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Do Almonds Kill Orcas? And Other Environmental News You Didn't Hear in 2015

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A member of the Southern Resident killer whales' L Pod | Photo: Miles Ritter/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Environmental journalists generally do a great job keeping tabs on the health of the planet, but sometimes we miss the elephant in the room. Or a whole pack of elephants.

Environmental journalism is like any other kind of journalism. Herd mentality, the overarching directive to get the day's big story posted to Twitter 45 seconds before our competition does, sometimes overrides the journalists' ability to figure out what stories are going untold. Media organizations' emphasis on the bottom line -- whether that bottom line is dollars or page views -- can also tilt coverage toward the conventional wisdom.

In 2015, environmental journalists did a great job reporting on California's drought, on the ways in which agriculture shapes state policy, on the planet's changing climate and on some of the ways our habits affect the non-human species with whom we share the planet. But ironically for a year in which the declining number of wild elephants was big news, there's no lack of metaphorical pachyderms in the room that went unnoticed.

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Do almond trees kill orcas?

Killer whales have been in the news quite a bit this year, mainly in stories about captivity at Sea World and similar institutions in the wake of the movie Blackfish. But the federally-endangered southern resident population of orcas, still struggling to regain ground after decades of depletion for the captive orca trade, is now facing a threat that has little to do with Seaworld: California water policy may be starving them.

The 84 orcas that persist in the three pods that make up the southern resident population subsist mainly on salmon. Two of those pods, the K and L pods, spend a fair bit of time off the California coast as far south as Monterey Bay, where they mainly eat Chinook salmon from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

And that's bad news for them, because the last few years have been catastrophic for Central Valley salmon. The last two runs of the (also federally Endangered) Sacramento River winter-run Chinook have suffered catastrophic spawning failure, with 95 percent or more of the young fish that would have headed out to sea in a normal year dying as their habitat warms up and dries out. The still-abundant fall and late-fall Chinook runs suffered similar spawning failures this year.

Leaving more water in the river for the salmon is controversial enough in a "normal" year, if there is such a thing anymore. In a drought, such "wasted" water is even more controversial, especially in a state where California growers respond to drought by increasing their acreage of water-intensive crops like almonds.

Which means that during a drought, pressure to maintain water deliveries to California's ag industry hurts salmon populations -- and that poses a direct threat to the salmon. Which means it's a direct threat to the orcas' food supply.

That's a potential PR disaster for water consumers. People may not get too upset about the Delta smelt, which may well have already gone extinct due to our tampering with its habitat by diverting fresh water to farms and cities. But people love orcas. And when two almond growers tried in 2012 to get southern resident orcas taken off the Endangered Species list so that the whales wouldn't pose an obstacle to continued water deliveries, orca-lovers howled.

The good news: the southern resident population climbed a bit in 2015, up from 75 individuals earlier this year. And El Niño may well provide a bit more breathing room for California's chinook salmon as they spawn this year. But with drought likely the new normal, that only postpones a decision we have to make as a state: do we want orcas -- and the Chinook salmon they eat -- or export-based agriculture?

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A new tech solution to our energy woes | Photo: Blue Prince Architectural /Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Electronic toys waste more power than renewables create

As we struggle to get California off its fossil fuels habit, it's always tempting to think in terms of big, innovative projects to generate the power we need. But as a Natural Resources Defense Council study showed in May, Californians seem to be frittering away much of the effort the state's made to clean up its power supply.

Here's how. The study showed that a typical Northern California household spends about a quarter of its total power consumption on "always-on" appliances. Some of those appliances, like wifi routers, ground fault circuit interrupter switches, phone landlines and the like make sense for basic safety and convenience.

But about half that total, the NRDC found, is used by things that don't need to be on all the time: set-top boxes, phone chargers, printers and game consoles, and so forth.

That may not seem like a huge deal. But consider the Playstation 4, whose sales topped 30 million units in November. The PS4 uses about 10 watts in standby mode, which is pretty efficient. But if all those 30 million units are left in standby mode when not in use, which doesn't seem unlikely, that's a constant demand for 300 megawatts of power, 24/7, just to keep PS4s plugged in in standby.

That's the output of a mid-sized natural gas power plant, or about 3.25 square miles of solar panels. Just to let you avoid unplugging your PS4. And now do the same calculation for all the other brands of console, and printers, and lava lamps, and tablet and phone charging stations, and powered USB hubs, and... well, you get the picture.

