Arizona Recycling Programs are in Trouble, Thanks to Residential Contamination

PHOENIX – Cheesy pizza boxes, plastic grocery bags and grass clippings are a big reason more cities in Arizona are cutting back or even eliminating long standing recycling programs. But contamination isn’t the only factor at play.

China, which for decades has bought the bulk of U.S. recycling, including most plastics and paper products, threw the industry into disarray early last year when it severely cut back on imports of recycled materials because too much of it was contaminated with food and other nonrecyclable materials.

“The problem is that people are sending too much waste in their (China’s) direction,” said Charles Rolsky, a postdoctoral environmental student at Arizona State University. “Out of all plastics created, truly only about 9% has been recycled, and most of it ends up in the landfills.”

China’s move has forced cities to rethink what they can afford to recycle. Mesa is the latest to cut back on what it recycles because of the rising costs, and Surprise, in the northwest Valley, suspended its program in August because of contamination.

“It has to do with the way that our commodities are being processed now,” Shane Wilhite-Valdez, maintenance manager at Waste Management’s Northwest Regional Material Recovery Facility, told Cronkite News. “So before we essentially had an open door where China was accepting everything; now they’re very, very limited on the products that they’re taking.”

Surprise is the latest Arizona city to suspend its recycling program due to the rising costs. Here, bails of processed recycled materials are stacked up at Waste Management’s Northwest Regional Landfill in Surprise. (Photo by Dylan Simard/Cronkite News)

Contamination is Also an Issue at Home

Recycling plants, also known as material recovery facilities, contain conveyor belts that move materials up and down multiple floors, enormous magnets pull metals from waste, and sanitation workers in gloves manually sort through recyclables and nonrecyclables. All of this manual sorting comes at a cost, and when residents contaminate their recycling, it costs their city money.

This shift comes at a time when Americans – after decades of campaigns explaining the benefits – finally have embraced recycling, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, according to that same EPA data, Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste in 2015, up 60% from 1985.

Surprise is the latest Arizona city to suspend its recycling program due to the rising costs. Globe, Sierra Vista, Casa Grande have also suspended their programs within the last year.

Mike Gent, public works director for Surprise, said residents aren’t making it easy for the city to recycle.

“Reducing contamination or eliminating contamination would be a big lift for every community, and every community has been working on it for years,” Gent said. “Unfortunately, the combination of education and enforcement hasn’t been enough to really tackle that challenge.”

More cities in Arizona are making huge cuts to their recycling programs, which means less-frequent curbside pickups and tighter restrictions on accepted materials. Mesa announced on social media in October that more restrictions are coming. Tucson has also made huge cuts to its program, and Kingman consolidated its seven recycling dropoffs into one location in July.

Putting a Lid on the Recycling Market

Cities pay for curbside recycling through contracts with Waste Management, Right Away Disposal and similar companies. Contracts signed a few years ago were drawn up during a thriving market for recyclable materials, when China had no restrictions on what it would take.

China now buys only a small fraction of what it bought in 2016, and it plans to end all imports, Wilhite-Valdez said.

“As of 2020, recycling is going to be completely cut off where they (China) will no longer be taking recyclables from the United States,” he said.

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“If they’re expecting to get this delivery of plastic and they get a bunch of plastic mixed in with trash, it becomes a problem,” said Rolsky at ASU. “Why would they (the Chinese) want to keep buying it if then it takes them extra manpower to separate all that trash out and then move on with the recycling process?”

A study published in Science Advances suggests China’s policy will displace an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030, which is nearly equivalent to all of the plastic waste that has been imported globally since 1988.

An Uncertain Future

The recycling market continues to drop, and questions about the future of recycling continue to rise. Until the market becomes more affordable for cities, you can expect the suspension of programs to continue, and perhaps more cities will do the same thing.

Gent knows Arizonans are concerned. “On social media and in person, residents are asking, ‘What can we do to get recycling back? What can we do to make it work?’ If we could eliminate contamination, we might even go back to generating revenue again.”

Tempe Vice Mayor Lauren Kuby agreed. “We are trying to educate our residents, too. If we can divert waste away from recycling and into the landfill, that will save money.”

Smaller cities don’t have the resources to continue to participate with rising costs. “We used to make $600,000 off of our recycling,” Kuby said, “and now we lose about $500,000, so it is incredible that it has turned into a million dollar swing.”

Surprise hopes to resume curbside recycling once the market becomes affordable again. Until then, residents can drop off their materials at the Northwest Regional Material Recovery Facility in Surprise on Saturday mornings.

If you live in a city that has also suspended curbside pickup, contact the public works director for information on where you can take your recyclables.

The best thing residents can do is to stop contamination. Check your city’s website for information on what can and cannot be recycled. Put your materials in loosely in your container. If your city has suspended curbside pickup, find a drop site near you.

