‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

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.

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.

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.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

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

Clean energy produced on Navajo land could help power Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – In a city renowned for its green policies, Prius drivers and biodegradable straws, it was only a matter of time before officials would vote to move away from coal powered electricity.

To transition to clean energy, the city sold its shares of a coal-powered generating station on the Navajo Nation in 2016, ending a decades-long relationship.

What seemed like a bright new sustainable future for Los Angeles presented a harsh reality for the tribe, whose members relied on jobs at the Navajo Generating Station, which shut down completely in November. The generating station near Page contributed $51 million a year to northern Arizona and southern Utah.

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to explore ways to continue that energy partnership without funding a generating station that once was the third largest carbon emitter in the U.S. If deemed feasible after a 30-day evaluation, renewable energy soon will travel from the reservation to Southern California. The motion was passed and finalized by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“We’re talking about solar energy, wind energy, in other words, completely transitioning from coal into renewable resources,” said Mitch O’Farrell, the City Council member who presented the motion. O’Farrell, who is the first member of the council to belong to a federally recognized tribe – the Wyandotte Nation – said he wore a beaded bolo tie for the occasion.

Los Angeles needs other sources of renewable energy to reach the goals outlined in the 2019 Green New Deal, which aims to make the city 55% dependent on renewable energy by 2025 and fully dependent on renewables by 2045, O’Farrell said.

His proposal also acknowledges the economic hardship the Navajo Nation faces with the closure of the generating station, where 90% of the 433 employees were Navajo. The generating station officially closed on Nov. 18, which also negatively affected coal-mining operations on the reservation.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan and his administration made the trip to Los Angeles to advocate for continued energy partnerships at the city council meeting on Feb. 19. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who attended the LA council meeting approving the proposal, hopes it will compensate for an estimated $30-50 million revenue loss for the tribe.

“We are resilient people,” Nez told the council. “We want to be the leaders in renewable energy in Indian Country.”

The continued partnership would bring wind and solar powered energy to Los Angeles while fostering economic development for the Navajo Nation, the motion states.

“This is a win-win for everyone,” Nez said.

The council’s unanimous vote started the process of a 30-day feasibility study by Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power that will evaluate potential costs and benefits for electricity ratepayers.

It’s likely to be cost-effective for Angelenos, O’Farrell said, as LA’s Department of Water and Power still has ownership of the transmission lines linking the reservation and the city.

“The idea is to continue that partnership, but it would be directly between the Navajo Nation and LA for the continued use of those lines,” said Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání’, a grassroots organization that advocates for environmental protections and responsible use of natural resources of the Black Mesa area on the reservation.

“The only difference would be that it would be Navajo renewable energy power that would be put on those transmission lines,” she said.

The Navajo Generating Station

The 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station a few miles east of Page began producing electricity in the 1970s. Its owners ended operations in November because the plant was deemed no longer economically viable.

The generating station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it coal contributed nearly $1.3 billion to the Navajo and Hopi economies since 1987, according to data from Coconino County.

The mine, which is adjacent to Hopi and Navajo land in northeastern Arizona, and the generating station were part of a “mine-to-mouth” operation. The coal traveled from the mine to the generating station 78 miles away via train to produce power for California, Arizona and Nevada.

Without the need for coal, the mine closed, too, as the generating station was its only customer.

The costly nature of coal led to the plant’s closure, according to Scott Harelson, spokesman for the Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s biggest utility companies. SRP has partial ownership of the generating station along with Tucson Electric Power and NV Energy.

LA’s Department of Water and Power had been a shareholder until it sold its 21.2% ownership to SRP in July 2016 to move toward clean energy.

In 2017, all the utility owners voted to shut down the generating station.

The representitaves of the Navajo Nations attended the Los Angeles City Council meeting on Feb. 19 to advocate for Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s motion to bring renewable Navajo energy to the city. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

Loss for the Navajo Nation

There has been a long relationship between Los Angeles and the Navajo Nation, Nez told Cronkite News, and the new agreement would allow that partnership to last “rather than going different ways with bad – I don’t know if I should say it – bad blood.”
Not even a year’s notice was given before the power plant closed, Nez said, and it closed weeks earlier than expected.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Nez said. “There was no transition time.”
In the first fiscal year after the closures of the plant and mine, the Navajo Nation expects income losses of about $40 million – a 23% drop, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“There are members of the Navajo Nation who would have preferred to see the plant operate because of the well-paying jobs, including the Hopi Nation who relied heavily on the earnings from the Kayenta Coal Mine,” the SRP’s Harelson said. The average salary for workers ranged from $70,000 to $74,000, according to data from Coconino County.

SRP offered new jobs to all 433 of their plant workers, Harelson said. Of those 433 plant workers, 12 stayed in the area to decommission the generating station and 284 redeployed to other energy projects across Arizona.

Nez said that has spurred a migration from Page as former plant workers move elsewhere.
Beyond jobs, people across the reservation are struggling to stay warm during the winter.
“With the closure of the plant and the mine, people have not been able to access basic heating resources,” Horseherder said.

Martin Pasqualetti, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, said he has taken students on field trips to the Kayenta Mine and generating station since the ’70s.

While this operation brought in significant amounts of money for the Navajo, “anybody who was paying attention would know that these power plants don’t last forever,” he said, noting the high cost of implementing proper emission-control standards.

Pasqualetti wasn’t aware of the negotiations between LA and the Navajo Nation, but he said the tribe is always looking for markets for electricity.

“The bottom line is they are trying to find jobs and trying to find substitutions for the powerplant,” he said.

A future in clean energy

“Right now, throughout the world, we’re not taking care of our lands,” Nez said. “So there is some traditional knowledge that we can incorporate in this type of transition.”

The Navajo Nation has two solar energy projects generating 55 megawatts of clean energy, Nez said, generating revenue and providing electricity for Navajos with plans to expand further.

The 127-megawatt Dry Lake Wind Power Project has been operational since 2009 and plans for a new 477-megawatt wind farm were approved in December by The Navajo County board of supervisors.

The best way to take care of Navajo lands, he said, is to utilize what the creator has provided: wind and sunlight. California’s demand for clean energy presents an opportunity for the Navajo to continue their relationship, he added.

“We’re not talking about a handout,” Nez said. “We’re talking about a hand up with all the partners in the Southwest who are wanting to purchase renewable energy.”

Sygourney Longknife Williams, Cheyenne L.E. Phoenix and Maya Sanchez, attended the Los Angeles City Council meeting on Feb. 19 to support the motion for Navajo clean energy. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

O’Farrell said Los Angeles’ attitude on sustainability and its ability to influence is its “badge of honor.” Contributing to the renewable movement and thinking outside the city limits hopefully will play an outside role in slowing the effects of climate change, he said.

“I hope that we’re entering into a new age of enlightenment,” O’Farrell said. “Because it’s going to take everyone everywhere to pull together to slow the effects of climate change.”

The Navajo people and reservation have been “overlooked for a very long time,” he said, adding that a continued partnership with Los Angeles would help the tribe take another step toward self-determination and self-sufficiency.

Nez predicted “a great future for both LA, the (Navajo) Nation and the globe as a whole.”

The Navajo government and people, he said, “cannot view ourselves as victims.”

Although Native Americans were almost completely obliterated after Europeans arrived in the New World, “we are still here.”

Looking to the future and creating a plan to succeed despite hardships faced in the past, Nez said, is the “best revenge.”

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 Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities

Now more than ever, the topic of climate change has been receiving national attention and is at the forefront of many conversations. In addition to altering environments, it also has a social impact. Extreme weather events have been happening more than ever in recorded history, disrupting both ecosystems and livelihoods for people across the globe. However, marginalized communities, including Indigenous groups, are often the people most affected by devastating storms, flooding, or fires. Recent environmental changes brought on by climate change uniquely impact Indigenous people, especially because of their relationships with the land, ocean, and natural resources. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs articulately states, “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the words of Survival International, an organization championing tribal peoples around the world, “Indigenous people are on the front line of climate change.” When community worldviews are deeply tied to the environment, what happens when that environment starts to change rapidly? Or when ancestral homelands that communities have lived in for thousands of years start to disappear? A few of the direct consequences of changing environmental conditions include loss of natural resources, restricted access to traditional gathering areas for food and medicine, and forced displacement or relocation. Despite these challenges, many Indigenous communities are adapting traditional lifeways and advocating for change.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is an essential part of the climate conversation. In California, tribes across the state are actively involved in climate change-related planning and adaptation. The Karuk tribe in northern California recently completed a Climate Adaptation Plan that leans on Traditional Ecological Knowledge to protect their culture, according to Bill Tripp, deputy director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department. The tribe is currently implementing indigenous burning practices to reduce the buildup of forest fuels and help prevent high-severity wildfires. Many other tribal communities, including the North Fork Mono and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, are also engaged in prescribed burning. The Coast Miwok are currently working with the National Park Service at Point Reyes to help protect cultural sites that are disappearing due to erosion and flooding. The organization Climate Science Alliance is supporting the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to create a climate adaption plan. These projects and partnerships are just a few of the many climate change initiatives currently led by California tribal communities.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

These climate-related impacts extend beyond California. Climate change affects Indigenous communities across the globe who live in or are connected to a broad diversity of natural environments. The Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are the first place in the world to require population relocations specifically due to climate change. However, Papua New Guinea was also the first country to submit a formal climate action plan under the Paris Agreement, just one of many examples of community action and response. In Australia, which is currently facing drought, increased wildfires, rising sea levels, and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advocating for policy change within the Australian government for climate change planning, which includes actions like reducing carbon emissions and building emergency sea walls.

Aerial view of the Carteret Islands. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

Many Pacific Islander communities are also building new infrastructure and creating relocation plans. Native Hawaiian people — whose lifeways have long been linked with the ocean — are some of the global leaders in climate change policy, planning, and adaptation. In 2018, the Hawai’i legislature passed two bills pledging to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

Fishing continues to be an important part of life in Hawai’i, as a source of food and trade. For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians built fish ponds in coastal estuaries to produce millions of pounds of fish as a staple food source. Rising temperatures are now drying up these ancestral ponds. Community members today are moving nets, installing aeration systems, and using flexible harvest strategies in these ponds to adapt to warming ocean temperatures.

Many Native Alaskan tribes, which include Yupik, Inuit, Iñupiat, and Aleut communities, have lived in ancestral villages along the coast for thousands of years, relying on fishing and subsistence hunting of marine mammals such as seals and walrus for survival. Due to rapid sea ice melt, approximately 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing erosion, and many are being forced to move. Hunters have also turned to new methods, including flying drones over ancestral hunting grounds, to track sea ice and walrus populations.

Traditional Native Alaskan seal hunting, circa 1911. (Photo Public Domain)

When changing environmental conditions result in habitat loss, this can offset the balance between humans and important wildlife species. In Papua New Guinea, the crocodile and the cassowary bird — two culturally significant species — are losing habitat due to rising river levels. One of the creation stories from the Iatmul community in Papua New Guinea describes a world engulfed by water. An ancestral crocodile came and scooped part of the submerged land onto its back, lifting it to the surface. Ironically, thousands of years later, this prophetic creation story seems all too real. The cassowary, a critically endangered bird species, is seen as kin, and the use of their bones and feathers in material culture signifies relationships with ancestors.

A canoe prow carved into the shape of a crocodile from the Iatmul Community in Papua New Guinea, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

Plants can also serve as indicators of climate change. Even subtle differences in weather patterns can lead to a decrease in biodiversity. Indigenous communities are having to adapt agricultural practices, which often serve as the main food source for a region, and are losing the ability to gather medicinal plants that they rely on for healing. As temperatures continue to increase, some species that live in delicate microclimates, such as cloud forests and rainforest biomes, may no longer be able to survive.

For example, Indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, which is home to over 80,000 plant species, have long relied on plants for medicinal purposes, many of which are also used in modern pharmaceuticals. Deforestation and land exploitation have made it more difficult to gather these species. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin regions of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador are actively fighting to protect their ancestral territories from oil development and deforestation, frequently resulting in deadly consequences. Community members today often use cultural items such as headdresses and face paint for protests and political action in addition to traditional use.

Headdress worn by Chief Raoni Metuktire, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

As these case studies show, environmental changes can have major impacts on Indigenous people. Climate change impacts communities not only from an environmental standpoint but also at a cultural level. There are multiple Indigenous environmental groups, grassroots organizations, and guardians who are working together to combat these issues. As powerfully stated by Raoni Metuktire, Indigenous activist and chief of the Kayapó community in Brazil: “We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We all live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest. Then you will feel the fear that we feel.”

At least 2 well-metering bills at Arizona capitol

Multiple bills in the Arizona Legislature are tackling well metering due to the lack of groundwater regulation outside of central Arizona.

This comes after a series of recent reports in the Arizona Republic showing large industrial farms in rural counties are drilling deeper wells, but these companies are not required to disclose exactly how much water they are pumping.

Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) is proposing a bill to let the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources require a meter on wells outside of “Active Management Areas,” which govern the central part of the state. The director could also require an annual report.

Kavanagh said it’s the first step in addressing overuse.

“Everybody’s saying we don’t have the information. So this gets the information,” he said. “Then nobody has an excuse not to act. People can’t be willfully blind in the face of a possible impending water crisis for some residents of our state. And I feel sorry for those residents.”

Meanwhile, a bill from Kirsten Engel (D-Tucson) would simply require well meters outright for large-scale irrigation.

Kavanagh said he had not spoken to House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) about his bill and didn’t know if he supported it. Bowers told the Associated Press last week he was concerned about overdrafting.

“If nothing else, this will start the conversation and maybe it will cause this to be placed into one of the other water bills that are moving forward,” Kavanagh said. “But you can’t stay willfully blind. There’s no excuse for that.”

Rep. Regina Cobb (R-Kingman) said she will soon propose a bill to create an additional regulatory tool called a rural management area.

“I don’t even want to reduce agricultural growth if it can be recharged. If it’s not recharging, we’ve got an issue. If it’s taking away from municipalities that have been there already, we’ve got an issue. If it takes away from their growth and development, we’ve got an issue,” she said. “So we have to look at all those parameters and come together with a decision for that community. And I think that’s where a rural management area works.”

Desert Tortoises Affected by Slow Response to Climate Change

Every time thick, dark rain clouds move over the deserts that surround Las Vegas, there’s an anticipatory buzz. Flora and fauna alike begin preparing for the rare event, lying in wait for the first few drops.

Todd Esque is usually waiting for them too from his office in Henderson, Nevada. He knows how much desert life depends on their arrival. So when they do come, he’s smiling.

“People will be like, ‘Well, how are things going for you today,” Esque said. “And I’ll say, ‘I’m happy because it rained. Everybody got a drink today.'”

By everybody, Esque means the species of plants and animals he studies as a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist.

The Ivanpah solar thermal project’s glowing towers are visible from the desert tortoise study plot. (Luke Runyon / KUNC)

On a cool December day, Esque and his research colleague Felicia Chen ventured out into a study plot south of Las Vegas on the Nevada-California border to check on one of those animals, the desert tortoise.

Few species are equipped to handle a hot and dry climate better than the desert tortoise. The ancient creature inhabits some of the harshest areas of the American Southwest. But with climate change making their home hotter and drier, and energy projects meant to limit carbon emissions springing up in the desert, the tortoises are being hit with a one-two punch.

They’re feeling the effects of climate change itself and bearing the brunt of our efforts to halt it.

The threats to tortoises are many, Esque said, while walking through the sprawling Ivanpah Valley. This stretch of prime tortoise habitat is home to solar farms, a railroad, the interstate highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and a few casino resorts. The futuristic-looking Ivanpah solar thermal project – with its rings of mirrors and glowing towers – is within eyeshot of the tortoise study area. A proposed cargo and freight airport is slated to be built in the valley as well.

Tortoises are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and a research plot like this is meant to give researchers insight into the best ways to help their populations rebound and provide scientific findings to decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels.