To its immense credit, the California Energy Commission is working on ways for California households to cut down the amount of energy they waste. But in all the breathless coverage of big, sexy solar plants -- or small, sexy tech toys like Tesla's home battery packs -- it would be great if more environmental journalists reported on the glories of the good old-fashioned off switch.

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Dead trees fulfilling vital ecological functions in the San Bernardino Mountains | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET
 

California's coming "massive tree die-off" may not be all bad news, and massive cutting of dead trees is likely an overreaction.

Faced with reports that massive numbers of California's forest trees are at risk of dying off due to drought stress, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in October, The declaration included a waiver of environmental laws that might make it harder for private landowners to cut down dead trees on their property.

This straightforward-seeming announcement attracted a bit of notice, but it essentially blended right in with the rest of the drought news; it was essentially just one more way that the state of California is unraveling as our climate changes.

But viewed in the context of the last three decades of forestry in California, that emergency declaration looks very different, as does the press coverage that's accompanied it. Since the late 1980s, old-school forest management, which has been predicated on maximizing the amount of timber cut from our forests, has been confronted by an increasing ecological awareness of the role dead and ailing trees play in a forest ecosystem.

One of the lasting legacies of the so-called Timber Wars of the 1990s is that timber companies have put increasing emphasis on so-called "salvage logging," in which trees damaged by fire, or by bark beetle infestation or drought or similar phenomena, are cut down and sold as timber or other products. On the face of it, salvage logging seems a sensible use of forest resources. But in the real world, salvage logging also removes large trees that have sustained only minor injuries from whatever it is that prompted the salvage.

If you consider a forest to include more than just trees, if you think of a forest as the whole complement of plant and animal species that make up a woodland ecosystem, salvage logging usually does more damage to the forest than whatever the trees are being salvaged from.According to some scientists, there's actually a dead tree deficit in the state of California. Here's how forest ecologist Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project put it in an op-ed he wrote for Redefine in October

If recent, even direr predictions are to be believed, between 55 and 200 million additional trees are at risk of dying in California's forests if the drought continues. Do the math: that's as many as six additional snags per acre in a statewide average.

That's not to say those dead trees would be evenly distributed throughout the state's woodlands: trees on hotter, drier, and steeper patches of ground, such as south-facing slopes, will run a greater risk of dying from drought stress. That means we may see patches of higher tree mortality scattered here and there throughout the forests. Such spots may pose a greater risk of wildfire, and of landslides as soils once secured by living root systems are held in place no longer.

But salvage logging, far from being a solution to fire and landslides, often actually increases the risk of both.

Of California's 33 million acres of forests, about half are managed as active timberlands. Of those timberlands, about 7.4 million acres -- more than 11,000 square miles -- are privately owned. That's the land affected by Brown's emergency declaration, which in addition to suspending environmental laws that govern timber harvests, also directs state agencies to boost markets for California timber products and ramp up production of energy from forest biomass.

That last bit has been reported by California newsmedia, but not in a particularly critical way.

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Acid mine drainage from the New Idria Mercury Mine in San Benito County | Photo: US EPA
 

The Animas River mine wastewater spill was a drop in the bucket compared to ongoing California mine disasters.

In August, human error by Environmental Protection Agency contractors unleashed about three million gallons of toxic acid wastewater into the Animas River, a tributary of the Colorado. News coverage for the next month focused on the EPA's initial stonewalling of the press, as well as the effects on Native ranchers downstream and the possible health hazard to the millions of people who drink water from the Colorado every day.

That concern wasn't misplaced: the Gold King Mine spill posed a serious threat to the Navajo and other neighbors of the Animas River. But it only took us a few hours of digging to come up with 10 underreported California mine disasters whose legacy is far worse. The Iron Mountain Mine in the far north of the state, for instance, currently holds 53 Animas River spills worth of incredibly acidic toxic mine drainage inside a slowly eroding mountain riddled with carved tunnels, seething at a temperature of more than 100°F, and the EPA estimates the mine will need constant management for at least 3,000 years. Eventually, Iron Mountain's seals will burst, sending wastewater 6,300 times as acidic as lemon juice into the Sacramento River.

And that's just one of California's leaky mines. It was a piece of cake to come up with a list of California spills larger than the Animas River spill in August. Though "spill" might not be the right word, because it implies an "oops" moment in which something went wrong: in many cases, mine owners either deliberately dumped their waste into the environment or took not precautions to keep it from contaminating the landscape.