Climate Change Is Decimating Bird Populations in the Mojave Desert

LOS ANGELES – We found out last year that hotter, drier weather due to climate change is likely causing bird populations in the Mojave Desert to collapse at an alarming rate. A new study suggests one big reason why: Birds are having a hard time staying hydrated, which means they’re having a hard time staying cool.

Over the past century, temperatures in the Mojave Desert have risen about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, while precipitation has declined in some parts. That’s coincided with a roughly 40% decrease in the number of bird species documented there.

Adapting has been harder for some birds than others.

“Birds that required more water over the last century to cool off experienced more decline in the desert,” said Eric Riddell, postdoc in museum of vertebrate zoology at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the paper. “If birds had an unlimited amount of water they could probably deal with a lot more heat.”

The water requirements for desert birds are increasing as heat increases. (Courtesy of Eric Riddell at UC Berkeley )

Different species of birds get water in different ways.

Birds with primarily plant-based diets hydrate by eating seeds, some insects and by drinking from pools of water.

Primarily carnivorous birds, on the other hand, hydrate mostly by eating other animals, and don’t tend to drink from oases. The problem is that they have to hunt in order to eat, which means expending lots of energy in increasingly hot environments.

“Compared to 100 years ago, some birds needed to collect up to 60 more bugs per day just to replenish their water reserves,” Riddell said. “So that extra cost per day of having to go out and find a little more bugs and a little more bugs, we suggest has contributed to the collapse of the desert bird community.”

Larger birds with high energy demands have an even harder time. The daily grind can lead to a decline in reproductivity and premature death.

Birds like the American kestrel, prairie falcon and turkey vulture have all suffered.

The authors estimate that there’s been a roughly 10% to 30% increase in water requirements for desert birds over the past century. That need could increase by up to 80% by 2100.

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To estimate how bad things could get, the researchers created computer models of 50 different types of desert birds, all of which they subjected to increased heat due to climate change. Thirty-nine of the species declined significantly.

“For people that want to go out and see these birds, not only will they see fewer of them, but they will have much smaller windows of time when they can see them,” Riddell said. “Not only that but the conditions that make the desert hard to live and be active in for birds will also be true for humans, as well.”

A separate, larger study published earlier this month estimated that 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America in the last 50 years.

McSally Urged to Oppose Trump’s Rollback of Obama Fuel Economy Standards

PHOENIX – Two Democratic legislators want Sen. Martha McSally to oppose the Trump administration’s plan to relax fuel economy standards implemented to reduce fossil fuel use and air pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates emissions and fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and motorcycles, has proposed reducing standards set by the Obama administration. Those rules, put in effect in 2012, mandated corporate average fuel economy of 46.7 mpg by 2025; the proposed change reduces that to 37 mpg by 2026.

Arizona Democrats said the change would worsen the state’s already poor air quality and slow economic growth.

“McSally has the opportunity to show Arizona exactly the kind of leader she is,” said state Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe. “Whether or not a state should be able to protect its citizens from pollution should not be a political issue.” (Photo by Megan Marples/ Cronkite News)

“McSally has the opportunity to show Arizona exactly the kind of leader she is,” said state Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe. “Whether or not a state should be able to protect its citizens from pollution should not be a political issue. This proposal is an attack on state’s rights just as much as it is an attack on common sense safeguards to protect us from pollution.”

McSally’s office did not respond Friday to a request for comment. Since 2012, when the Arizona Republican was first elected to Congress representing Tucson, oil and energy political action committees, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Peabody Energy and BP, have donated more than $80,000 to her coffers.

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Arizona and California have the 10 worst cities for air quality, of the 100 largest cities tracked by the 2019 report by the American Fitness Index.

As of 2017, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 529,155 Arizona adults had asthma, a long-term condition that is aggravated by air pollution.

Poor air quality forces Columba Sainz of Phoenix, a mother of three, and other parents to make lifestyle changes to keep their children safe.

“As a mother, I want my babies to be able to spend time outdoors,” Sainz said. “Unfortunately, I have been forced to limit their time outdoors because of poor air quality.”

Arizona exceeded acceptable air quality 189 times in 2019, as of Oct. 18, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition to public health concerns, Democrats said the fuel economy standards push the economy forward.

“Arizona has already saved $680 million at the pump, and we are expected to add over 9,000 new innovative jobs by 2030,” said Mendez.

Democrats also said that these standards help car manufacturers and people innovate transportation that is more environmentally friendly.

State Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, argues that innovation and new technology can grow if current fuel economy standards remain in place. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

“What it means is that we are looking at how we are looking at technology and making cars much more fuel efficient, and that’s important because it spurs innovation and how we move forward,” state Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe.

President Donald Trump tweeted about the fuel efficiency standards in September, saying that lowering them would lead to safer vehicles and more car production.

The administration’s proposed rollbacks would especially impact 14 states, including California, that have higher fuel economy standards than federally required.

