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Soaking in the Salton Sea

California’s largest manmade lake, which supports an amazing array of birdlife, has a quirky allure (slideshow)

I eased my kayak off the briny shoreline separating flocks of American avocets and western sandpipers wading and feeding hurriedly in the shallows. The salty, buoyant water was silky smooth as my kayak glided southbound toward an apocalyptic desertscape of extinct volcanoes and steamy plumes spewing from boiling mud pots. 

For nine miles I followed the V-formations of migratory American white pelicans and a flock of low-flying double-crested cormorants, their wings humming in rapid flight just above the surface of the water. I reveled in the cacophony of birdlife and the geological wonders that loomed around this arid inland sea, the wake of my kayak the only blemish on the tranquil waters.

photo of kayakers on a still body of water near a large flock of wading birdsall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more as a slideshow of the Salton Sea.

Over the years the Salton Sea has transformed from a resort-like destination of the 1940s to 1960s, to an environmental conundrum. This inland saline lake in the southeast corner of the Golden State was formed between 1905 and 1907, when the Colorado River swelled and breached poorly-built levees and dikes flooding surrounding agricultural fields and what was then the Salton Sink. Almost the entire flow of the Colorado filled the Salton Basin (a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla that’s some 230 feet below sea level) for more than a year, inundating communities, farms, and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Eventually the floodwaters created an inland oasis about 40 miles long and 13 miles wide, covering an area of about 400 square miles. Dubbed Salton Sea, the lake became a popular hangout for Hollywood celebs like the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and Frank Sinatra and was on the verge of becoming “the next Las Vegas”. Raucous crowds would line the shorelines and jetties to watch the bevy of speedboats, waterskiing jumps, and fishing tournaments on what became the largest manmade lake in California. There was a time when 400,000 boats used the manmade sea each year, and more people visited the lake than Yosemite National Park. Seaside towns like Bombay Beach and Desert Shores rose from the desert floor, and in 1959 the Salton Sea Yacht Club was built, the place …more

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Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

people rafting down a rapidPhoto by Sonya Doctorian Kevin Nicastro, CityWild program director, steers a raft down the South Platte River in Denver, Colorado. In the background are other members of the CityWILD group.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I …more

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A Tipping Point In The Great Zero Emissions Vehicle Competition?

New hydrogen fuel facility in Germany could level the playing field between electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered ones

Last month, Linde AG, a Germany-based industrial gases and engineering company announced it was opening a new facility in Mainz, by the Rhine River, where energy generated by wind turbines will be used to split water into its component parts via electrolysis, releasing a great deal of collectable hydrogen.The announcement has potentially huge implications not just for hydrogen fuel vehicles (HFC) but for the entire zero emissions vehicle market.

Toyota MiraiPhoto by Yang and Yun's Album/FlickrToyota's hydrogen fuel cell car, Mirai, on display at an Shanghai auto show in April. So far, electric vehicles have had an advantage over HFC vehicles “green” hydrogen is hard to come by and expensive.

The overall market for zero emissions vehicles — a category that includes electric battery-powered vehicles (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles — is still quite small, but it clearly has great expectations. The California Resources Board, for example, projects 1.5 million of these vehicles on just California roads as early as 2025, with zero emission vehicles being 87 percent of all the cars on these roads by 2050.

Virtually every major automaker is either already offering zero emission vehicles or considering doing so. Tesla Motors, Volkswagon, and Nissan are lining up as key electric vehicle contenders; Toyota, Mercedez-Benz, Honda and Hyundai are positioning themselves to play big roles in the hydrogen fuel cell-powered sector. 

But as of now, electric EVs have an advantage over HFC vehicles because electricity, and green power at that (i.e. solar, wind etc) is pretty ubiquitous, and it is far cheaper to run one’s car on power than on gasoline. On the other hand, “green” hydrogen — that is hydrogen that’s been produced without generating carbon emissions — is hard to come by and expensive. It has been generally recognized that in order for hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles to compete favorably with EVs these two key issues have to be addressed. The first involves convenience and cost — how easily and cheaply can hydrogen fuel vehicles be refueled; the second is an environmental consideration — are these vehicles really zero emission?

With regard to this second consideration, hydrogen has long been made from natural gas via a steam methane reforming process. Since both getting methane (natural gas) from the ground and the steam methane reforming process itself …more

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A Very Different Kind of GMO is Headed to Supermarket Shelves

Little is known about the environmental and public health impacts of crops using a new technology called RNAi

Soon, maybe within a year, Americans could be eating two new varieties of apple that won’t turn brown after slicing. To make these new transgenic apples, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., a Canadian company, turned to an advanced biotechnology called RNA interference (RNAi). Okanagan insists its modified Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties— called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — are safe to eat. “By the time Arctic apples reach your market, they will be one of the most researched and tested foods on the planet,” the company says on its website. Despite this assurance, a number of disturbing questions remain about how RNAi technology might affect human health.

supermarket vegetable shelvesPhoto by Liz WestRNAi isn’t really a new technique, tt had been used by the food and biotech industry to alter certain fruits and vegetables as far back as the 1990s.

US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have already cleared the fruits for sale in the US, much to the disappointment of many food and environmental activists as well as scientists who are concerned about the unintended consequences of the technology used to create these apples. The  Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing concerns about RNAi technology raised by several research papers. But the agency’s authority to regulate transgenic crops is limited (See inset). Meanwhile, several other RNAi-altered fruits and vegetables, including non-bruising potatoes, called Innate Potato, and a new kind of pest-resistant corn, are on their way to supermarket shelves.

These new transgenic crops will be much different from most genetically modified foods currently in the market. Traditional GMOs have been altered through gene splicing — a technique that usually adds a new genetic sequence to the plant’s DNA. But these RNAi-altered crops will not be sporting any new genes. Instead, they have been created by shutting down or “suppressing” certain preexisting genes in the vegetables and fruits.

Let’s back up and look at the basic science a bit. RNA and DNA are part of the genetic coding in the cells of every plant and animal. The DNA contains the genes, while the RNA transcribes the genes into messages that dictate proteins, which in turn determine specific traits in a plant or animal. RNAi technology, which is part of a suite of “gene silencing” …more

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Invasive Species Aren’t the Actual Problem, They’re Merely a Symptom

Climate change, habitat destruction, and changes in land use and management contribute to their proliferation

From California to South Africa, New York to New Zealand, invasive species seem to be everywhere, their populations expanding and threatening ecological integrity around the world. A 1998 Princeton University study found that invasive species are the second greatest threat to global biological diversity. In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, warned that invasive species wreak havoc on economies and ecosystems. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society consider invasive species to be serious impediments to healthy wildlife habitat and the survival of endangered species. And government agencies, including the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, blame invasive species for losses and permanent damage to the health of natural plant communities.

purple loosestrifePhoto by Jack McLane/FlickrPurple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive perennial plant is spreading rapidly in North American wetlands, shorelines, and roadside ditches. The choices we make on a daily basis—the ways we procure food, shelter, water, medicine, and transportation—are the major drivers of contemporary changes in ecosystem structure and function.

Species invasions are also costly. According to The Nature Conservancy, worldwide spending on invasive species totals $1.4 trillion every year, equal to 5 percent of the global economy. The United States alone spends $137 billion annually to contend with them. The National Invasive Species Council holds invasive species accountable for “unemployment, damaged goods and equipment, power failures, environmental degradation, increased rates and severity of natural disasters, disease epidemics, and even lost lives.”

Given the apparent threats posed by invasive species, it makes sense that their eradication has become a central organizing principle of the practice of restoration. After all, if they are perceived as degrading ecosystems, then the practice of restoration as assisting in the repair of degraded ecosystems should focus on their elimination. I know that people who work in restoration care deeply about the loss of habitats, loss of ecological function, and declining biodiversity that are readily apparent in seemingly every ecosystem on Earth. Invasive species in many cases are part of this trend, and while I agree that invasive species are less ideal than the diverse and robust native flora and fauna they appear to dominate and replace, invasive species themselves aren’t the actual problem; they are merely a symptom. I remove …more

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From Confinement to Contentment

Increasingly, animal shelters across the US are forgoing cages

When Clifford arrived to Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary a year and a half ago from a Santa Fe, New Mexico shelter, his fur was coarse and dry and his joints stiff with fear. Now, the blind, old cattle dog mix wanders comfortably across the four-acre hospice for senior animals, his coat soft and clean.

"He can come and go as he likes, as opposed to if you set him off in a little cage. He'd probably be barking, anxious," says sanctuary founder Ulla Pedersen, as she slips the wagging dog a liver treat, "then you get into depression."

a little pup with her rescuerPhoto courtesy of Hope For PawsMost animal rescue experts agree that a cage-free environment helps the animals truly flourish.

While Pedersen wants to make sure she's not insulting shelters that rely on confinement to house so many rescues, she believes a cage-free environment helps the animals truly flourish. The 20 or so senior dogs at Kindred Spirits form a tight-knit community that will stay together through the end. "While they are getting older, they're healing," says Pedersen. "They're healing in their spirit."

Kindred Spirits is one of the many cage-free shelters and sanctuaries that have popped up across the country in the past 30 years. From the rural Southwest to the urban East Coast, more people are insisting that rescued animals need more space and socialization than living in a cage can provide.

Pedersen started her nonprofit hospice in 2002 after volunteering at Best Friends Animal Society, now one of the largest and oldest cage-free sanctuaries in the country. Founded in 1984, the Utah refuge made her reconsider what enrichment should mean for captive animals.

Sitting through most of the day is unnatural for most animals; they need movement. The situation is particularly bad for old animals, whom Pedersen saw get disproportionately abandoned and eventually put down at shelters when they were not adopted. Leaving them in a cell for the rest of their natural lives would be inhumane.

With these thoughts in mind, the retired nurse turned her property on the outskirts of Santa Fe into a sanctuary for senior dogs, horses, and poultry. While they all came there to die, they would at least get to spend the weeks, months, or years they had …more

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Colorado Mine Waste Spill Highlights Urgent Need for Mining Law Reform

It’s time to shift focus from the EPA’s mistake to the problems posed by half a million abandoned hardrock mines in the US

Last Wednesday, the US experienced one of its worst mining-related disasters in decades, and it’s received a lot of attention both here in Colorado and nationally. There’s been no shortage of name calling and blaming, but few seem to be speaking of the bigger picture: How can we learn from this and write policies and regulations that stop this from happening again? 

Gold King MinePhoto by courtesy of the EPAThe mouth of the Gold King Mine and the channeled runoff on the mine dump (right).

The Gold King underground mine near Silverton — about 40 river miles north of Durango on a tributary of the Animas River — was slated to be plugged so that acid mine drainage would stop spilling into the river system. When crews began clearing debris and a temporary blockade to finish the work, they underestimated how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, and three million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water came pouring out at once, turning the clear waters of the Animas deep orange for roughly 60 miles. The river was closed to all recreation while scientists rushed off to sample waters that had increased two orders of magnitude in acidity within 48 hours. Municipal water suppliers, farmers, and ranchers shut off taps and valves to brace for the worst.

Many have suggested the spill would have happened anyway at some point because nearby plugs at other mines caused the water table to rise, thereby increasing water pressure behind the Gold King mine (which was mined from the 1880s to the 1920s and then periodically after that).  But even if that wasn’t the case, the mine had for years been leaching hundreds of gallons of acidic waste per minute from the shaft, which ties into a complex hydrologic system linking many mines together.  

This spill is tragic. It has put drinking water and wildlife at risk, and polluted a river that I know well, one right in my backyard. But the focus should be less on the crew that accidentally triggered the release, and more on the broader story of entire regions throughout the country, facing immense cleanup challenges from mines of the past.

As Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said: “While we need to address the immediate impacts …more

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