Category Archives: North America

How Climate Change Turns Up the Flames of Fire Season

Image result for wildfire

Image: Kent Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The wildfires raging in Northern California, which have so far torched more than 270 square miles, killed 40 people, forced thousands to flee, destroyed about 5,700 structures and spread smoke to communities for hundreds of miles around, are a burning sign of things to come.

Here in Oakland, Calif., where I’m currently working, about 50 miles south of most of the fires, I do my errands and even sit around the not-exactly-airtight apartment wearing an N95-rated respirator mask. Stores can’t keep them on the shelves. Oakland is said to have the country’s worst air this week — second only to the city of Napa and on par with a bad day in Beijing, China (as I write this,  Oaktown’s air quality index, or AQI, is 172, rated “unhealthy” by the EPA; another source, more frequently updated, is The whole San Francisco Bay Area smells like a campfire, and not in a good way.

Many experts agree that climate change has been worsening wildfires in the western U.S. and elsewhere for years by making winters shorter and wetter and the following fire season longer and drier. Climate change also kicks up higher winds and sparks more frequent lightning. And the fires’ carbon emissions exacerbate climate change, which causes more fires, which increases climate change, and so on. It’s a deadly feedback loop. California’s historic drought capped by a soaking-wet last winter and then a hot, dry summer makes these fires a terrible case in point.

For a list of ways to help those in need, click here.

Read more:

Here’s What We Know About Wildfires and Climate Change — Scientific American (reprinted from ClimateWire)

How Climate Change Is ‘Turning Up the Dail’ on California Wildfires — CBS News

Did Climate Change Fuel California’s Devastating Fires? Probably. — MIT Technology Review

The Climate Change Fire Alarm From Northern California — Los Angeles Times

Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? — Union of Concerned Scientists

Briefing: Deadly Sonoma Fire Now Partially Contained; Oakland’s Air Quality Is 2nd Worst in Nation After Napa — East Bay Express

Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires — EPA (Hey, is that a reference to climate change on a federal government website? It’s like seeing a unicorn.)

Related posts:

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Civilization Lost: California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

A Grim Climate Change Forecast for the U.S.

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Filed under Climate Change, Drought, Natural Disasters, North America

From the DNC: A Call for Climate Action


Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Environmentalists are heartened to hear prominent Democrats — Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), among others — calling for urgent climate action at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) taking place in Philadelphia. California Gov. Jerry Brown devoted his whole speech to tearing down climate denial. That’s a stark contrast with the recent Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, where the subject was largely ignored. After all, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Brown’s main target, has called climate change a “hoax,” conjuring a picture of thousands of climate scientists all over the world having quite a laugh.

The party platform documents make the contrast more clear. “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” the Democrats say, pledging an array of actions in support of the The Paris Agreement, moving to clean energy sources and creating jobs in the process. The Republicans reject the agendas of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, demand a halt to U.S. funding of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and vow to defeat President Barak Obama in his “war on coal” through the Clean Power Plan.

Key points summarized in the Dems’ platform:

Democrats share a deep commitment to tackling the climate challenge; creating millions of good-paying middle class jobs; reducing greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050; and meeting the pledge President Obama put forward in the landmark Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution and protect clean air at home, lead the fight against climate change around the world, ensure no Americans are left out or left behind as we accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, and be responsible stewards of our natural resources and our public lands and waters. Democrats reject the notion that we have to choose between protecting our planet and creating good-paying jobs. We can and we will do both.

Read more:

2016 Democratic Party Platform (pages 27-29)

2016 Republican Party Platform (pages 20-22)

Democrats call for immediate action on climate change – Engadget

How the Democratic and Republican party platforms stack up on climate change, Iran and more key issuesLos Angeles Times

Party platforms clash on climate change – courier-journal

Finally, the climate teardown of Trump you’ve been waiting for – Grist

Related posts:

Dubious: The Donald’s Claims About the Calif. Drought

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

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Filed under Climate Change, North America, Politics, United Nations

Dubious: The Donald’s Claims About the Calif. Drought


Photo by Gage Skimore, via Wiki Commons

Trump’s Dubious Drought Claims

The candidate said California has “no drought” and that water farmers need is being used to protect a “three-inch fish”  

At a recent campaign rally in Fresno, “Trump suggested ‘there is no drought’ in California because the state has ‘plenty of water.’ But California is in its fifth year of a severe ‘hot’ drought, the kind that’s expected to become more frequent with global warming. He also said water is being shoved ‘out to sea’ to protect a ‘three-inch fish’ at the expense of farmers. But officials release fresh water from reservoirs primarily to prevent salt water from contaminating agricultural and urban water supplies.”

– Vanessa Schipani, via Scientific American. Read the whole article.

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Filed under Drought, North America, Politics, Water Resources

As Flint Lawsuits Pour in, Leaded Tap Water Found Far Afield

Flint River

Flint River in the 1970s. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I worked recently for a United Nations-affiliated international non-governmental organization in Geneva, Switzerland, named WaterLex. It specializes in finding sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide. Much of its work involves educating parliamentarians and others about the human rights to water and sanitation, established in 2010, and how they can be mixed into practices such as integrated water resources management.