The Trump administration announced in September it intends to revoke California’s decades-long authority to set its own vehicle standards for fuel economy. California, 22 other states and Washington, D.C., have filed suit. Arizona adopted California’s emission standards in 2008 but revoked them in 2012; it did not join in the lawsuit.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed the Clean Trucks, Clean Air bill, which mandates emission inspections for big rigs. The new bill could remove 93,000 tons of nitrogen oxides from the air from 2023 to 2031, according to the Coalition for Clean Air, a California environmental group.

The California law will first require the establishment of a two-year pilot program before the law can be enforced. Once a program is in place, the law will also require trucks from other states that operate within California to abide by the new smog check law as well.

Arizona’s Groundwater Replenishment Program Facing an Uncertain Future

PHOENIX — A key water management tool that sustains housing development in central Arizona does not have a rosy future, according to a new report from Arizona State University.

The report looks at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which the Legislature established in 1993 to assure the replenishment of groundwater that’s tapped for development.

Developers and, by extension, home buyers, can pump and purchase groundwater and then pay into the program; the district then has to replenish the water that serves those homes. This is a way to meet the state’s water management goals and comply with the legally required 100-year water supply.

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But the report outlines several concerns about the specific rules that govern the replenishment district and casts doubt on the district’s ability to find water to meet expected obligations.

One concern is that the replenished water does not have to be returned to the same place where it originally was pumped. The district only has to put water back into the larger active management area, and the recharged water doesn’t necessarily migrate to where it’s needed.

“It’s an unsustainable practice,” said Kathy Ferris with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, the report’s co-author. “There are so many different aquifers and layers. There are seven subbasins. And water doesn’t just move around like it’s in a bathtub. Sometimes it doesn’t move at all, depending on where it’s recharged.”

There are five active management areas in central Arizona. The one in Phoenix, for example, covers 5,646 square miles.

Another concern is financial. As water in Arizona becomes more expensive, some homeowners enrolled in the replenishment district have looked for water that’s cheaper than the original source the developer identified for its required 100-year water supply. A different source may free homeowners from paying an annual charge for replenishment.

The problem, the report said, is that the district still must find and pay for water “to meet the member’s long-term replenishment obligation.”

Depending on how many homeowners use this cheaper-source strategy, it could mean consistent expenses but lower revenues for the replenishment district, which has fixed costs that do not fluctuate depending on how much water needs to be replenished that year.

Ferris cited a consultant’s report from 2017 that said if all of the Phoenix area lands enrolled in the replenishment district used this workaround, the result would be “financially catastrophic.” The consultant’s policy recommendations involved legal or regulatory changes that have not been enacted.

The ASU report also raises concerns over the amount of water the replenishment district is expected to need to meet its current and projected obligations, especially at a time of shortage conditions on the Colorado River, the state’s largest source of surface water.

The district’s board also runs the Central Arizona Project canal system. In a statement, the agency pointed out it “was charged with the statutory obligation to manage the CAGRD since its inception more than 25 years ago,” saying it “has fulfilled this duty effectively, demonstrating fiscal responsibility while securing a robust water supply portfolio that will be available through the mid-2030s.”

CAP also acknowledged in the statement that its part of the discussion over where growth will happen in urban areas especially Maricopa County.

“CAP welcomes the opportunity to be part of it, but given that the focus of this conversation would be beyond CAP’s CAGRD responsibilities, CAP may not be the appropriate entity to convene and lead this conversation.”

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The agency does not have the legal authority to reject new enrollees in the groundwater replenishment program. The Arizona Department of Water Resources does have some oversight because it approves a 10-year plan for the district and can later reverse an approval.

But the report said “such a decision will be politically difficult, will not stop the sale of previously enrolled but unconstructed lots, and will not address CAGRD’s continuing replenishment obligations for its current members.” It recommends authorizing the program to deny accepting new members if needed.

A spokeswoman at the water resources department declined to comment on the ASU report, saying it had not yet been reviewed.

The report comes on the heels of the state releasing its own water bombshell: a new model for the Pinal Active Management Area that shows an expected shortfall of more than 8 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water, enough to supply a family of four for a year.

“I think that the Pinal situation demonstrates that as time has gone on, we’ve learned more and more about our groundwater resources,” Ferris said. “And our scientific ways of assessing how much groundwater is there have dramatically changed. Nobody’s talking about the fact that, well, even if there was enough groundwater, if it’s all used up, it gets all used up.

“Then what?”

Climate Whiplash: Four Corners Residents and Ranchers Adapting to Weather Extremes

MANCOS, Colo. – Climate change has been called the new normal. But after the past two years, residents in some parts of the Southwest say there’s nothing normal about it.

Communities in the Four Corners – where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet – have been bouncing between desperate dryness and record-breaking moisture since the winter of 2017, forcing people dependent on the reliability and predictability of water to adapt.

