Higher Air Pollution Is Linked To A Higher COVID-19 Death Rate, A New Study Finds

Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution increases the risk of death related to COVID-19, according to a new study from Harvard University.

That’s especially concerning in Southern California, where Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties regularly rank among the worst in the nation for long-term particulate matter pollution, or PM2.5.

And, as is true in other parts of the nation, the effects of that pollution disproportionately harm Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and low-income communities — which underscores early data showing black Americans are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 complications.

The Harvard study gathered data from roughly 3,000 U.S. counties, which account for 90% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths nationwide, as of April 4. Researchers factored in population size, the number of hospital beds, the number of individuals tested, weather, plus some “socioeconomic and behavioral variables” like smoking.

That data was checked against county-level data on long-term exposure to PM2.5, which is generally measured by microgram per cubic meter of air.

According to the findings, an increase of just one microgram per cubic meter of air was associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

L.A. County is dark red, indicating high particulate matter

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the authors wrote.

The study has been submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine for review.

What is particulate matter?

The Environmental Protection Agency describes PM2.5 as “fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.” Most PM2.5 comes from emissions generated by cars and trucks, power plants, and industrial sites.

Exposure to particulate matter has been linked to harmful health conditions including asthma, decreased lung function and complications for people with heart or lung disease. Many of those same conditions put people who contract COVID-19 at a higher risk of falling severely ill, according to the CDC.

“There is a large overlap between the diseases that are affected by fine particulate matter and diseases that lead to death if you get COVID-19,” said Dr. Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study’s senior author.

Dominici said the findings can serve as a guide for public health officials to strengthen distancing efforts, direct resources and prepare for more serious COVID-19 cases in regions with worse PM2.5 pollution.

Air pollution in southern California

Southern California skies may be remarkably clear right now, but our infamous air pollution is well documented.

The American Lung Association releases an annual “State of the Air” report, ranking U.S. counties and metropolitan areas with the worst air pollution. The Los Angeles-Long Beach metro area placed fifth in its most recent report for highest annual levels of PM2.5. Fresno and Bakersfield were ranked first and second, respectively.

Measuring by county, San Bernardino and Riverside counties placed sixth and eighth, respectively, for the U.S. counties with the highest year-round PM2.5 pollution. L.A. County ranked 15th. Thirteen of the 20 worst counties for PM2.5 levels were in California.

Dominici singled out L.A., Orange and Fresno counties as “among the most polluted counties in the United States” based on her team’s research.

“For California counties that are most polluted, what it means is that… unfortunately, we’re expecting higher risk of death [from] COVID,” she told LAist today. “You are dealing with a population that is already susceptible to adverse health effects of COVID, because their lungs have been already exposed to many years of fine particulate matter.”

San Bernardino and Riverside counties also lead the nation in ozone pollution levels, better known as smog. L.A. County is ranked third for a SoCal hat trick.

Harvard’s study did not examine ozone levels for possible links to COVID-19 mortality, but Dominici said her team plans to study that soon. She said she also wants to look further into the impact coronavirus is having on African Americans.

Harvard’s study is online and available to the public.

(Infographic by Riley Anderson)

COVID-19 fears close Grand Canyon National Park after weeks of pressure

PHOENIX – The National Park Service abruptly closed Grand Canyon National Park on Wednesday, bowing to weeks of pressure after health officials expressed “extreme concern” about the potential for spread of COVID-19 in the park.

The park has been open with reduced services – and no entry fee – for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have spiked in the state and the nation and as public health officials have enacted increasingly strict limits on gatherings and public activities.

Those increases were cited Wednesday by Coconino County Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow, who said the county has recorded 82 COVID-19 cases and four deaths from the disease. Projections of the disease’s growth over the next month are “staggering,” he said in a letter to park officials.

“The decision to allow the park to remain open puts park employees, area residents and tourists at risk,” Pristow’s letter said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the decision to close the park came “as soon as we received the letter.” The park was closed immediately and will remain closed indefinitely, he said in a press release.