The reason? A 19th-Century law, the General Mining Act of 1872, passed during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, that still forms the bulk of public lands mining policy in the U.S. Under the Act, private companies can file mining claims on public land for a maximum of $5.00 an acre, extract valuable minerals without paying a cent in royalties to the landowners (you and me), and then walk away leaving taxpayers with the cost of cleanup.

Since 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Lands Policy Management Act, mining companies must pay into a reclamation fund before starting a large mine on land managed by the BLM. And if the EPA designates a mine as a Superfund site, they can legally go after the owners to pay part of the cleanup costs -- if the owner is still in business.

Two major attempts to reform the Act -- and charge mining companies royalties that would be used to pay for cleanup of old mines -- have died in Congress in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, Californians are still exposed to mercury, asbestos, toxic heavy metals, and other impediments to good health blowing, seeping, or leaking from the state's many mines.

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Male sage grouse in Bodie, California | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

The plan to save the sage grouse is more politics than science

In September, citing voluntary conservation efforts across the more than 170 million acres of the West that is the bird's habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it wouldn't be listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision was lauded by land management agencies and grazing interests as a victory for collaboration, and the alternative -- a behemoth set of voluntary agreements by agencies, ranchers, counties, tribes, and NGOs -- as a way to avoid the supposed draconian crackdown on land use that would accompany protection for the grouse.

Though some observers, mainly representatives of extractive industry, argue over whether the grouse truly merits listing, few argue that the species doesn't need help. Once numerous enough in the intermountain West to evoke comparisons to passenger pigeons in their heyday, the grouse has lost as much as 90 percent of its 19th Century numbers, and has been extirpated from half its historic range. There are now between 200,000 and 500,000 sage grouse, down from perhaps two million 150 years ago.

The reasons for the bird's decline are numerous, ranging from increased predation pressure on the birds' eggs and young by ravens to West Nile virus to invasive cheatgrass altering the habitat the birds prefer. Oil and gas development in places like Wyoming has fragmented and polluted the birds' habitat, and urban development, with its attendant threats from power lines and speeding cars plays a role. And there's one more -- a big threat, overarching the rest -- that we'll get to in a minute.

Despite the range of threats to the grouse, it's probably fair to say that the September decision not to list the species surprised no one. For four years after a 2011 settlement in which USFWS had agreed to decide whether to list the grouse by this year, tensions mounted in western communities over the effect such a listing might have. The political pressure not to list was immense, and it came from a number of directions: Chambers of Commerce, the fossil fuel industry, off-road vehicle associations, and others.

The main issue: the chicken-sized grouse depend on vegetation made up of native shrubs interspersed with open areas. That habitat is in decline across the west for all the reasons listed above, plus that other one we mentioned: ranching. No industry has altered sage grouse habitat the way ranching has, from bringing in artificial water sources (breeding grunds for mosquitoes that carry West nile) to stringing fences that are a common cause of injury to the low-flying birds, to spreading invasive cheatgrass as cattle break up the cryptobiotic soil crusts that once kept the weedy grass from germinating.

Instead of listing the sage grouse, the interior Department spearheaded a wide-ranging effort to collaborate across organizational and geographic boundaries to conserve habitat nd take other steps to keep the sage grouse from declining further. The result is an unprecedented 14 sage grouse recovery plans implemented across 11 states. Some of the measures specified in those plans seem to be good ideas worth doing. Others, like carving fuel breaks along roads and logging in pinyon and juniper forests? Not so much.

And none of those plans include significant restrictions on livestock grazing in grouse country. (A fact sheet published by USFWS before the listing decision suggested grazing might actually help the grouse.) Oil and gas exploration and development will continue relatively unimpeded. And some wildlife advocates are fairly certain the grouse will continue to decline in number, forcing the USFWS to list the species anyway.

"The goal all along has been to avoid serious restrictions on the West's extractive industries," wrote wildlife biologist George Wuerthner in the wake of the decision. "The writing was on the wall in recent years that the FWS would do everything in its power to avoid listing. I am almost certain that the Obama administration told western politicians that if they made some minimum improvements in habitat to provide political cover, they would get a no listing decision. Whether this was done overtly or with a wink and nod, I can't say, but the outcome is the same."

But you wouldn't know any environmentalists had misgivings about the decision if you went by what made the news.