On a recent warm, sunny day, rancher Dustin Stein pushed down the wires of an electric fence with his left foot while he swung his other leg over into an irrigated pasture. His black and brown steers grazed on the late summer grass.

The mustachioed 30-something has managed Stubborn Farms and Burk Beef outside Mancos, a small town in southwestern Colorado, for seven years.

“We’re a ‘sperm to steak’ grass-fed beef operation,” Stein said with a laugh. Calves born on the ranch are raised here, and their meat sold directly to consumers. His focus is on the health of the soil and the needs of his cows.

If you want a sense of what climate change is doing to agriculture in the Southwest, and how individuals are reacting to unprecedented weather, this is a good place to see those effects on a small scale.

“We’ve set records almost every year, good or bad,” Stein said. “So hot, so dry. So much snow, the river’s too high. It’s just incredibly bipolar.”

In parts of the Four Corners, the winter of 2017-18 was one of the driest ever recorded, kicking off the latest intensification of a prolonged dry period that’s stretched two decades. Rivers ran at some of their lowest flows ever recorded during spring runoff in 2018.

The summer of 2018 was the hottest on record across most of the Colorado Plateau. From October 2017 to September 2018, the region experienced the driest weather in more than a century of recordkeeping.

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To grow forage for his cattle, Stein draws irrigation water from the Mancos River, a tributary of the San Juan, which eventually empties into the Colorado River. It’s a key water source for the ranchers and farmers in this agricultural valley. The river used to be reliable, Stein said.

“We’ve got fairly senior water rights in the Mancos Valley,” he said. “Our water hadn’t gone off until 2002. Since 2002, it’s gone off almost every year at some point in the year.”

With irrigation water tapped out in the summer of 2018 and his pastures browning, Stein made the expensive decision to send all his cows and calves to high mountain pastures owned by a custom grazing operation 200 miles to the north, near Gunnison.

“Because there was no way that we were going to be able to economically keep them fed here in the valley,” he said.

Recouping the cost of 2018’s hot, dry summer will take a while, he said. A cow is not a quick-turn investment, especially when you’re running a small scale grass-fed operation. The value of an animal is wrapped up in her genetics and overall health, he said, not how rapidly her calves pack on weight.

“That’s the hardest part for me is it’s such a long fiscal cycle,” Stein said. “From the time I breed a cow to the time I see revenue from her calf is three years.”

Stein thought he was out of the woods when snow started flying at the start of last winter. At its height in the spring, snowpack in some parts of the nearby San Juan Mountains was at its highest level ever, prompting parched communities to quickly prepare for flooding.

“This year’s had its own challenges,” Stein said. “We had so much snow. The river was higher this year than it had been in 60 or 70 years. So there was a lot of challenges actually getting our irrigation water.”

The spigot turned off again this summer, when the trend toward above-average heat and below-average moisture returned. Drought conditions have been slowly worsening in the Four Corners region since late July.

“It’s made me realize that nothing is very predictable,” Stein said. “And I need to kind of manage more short term, week to week or day to day.

“I feel like I haven’t had a break in I don’t know, 18 months.”

For ranchers like Stein, climate change is not some far-off future problem. It’s affecting people now, he said.
This feeling that Stein is talking about, of being jerked around, lurching from one small weather-related crisis to the next, has a name, according to Gregg Garfin, climatologist and researcher at the University of Arizona: Climate whiplash.

Garfin took a deep dive into what climate change effects look like in the Southwest as a contributor to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a summary of scientific research released by the federal government in late 2018. Garfin coordinated a group of scientists to compile their findings in the report’s chapter that focuses on the southwestern U.S.

They found strong evidence of rising temperatures. That alone causes a sort of domino effect, where the higher temperatures upend the accumulation of snowpack and when it melts. That can then lead to a mismatch between a runoff period and when cities and ranchers need the water. The higher temperatures also sap more moisture from the already arid soil, and pull more water from rivers and reservoirs in the form of evaporation. When precipitation does arrive, it’s less effective than it used to be.

“Then if you combine that with some kinds of disturbances, such as tree mortality like we’ve seen, mortality in ponderosa pine, piñon-juniper woodlands, and also fires,” Garfin said. “Those things can reset ecosystems.”
A woodland might come back as a shrubland. Or a shrubland might return as a grassland, and a grassland might turn into a desert.

All these changes combined can, in turn, limit which livelihoods are able to survive in a given area. For agriculturalists, there’s lots of talk about adapting to this changing climate. But for small scale operations, rearranging a farm or ranch to withstand the whiplash is expensive.

“It’s a cost,” said Carrie Padgett, a water engineer for Harris Water in Durango. “It’s something you have to plan for.”

Padgett points to irrigation. Much of that infrastructure was built almost a century ago, and it’s under strain from both drought and flood. Using more efficient irrigation often requires upgrades to water infrastructure on farms, and many individual farmers and their associated ditch companies aren’t always able to foot the cost, she said.