“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt’s statement said.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who had joined others urging the park’s closure, called Bernhardt’s explanation “absurd on its face,” noting that Pristow sent a similarly urgent letter Friday. He said “any competent authority would take notice and act immediately.”

“Instead, the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor remained silent,” Grijalva said in a statement Tuesday. “Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”

The Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors who spent $947 million in the region in 2018, according to a National Park Service report last year. It said tourism to the park generated $1.2 billion in total economic activity and supported more than 12,000 jobs in the region.

Despite the potential economic hit, an official with the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors welcomed the closure.

“I know for the safety of the residents, we’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Laura Chastain, the visitors bureau spokesperson. “Just wish it would have happened sooner.”

Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris said he respects the “difficult decision” to temporarily close the park, “given the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

“It was made with the best interest of our residents in the surrounding community, by closing the Grand Canyon National Park,” Harris said. “I hope that the spread of this virus will be curved, allowing us to return back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.”

Calls for the park’s closure had been made by Coconino County officials and the Navajo Nation, among others. They were joined Tuesday by 10 members of Congress, including three from Arizona, who urged Bernhardt to close the park, citing public health and safety concerns. The lawmakers’s letter said that in one day on a popular Grand Canyon trail, a park ranger “had 600 contacts with visitors.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who signed the letter, said Wednesday he was glad to see Park Service leadership listened to concerns from members of Congress and others.

“While I am committed to protecting our public lands and ensuring that they are accessible to all Americans, the health and safety of my constituents is my top priority,” O’Halleran said in a press release following the closure announcement. “I believe that this is the correct course of action.”

While the park itself is closed, Chastain said she hopes people take advantage of digital park viewing tools during this time to “virtually” visit.

“We still have different videos we’ve created over the years that will allow people to still see a national treasure, even if we are closed for the safety of everyone,” she said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Why the Air in Metro Phoenix is Fresher These Days

PHOENIX – The Phoenix area is famous for its warm spring days and wealth of outdoor activities, but it’s also known for something less flattering: some of the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association ranked the Phoenix-Mesa area as the seventh worst for ozone pollution, behind Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities.

Evidence of that ranking is the brown cloud that often hovers over metro Phoenix, but because of a looming cloud of a different sort – COVID-19 – many residents are staying home and out of their vehicles.

“We’re seeing less of the emissions that come out of the back of cars,” said Nancy Selover, the state climatologist. “So the brown cloud, the brown cloud is very much reduced in the Phoenix area.”

In just one week’s time, daily traffic delays plummeted approximately 32% across Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people.

The time that commuters spent in traffic fell from nearly 56,000 hours a day during the second week of March to about 38,000 hours in the third week, according to a travel time delay index by the analytics company INRIX. This means that on average the time Maricopa County travelers spent in their cars to get to a destination decreased.

Data from Descartes Labs in New Mexico also suggests a downward trend in Maricopa County’s mobility through its m50 index. This index looks at the median distance people in a given area travel from where they started the day. This lack of mobility is something Selover has noticed as well.

“Because the traffic is less, we’re seeing less air pollution,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is collecting data on how COVID-19 has impacted emissions as people drive less. Gov. Doug Ducey on March 19 ordered gyms, bars and most restaurants in Maricopa County to close their doors to contain the spread of COVID-19, and on Monday extended the stay-at-home order to all 15 Arizona counties. That means people must remain at home unless they need to access essential services, such as the grocery store or the pharmacy.

“Vehicles driving on the roads are the biggest contributor to the man-made ozone in the Phoenix area and produce the majority of nitrous oxides (NOx) that are needed to create ozone,” Erin Jordan, ADEQ’s public information officer, said in an email.

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone higher in the stratosphere is produced naturally, and it’s necessary to protect against ultraviolet light. It’s the man-made ozone, produced by cars, manufacturing and power plants, that causes problems in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Jordan said metro Phoenix was below average for moderate ozone days for the month of March, but she noted there could be many factors, including Phoenix’s recent wet weather, which can wash pollutants out of the air.

Other agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, are detecting similar trends. Air quality has been good in the Los Angeles area, said Bradley Whitaker with the South Coast district, but weather factors into this, too.