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A federal court had to step in this year to protect eagles when USFWS wouldn't. | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET
 


Is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a captive of the industry it's supposed to regulate?

Two weeks ago, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that exposed a startling statistic: in the last seven years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has intervened in two projects that might have posed a risk to species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

During that period, the agency had had 88,000 opportunities to intervene in projects potentially harmful to protected species. Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, USFWS can require that federally funded or -managed projects be altered if it finds a project would put a protected species in jeopardy. In 87,998 of those cases, the agency decided not to.

In press reports, that startlingly low number of interventions was spun as a rebuttal to the common developers' complaint that the Endangered Species Act has a chokehold on the economy, thwarting developments in a whole host of industries from agriculture to energy to homebuilding.

But there's another possible explanation for that strikingly low number of jeopardy findings under Section Seven: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn't doing its job.

USFWS is one of two federal agencies charged with protecting the 1,600-plus species protected under the Endangered Species Act. (The other is the National Marine Fisheries Service a.k.a. NOAA Fisheries, which oversees the welfare of marine species and anadromous fish.) USFWS is supremely well-equipped to fulfill its role as the nation's lead wildlife protection agency: it boasts what is likely the most-skilled and most-committed group of wildlife biologists and environmental scientists in the world.

But in the absence of a clear intent by the Executive Branch to empower USFWS scientists to do their jobs effectively, those scientists can only do so much.

Take for example a project we've been covering for years here at KCET: the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County. In 2010, USFWS wrote a formal document estimating how many Federally threatened desert tortoises could be killed, injured or displaced by the project before the total began to put the species in jeopardy. In that document, called a Biological Opinion (BiOp), USFWS said the project would start to do damage to the species if 38 adult tortoises were harmed or disturbed during construction.

When biologists started clearing the site before construction, they quickly found more tortoises than that: the site was -- literally! -- crawling with desert tortoises. USFWS responded by reissuing an amended BiOp that gave developers permission to "take" injure or disturb -- a lot more tortoises. "We anticipate that construction of the ISEGS project site is likely to take, in the form of mortality or injury, between 405 and 1,136 desert tortoises due to direct effects of construction or due to loss of 3,444 acres of habitat," read the new BiOp, which concluded that that vastly larger impact on the tortoises still would not pose jeopardy to the species.

In 2013, USFWS' BiOp for the Stateline and Silver State solar projects, to be sited in the Ivanpah Valley near the first solar plant, would likely kill or injure more than 2,000 tortoises, many of them eggs or juveniles, and said that even that number would pose no threat to the species.

Or take wind turbines and eagles. In 2009, USFWS scientists working on the first-ever program of incidental take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act said that giving wind turbine operators permits lasting more than five years was scientifically indefensible. Those permits would allow wind turbine operators to stay on the right side of the law if their turbines hurt eagles, and would give USFWS a hook by which they could influence siting and operations to reduce risk to eagles industry-wide. Or at least that's the theory.

But wind turbine companies complained that five-year take permits would screw up their financing by introducing uncertainty to their companies' cash flow. In 2012, USFWS suddenly didn't think it was scientifically indefensible to suggest 30-year eagle take permits.

That shift came over the strenuous objections of USFWS scientists, at the urging of Service director Dan Ashe. Ashe should have listened to his staff. Green groups sued over the take permit policy change, saying that USFWS should have prepared an environmental impact statement to gauge the effects of the rule change and give the public an chance to comment. In August, a federal district court in California agreed.

That failure to listen to staff affects more than just renewable energy issues at USFWS, as witness USFWS Region 6 Regional Director Noreen Walsh's leaked confidential memo ordering her scientific staff to drop attempts to list the North American wolverine as an endangered species.

Or consider the USFWS's role in the Obama administration's attempts to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, another example of politics trumping science.

In 2014, Dan Ashe is said to have told a group of conservationists that they "must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls." Startling words from someone who is required by law to manage for increases in population of all three of the animals he mentioned. Imagine if the Secretary of Education had told us we "must accept lower-performing schools." Or the Transportation Secretary saying we had to learn to live with bridges falling down every so often.

Or, if you'd prefer to visualize something positive, imagine a Fish and Wildlife Service whose scientists were allowed to do their jobs, making sure that American industry actually follows environmental laws designed to protect our irreplaceable biodiversity instead of remaking those laws to suit industry's whims.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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