“I think most people are living day-to-day in their operations and they’re not able to have that forethought to really save the money to plan for those future costs or replacements,” Padgett said.

In Mancos, Stein is thinking about making changes to his ranch to better mirror the erratic weather. He’s shortening up his management timeline and focusing on keeping the ranch running without spending too much time trying to predict what next week’s weather will bring.

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Unlike some of the old-timers who ranch nearby, Stein is young enough that he’ll likely be around to see climate change reshape the Southwest. Most of the forecasts in the National Climate Assessment project out to 2050, when Stein will be in his 60s.

He knows his Mancos Valley is a fragile, precarious place to be in a hotter, drier future.

“We’re literally on the edge of 14,000-foot mountains in between dry, dry desert,” Stein said. “And so I can see how that dry desert will slowly creep in towards us.”

But there’s something exciting about being an early adapter, on the front lines of people feeling the effects of climate change, and being nimble enough to change with it, he said. At least for now.

If he’s able, he’ll be taking an historic livelihood and figuring out how to keep it going even when it looks like the card deck is stacked against it.

“That terrifies me to think about having to move from this valley or find another line of work. At this point in my life, I’m really not willing to do that.

“And so I’m inspired to figure out how to make it work. That’s the only option.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

‘Asthma Alley’: Long Beach Ranks Worst in U.S. for Air Quality

LONG BEACH, Calif. – At least every other day, Selene Zazueta has to tell her 8-year-old daughter that she can’t play outside with her friends. As upsetting as that is, the girl has asthma, and the family lives just off Interstate 710 in Long Beach, in an area known as “Asthma Alley.”

“It’s a nightmare,” Zazueta said.

The story of Zazueta, 38, and her daughters, Emma Mijares and Isabella Ramirez, 9, is just one such story of life in a city with the dirtiest air in the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, Long Beach comes in dead last in terms of air quality, according to the 2019 American Fitness Index rankings, published by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Anthem Foundation, a nonprofit of the health insurance provider Anthem, Inc.

The city sits between the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in North America, according to the Journal of Commerce. Combined, the ports account for nearly 30% of the continent’s market share; in addition, most imports from Asia enter the country here, are loaded onto trains and tractor-trailer rigs and shipped to warehouses and factories all over the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, the top 10 with the worst air quality are in Arizona and California.

Zazueta’s story is a familiar one to Sylvia Betancourt, a project manager for the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma. Families of children with severe asthma tell her they feel helpless against the effects of Long Beach’s poor air quality on a daily basis, she said.

“There’s nothing like describing that lived experience, in particular, with seeing your child not not be able to breathe,” Betancourt said.

Zazueta said she has seasonal allergies – as does her older daughter, Isabella – something she never experienced until moving to Long Beach 12 years ago. Shortly after Emma was born, Zazueta said, the family made frequent trips to the hospital, as night after night Emma would wake up gasping for air.

“At first I just thought it was a cold; I had never really heard of asthma,” Zazueta recalled. “It was not until I found (the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma) that I fully realized what it was.”

Since 1999, the alliance has worked in outreach and medical training to reduce the number of hospitalizations and school absences as a result of asthma. More than 25 million Americans have asthma, a long-term condition that intermittently inflames and narrows the airways of the lungs, causing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. Severe asthma attacks can lead to death.

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“(They) all knew that asthma is a chronic illness,” Betancourt said, “and there are high risks involved, risk of even death, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

To put the numbers into perspective, Norfolk, Virginia, residents enjoy good air quality 98% of the year, while Long Beach residents enjoy good air quality only 10% of the year. The average amount of good air quality for the 100 cities is 62% of the year. The American Fitness Index study also said that geography, weather, automobile use and industrial emissions all play a role in a city’s air quality.

None of this surprises K. Benjamin Hagedorn, an associate professor and geochemist at California State University, Long Beach. As someone who teaches a class on air pollution, Hagedorn said Long Beach and Southern California in general rank pretty low in terms of air quality because of emissions and low rainfall.

“From about March through October, there is just no process that kind of flushes or purges the atmosphere, so we have this trend where those emissions just accumulate and are baked by the sunlight to form pollutants,” Hagedorn said.

The study advises that people who live in areas of poor air quality should avoid outdoor activities during rush hours and exercise away from heavily trafficked roads, but for many children in and around “Asthma Alley,” Betancourt said those may not be viable options.

“Sometimes you really don’t have any choice when it’s too hot so you have to open your windows,” Betancourt said. “When you do that, well, you’re exposing your child and your family to dirty air that literally you can you can smell it. You’re breathing that in.”

But for the Zazuetas and similar families, that might be the only option for now. Zazueta said she hopes she can use her own experiences to continue to educate families, as she now volunteers for the same organization she turned to in her time of need.

“It’s truly been a lifesaver,” Zazueta said.

‘Many Lives at Risk’: What Pollution Rollbacks Could Mean for California and Arizona

LOS ANGELES – At the turn of the 20th century, Southern California’s oil industry was booming, with refineries belching black smoke. It got so bad that one day in 1903, Los Angeles residents woke up to skies so dark they thought was a solar eclipse.

It wasn’t an out-of-this-world event. It was smog.

And Southern California’s air quality has been the subject of headlines ever since.

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Today, the right to regulate air pollution has become the subject of another political fight between California officials and federal regulators in Washington. In late September, President Donald Trump announced that his administration will revoke California’s nearly 50-year authority to set its own vehicle standards for tailpipe emissions. California and 22 other states have filed suit. Arizona implemented California’s emission standards in 2008 but revoked them in 2012, and did not join in the lawsuit.

The recent conflict comes after Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and Honda struck a deal with California to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Clean air advocates say air quality will be severely harmed if the White House succeeds in ending the waiver California was granted by the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“Many people’s lives, many people’s health is going to be at risk because of the freezing of the emissions waiver, which is a direct attack on California’s authority,” said Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California-based environmentalist nonprofit group. “California has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by certain dates and certain benchmark levels, and that is going to be far more difficult without those clean car standards.”

-Video by Kyla Wilcher/Cronkite News

Experts say there are simpler ways to help fix climate change, particularly using less energy from fossil fuels. Suzanne Paulson, director at UCLA’s Center for Clean Air, said although much has been done, the waiver was a safety net for California skies.

“There are always further steps that can be taken to clean up the air more. Historically, one of the dominant sources was cars and trucks on the roadways,” Paulson said. “Partly through the waiver, we have set California-specific emissions controls that have served to clean up the air tremendously.”

Arizona struggles with poor air quality, too, according to a recent ranking from the American Fitness Index. All 10 of the worst cities for air quality in America are either in Southern California or the Phoenix area.

Chavez said he thinks many other states “are watching with concern because ultimately this will become a major legal test of states being able to act independently of the federal government to respond to local needs.”

California’s independent streak on regulation began in 1947, when Los Angeles became the first city in the country to implement local air pollution regulators. They were deemed necessary because After World War II ended, the West Coast’s aerospace industryand other manufacturing plants boomed, which resulted in much more air pollution.

Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act in 1970 to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants for all 50 states. That same year, California was granted a waiver by the EPA, allowing it to set emissions standards more stringent than federal standards.

By 1984, the state began requiring every vehicle on the road to pass what became known as a smog check, to keep high-polluting cars off the road. Automakers responded by building vehicles specifically for California buyers, and over the years, 13 states adopted the higher standards. They will be affected by the waiver’s revocation, too.

But those standards were under attack again this week, when the Sacramento Bee reported a letter sent from the EPA to California’s chief air quality regulator threatened “to cut federal transportation funding from the state as punishment for not submitting timely pollution-control plans.”

The letter – which also said California has “the worst air quality” in the country – came in response to California having “backlogged and unapprovable” reports that did not meet the EPA’s demands for proof of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“We’ve done all of the stuff that’s easy many years ago, we’ve done lots of stuff that’s hard as well,” said Paulson of UCLA. “Finding additional controls that will bring us to meet air quality standards is a huge challenge even without this additional tool taken away from our tool kit.”

In a press conference last week, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, spoke about why the rollbacks pose threats for the state and the West Coast.

“Standards are necessary to protect the public health and welfare,” Nichols said. “We actually need these extra-clean cars in order to meet the health standards that are set by the federal government.”

What isn’t clear is whether the lawsuit – which also was joined by Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. – will outlast the administration it targets.

“We are still looking at a few years down the line for everything to be settled, in the best-case scenario,” Chavez said, referring to the 2020 election. “If President Trump gets re-elected, that will be a tougher issue. It could get (dragged) out well into his second term.”

Beachside Experiment: The Dunes are Alive Along the Santa Monica Coast

LOS ANGELES – We covered a lot of ground during our recent special series on climate change, including the grim fate of our beaches. As our science reporter Jacob Margolis put it: based on the latest research, the beaches from Santa Monica to Malibu could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

One of the ways the city of Santa Monica has been working to address specific aspects of that change — sea-level rise and coastal flooding — is with something called “living dunes.”

Part naturally occurring sandhills, part landscaping, the living dunes represent an attempt to help nature restore itself along the Santa Monica waterfront.

The Bay Foundation, a non-profit environmental group, partnered with the city to set aside three acres of sand for this beachside experiment to see how well the dunes could combat beach erosion compared to other methods.

The Bay Foundation installed informational signage and illustrations for the public to learn the benefits of restoration and the wildlife it can bring to the beach. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The program was set up three years ago near the Annenberg Community Beach House on a stretch of beach that has been groomed and leveled for more than 50 years. Typically along the coast, trucks and tractors are brought in to rake the beach of trash and debris, but this disrupts the way beaches are supposed to look.