“There’s been a lot of day to day changes in the weather and weather tends to be the most important factor that impacts air pollution concentration,” he said. “I would say, just generally, levels of emissions tend to drop during times of reduced economic activity, which we’re certainly in right now.”

And better air quality isn’t just being seen in Phoenix and Los Angeles but across the globe. Countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China and Italy, have seen significantly lower emissions. In China, emissions have gone down by more than 25% since the initial outbreak in late December in Wuhan, a major commercial hub.

That trend isn’t new. Emissions have historically dropped in times of crisis, for instance, wars and periods of economic uncertainty. During the Great Recession, economic activity slowed and emissions dropped, Whitaker said.

The brown cloud usually seen over metro Phoenix this time of year has been reduced in part because people are driving much less due to the coronavirus. In fact, March saw below average moderate ozone days, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Although more time is needed to study how COVID-19 has impacted emissions, Selover said this decrease will be just a blip on the radar when it comes to the larger impact on climate in Arizona – at least for the immediate future.

“At this point in time, they’re not going to see those changes and emissions have any immediate impact on climate,” Selover said. “Temperature is not going to drop because of that or any of that kind of stuff.”

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With so many people staying at home, some might expect energy use to go up, but Arizona Public Service – the state’s largest supplier of electricity – reports that home energy use has seen a flat line of services. This means power use is more evenly spread throughout the day, leading to an increased opportunity for solar use during sunlit hours.

“We’re early right now in terms of the load forecast or what we are seeing. We are certainly seeing a decline in overall system load right now,” APS CEO Jeff Guldner said at the March 23 meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Regardless, some, such as Laura Dent, the executive director of the advocacy organization Chispa AZ, encourage people to think about the role emissions play in their daily lives. She hopes people will learn from this stay-at-home experience, adding that it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to achieve reduced emissions and other sustainability goals.

“We’re coming together for the safety of everyone,” Dent said. “It has been really inspiring to see the collective action across stakeholders in our community, individuals and families. We’d love to see that similar movement, build and grow in relation to this longer-term crisis related to climate change.”

Dent said recognizing the environment’s value is more important now than ever before. She sees that happening with people, who are staying at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, now turning to the outdoors as a way to get out of their homes, and remain physically distant from others.

“In the very early stages of self-quarantine, millions of Americans are recognizing the importance of public space and parks,” Dent said. “I think all of us can recognize that there’s so many added values, not only to making sure that our society continues, but also that we have, you know, quality of life and well-balanced for our families moving into the future.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Lessons Learned From Mexico City’s Ban On Single-Use Plastic Bags

MEXICO CITY — In the global environmentalist battle, Mexico City started fighting single-use plastic bags this year. But the impact and results from the ban still are debated by citizens, business people and nature preservationists.

Starting this year, Mexico City implemented a change in their waste management law, and now single-use plastic bags are banned. How this environmentalist move is affecting one of the largest cities in the world — and what can we learn from it?

Bagless Stores

Jessica López works in a Mexico City convenience store, one out of thousands of stores that are not allowed to use one-time plastic bags for customer purchases since January.

The Mexico City Congress approved last year a reform to the waste management law.

Starting this year, bans the use of carrier plastic bags in stores, except those used for fresh food to prevent health problems. Next year, the ban is expected to extend to other single-use products.

López says most customers have adapted to the measure but some still complain, like those who even wanted a bag for just a pack of cigarettes.

Jessica López works in a convenience store in Mexico City. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

“Selling bags is not a good alternative for us: it’s not profitable and not good for the environment,” López said.

And despite some customers buy less after forgetting to bring a bag, the majority carry reusable bags or even cones made out of newspaper.

“The ban might be helpful, but there’s many other polluting materials that should be banned or at least regulated to make a real difference,” the storekeeper said.

‘Molding’ The Industry

José del Cueto is president of the plastic bag division of the Mexican Association of Plastics. And, in a way, he agrees with López.

“This prohibition to specific products is not going to help. So, we need to try to improve the way we handle trash,” Del Cueto said, explaining that the reform is insufficient without a modification to the waste management processes and regulations.