In that context, I was accustomed to hearing about water crises in African and South American countries where municipalities often lacked adequate infrastructure for water provision. So I started to think I knew a thing or two about a government’s obligation to realize the human right to water for its population. Then, while I was still living in Switzerland, came news of Detroit, Mich., shutting off water to customers who hadn’t paid their bills. A similar situation came to light in Baltimore, Md. In those places, a cry rose up for aggressive action to uphold the human right to water, with a focus on the issue of affordability.

In the U.S., a country where infrastructure has been in place to provide freshwater to most homes in most municipalities for more than a century, invocation of the human right to water was a surprising and unsettling thing to hear.

But the water crisis in Flint, Mich., cranks up the volume to a whole new decibel level, and rightly so. The allegations are appalling: Officials knowingly allowed households in a city of 100,000 to drink, cook and bathe in water fouled by lead and other contaminants from lead pipes corroded by polluted Flint River water, following a money-saving switch to that water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. Documentary filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore, among others, is calling for criminal prosecution of Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder. With young children at risk of brain damage and other health problems, it’s not difficult to picture an approaching flood of lawsuits. Fixing Flint’s water is expected to take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Worse, too much lead in municipal water is not limited to Flint. News reports point out city after city in several states where aging infrastructure and improper maintenance have been creating similar problems.

Note to cities and towns: Before that water infrastructure gets to be about a century old, you have to increase the amounts of money and effort put into its upkeep or replacement. If not, you’re likely to soon be taking away your people’s human right to water, and that will always end up being a bigger bill to pay in the end. Oh, and … though it used to go without saying … don’t poison everyone.

Learn more:

Possible lead exposure-miscarriage link probed in Flint water crisis –

Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed $360 million for Flint water fixChristian Science Monitor

Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to FlintThe New York Times

Amid Flint water crisis, the lawsuits are piling up – CBS/The Associated Press

How scientists failed the public in Flint water crisisLos Angeles Times

10 Things They Won’t Tell You About the Flint Water Crisis. But I Will. –

Flint Water Crisis – Wikipedia

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater

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Filed under Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, North America, Pollution, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Resources

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste


The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC


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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California


When drought-struck California moved to curb consumers’ use of water, I wrote about agriculture’s massive and under-regulated use of water. On Friday the state moved to cut many farmers’ use of water, in terms of some of the older rights-holders who divert water from Central Valley rivers and streams. In spring, cuts were made to thousands of junior rights holders’ usage, including many growers. This is more than the state did when it curtailed Big Ag’s water use nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, the last time it made such a move. What it hasn’t done is to move strongly to curtail the industry’s waste of the water it’s allocated to use, which is to say …  it’s allowed to use most of it (about 80 percent).

Just for “fun,” here’s an annoyingly educational reminder that most Americans make the California drought worse by eating the food grown there. That’s not to say they should forego the glorious bounty and cramp the world’s 8th largest economy, but some would argue just that, more or less. Let’s say that some of Cali’s major crops — rice, almonds, avocados — should be grown where there is ample water because they need so damn much of it. Maybe not so much compared to raising beef, but still — a lot.

Another not-fun thing: Sucking up the groundwater is making the surface of California sink faster than ever before, and it’s going to cost a lot of money as infrastructure like bridges and roads suffers damage.

Related post:

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Read more:

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water – The New York Times

California Move to Restrict Water Pumping by Pre-1914 Rights HoldersLos Angeles Times

Drought-Ravaged California Orders Record Water Cuts on FarmersThe Guardian

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

California Is Literally Sinking Into the GroundMother Jones

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet.

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Shortage

Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State


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December 18, 2014 · 9:41 am

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times


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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S.












Slightly more than a third of the United States suffered moderate or worse drought as of July 22, and about 40% of the country has been abnormally dry in recent months, according to research cited in The New York Times. Climate change is intensifying drought and changing patterns. While the West dries out, especially California and southwestern states, more rain than usual has been falling east of the Mississippi River. Look at the mapping on NYT Interactive’s The UpShot.

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Filed under Climate Change, Drought, Environment, North America, Research, Water Resources

California Dreaming: New Study Pushes Massive Water-Conservation Effort

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

If California really tried, it could keep a reserve amounting to as much water all of its cities use in a year — about 14 million acre feet. That’s according to a new analysis conducted by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pacific Institute. It’s the “trying” that could prove difficult for the drought-ridden state, because it would take an aggressive, across-the-board effort to save water, reuse water, and capture lost stormwater. Widespread use of available but underused efficiency methods would have to be implemented in the state’s massive agricultural industry, which uses about 80% of allocated water, and throughout urban areas, which use about 20%. That will take strong political will, a lot of cooperation, and financial investment. But it’s worth it, because it will make a huge difference, and you can’t just keep throwing new plans for billion-dollar desalination plants at the problem.

Read more:

Issue Brief: The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and Stormwater – NRDC and Pacific Institute

California Water Security Attainable, Study SuggestsThe Desert Sun

Related posts:

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Serious Water Conservation Requires Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

California’s State-of-the-State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, North America, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage