Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.
There’s been a disaster brewing in Tampa Bay. After a leak was detected at an old phosphate plant’s wastewater pond, 316 homes were evacuated because officials feared the toxic mess could burst through a containment wall. The Tampa Bay Times reports that, to keep the wastewater from breaking containment and risking lives, pumps were deployed to hurriedly siphon off the liquid and send it into the bay. At least 165 million gallons of HRK Holdings’ waste have so far ended up there.
Just how bad will the environmental degradation be? “That’s like dumping 50,000 bags of fertilizer into the bay all at once,” Ed Sherwood, director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, told the newspaper. Expect algal blooms to head down the coast.
Now, for additional important reporting about the heavy industries upon which we have come to rely…
Polluting the Permian. The issue of orphaned oil and gas wells is becoming increasingly popular in our nation’s capital, so this new investigation from Grist and the Texas Observer comes at an opportune time. They looked at end-of-life fossil fuel production in Texas and New Mexico in an attempt to quantify the consequences of leaving more than 100,000 oil and gas wells idle, including 7,000 orphaned and another 13,000 they predict soon will be left orphaned. They predict a cleanup bill of $1 billion, although that’s conservative. In this deeply reported series that’s well worth your time, they’ll walk you through those impacts, explain their novel and impressive orphan well algorithm, reveal a toothless regulatory structure and introduce you to a researcher who’s hell-bent on chronicling the methane leaking from these wells.
Leaky in LA. In Southern California, the Los Angeles Times reports that a gas storage facility thousands of feet underneath the largest intact coastal wetland in Los Angeles County could be at risk of leaking, which would spew planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. The company that operates it says it’s safe, but there’s also history here. Not far away, a 2015 leak in a similar facility released 109,000 metric tons of methane. The city is calling for the site to be shuttered.
Peak bloom comes early. Believe me when I tell you that crowds of confused tourists bother me like no one’s business. Still, when I previously lived in Washington, D.C., I’d get over that fact to wonder in “peak bloom,” the several-day window when the city’s Japanese cherry blossom trees were bursting with spectacular, soft pink beauty. But here’s the thing — peak bloom is supposed to come in April. That happened at the end of March this year, which, as NPR reports, is a sign of a changing climate due to the trees’ response to warming temperatures.
The story gets even more interesting from a scientific perspective, The Washington Post reports, because we’ve got a record of cherry trees’ blooms going back an astonishing 1,200 years in Japan. In the city of Kyoto, higher than normal temperatures meant this year’s bloom was the earliest in that entire record.
Take that to the bank. Sam Metz of AP reports from Nevada on two bills being proposed that would employ a type of water banking to “create a market for the sale and purchase of water rights.” In a region where the Law of the River has historically governed use of the Colorado River, rural water users fear change. However, at least one East Coast hedge fund has purchased water rights in several Western states, leaving locals on edge about further commodifying the resource.
What’s the buzz all about. For The Desert Sun this week, I dug into the formation of a new group called the California Pollinator Coalition, which has a mission of protecting bees, butterflies and other species that pollinate crops. But, check under the hood, and you’ll see the coalition is led by agriculture trade groups, won’t support protections for pollinators via the California Endangered Species Act and waffles on pesticides, which greens say is one of the main issues impacting pollinators. So, how serious is this attempt to protect the birds, bugs and more that pollinate billions of dollars-worth of crops? Take a read.
All charged up. AP reports that the Sonoma County district attorney filed 33 criminal charges against PG&E, one of California’s three major utilities, relating to the 2019 Kincade Fire. The charges “include recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury to six firefighters,” and the wildfire ultimately forced nearly 100,000 people to evacuate. It’s just the latest in the utility’s costly legal woes over fires it allegedly ignited.
Spill the beans. Circle of Blue, a publication focused on water issues, reported on a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that details “the number, location, and characteristics of chemical and toxic spills into U.S. drinking water sources.” This vitally important research found that “3,931 incidents of toxic spills into groundwater, rivers, or lakes used for drinking water” between 2010 and 2019. All in all, these occurred near to 15% of the nation’s drinking water intakes.
DEVELOPMENT IN THE DESERT
Deferring the dream. Ian James of The Arizona Republic recently wrote another interesting take on the state’s water resources, this time travelling to the San Pedro River. There, a property owner and conservation had hoped to create a nature preserve on his 40 acres of land. That was before the realities of extreme weather set in, and his dreams were inundated with floodwater and invasive species, highlighting threats faced by many ecosystems.
And deepening the drought. Sticking in the Copper State, The Arizona Republic also reports on the latest numbers coming from the Colorado River. Lake Mead has dropped to just 40% of its full capacity, and “it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s.” This is likely to trigger the first-ever declaration of shortages, leading to big cutbacks in several states and Mexico. Check out this story for more information on what happens next and how we got here.
Insta-glamp. And, bringing it back to the California high desert, I recently published a piece in The Desert Sun about the latest construction and development around Joshua Tree National Park. The common question goes like this — are we loving our national parks to death? Well, are we also loving gateway communities to death? Local environmentalists are concerned that a glamping development in the town of Joshua Tree is bringing too much dust and land degradation, even as a growing tourism industry helps push housing costs to unattainable levels. All the while, development isn’t going to be stopped in the area, so the same people speaking out against this project ponder if it might just be the best option available.
While the company broke ground in my area, they faced stiffer resistance elsewhere. Back in February, Anton Delgado from The Arizona Republic chronicled how the same business tried and failed to get to work on a similar development near the beautiful red rocks of Sedona.
AND ANOTHER THING
Prepare for liftoff. The Perseverance rover has already successfully touched down on Mars, begun its trek across the red planet’s surface and sent back photos and audio. Its next endeavor is up to bat. NASA stocked the rover with a miniature helicopter named Ingenuity, which is preparing to attempt a flight. Space.com — a news site dedicated to all things space — reports that the 4-pound Ingenuity was dropped out of the rover on April 4 and has unlocked its rotors in preparation for liftoff. Click here to check out some selfies that Perseverance snapped of itself and its smaller compatriot. It’s nice to see they’re having a good time hanging out on Mars.
Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:
That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at email@example.com. You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Mask up, and get a vaccine if you’re eligible! Cheers.