All of the known individual tortoises – 25 in this square kilometer – are tagged with radio transmitters. Chen walked through the desert scrub holding a metal antenna in the air to pick up their signal. As she approached burrows with a tagged tortoise inside, the device beeped with increasing frequency.

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Felicia Chen uses a receiver to pick up the frequency of radio-tagged desert tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley. (Luke Runyon / KUNC)

This is how tortoises spend most of their lives, a couple feet under the desert floor. They come out when it rains to drink and in the spring and fall to eat and mate. When cacti are blooming, the tortoises munch on their fuchsia-colored flowers, Chen said.

“It looks like they have lipstick on,” she said. “Their mouths will just be stained pink.”

In the study area, researchers have taken the time to mark each burrow. The holes are distinguished from burrows made by other desert wildlife, by their characteristic tortoise shell-shape, like a half moon. In the study area each is marked using a rock with a number etched into it.

“Because these are permanent study plots they all have an address,” Esque said.

“This is like 5679 Tortoise Lane? Something like that?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

Because of where the Ivanpah Valley sits in the Mojave Desert, the area likely acts as a nexus for desert tortoises, Esque said. It’s a place with many entrances and exits, which allows a free flow of genes among the animals that live in other valleys.

“It’s very useful for humans as well as it is for the wildlife, and it has created some conflict in the conservation and development world where there’s people who have had to come together and make agreements on what are we going to allow in these areas.” Esque said.

That’s a short-term challenge for tortoises – figuring out how to keep them from being displaced and their habitat fractured. One strategy is to simply relocate tortoises, temporarily or permanently, to make room for massive solar arrays and other development.

A tortoise shell rests in the Mojave desert on the Nevada-California border. (Luke Runyon / KUNC)

But climate change presents an existential threat for the long term, Esque said.

“If we have hotter temperatures and less rainfall — first of all, they’re not going to get a drink as often. If we just have long droughts, we’re going to start seeing populations blink out in one valley or another,” he said.

Which tortoises have withstood before. They’ve lived on the planet for millions of years, and are incredibly resilient to climate swings. But with human infrastructure blocking their way, it could be close to impossible for tortoises to repopulate parts of the desert devastated by drought now and into the future.

Tortoises have evolved to persevere through water scarcity, Esque says. A third of their body cavity houses an auxiliary bladder, which stores water and waste. Using the bladder as storage, the tortoises can go more than a year without drinking water.

But even they have a breaking point. Short-term droughts in the Southwest over the past 20 years have caused tortoise mortality, Esque said. In the last decade, nearby Las Vegas set new records for hot and dry weather. And studies have shown the likelihood of so-called megadroughts to increase in the coming decades.

The latest review of tortoise population, published in 2018, showed that despite a concerted effort to boost their numbers, declines continue. In four out of five designated recovery areas in southern Nevada, California, Utah and northern Arizona, desert tortoise population densities dropped from 2004 to 2014.

Desert tortoises are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and their survival has been at the heart of a multi-million dollar effort by several federal, state and local agencies. (Luke Runyon / KUNC)

Another climate change-related problem comes from how tortoises reproduce, Esque said. Their sex is assigned based on the incubation temperature of the eggs. Too hot or too cold and you can have a whole set of baby tortoises come out as all male or all female. A warming desert could tip the biological scales.

After more than a mile of wandering, Chen located a burrow with a visible tortoise inside. Esque pulled out a small mirror to direct sunlight into the hole. Under the intense desert sun, it’s more effective than a headlamp or flashlight.

“It works like dynamite,” Esque said. “So I can see back there easily a meter.”

Chen and Esque moved aside some brush so we could get a better look.

“You can see the entire tortoise,” Chen said. “Pretty much the entire side of it.”

The adult tortoise’s shell was lodged into the burrow’s clay walls. Even with all the hubbub on the desert floor, with researchers chatting, shining lights, a journalist peering, and the constant hum of interstate traffic, the tortoise stayed still.

This one likely came out after the last rainfall 10 days before. It was the first rain this stretch of the Mojave had seen in more than 100 days.

“Once you start to learn about them and you see how harsh it is out here in the desert,” Esque said, “your appreciation just keeps growing.”

Because, he said, you get to see what they’re up against.

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.