Del Cueto says the industry already lost $81 million in the first two months of the year.

The executive said 95% of plastic bags in Mexico are made locally. There are more than 4,300 plastic bag companies in Mexico, generating 300,000 jobs.

José del Cueto is president of the plastic bag division of the Mexican Association of Plastics. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

But Del Cueto says factories are closing, firing people or struggling for resources to produce the newly required environmentally friendly bags.

“Plastic bags need to be made with compostable materials. Not reusable, not recyclable. Basically compostable. And that means we need to import, so we need to bring from China or Asia or Europe,” Del Cueto said.

The businessman said the industry is committed to reducing pollution, but it needs the government’s help and commitment. He says some substitute materials used for supermarket bags, like cotton or paper, may be worse than plastics.

More Than A Ban

“I think the industry has created a false dilemma,” said Ornela Garelli, ocean’s campaigner and one of the leaders in the campaigns to reduce plastic consumption for the environmentalist nonprofit Greenpeace Mexico.

And for her, it is possible to protect the economy and the environment simultaneously through innovation and changing the culture.

“The point here is to reuse the bag. It’s time to do something, and way to start is to supporting these kind of bans, Garelli said.”

Garelli said that although plastic bags represent less than 1% of the trash, their importance goes beyond.

“It’s not just the ban for itself, it is a change in our culture. We want the people to start seeing that our actions have an impact on the environment,” she explained.

Ornela Garelli is Greenpeace Mexico’s ocean’s campaigner. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

Garelli says everything we produce has an environmental impact, from paper to plastic or cotton bags. And the point of these kinds of bans is not to eradicate plastics — some of which are beneficial — but to limit single-use materials as much as possible.

“We consider that recycling is good, but it’s not the solution, because in the reality, we can see that we don’t have enough technical capacity,” the environmentalist said.

Garelli says only 9% of the plastic produced globally gets recycled. This drops to 6% in Mexico and the U.S.

Dealing With The Bags

On a Mexico City street, Arnulfo Acevedo and his co-workers pick up the trash, transporting 16 tons of it everyday.

“Some people complain about the ban because the alternative now is finding other containers for trash,” Acevedo said.

Arnulfo Acevedo (red shirt) has been collecting garbage in Mexico City for 44 years. (Photo by Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ)

He’s been collecting garbage for 44 years and says changes in waste management can be hard for many, but it’s necessary for the environment.

“Everything is possible here in Mexico. But to make things happen, people need to cooperate,” Acevedo said.

Lower carbon-capture costs could entice businesses to address climate change

PHOENIX – The Environmental Plan proposed by Republican lawmakers looks to make permanent tax breaks for companies that reduce emissions through carbon capture and other means. The updated proposal, co-sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, comes as more Arizonans are calling for greater action on climate change.

Last week, youth activists gathered in front of Phoenix City Hall demanding the city declare a climate emergency and set a deadline of 2030 for Phoenix to become carbon neutral. Larger protests were held in Arizona in September around the U.N 2019 Climate Action Summit.

Over the past nine months, climate change has been given more attention nationally than ever before – thanks, in part, to November’s presidential election. National news outlets have peppered their coverage of the Democratic primary process with “climate crisis” town halls and forums.

At their debate on Sunday, candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both called the climate crisis the single biggest threat to national security, with Sanders adding that the crisis actually is about health.

But fighting the crisis won’t come cheap. Sanders’ plan has a price tag of $16 trillion.

Phoenix set long-term goals for sustainability four years ago, with officials focusing on 2024.

“Our biggest challenges are smoke, dust, ozone,” said Misael Cabrera, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Phoenix has until 2024 to reduce ozone levels or the federal government will downgrade the city’s air quality to “serious” from “moderate,” triggering new federal regulations on development.

That would be a huge blow for Phoenix, Cabrera said: “We’re estimating an impact of $250 million per year on job creators and businesses.”

Proposed federal legislation is looking to address this financial consequence of climate change. Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, is co-author of a plan he says would incentivize businesses to reduce air pollution through tax breaks “so we can maximize clean energy production at really affordable prices.”

