A ‘cleanup’ bill aims to specify annual trail closing

The state Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee approved a bill authored by state Assemblyman Brian Nestande on Tuesday that is to clear up one detail about the annual closing of the popular Bump and Grind Trail, specifying that the trail will be closed to hikers for three months each year from February through April.

Nestande said the bill, AB 1097, is intended to be a “cleanup” measure after a bill approved last year didn’t specify the three months that the trail would be closed.

Heated debates have arisen about the impacts of hiking on populations of Peninsular bighorn sheep, including the controversy during the past two years over the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s installation of a gate blocking off part of the trail. Hikers have argued the agency didn’t present data proving impacts on sheep populations to back its decision.

Nestande (R-Palm Desert) said the bill simply clears up the annual closure to sidestep potential troubles.

“That wasn’t specified in the bill. So now this, to avoid having to go through an environmental impact report, which costs a lot of money, which could open up to lawsuits on either side of the debate here, we just decided to write it in law so there’s no more delay in opening the trail,” Nestande said.

Mapping communities hit hardest by pollution across California

In an effort to pinpoint communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, state officials have developed a new tool that considers multiple pollution types as well as socioeconomic indicators such as poverty and rates of asthma.

The tool, developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, is called CalEnviroScreen. An interactive map shows the highest ranking zip codes, and data can be found by clicking on the shaded regions.

The zip code of Coachella, 92236, pops up among the top 10 percent of highest scoring zip codes, placed in that category by relatively high levels of ozone, pesticides and “groundwater threats,” among other factors.

“The tool is designed to give a comprehensive look,” said Colleen Flannery, a spokeswoman for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. She said the tool will be used to identify communities that are most affected by pollution and most in need of assistance.

Colorado River listed as ‘most endangered river’ in the US

The water from the Colorado River that sustains much of the Southwest and Southern California is facing a host of increasing pressures, and the organization American Rivers has named it the “most endangered river” in the United States.

An article in the Arizona Republic details the reasons, including growing population, predictions of shrinking snowmelt and plans for more pipelines to siphon off more water.

American Rivers says in a summary of its report that “managing the severely drained Colorado River in ways that are compatible with growing needs in the Basin is a formidable but inescapable task.”

The Colorado River also is the subject of the recently released documentary “Watershed,” narrated by Robert Redford, which advocates a “new water ethic” for the West. The film shows the river’s dry and desolate delta in Mexico, and it raises critical questions about how the river’s water is used today and how it could be managed more wisely.

Higher levels of certain pesticides found in study of California streams

A study of dozens of streams across California has found that certain pesticides are turning up more widely and in higher levels.

Researchers collected samples from stream beds at more than 90 sites and found that “detections of pyrethroid pesticides in sediment increased from 55 percent of the statewide samples in 2008 to 85 percent in 2010.”

The finding was among the results of the Stream Pollution Trends, or SPoT, monitoring program, an annual assessment of pollution in streams in a sample of large watersheds in California. The March report was released this week.

Pyrethroids are contained in many household insecticides and pet sprays, and are used in mosquito control programs. These compounds are toxic to aquatic animals such as invertebrates and pose threats to the natural food web in streams. They also can affect human health under some circumstances, as explained by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The SPoT assessment surveys were paid for by the State Water Resources Control Board’s Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Research was conducted by scientists from the UC Davis Marine Pollution Studies Laboratory at Granite Canyon, California State University’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and other entities.

The researchers found that concentrations of several other types of organic chemicals, including DDT and PCBs, either decreased or remained unchanged. Stream beds in urban areas were found to have higher levels of most pollutants than those in agricultural or undeveloped areas.

The report indicates that regulators are working to get a better handle on the use of pyrethroids. It says the EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation “have recently initiated reviews of pyrethroid pesticide registrations and CDPR is currently developing use restrictions for pyrethroid pesticides used by pest control businesses in urban settings.”

It also says the state Department of Pesticide Regulation plans regulations to address “agricultural use of pyrethroids affecting surface water quality.”

The increasing amounts of such pesticides in California’s creeks suggest that both state and federal regulators have their work cut out for them.

World Water Day

It’s World Water Day, which the United Nations started 20 years ago to generate discussion about the world’s water problems.

Here is a brief look at some of the discussion out there today. As Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute points out, there is a great deal to consider about water and our relationship to it, including links between climate change and more extreme weather, the water that goes into consumer products and energy, the nearly 2.5 billion people without sanitation worldwide, the many aquatic species that are now threatened, and also current and potential efforts to address such problems.

In various parts of the country struggling with drought, people from farmers to water managers have been looking with new urgency at ways of coping with water scarcity. The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies a wide swath of the country, including parts of the West, as being under “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions.

Writing in The Washington Post, Steve Tracton offers a review of the situation saying “the indisputable fact is that water scarcity is rapidly becoming a significant factor in the way of life in the U.S.”

And of course, water remains a huge, multifaceted and vital issue in the Coachella Valley and Southern California. Check this blog and www.mydesert.com for future posts and news about water in the region, and please contact me with any news tips — by email at ian.james@thedesertsun.com or on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.

Tracking spending for the Salton Sea

The diminishing flow of water into the Salton Sea and its receding shorelines present a complicated environmental dilemma that government officials have yet to fully grapple with. And while many debates remain about potential ways to cope with the sea’s drier future, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento approved a request this week for an audit focusing on how the Salton Sea Restoration Fund is being managed.

California Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez requested the state audit and said the purpose is to determine how money is being spent and whether the fund is being managed effectively by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources. The Coachella Democrat questioned why, after about $32 million has been spent, the state remains without a “realistic restoration plan.”

“We’re not doing this to point fingers,” Pérez said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “What we are trying to do here is review and evaluate the roles, responsibilities of the entities, how they’re managing the funds, how they’re being spent, how resources are being allocated, how work is being prioritized, and quite frankly if they’re coordinating with one another, because that’s going to be very important.”

“We’re just trying to make sure that there’s transparency,” Pérez said.

The audit is expected to take about six months.

- Ian James covers the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at ian.james@thedesertsun.com or on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.

EPA: Mixed tally for toxic releases in California

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week released its latest Toxic Release Inventory data — which means 2011′s data; not 2012′s.

The inventory tracks the release of various toxic chemicals by factories into the ground, air, or water; or toxins that are shipped off-site.

Compared to 2010, California in 2011 saw:

  • Air releases of toxins decrease 13% (1 million lbs.).
  • Water releases increase 10% (258,000 lbs.).
  • On-site land releases increases 9% (2 Million lbs.).
  • Underground Injection releases decrease 67% (2.5 million lbs.) since 2010.
  • Total off-site transfers have increased 72% (2.5 million lbs.) since 2010.

EPA officials caution that release data alone isn’t sufficient to determine exposure or to calculate potential risks to human health and the environment. The information is useful in concert with factors such as the toxicity of the chemical, into what medium it is released (air, water, etc.) and site-specific conditions.

“Community Right-to-Know data helps all of us remain aware of the types and amounts of chemicals being used in our neighborhoods,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, in a release. “It is great to see pollution prevention activities at reporting facilities, and we encourage them to reduce their chemical releases via this method.”


Federal lawmakers don’t put money where the Salton Sea is

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in an Oct. 11 letter to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chaired by her fellow California Democrat, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, requested $1.3 billion for California water projects from Sacramento down to Calexico.

Conspicuously missing from the list, however, is any request for money toward Salton Sea restoration.

The sea, California’s largest lake, is slowly dying as its salinity increases. Its shrinking shores are expected to be increasingly exposed by 2018, when a water transfer deal to San Diego County enters full implementation and the sea’s water supply via agricultural runoff is reduced considerably.  Scientists tell us that already challenged fish and bird habitats will be negatively impacted, and exposed lake beds could cause an air quality crisis across the region when carried by the winds.

Feinstein’s letter notes her latest requests are in addition to those she made in a May 2010 letter to the committee. That much longer list of water projects also doesn’t include a request for Salton Sea funds.

Sacramento has clearly pushed the looming crisis at the Salton Sea behind their budgetary struggles, and environmentally behind the need for fixes in the river deltas of Sacramento.

But a California Senator putting the sea behind more than 50 other water-related projects statewide? Really?

We sent an email to Feinstein’s spokespeople to ask about it and haven’t heard back so far.

The sea’s other federal lawmakers haven’t been particularly successful in garnering federal funds toward a fix. Boxer’s website touts that she secured $4.5 million for the sea in 2002, and $30 million for sea restoration projects in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. But the latter money hasn’t been used, awaiting $10 million in either state or local matching funds.

“As soon as we get a plan and the matching funds, I will do everything I can to move this critical restoration project forward,” Boxer told The Desert Sun in late September.

In the House, Palm Springs Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, calling on them to “bring together your agencies and work with our local and state leaders” on Salton Sea solutions. She’s also called for a new Congressional hearing about the sea, due to dissatisfaction with the state’s lack of progress.

The state’s preferred alternative for sea mitigation and restoration in 2007 was estimated to cost nearly $9 billion.

View Feinstein’s requests for water project funding from October and May 2010 via the links below:

October 2012 Feinstein letter seeking 1.3 billion for CA water projects

Feinstein requested water project money May 2010

Coming Sunday: Salton Sea at the tipping point

The Sept. 10 “Big Stink,” when a strong southerly wind took foul Salton Sea odors throughout Southern California, was a warning sign of things to come, scientists and policy-makers say. And it highlighted the decades of failed attempts by local, state and federal politicians, as well as area residents, to stem off a crisis that’s headed for the shrinking sea.

By 2018, the Salton Sea’s water supply will drop dramatically as part of a water transfer from Imperial Valley farmers to urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. More than 100 square miles of exposed, dusty lake bed will then be carried wherever the desert winds take it. And ever-rising salinity levels at any time could kill off the last remaining species of game fish in the sea, tilapia. When that happens, the birds who rely upon the sea will have no adequate food source. And with most of California’s wetlands long ago lost to development, where they will go and how they will survive is in question for several species.

I and my iSun colleagues Marcel Honoré, Erica Felci and Rebecca Walsh this weekend will take an in-depth look at the Salton Sea, past failures to find a fix and what went wrong, and where things go from here. Look for it in Sunday’s print edition of The Desert Sun or here on mydesert.com .

Meanwhile, check out some of our past Salton Sea coverage at www.mydesert.com/saltonsea.

El Nino back this winter?

It’s not a sure thing, but make sure your windshield wipers are in working order, just in case.

Forecasters monitoring Pacific Ocean temperatures say there’s a better than 50 percent — and rising — chance that an El Niňo weather pattern is coming this winter. That typically means a mild winter for the northern U.S. and greater than usual amounts of rain here in the Coachella Valley.

View the story here.