“Beaches normally want to have plants and dunes,” said researcher Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs at The Bay Foundation. Coastal cities have created an image of big, pristine white beaches that attract beachgoers, but that aesthetic has come at the cost of habitat and protection from coastal flooding.

Grubbs said it’s time for action.

“As a coastal community, we need to start doing things now,” she said. “This is a matter of: Do we want to keep our beaches and enjoy them for future generations? And this is definitely a part of the solution.”

Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs, stands on the path which crosses in the middle of the beach restoration site. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The Greener Option

State agencies and city planners have tried several methods when trying to shore up the beaches and prepare for rising sea levels.

Traditionally, seawalls and other types of flooding protection have been the default. The priorities in the past have been to save homes and infrastructure first. But these can be expensive and also come “at the cost of the beach,” Grubbs said.

When hard structures are in place, the tide pulls sand off beaches, making erosion worse and creating a cliffside with no beach below.

The advantage of living dunes is that in addition to protecting the coastline, they are considered a greener option because they use existing sand instead of re-located sand — which is costly and creates more pollution by trucking it in.

Santa Monica’s not the only city to experiment with living dunes. Encinitas is using a similar method on Cardiff State Beach. But where the beaches on Cardiff have rocks supporting the dunes, Santa Monica is using plants and fencing to help maintain shape.

The north-facing fence line on the Santa Monica Beach Restoration Pilot Project, illustrating the contrast between the growth of vegetation of native plant species and the sands beyond the edge. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

At the onset of the experiment, researchers blanketed the test area with 40,000 seeds with the idea that coastal beach plant species would reset the ecosystem. The native, drought-resistant plants could create a root system to sustain the structure of the dunes naturally. It’s an experiment, so “we sort of just put it here and wait and see what would happen. We just left it,” said Grubbs.

Since installation, areas on the site have risen above 1-3 meters in height. The beach is dotted with beautiful flowering sand verbena and beach evening primrose throughout. Yellow and purple blooms create a beach with colorful freckles that harken to the shorelines of the East Coast. Also thriving are sea scale and beach bur, both low-lying plants that help support the miniature sand dunes.

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) is one of the flowering plants that add color to the pilot’s landscape. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The Living Lab

Researchers will continue to evaluate how the dunes might act as protection for coastal infrastructure. This demonstration site will provide not only a scientific basis to develop guidelines and protocols but an integrated, locally based program for increasing the usefulness of natural environments in a developed area.

The foundation is publishing its findings from “soft” low-cost natural shore protection from sea-level rise and storms in the next year.

“This project gave us a real opportunity to see what this type of soft-scape project could do for the ecosystem,” said Grubbs. “It’s a living lab for us to watch.”

An artistic rendering of how the site may look several years post-restoration. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The dunes, also known as dune hummocks, are also restoring habitat for invertebrates, birds, and rare coastal vegetation species.

Groomed beaches provide a harsh landscape for shorebirds and insects, offering them little protection from natural predators. Greenery serves as both cover and a food source for smaller organisms. Larger species like birds are able to nest and find shelter within the dune hummocks. The Western Snowy Plover, a federally recognized threatened species, has even been spotted on the beach after an absence of over 70 years, due to the restoration pilot.

The project has also proven to be something of a “cultural experiment,” Grubbs said. “Generations of people in this area have not seen this kind of beach. But it also acts as a model. This shows that regular beach use and restoration projects can exist in the same space,” she said.

Native beach plants and sand beetle tracks show that areas of the restoration are returning to a wild beach habitat. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

Looking Ahead

Next up for The Bay Foundation’s beach restoration efforts is the “Malibu Living Shoreline Project.”

For this one, they’ll partner with the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors and the California State Coastal Conservancy to restore 3 acres of sandy beach and dune habitat at Zuma Beach and Point Dume Beach.

Bye-Bye Beaches: How Parts of SoCal’s Iconic Coast Could Disappear in Our Lifetime

LOS ANGELES – The stretch of coast from Santa Monica to Malibu is iconic and quintessentially Californian. It’s also ridiculously beautiful — and it’s clear, based on the latest science, it could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

As the planet warms, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening some of our most beloved stretches of coastline.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on those beaches. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, I used to head over the hill in my friend’s baby blue VW bus, or my mom’s minivan, to surf Topanga or Malibu on my 9’8 Kennedy longboard. It was and still is an amazing escape from the traffic, heat and urban sprawl of the Valley.

I wanted to know exactly what climate change could mean for our beach-going experience through the end of the century, so I reached out to scientists and stakeholders to find out what they know.

Here are the challenges — and some solutions.

Seas Will Rise

First, some context.

A few feet of sea level rise might not sound very alarming, but every vertical foot could mean roughly 20 feet farther that the ocean encroaches inland (depending on a lot of factors, like the slope of the coastline), according to Patrick Barnard, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey.