His proposal is part of the U.S. House GOP Environmental Plan. In it, tax breaks already in effect would be made permanent for businesses that reduce carbon emissions and purchase upgraded equipment with technology to capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

“Embracing this technology and incentivizing it – I think now it has sort of entered everyone’s consciousness, so it’s moving forward,” Schweikert said.

He’s talking about direct-air capture — a process of removing CO2 from the air.

Alan Hatton, a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has another way of describing it: a way to atone for past transgressions.

“My concern with the legislation and that of my colleagues as well is that we’re just trying to punt the ball down the road a little,” Hatton said. “We’re putting up a bit of a smoke screen because by emphasizing direct air capture, you’re avoiding the real issues associated with fossil fuel emissions.”

But direct-air capture may be necessary in a world that still must use fossil fuels, he said.

“It’s a very expensive process, but I think if you get the right policies in place and the right carbon pricing, et cetera, we should be able to justify the expenditure on doing this,” Hatton said.

Direct-air capture removes carbon dioxide, CO2, from ambient air to reuse or bury deep underground. Hatton favors a process called “point of source” capture, where the business – such as microchip makers and aircraft parts manufacturers – captures emissions before they’re released into the air.

“I think our future depends on it, at least our children’s future,” said Hatton, whose MIT lab spun off a company that’s working to reduce the energy costs of carbon capture.

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The problem for business has been the cost. Carbon capture, whether from the air or from the point of source, is very expensive. That’s because the fuel used to power the technology that removes emissions is expensive, Hatton said, but that also is changing.

“We think the costs can be quite low relative to some of the other costs associated with other processes,” Hatton said, referring to processes that use fossil fuels. “Fossil fuels are going to be around for a long time. There’s no denying that. And we need to find ways to mitigate the CO2 emissions from these fossil fuels.”

Hatton and a colleague have found a way to capture emissions and eliminate the CO2 using renewable energy sources, which makes the process cheaper – up to 80% cheaper, according to initial estimates.

And that may make any legislation focused on tax breaks unnecessary, but the science takes time.

Brian Baynes is co-founder of Verdox, the startup spun off Hatton’s MIT lab.

“The energy cost of capturing carbon has been the main limitation that’s kept it from being a scalable technology today,” he said. “That’s why this problem still exists, is that it just fundamentally takes too much energy with the conventional technologies to capture CO2 or capture carbon from the atmosphere.”

Baynes also said legislation offering incentives or tax breaks doesn’t entice companies when developing and funding carbon capture technology will take much longer.

“So if our policy decisions are being made on a time scale of two years or four years, changing and going back and forth, that’s just not really compatible with the time scale of one of these company’s lifetimes,” he said. “We hope to avoid that entirely by trying to serve other markets that may not rely on policy.”

Schweikert, who represents Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, said the key is getting businesses to opt in, which also takes time.

“They would need a longer window, so we’ve actually updated the legislation to make it functionally permanent in the tax code,” he said.

Lawmakers have met with scientists and the companies that back them, Schweikert said, encouraging them to take corporate responsibility for the climate problem.

The key for the legislation, and for the technology, is to make it affordable, he said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Most Arizona parks and trails remain open, but for how long?

PHOENIX – Saguaro National Park in Tucson has temporarily closed restrooms and visitor centers and halted public events, but that hasn’t stopped throngs of people from visiting the park during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Andy Fisher, chief of interpretation and a spokesperson for the park, said the trails last weekend were packed.

“We had a couple instances where cars were creating their own parking spots,” he said. “There were several hundred people that were gathering kind of through one of our major trailheads, which of course is not social distancing.

“March tends to be our busiest month of the year anyway. I think because there are closures around the community that there are folks that are finding their way to us.”

On March 19, Gov. Doug Ducey ordered the closure of bars, gyms and many restaurants, yet most of Arizona’s city, county, state and national parks remain open during the COVID-19 outbreak. This week Ducey issued an executive order that outlines essential services that will remain open including outdoor recreation.

As of Tuesday, March 24, Petrified Forest National Park has temporarily closed, and Monument Valley Tribal Park, which includes Antelope Canyon and Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation Reservation, has closed all its parks. Grand Canyon National Park remains open with limited services, but it recently announced modifications to river operations. Grand Canyon river rafting trips are also suspended until May 21.

But the city of Surprise isn’t taking any chances, and on Tuesday it closed all city park amenities and facilities “to minimize the potential spread of illness to reduce opportunities to gather,” according to the Surprise Parks & Recreation website. However, most Arizona state and national parks are only closing indoor facilities and programs, and keeping outdoor activities open to the public.

Video by Frankie McLister/Cronkite News

Phoenix Parks and Recreation is taking a wait-and-see approach. Spokesman Gregg Bach said this time of year is always busy on the trails because of the weather and tourism, and that the volume of traffic now occurring from social distancing “is a very similar volume as to what we would have normal times of the year.”

City parks director Inger Erickson, in an interview with Arizona Horizon on Wednesday, said, “We saw a spike on the weekend, but in the last couple of days we’ve actually seen it level out to our normal numbers that we would see on a typical spring day.”

Currently, Maricopa County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona. But despite this, most parks in metro Phoenix remain open.

In a statement to Cronkite News, the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department said it has “canceled all park programs and events, closed all park nature centers and group ramada reservations, closed group/youth campgrounds, and stopped accepting future reservations for these areas.”

The county is advocating social distancing – staying 6 feet apart – to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19. Bach said that Phoenix Parks and Recreation is using “education and communication” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Our preference really is to keep these amenities open and to educate people year-round on a variety of things that they need to do to be safe,” Bach said.

Phoenix Parks and Recreation is using infographics that lay out social distancing in public parks and trails as a way to help educate people.

See the full size graphic here. (Graphic courtesy of NRPA)

“The National Recreation and Parks Association put out some great guidelines that we’ve posted,” Erickson said. “We’ve posted in English and Spanish at our trailheads, and we’ve also posted more specifics, like wash your hands, if you’re sick don’t come to this facility, don’t use this trail.”

Amy Hagin, park manager for Flagstaff, said her staff is seeing a higher number of people using trails rather than parks. She said she believes this is because residents are using their neighborhoods to get fresh air rather than going to public places.

“We’re seeing a lot of walking on the streets and sidewalks,” Hagin said. “I think people are taking those mental health breaks outside as they can, but still providing that physical distancing and social distancing.”

In Phoenix, Erickson said the city wants to keep the parks and the trails open, and right now there are no restrictions in place. However, she said they are emphasizing that people be mindful to bring their own wipes, hand sanitizers, and other items to keep themselves safe.

“We look at things every day,” Erickson said. “We communicate twice a day on what people are seeing, so that we make sure we’re addressing the need in a timely fashion.”

Bach, the Phoenix Parks spokesman, said Arizonans value parks and trails.

“Now I think people are valuing it even even a little bit more,” he said. “We just need to keep people mindful and make sure that they’re doing it responsibly in terms of all the current events that are going on.”

Groundwater Aquifers Can Expect A Boost From March Rains

March rain has left Salt River Project reservoirs as full as they’ve been in a decade. The company is discharging water to make room for the runoff, providing a boost to the underlying aquifers.

The utility says the Salt and Verde river systems are at a combined 94% of capacity, almost 20 points higher than last year. Theodore Roosevelt Lake holds about two-thirds of SRP’s stored water and is over 90 percent full.

The utility is sending discharge from the reservoirs, called “spillage,” down the Salt River.

“When these rivers flow, they basically have a direct link to the regional aquifer,” said SRP’s Charlie Ester. “And a flowing river in the desert southwest is the number one way to get water into the regional aquifer.”

A higher aquifer helps just about any user who taps into groundwater.

“We’re helping out the aquifer, but no one in particular can lay claim to it,” Ester said.

As of March 22, Phoenix has seen 1.94 inches of rain in March, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service. The normal accumulation for that month is less than half that.

