Outlawing Water Conflict: California legislators confront risky groundwater loophole

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

Water has pushed people to conflict throughout history, and California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only western state without groundwater regulation — but now that looks set to change. Still, the state needs more reform of its convoluted water rights system to reduce conflict as climate change intensifies.

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Drop and Give Me Efficiency: Can the Military Change American Minds on Climate?

The Department of Defense called out climate change as a major threat to national security in its latest Quadrennial Report, validating both climate science and the need to do something about climate change. Could the military’s funding of cleantech projects and the DoD’s stance on climate change help change Americans’ minds on climate change?

When people talk about the military-industrial complex, it’s usually in the pejorative. We tend to focus on excess warheads and toxic chemicals that have made their way from the battlefield to the cornfield. And rightly so. We have more weapons than we could possibly need and many of the environmental plagues of today — excess pesticide use and myriad disposable plastic items, to name two — can be traced back to the military-industrial complex. But so can the Internet, computers, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Just as it has played an important role in technological advancement, the military has historically held a good deal of sway over cultural values, particularly for conservatives. Yes, the military’s mishandling of sexual harassment and rape has been credited with helping to perpetuate rape myths. But the racial integration of the armed forces was a major tipping point for the civil rights movement, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was considered a big win for gay rights advocates. In all cases, military policies have had a normative influence on U.S. culture far beyond any direct impact on enlisted men and women.

With climate change, the military’s influence over both technological innovation and cultural values are coalescing around a single problem for the first time in history. That influence could have environmental impacts that reach far beyond any particular solar installation or Department of Defense report.

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Cutthroat Lost and Found

As climate change and human activity fragment habitats, accelerate interbreeding, and throttle species to the brink of extinction, what are we trying to conserve? Do we know enough to tinker with evolution? This second feature in our War & Peace issue examines the conflict surrounding these issues (as well as paths to resolution) through the story of the greenback cutthroat trout, a survivor against all odds.

JD3_5426 (1)In northern Colorado’s Poudre Canyon, 30 or so men and women gathered around a fishless lake on a Friday morning in early August. A pickup truck carrying a large white tank rumbled up an old logging road lined with spruce and fir, and emerged in a clearing several yards from the lake’s edge. A state hatchery official climbed into the truck bed, opened the tank’s lids, and began scooping its contents — some 1,200 young greenback cutthroat trout — into five-gallon buckets.

A dozen people stood by, watching and whispering, while a group of researchers photographed, weighed, measured, and snipped tiny tissue samples from about 200 trouts’ fins for monitoring and genetic analysis. Around noon, scientists, wildlife managers, and conservationists among the crowd began hauling fish-filled buckets from the truck, down the muddy shore to the lake. The fish, all bred in hatcheries and none longer than six inches from snout to tail, wriggled their spotted bodies and flashed the trademark slash across their throats as they acclimated to their new home, Zimmerman Lake.

It was a historic moment. “You get a little feeling in the back of your neck, that this is the start of getting these fish back where they belong,” said Aaron Kindle, the Colorado field coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project, who pitched in on Friday. Continue reading

The Nature Conservancy’s Battle Plan: Mapping the Future

WOPA080929_D004If you’ve ever turned on the “bike routes” or “traffic” layers on a Google Map to help you figure out the best way to get somewhere, you’ve used geospatial information for planning. And if you’ve ever looked at that map and wondered why that bottleneck near the on-ramp can’t be fixed, or daydreamed about that one, missing, two-block-long bike lane that would make all the difference for your commute, you’re not far from understanding how The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) approach works.

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Editor’s Note: The War & Peace Issue

Humans have been warring over resources since we’ve had resources to war over – which is to say, forever. For as much as conflicts are cast as political or religious affairs, issues of natural resources – land, water, food, and energy – are often found at their roots. Take Syria. A five-year drought forced rural Syrians to leave their farms and seek work in the cities, laying the groundwork for tensions that escalated into its brutal civil war.

This month, we are reporting on the twin themes of war and peace. Continue reading

Rise of the Zero-Waste Zealots

Concluding our July issue is a look at the zero-waste subculture and how individual environmental action does (or does not) impact society at large. Special thanks to photographer Gregg Segal for allowing us to use his images from the series “7 Days of Garbage” to illustrate the story.

Growing up Mormon in Maryland, Beth Terry grew used to “constantly having to defend a position that might be unpopular,” she explained on a recent Friday afternoon while unpacking a week’s worth of greens, fruits, and spices purchased from a market near her home in Oakland, Calif. – a common ritual that takes unusual form in Terry’s kitchen. Instead of plastic produce bags and heavy zip-locked freezer bags, Terry uses stainless steel and glass containers.

Terry washed green beans and placed them in a stainless steel box. She shoved the box into the freezer, then arranged apples and plums in a separate bin. She poured blueberries from her cloth produce bag into a glass jar, which she tucked into the fridge. This week’s haul included a rare investment for Terry: a four-pound wheel of wax-encased carmody cheese. Sure, it might seem excessive for a family of two. But to Terry, who aims to eliminate all material waste from her lifestyle, the plastic shrink-wrap that houses smaller portions makes them off-limits. Continue reading

How Hackers & Makers Could Help Fight Climate Change

3D printed objects on display in the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco.

In the East Market neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, a handful of chic bars and boutiques are filling into the historic brick buildings on Broadway St, hinting at the neighborhood’s future. A few blocks away, inside a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, a half-dozen men and women were hunched over sewing machines in the warehouse, stitching seams and swapping advice. The room was crowded with project tables, couches, and the remains of various arts, crafts, and electronics projects. One participant triumphantly waved a finished garment in the air as I entered: “I made a shirt!” he exclaimed to the others.

Welcome to LVL1. It’s a makerspace, and places like it — also called hackerspaces, FabLabs, hacklabs, community workshops, and dozens of other local variants — have popped up in cities from Berlin and Boston to Baghdad, Beirut, and Beijing. No matter what they’re called, they’re open workshops where sharing—of expertise, tools, and space—is highly encouraged. Today, there are more than 1,400 such spaces around the world, and they’re spreading fast. Continue reading

Summer Salon at The Exploratorium, July 31! Be There.

We’re thrilled to announce that our second quarterly reader salon will take place at The Exploratorium! This San Francisco institution is ground zero for all things science, art and human perception. Its mission is to “ignite curiosity, encourage exploration, and lead to profound learning.” Hey, that’s our mission, too.

In our stories this month, we’re looking at environment issues through the lens of competition, games, and play. At the salon, we’ll dive into a new approach to river restoration that focuses on both preserving aquatic ecology and riding the rapids. We’ll also ponder the power of hard-core environmentalists to change the course of consumerism. Plus, we’ve got some surprises — including a chance to win a kayak trip! Extra bonus: alcohol! Continue reading

Child’s Play

A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings, but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she’s walking through the woods.

In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day — but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week. Continue reading