The state’s 2018 sea level rise guidance laid out different scenarios based on how much we curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

As a precaution, the report recommends that state officials anticipate 10 feet of rise when building crucial infrastructure along the coast.

Keep in mind some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

Beaches Will Disappear

According to a paper co-authored by Barnard, SoCal could lose between 31% – 67% of its beaches by 2100.

And areas like Malibu could be threatened in the coming decades.

“I mean these are very, very narrow beaches. They’re already having lots of issues, and just a bit of sea level rise and they’re going to be completely gone,” said Barnard, adding that Malibu could see a major loss of its beaches in the coming decades.


Homes are sandwiched between rising water and Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Our coastline is always changing, but as sea levels rise and intense storm surges (potentially) become more common, there’s conflict between natural processes and the parts of our coast we want to save.

“If we didn’t have anything built on the coast, the beaches in the coastal zone are incredibly dynamic and built to change. When sea level comes up, the beach moves in. When sea level goes out … the beach moves out with it,” said Kiki Patsch, who studies sediment dynamics at Cal State Channel Islands.

“But when sea level rises and we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the beach and these are my homes,’ we have a problem,” she said.

When water encroaches and beaches have nowhere to go, because we decide to protect infrastructure and homes, we’re likely going to lose those beaches.


Santa Monica’s beaches are substantially wider than those in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Beaches like Santa Monica that have been widened with massive amounts of sediment could hold up with regular additions of sand, at least for a period of time.

Here’s a visualization of what rising sea levels could theoretically look like from the pier:

Caltrans just released its vulnerability assessments for our region, and they’re particularly bleak for our coast. There’s not much area between the ocean and the hills in many spots. Really, much of it’s just homes and critical infrastructure, like PCH. Which means that in some places we’re going to have to decide between one or the other.

“There can be situations where if we’re using shoreline protection to protect private residential development, that might be coming at the expense of a public beach area. And that’s going to be a huge environmental justice issue,” said Madeline Cavaleri, statewide planning manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Las Tunas Beach, and the homes along the coast will see signifcant sea level rise over time because of the effects of climate change. Photographed on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

Surfing Could Take a (Duck) Dive

Surf spots are complicated.

I talked to Dan Reineman, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands who’s studied the impact of sea level rise on waves.

He said that at three feet, Malibu’s waves could get mushy. Surfers already experience that at high tide. With sea level rise it would be like it’s high tide all the time.

That said, it’s more complicated than just plunking down additional water on top of a break. How we manage our coasts and sediment flow will all impact what we experience on shore.

Scenes from a Monday morning at Malibu Surfrider Beach on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

“Whether you are armoring the sea cliffs or damming the rivers, that’ll have ramifications all of the way down the coast, because that is where the sand is coming from,” said Patsch.

That could mean that if we decide to stick sea walls and big piles of rocks up and down our coast to protect what’s there, surf spots could suffer, too.

That could, “pull the sand offshore and downshore, so it’ll get deeper offshore. Waves break because they start to interact with the bottom, so when it’s deeper you lose your surf break,” she said.

Derek Grimes, a Ph.D. student in physical oceanography at Scripps, noted that while the transport of sediment could negatively impact Malibu’s beaches, we don’t know how it could impact other breaks up and down the coast. It’s possible that new, sought-after spots will pop up.

Grimes told me he’s seen that happen off the coast of North Carolina when the bottom of channels are dredged for ships.

What We Do Matters

The good news is that everything we love about our coast is not going to disappear overnight. And we’ll have the opportunity to decide how we want to manage things going forward.

Related story

The Changing Climate of the American West: A Regional Call-In Special

For instance:

We can continue to dump sand and “nourish” beaches, though sand is an expensive and finite resource that can be wiped away easily by storms.

Places like Santa Monica and Cardiff Beach are experimenting with living dunes.

We can move homes and Highway 1 – and maybe even turn the latter into, say, hiking areas, like they did in Pacifica.

And some people want to install armoring up and down our entire coast, which could run into big problems with California law. Some homeowners in places like Broad Beach in Malibu figured out a workaround and did it on their own.

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

The Changing Climate of the American West: A Regional Call-In Special

LOS ANGELES – Rising sea levels along the California coast. Severe droughts in Nevada. Record heat in Arizona. Climate change is having an undeniable impact in the West. These new realities will alter the way we live in almost every way.

As the country gears up for the 2020 presidential election, all major Democratic candidates have released ambitious plans to tackle the issue of climate change.

On Friday, September 20th, as part of the “Covering Climate Now” initiative, members of the Elemental: Covering Sustainability collaboration at the proposals from the Democratic candidates, actions from the White House, and at the impact of climate change on Western states.

KPCC’s Larry Mantle hosted an hour long, regional call-in show with NPR affiliates from California, Nevada, Phoenix and Colorado. You can listen to it here.

Here are some of the highlights of the conversation from reporters and listeners: