institute was formed in 1976 by Wes Jackson with the goal of developing perennial grains that mimic the ways of nature. Civilization in the last 10,000 years has hewed to annuals such as corn and wheat and, in the last century, application of massive doses of petrochemicals. The institute’s motto is “transforming agricultural, perennially.”
Jackson and his crew in recent years have given talks at Crested Butte, Aspen and, in Vail, at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. The latter has an exhibit about roots that will be on until Nov. 2. It was created in a collaboration of Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer, and The Land institute.
The idea of perennials is a big one, with implications for the carbon cycle. Perennials do a better job of leaving carbon in the ground.
Organic carbon compounds also compose a third of human bodies. “We take carbon in every day, and we breath carbon out every second,” said Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute. “It’s ironic that we have managed to get ourselves into a situation where the word ‘carbon’ is fraught.”
Was Keystone XL defeat a success?
McKibben writes often for such magazines as Rolling Stone, Nation, and Time about the fraught state of the planet. He also leads a frantic speaking schedule. I’ve heard him three times in just the last year, once in a Denver bookstore where there were fewer than 30 of us. It’s a wonder when he finds time to write much less spend time in jail.
In 2007, he and students at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he teaches, formed 350.org, now a powerful agent at fomenting protests directed at fossil fuel interests. The group had a role in President Barack Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to transport bitumen from Alberta’s oil/tar sands to the United States. That veto has been reversed by Presidential Donald Trump, but Keystone XL remains unbuilt.
The effort was a triumph, showing that “it was possible to stand up to big energy,” said McKibben. “A lot of the time you win. That’s the thing about movements. When you fight, you often win.”
(U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, in his book “The Land of Flickering Lights,” has a different take on the Keystone XL fight. He voted for the pipeline not because we don’t need to take dramatic action on climate change, he says, but rather because the consequence of the pipeline is negligible and sent the wrong message. It galvanized environmental activists but not the general public, whose understood the defeat as a rejection of economic growth.)
McKibben and others have also had success with the divestment campaign, which in September passed the $11 trillion mark. Peabody Coal, when it declared bankruptcy, blamed the divestment campaign for its woes, he said. Shell calls it a “material risk to its business.”
Now comes an effort to alter lending practices of major financiers of fossil fuel extraction. “The oxygen on which the fires of global warming burns is the money of the banks and insurance and asset managers,” said McKibben. Soon, he said, his organization will call for people to cut up their Chase credit card. And, he added, if that succeeds in altering investments by Chase, the world’s largest lender for expansion of fossil fuel extraction, it will have a tidal wave effect on Wall Street within hours.
Responsibilities of ‘experienced Americans’
In Kansas this year, McKibben’s audience consisted of people in their 20s and 30s, devoted to agrarian reform, but as many or more older people, gray-headed, as is McKibben.
In speaking to such crowds of what he calls “experienced Americans,” McKibben calls for civil disobedience similar to his own. He often cites the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, another non-violent revolutionary whose most famous writing was “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Amory Lovins has been a revolutionary, too, but of a different sort. He was only 28 when his seminal work advocating a “soft path” for energy was published in Foreign Affairs in 1976. The 10,000-word bundle of big ideas was titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.” His arguments weren’t immediately embraced, but his young genius is becoming more evident each year.
A mountaineer then, Lovins relocated to a Colorado where, in 1983 he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a now influential think tank. Lovins still lives in the house he built then in a secluded valley only 10 or 15 minutes on an unpaved road from Snowmass, the ski area where most people who “ski Aspen” actually ski.
There, Lovins raises tropical fruits without aid of fossil fuels. He even lacks a fireplace or stove, such as might be used to combust old energy studies—the only useful purpose of old energy studies, he cracked. Tours are available, he advised. “Just ask for the banana farm.”
In Kansas, Lovins mentioned arrest only once, during his explanation of concept he calls integrative design. He called it “arrestingly simple.” The example he used was in pipes, fans, motors, and ductwork. Creating designs at the outset that result in fatter, shorter and straighter pipes instead of skinny, long and crooked — the usual method, he said — can reduce friction 80% to 90%, dramatically reducing the energy required for electric motors and fans.
“If everybody did that it would save a fifth of the world’s electricity,” he said. His team at the Rocky Mountain Institute observed a payback within a year on retrofits. In new construction, of course, the payback would be instantaneous.
LEDs are an example of improved technology, as distinct from design. They’re 30 times more efficient, 20 times brighter, and 10 times cheaper, he said. He’s not asking for personal privation, just smarter thinking.
Lovins’s first wife, Hunter, once described Lovins as being like a fire hydrant of information. In his public presentations, he always spits out facts and figures with practiced precision, sometimes with a witty jab at those who fail to understand the obviousness of his insights.
The 10,000-word piece published in 1976 began with the key lines from Robert Frost’s poem about roads not taken then neatly laid out the choices: continued expansion of centralized energy supplies, especially in the form of electricity, or a new path. That new path emphasized energy efficiency and deployment of renewable energy “matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs.”
It took a long time for Lovins’s ideas to get traction. They have now. But energy efficiency still has yet to be fully realized.
“The energy we have saved in this country since 1975 is 30 times the increase in renewable supply,” he said. “Yet the headline ratio-and the hit ratio is pretty much the opposite because renewables you can see on the skyline or on the roof, but energy is invisible, and the energy you don’t use is almost unimaginable.”
On the weekend that Lovins spoke in Kansas, the local newspaper in Salina had an op-ed by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas Jr. that echoed old tropes about the fears in the 1960s and 1970s were about a return of the ice age.
In his 1976 essay, Lovins said a commitment to a “long-term coal economy many times the scale of today’s makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate. Only the exact date of such changes is in question.”
Neither despair nor complacency
The United States continued to build coal plants at a furious pace into the 1980s. Asian countries still are. In 2004, a task force overseen by former Vice President Dick Cheney called for a vast fleet of new coal-fired power plants. But in fact, energy efficiency has become a giant driver in the energy world. Utilities in many areas are seeing flat and even declining demand. Economic growth has been decoupled from energy consumption and, according to Lovins, the decoupling has only started.
“Our climate models have conservatively understated the speed and the runway potential of climate change,” he said, “and climate policy model have similarly underestimated what we can do to stop climate change.”
Despair and complacency, he added, are equally unwarranted.
Lovins has often simplified his message to the argument that energy efficiency and now renewable energy should appeal to all good capitalists because it saves money. In response to a question at the Prairie Festival, he admitted it’s more complex than that, pointing to something that he wrote with Paul Hawken 20 years ago.
“We pointed out that markets make a splendid servant but bad master and a worse religion. Markets are very good at what they do: short-term allocation of scarce resources, but they are no substitute for politic, or ethics, or faith. And a society that thinks markets can do those things is in serious trouble.”
In 1976, the same year that Lovins’s essay was published, Jackson left behind the security and benefits of a university job in California, conveniently close to the hiking trials of the Sierra Nevada and the cool breezes of Lake Tahoe, to pursue his vision of perennial grains.
One result is Kernza, a perennial grain with roots as long as an elephant is tall. You can now buy Kernza flour, such was used to make pancakes at this year’s Prairie Festival. You can also buy a Kernza-based beer, Long Root Pale Ale, which is brewed by Patagonia, the outdoor apparel. It’s tasty.
But Jackson’s ambition remains largely unfulfilled. At 83, he walks with a limp. Lovins’s big idea remains under-appreciated. The one-time mountaineer now tends toward portliness. And McKibben’s hair is turning gray and white. Like elephants, with their 95-week pregnancies, big ideas often take a long time to get vigorous traction. Now, those big ideas about agriculture, energy, and carbon are running smack into the immediacy of climate change.
About Allen Best
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
A coalition of agricultural groups announced their support [October 13, 2019] for Proposition DD, which asks voters this fall to tax casinos’ sports-betting profits to help conserve and protect the state’s water supplies.
The coalition includes the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Corn Growers Association, Colorado Dairy Farmers, the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Pork Producers, and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union…
“The Farm Bureau and farmers across Colorado are proud to support Proposition DD. Most farmers and ranchers could care less about sports betting. But this is a smart way to pay for the critical water infrastructure that Colorado’s future needs,” said Chad Vorthmann, Executive Vice President of the Colorado Farm Bureau.
“With dedicated funding through Proposition DD, we can ensure that Colorado’s Water Plan is implemented to secure a water future for the benefit of our businesses, our communities and our rivers and streams,” said Brad Erker, Executive Director of the Colorado Wheat Growers.
“This measure is an important step to ensuring adequate water supplies for agriculture amid our state’s growing population,” said David Eckhardt, Colorado farmer, and President of the Colorado Corn Growers Association.
“The common denominator linking all of agriculture in Colorado is water. Colorado’s dairy farmers support Proposition DD because it will provide funding for critical water projects in our state helping to ensure we maximize the use of this precious natural resource,” said Chris Craft, Chairman of the Board of the Colorado Dairy Farmers.
“We’re pleased to endorse Proposition DD, which is a dedicated funding stream for water storage and conservation in Colorado in the face of increased population and growing demands for this limited resource,” said Joyce Kelly, Executive Director of the Colorado Pork Producers.