While it is possible the rain could reduce the strain on the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to users in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties, the system does not expect a change in orders this year.

“We did observe a reduction in customer orders in March, as compared to the original Annual Operating Plan schedule,” said Central Arizona Project spokesperson DeEtte Person. “We also adjusted our operations at Waddell Pump Generating Plant to accommodate additional runoff into Lake Pleasant from the Agua Fria River watershed. However, as temperatures increase, we anticipate that demand will pick up, resulting in customers likely still taking delivery of their full water order by the end of the year.”

Any period of wet weather does not mean the area is out of a long-term drought.

Ester said that droughts have wet years and wet periods have dry years, although he is wondering if things are starting to change.

“Three of the last four years now have been wet,” he said. “Maybe the [drought] that we’ve been in since 1996 is beginning to end, and we might be in the process of transitioning to the next wet cycle.”

Whatever goes on in the Central Arizona watershed, however, does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the entire Colorado River basin. That’s partly because the Upper Colorado River basin is much more susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

“We get most of our runoff during the winter when the sun angle is very low, so there’s very little transpiration and evaporation,” Ester said. “What water we get is available to runoff. In the Upper Colorado, their runoff season is in the middle part of the summer. Plants are growing. The sun angle is high. They suffer a lot more losses during runoff because of that than we do.”

Plants, Animals Share Similar Relationships To Climate Niches

It seems plants and animals should react differently to changes in their climate niches, the temperature and precipitation conditions under which they live.

After all, animals can move to find food, water or shade, while plants mostly must sit and take what comes.

But a new study of more than 2,000 plant and animal species in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests flora and fauna actually share similar responses.

Co-author John J. Wiens, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, said the results mirror current patterns caused by climate change.

“We’ve seen a pattern of local extinctions from the climate change that’s happened already, and the frequencies of local extinctions are actually similar for both plants and animals,” he said.

Wiens and his colleagues tested 10 predictions relating plants and animals to their climate niches.

Members of the 19 plant groups and 17 vertebrate groups followed similar patterns in all 10 cases.

A few examples: Plants and animals tolerate a similar range of conditions; they both adapt at similar rates to changes in their environments; and both can adjust much more quickly to cooler and wetter conditions than to heating or drying trends.

The findings suggest general rules of climatic-niche evolution might hold true for both flora and fauna.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Why Palo Verde, the country’s largest nuclear plant, is cutting its wastewater use

PHOENIX – There’s something in the Buckeye groundwater – a high mineral and salt content – that makes it hard to use, but the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station wants to tap into that source to reduce the amount of more valuable wastewater it now uses to cool the plant’s three reactors.

The plant uses millions of gallons of treated wastewater, with much of it coming from Phoenix’s 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant. Heat from nuclear reactions boils water into steam, which turns the turbines that generate electricity. The steam then must be cooled and condensed. Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to reduce its wastewater use by 20%.

“Water sources that we’ve been looking at are poor-quality groundwater sources that come from the Buckeye waterlogged area,” said Jeffrey Brown, senior consulting engineer for Arizona Public Service, which operates the plant. “We are able to use some of that water instead of effluent (wastewater) because of the tertiary treatment system that we have here at Palo Verde” to remove the salts and minerals.

Water is vital for the generating station because it’s in the desert, about an hour’s drive west of Phoenix. Despite being nowhere near a large body of water, Palo Verde, which is owned in part by Arizona Public Service, is the largest nuclear generating station in the country by net generation. The scale of the production shows in the amount of water used every minute.

Video by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News

“In the winter, we can use up to 40,000 gallons per minute, and that makes up for the evaporation rate of the cooling towers at the nuclear plant. In the summer it’s more, it’s up to 60,000 gallons per minute,” said Rick Lange, the plant manager of Palo Verde Water Resources.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, believes the real issue isn’t the source of the water but the volume of water the plant uses.

“The utilities say, ‘Wow, OK, we are using the treated wastewater,’ like somehow it’s not a big deal that it’s using so much water,” she said. “Treated wastewater can be used for all kinds of other things, including habitat restoration. So it is water that is not available for other use.”

Now, Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to cut down on increasing costs for wastewater and to conserve water.

“It’s increasing our power costs,” Brown said. “Our objective was to come up with programs that we could run to replace that effluent with more affordable water sources.”

The idea to use even dirtier water stems from a partnership with Sandia National Labs, a national nuclear research and development laboratory in New Mexico. Researchers at the lab have created models that identify areas of improvement for Palo Verde.

This waterfall moves treated wastewater into one of two reservoirs at a rate of 50,000 gallons per minute to supply water to cool the nuclear reactors at Palo Verde. (Photo by Alicia Moser/Cronkite News)

“We created the partnership because of objectives that we had regarding the production and cooling costs for power operation here in Palo Verde,” Brown said. “One of the things that increases disproportionately is the cost of cooling, which is related to the water that we use.”

The facility wants to implement the use of this dirtier water within the year.

“We already have funding and sightings for the wells,” Lange said. “We just need approval from the state, and we’re working with the state and the farmers in the area to work through issues and get that in place. We plan on this year being able to start pumping water and that will test all these systems.”

Palo Verde plans to continue conservation efforts through the development of additional cooling technology and its continued exploration of other water options.

“You’re going to come back five years from now and work you’re going to say, ‘Wow, you’re using a lot less of that sewage water because you’re being more efficient and you’re coming up with worse, worse sources of water that can meet your needs,’” Lange said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Grand Canyon lodging, food services shuttered in face of coronavirus

WASHINGTON – Grand Canyon National Park is still open, but the same cannot be said for lodging and food services in the park that will be shuttered for the next two months by concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Grand Canyon Lodging on Thursday announced the “difficult decision” to suspend operations beginning at noon Friday and continuing through at least May 21.

The company, citing recent decisions in some jurisdictions to close bars and restaurants to help stem the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, said the decision was made out of concern for the health and safety of its employees and customers.

“This decision was not easy, and we recognize the significant impact on your travel plans. But we know that this is the responsible path forward to help slow the spread of the disease,” said a company statement, adding that Grand Canyon Lodging was “deeply sorry” for the disruption.

The announcement is just one of several affecting services at the park, which remains open. Delaware North announced this week that services at Yavapai Lodge and at Trailer Village would close Sunday, while park officials have halted shuttle service and closed the South Rim store and visitor stations, among other changes.

The Grand Canyon Lodging announcement comes one day after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said entry fees at all open national parks would be waived until further notice.

“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Bernhardt said in a statement Wednesday.

He said the change would also improve “social distancing,” a key strategy to prevent the spread of the virus, by reducing interactions between park workers and visitors. Bernhardt encouraged visitors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by washing hands frequently, keeping a safe distance from others, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding touching your nose, eyes or mouth.

Requests Thursday for comment from National Park Service officials in Washington and Arizona were not immediately returned.

But some advocates said that while waiving fees is a good step, it should not be done just to make parks more accessible if that will lead to greater interaction between people.

“We remain concerned about the health and safety of park staff and visitors and strongly urge everyone to follow the guidance of public health experts before planning a trip to any park, in order to protect themselves and their communities,” Theresa Pierno, the president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement Wednesday.

Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charged that the Trump administration “seems to want to convey a sense of normalcy, even when it is not justified” with the decision to keep parks open.

“We don’t think the decisions are being made by park professionals. We think they are being made by senior political officials,” Ruch said.

As park services are trimmed back, businesses and residents in the area said they are starting to feel the pinch from COVID-19.

Although some restaurants are reporting brisk business, understaffing and a lack of resources are the biggest hindrance to area businesses, said Laura Chastain, general manager of the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce. She said work attendance has already dropped by 50%, as employees choose to take leave, and that some businesses in the area are encountering “supply issues.”

The town’s local foodbank, which was restocked Wednesday, ran out of food almost immediately, she said.

“Yesterday, it ran out of food within an hour,” she said. Even with emergency funding that will be coming from local and federal governments, the food bank might struggle to get supplies because “it is coming up from Phoenix and there are no volunteers down there to load the trucks.”