Conservation

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Environment and Electrons Create Sparks in SoCal

Hear the companion radio feature about opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink at The California Report, starting Friday morning.

By Ruxandra Guidi

The road that takes you from the sleepy town of Boulevard into the path of the Sunrise Powerlink is a dusty, unmarked path that’s a couple of miles long. It ends at a gate without a sign, where a guard stands in the hot midday sun. He knows to keep any unauthorized visitors away; there’s a party going on inside, while the protesters make noise for hours outside.

David Elliott speaks to protesters outside the Sunrise Powerlink headquarters in the town of Boulevard. (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

No one yet knows what the Sunrise Powerlink will end up looking like, and at what cost — and that’s just two of the main issues people have with it. Opponents of the giant network of powerlines, towers, and substations, say it will run for 120 miles, through delicate ecosystems and fire-prone areas. Its impact on local residents and wildlife will be irreparable.

On the other hand, SDG&E says its “superhighway” for transporting electrons from remote solar and wind farms to coastal population centers, will respect state and federal lands and go around delicate areas of the desert; that it will generate much-needed jobs while meeting state goals for green energy development. In the process, the California Imperial Valley is being touted as a so-called “mega-region;” a showcase for clean energy production. Continue reading

Report: California a “Conservation Hotspot”

A report pinpoints critical areas in California for protecting critters

The North American pika like the protection and cool refuge of high-elevation talus slopes. (Photo: US Forest Service)

California is one of five places on earth with a Mediterranean climate. It has enough endemic plant species to be its own “floristic province.” It’s also what biologists refer to as a biodiversity hotspot. So it’s not surprising that a report by the Endangered Species Coalition includes three places either completely or partially within California in its list of ten of the most important locations to protect endangered species.

The report highlights areas across the U.S. that are most threatened, such as the Everglades, and places that provide home to the greatest number of endangered species, like Hawaii. Continue reading

Hidden Treasure: An “Eco-City” in SF Bay?

Thousands roar by Treasure Island every day without a passing glance. That could soon change…radically.

Listen to Alison Hawkes’ companion radio feature on The California Report, Monday morning, and see a slide show of the island’s transformation, below.

Architect's rendering of a proposed "eco-city" on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco’s twin islands in the Bay – Treasure Island and Yerba Buena – are not exactly jewels of nature. Although they have stunning views, a half-century of use by the U.S. Navy and years in redevelopment limbo have taken a toll.

Some sites on Treasure Island are severely contaminated, and much of the island is cracked asphalt and derelict buildings. Yerba Buena is solid rock but Treasure Island is entirely artificial, conjured from bay mud as an engineering showcase for the 1939 World’s Fair. As time passes, a corner of Treasure Island is gradually sinking into the sea. Rising sea levels as a result of climate change could subsume the island entirely, returning it back to its natural state, which is to say underwater.

In short, the place needs some serious help and this is where a massive multi-billion dollar redevelopment takes stage. Private developers want to transform the islands into a high-density “eco-city” with as many as 20,000 residents, making use of the best that technology and city planning have to offer in sustainable development. Continue reading

Federal Gov’t Eyes CA for Solar Projects

The federal government is recommending 24 areas in six Southwestern US states it says are “best-suited” for large-scale solar projects, both economically and environmentally.   Four of these “Solar Energy Zones” are in California: two in San Bernadino County and one each in Imperial and Riverside Counties, and together they account for nearly half of the nearly 700,000 acres recommended by the Obama Adminstration.

“These are areas in those states which have been determined to have the highest solar potential and the fewest amount of environmental and resource conflicts,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

He said that because the recommended areas are likely to have fewer delays related to environmental issues, projects sited there are likely to have a faster permitting process.   The report and its recommendations, he said, will help speed up the implementation of renewable energy projects around the Southwest. (!–more–>

“It presents a common sense and flexible framework from which to grow our nation’s renewable energy economy,” he said.

While representatives from environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Center for Biological Diversity applauded the federal government for planning ahead for efforts to make the siting of solar projects more efficient, some voiced concerns about the specific sites named as Solar Energy Zones.

Ilene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concern that one of the areas designated in California, a swath of more than 200,000 acres called Riverside East, contains habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. Another zone she finds problematic is the Iron Mountain Zone, which Anderson says is too far from population centers, meaning that projects there could require the construction of additional transmission infrastructure.

Beyond the specific areas, however, Anderson said what concerns her to most is that the federal strategy leaves open the possibility for solar projects in sites outside the designated zones.

“My concern is that they’re still going to be entertaining applications anywhere on public lands, and that gets us back to the problem that we’re currently seeing which is these renewable energy projects spread willy-nilly across the desert,” she said.

You can see what the recommended sites actually look like with this interactive map that identifies the Solar Energy Zones and provides on-the-ground panoramic views of the sites.

Imperial Valley Confronts its Water Future

Peter Osterkamp hopes his generation of farmers isn't the last in the Imperial Valley. (Photo: Krissy Clark)

Clichés about water in California can seem more abundant than the water itself these days.  But that doesn’t make the clichés any less true.

There’s that Mark Twain saw about how “whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’,” and the line about how water flows uphill toward money.  And then there’s the time Twain fell into a California river and “came out all dusty.”

All those quips seemed fairly dead-on when I was down in the desert of southeastern California recently.  I was reporting for two radio stories on how Imperial Valley farmers are facing the double wallop of an eleven-year drought (and counting) in the Colorado River basin, and the expected effects of climate change.  Recent models suggest that Lake Mead — the giant reservoir that stores Colorado River water for Imperial farmers and much of the Southwest — has a 50% chance of drying up in the next 50 years.  Talk about dusty.  And because the Colorado is so over-allocated already, no water is left by the time the river reaches — make that attempts to reach — the Colorado delta in Mexico.  More dust. Continue reading

State Water Picture Improves

If you’re counting on water from the State Water Project, this year is at least starting off better than the last couple.

For the farms and towns that depend on deliveries from the SWP, the outlook for the coming year is better than in recent years, which is not to say ideal.

State water managers today made their preliminary estimate that customers would get one quarter of the water requested from the system. That beats last year’s initial estimate of five percent–the lowest on record. Mark Cowin, who heads the state Department of Water Resources, says these early estimates are intentionally stingy:

“Over the past few dry years, CA has made good progress in improving our ability to conserve water,” Cowin told reporters in a conference call today, but cautioned that “We must continue to promote an ethic of using water efficiently—regardless of  the day-to-day outlook for water supplies.”

But Cowin says that between the wet spring and early start to the rainy season this fall, chances are good that the initial 25% projection will rise.

A key reservoir on the system, Lake Oroville, stands at more than three-quarters of its average for this time of year, whereas last year at this time, it was only about half full. By the time the water year was winding up, DWR officials had raised the allocation to 50%. They added that with average precipitation the rest of the way, customers could end up with about 60% of their hoped-for deliveries in 2011. So far this season, precipitation is running ahead of the long-term average.

You can check on how the state’s major reservoirs are doing throughout the year, with our interactive map.
View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map


View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Water in the State Water Project, like the federally run Central Valley Project, comes in large part from the mountain snowpack of the Sierra and lower Casdade ranges. Growers typically make up for shortfalls by pumping more groundwater.

National Parks Wrestle with Warming

As the world warms, officials at the National Park Service are starting to sweat: No glaciers at Glacier, no Joshua trees at Joshua Tree. These are part of the long-range forecast for the national parks.

A misty Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park; metaphor for the park's murky future? (Photo: Craig Miller)

Last month, in a post from Glacier National Park, I noted that Park Service director Jon Jarvis was not in a mood to mince words, calling climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of the national park system that we’ve ever faced.”

That assertion was underscored last week in a new report on potential impacts to the parks from climate change. The collaboration by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, attempted to zoom in on specific parks and projected changes ahead for ten national parks in California, as well as impacts on the state’s economy.

Death Valley is already the hottest spot in North America. The highest recorded temperature there is 136 dF. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Some conclusions under a “medium-to-high” emissions scenario, toward the end of this century: Higher temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park would mean the end of, well, Joshua trees in the park. Muir Woods could be as warm, on average, as San Diego has been historically, making it less hospitable to the park’s legendary coast redwoods. Death Valley, already the hottest spot on the continent, could become virtually uninhabitable during the summer, as average temperatures rise by more than eight degrees, Fahrenheit, over average readings from 1961 to 1990. Continue reading

Center to Study Climate Impacts on Ocean

Federal officials this week launched a new climate change research center, designed to be a hub for studies on the impacts of climate change on the San Francisco Bay and coastline.

The tidal gauge off of San Francisco's Fort Point is the oldest in North America.

The Ocean Climate Center is housed in a collection of century-old military buildings on the edge of the Bay at Crissy Field. It couldn’t be a more picturesque — and critical — location. Adjacent to the oldest tidal gauge in North America, the center will allow cash-strapped federal agencies to pool resources into climate change research and work with natural resource managers to combat negative impacts on the marine ecosystem and communities along the coastline. Continue reading

Parks Chief: No “Free Ride” for Renewables

Renewable energy developers will get no special treatment in the National Parks, according to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis at McDonald Creek, Glacier National Park (Photo: Craig Miller)

Jarvis made the comment yesterday while touring Glacier National Park in Montana, with members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Renewables do not get a free ride,” said Jarvis, when asked about how the parks would treat development of renewable energy sources on park property.

Using the backdrop of Glacier National Park, where the remaining 25 glaciers (out of an estimated 150) are expected to disappear by 2030, Jarvis called climate change the most serious threat ever posed to the integrity of the park system. Continue reading

San Benito PV Array Clears a Key Hurdle

Panoche Valley is located in San Benito County, between Hollister and Fresno. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Cupertino-based Solargen Energy cleared a major hurdle this week in its plan to build a nearly 400-megawatt solar farm in the Panoche Valley. Late Tuesday the San Benito County Board of Supervisors unanimously  approved the company’s environmental impact report. The project has seen opposition from environmental groups and valley residents concerned about the impact of covering more than 4,700 acres with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. The Board also approved the water supply assessment and canceled several Williamson Act contracts, both paving the way for the project to move forward.
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