Water

Another Ammon Bundy rebellion might be brewing in Northern California — this time over water: report

Far-right anti-government activist Ammon Bundy has made national news on multiple occasions, from leading an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to anti-mask standoffs in Idaho that resulted in extremists converging on a state judge's home.

Now, according to The Sacramento Bee, Bundy and his followers could be about to get involved in another confrontation with the government — this time over water shutoffs in Northern California.

"In the summer of 2001, local farmers and other activists armed with saws and blowtorches breached a chain-link fence and opened the headgates of a federal canal that supplies farmland in Oregon and far Northern California," reported Ryan Sabalow. "Local farmer Grant Knoll was among the activists there that year. The protesters forced the gates open three times but were eventually blocked by U.S. marshals. Now, with a drought just as severe as two decades ago — and with farmers' water again cut off — he's prepared to fight again."

"This spring, he and another farmer, Dan Nielsen, bought the property next to the headgates in Klamath Falls, Ore.," said the report. "They erected a red and white tent surrounded by American flags and protest signs, and they're holding regular gatherings. And they're working with a group with close ties to anti-government activist Ammon Bundy."

According to the report, "Federal water managers have for years struggled to strike a balance between supplying water for farmers while still leaving enough water in Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake to keep two species of endangered suckers from going extinct." However, the government also is obligated to send spurts of water down the canals known as "flushing flows" to maintain the health of local salmon populations local tribes depend on, and amid a drought, they lack the water for even that, let alone to supply farmers with everything they are asking for.

Farmers, however, don't buy the government's explanation, claiming water levels are higher than would exist in a drought.

"Knoll said the Bundy family's fight with the federal government has proven that if activists push back forcefully, the feds will back down," said the report. "Members of the Bundy family and their supporters have been acquitted or mistrials were declared after armed standoffs with federal authorities in Oregon and in Nevada."

You can read more here.

Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide

As the drought outlook for the Western U.S. becomes increasingly bleak, attention is turning once again to groundwater – literally, water stored in the ground. It is Earth's most widespread and reliable source of fresh water, but it's not limitless.

Wells that people drill to access groundwater supply nearly half the water used for irrigated agriculture in the U.S. and provide over 100 million Americans with drinking water. Unfortunately, pervasive pumping is causing groundwater levels to decline in some areas, including much of California's San Joaquin Valley and Kansas' High Plains.

We are a water resources engineer with training in water law and a water scientist and large-data analyst. In a recent study, we mapped the locations and depths of wells in 40 countries around the world and found that millions of wells could run dry if groundwater levels decline by only a few meters. While solutions vary from place to place, we believe that what's most important for protecting wells from running dry is managing groundwater sustainably – especially in nations like the U.S. that use a lot of it.

About 75% of global groundwater pumping occurs in India, the U.S., China, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. has one of the highest national groundwater use rates in the world.

Jasechko and Perrone, 2021, CC BY-ND

Groundwater use today

Humans have been digging wells for water for thousands of years. Examples include 7,400-year-old wells in the Czech Republic and Germany, 8,000-year-old wells in the eastern Mediterranean, and 10,000-year-old wells in Cyprus. Today wells supply 40% of water used for irrigation worldwide and provide billions of people with drinking water.

Groundwater flows through tiny spaces within sediments and their underlying bedrock. At some points, called discharge areas, groundwater rises to the surface, moving into lakes, rivers and streams. At other points, known as recharge areas, water percolates deep into the ground, either through precipitation or leakage from rivers, lakes and streams.

Pumping can remove groundwater from underground faster than it recharges.

Groundwater can remain underground for days to millennia, depending on how deep it sinks, how readily it moves through rock around it and how fast humans pump it to the surface.

USGS

Groundwater declines can have many undesirable consequences. Land surfaces sink as underground clay layers are compacted. Seawater intrusion can contaminate groundwater reserves and make them too salty to use without energy-intensive treatment. River water can leak down to underground aquifers, leaving less water available at the surface.

Leaky streams are widespread across the United States.

Groundwater depletion can also cause wells to run dry when the top surface of the groundwater – known as the water table – drops so far that the well isn't deep enough to reach it, leaving the well literally high and dry. Yet until recently, little was known about how vulnerable global wells are to running dry because of declining groundwater levels.

There is no global database of wells, so over six years we compiled 134 unique well construction databases spanning 40 different countries. In total, we analyzed nearly 39 million well construction records, including each well's location, the reason it was constructed and its depth.

Our results show that wells are vital to human livelihoods – and recording well depths helped us see how vulnerable wells are to running dry.

Millions of wells at risk

Our analysis led to two main findings. First, up to 20% of wells around the world extend no more than 16 feet (5 meters) below the water table. That means these wells will run dry if groundwater levels decline by just a few feet.

Groundwater wells are at risk of running dry around the globe.

Second, we found that newer wells are not being dug significantly deeper than older wells in some places where groundwater levels are declining. In some areas, such as eastern New Mexico, newer wells are not drilled deeper than older wells because the deeper rock layers are impermeable and contain saline water. New wells are at least as likely to run dry as older wells in these areas.

Wells are already going dry in some locations, including parts of the U.S. West. In previous studies we estimated that as many as 1 in 30 wells were running dry in the western U.S., and as many as 1 in 5 in some areas in the southern portion of California's Central Valley.

Households already are running out of well water in the Central Valley and southeastern Arizona. Beyond the Southwest, wells have been running dry in states as diverse as Maine, Illinois and Oregon.

What to do when the well gives out

How can households adapt when their well runs dry? Here are five strategies, all of which have drawbacks.

– Dig a new, deeper well. This is an option only if fresh groundwater exists at deeper depths. In many aquifers deeper groundwater tends to be more saline than shallower groundwater, so deeper drilling is no more than a stopgap solution. And since new wells are expensive, this approach favors wealthier groundwater users and raises equity concerns.

– Sell the property. This is often considered if constructing a new well is unaffordable. Drilling a new household well in the U.S. Southwest can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But selling a property that lacks access to a reliable and convenient water supply can be challenging.

– Divert or haul water from alternative sources, such as nearby rivers or lakes. This approach is feasible only if surface water resources are not already reserved for other users or too far away. Even if nearby surface waters are available, treating their quality to make them safe to drink can be harder than treating well water.

– Reduce water use to slow or stop groundwater level declines. This could mean switching to crops that are less water-intensive, or adopting irrigation systems that reduce water losses. Such approaches may reduce farmers' profits or require upfront investments in new technologies.

[Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

– Limit or abandon activities that require lots of water, such as irrigation. This strategy can be challenging if irrigated land provides higher crop yields than unirrigated land. Recent research suggests that some land in the central U.S. is not suitable for unirrigated “dryland" farming.

Households and communities can take proactive steps to protect wells from running dry. For example, one of us is working closely with Rebecca Nelson of Melbourne Law School in Australia to map groundwater withdrawal permitting – the process of seeking permission to withdraw groundwater – across the U.S. West.

State and local agencies can distribute groundwater permits in ways that help stabilize falling groundwater levels over the long run, or in ways that prioritize certain water users. Enacting and enforcing policies designed to limit groundwater depletion can help protect wells from running dry. While it can be difficult to limit use of a resource as essential as water, we believe that in most cases, simply drilling deeper is not a sustainable path forward.The Conversation

Debra Perrone, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Barbara and Scott Jasechko, Assistant Professor of Water Resources, University of California Santa Barbara

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At least 111 people died in Texas during winter storm — most from hypothermia

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month's winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department estimated last week and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas' larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire."

Among those who lost their lives in the frigid weather was an 11-year-old boy in the Houston area who died in his home as temperatures dropped into the single digits. In San Antonio, a man froze to death outside his house after he likely fell on his way to a dialysis appointment. And in Abilene, a man reportedly froze to death in his reclining chair.

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

February's winter storm blanketed large swaths of Texas in snow and ice and left millions without power or clean water for days in below-freezing temperatures.

The issues laid bare by the freeze have taken center stage at the Texas Legislature. A Texas Senate committee advanced a wide-ranging bill Thursday that would, among other things, mandate that power and natural gas companies upgrade their facilities to withstand severe weather. It would also create a statewide emergency alert system for future large-scale power outages.

Meanwhile, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been lobbying Texas lawmakers to support an $8 billion plan to build 10 new natural gas power plants that would provide energy during peak consumption hours when demand is highest. The company wants lawmakers to create a revenue stream to Berkshire through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/texas-deaths-winter-storm/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Hackers tried to poison Florida city's water supply: sheriff

Federal authorities and local law enforcement in Florida are investigating an attempted hack on the water supply at a treatment system in Oldsmar, Fla.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press conference on Monday, Feb 8, to discuss the disturbing series of events that transpired on Friday.

Gualtieri revealed hackers had attempted to poison the city's water supply when they "remotely accessed a computer for the city's water treatment system and briefly increased the amount of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, by a factor of more than 100.":

"The chemical is used in small amounts to control the acidity of water but it's also a corrosive compound commonly found in household cleaning supplies such as liquid drain cleaners."

Despite the attempted poisoning, Gualtieri confirmed that the city's water supply was not impacted thanks to swift actions by a supervisor. At the time, the supervisor was also working remotely and noted the uptick in the concentration level as it was being altered on his computer screen. He acted to counter the dangerous action.

"At no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated," the sheriff said. "Importantly, the public was never in danger."

Oldsmar Mayor Eric Seidel released a statement in response to the water facility's scare as he expressed relief and elation about the city's protocols being effective. "The protocols that we have in place, monitoring protocols, they work — that's the good news," said Seidel. "Even had they not caught them, there's redundancies in the system that would have caught the change in the pH level."

Seidel went on to explain the importance of the sheriff's press conference. According to Seidel, the purpose was simply to make the public aware of what happened. He added, "The important thing is to put everyone on notice. There's a bad actor out there."

Joe Biden's blitz on climate policy is impressive. Here's what it reveals about a broad American consensus

Just 10 days after the Biden administration took over, in alignment with the new president's overall blitz strategy, a flabbergasting phalanx of U.S. climate policies have been turned smartly on their heels and are marching toward the future. President Biden has returned the nation to the Paris Agreement, required truth-telling in government reporting, enforced a regulation that government purchases must feed U.S. supply chains rather than imports, terminated the massive giveaway of taxpayer property to coal, oil and gas extractors, restored the integrity of federal climate science, frozen a horde of horrible Trump environmental rollbacks, and even launched a New Deal-style Civilian Climate Corps. All that is already in the rear-view mirror as Biden's team moves on to the deeper work of a clean-energy, decarbonized and more inclusive economy.

Most Americans, who fear climate chaos, embrace clean energy opportunity and welcome American innovation and leadership, should be celebrating — and are. But hold your breath: The good news runs even deeper than this. The striking emphasis that the new administration has given to its "whole government" climate strategy; the repeatedly-noted climate depth of his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees at the Treasury (Janet Yellen), the State Department (John Kerry), economic policy (Brian Deese), the Energy Department (Jennifer Granholm), the Department of Transportation (Pete Buttigieg), and the Department of the Interior (Deb Haaland); along with the breadth of new climate initiatives are only a part of the new administration's commitment to climate progress.

This shock-and -awe launch also reflects an external reality: The Trump administration's dogged march into the past had departed from any semblance of where America was headed. The first wave of climate progress under Biden is almost all "low-hanging fruit," "no regrets" and "we can all unite on this," because Trump's legacy was starkly at war with economic and marketplace reality, not just climate science.

Look at the chorus that has responded to Biden's climate drumbeat. Politico hails "a coalition that ranges from labor unions, anti-fracking activists and racial justice advocates to leaders of Wall Street, the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce" as lining up with Biden's broad thrust. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on MSNBC boasts that his program to phase out internal combustion cars and trucks by 2030 is a winner because he already has the support not only of climate advocates but also of the United Auto Workers, Ford and General Motors.

While the obstacles still cited as lying in Biden's way are substantial, they are almost entirely inside the Beltway, where the powerful influence of fossil fuel-producing states like West Virginia (embodied in Sen. Joe Manchin) and Kentucky (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) is repeatedly, and appropriately, recited. But what are oil companies, who wield the big fossil fuel stick, actually saying? Yes, they claim Biden is going too far, but almost exclusively in one narrow part of his program, the phase-out of oil, gas and coal extraction on federal lands.

Indeed, the oil industry is actually joining Biden's alliance in its emphasis on tougher drilling and pollution standards for extraction. Advocacy of carbon pricing in some form is also making its way into Houston lobbying memos.

In a deeply polarized Senate, getting legislation of any significance through is indeed going to test the new president's Capitol Hill negotiating chops. But climate is getting so much emphasis in Biden's first two weeks in large part because it has become a less, not more, divisive issue across American society. It's a good place for the new administration to bring the country together, perhaps because the communities that are taking the biggest climate hit — from fires, flooding, storms and energy sector layoffs — are overwhelmingly in regions where Trump, not Biden, came out on top. (A hidden secret is that rural America, which has become the heart of red America, is where storm, drought, fire and flood hit hardest. Miami Beach can afford sea walls. Cedar Rapids needs Uncle Sam to repair its levees.)

Biden's broader coalition — you could also throw in BlackRock, whose CEO, Larry Fink, devoted his annual letter to the urgency of business embracing the climate challenge — emerged even before the November election. Major oil companies had opposed Trump's efforts to block the cleanup of methane from oil and gas drilling. Ford and Volkswagen had partnered with California to undercut the Trump administration's rollbacks of auto emission limits. Most of the biggest power utilities had pledged to cut from 80% to 100% of their current carbon pollution. Sixteen states had persuaded even the deadlocked Congress to commit the U.S. to phasing out climate dangerous HFC refrigerants as part of the pandemic relief bill.

So climate progress is now a powerful American consensus, precisely because we have realized that it is not a matter of sacrifice, but of opportunity; not austerity but prosperity; not American decline but American recovery.

None of this means we can relax. Big coalitions, like convoys, can bog down at the speed of the slowest member. And the biggest looming barrier is that the faster decarbonization races ahead, the greater the risk to workers and communities left behind. While there are lots of good ideas floating around for how to enable fossil-dependent segments of our nation to ride the clean energy wave, most of them remain somewhat uncertain and gauzy — after all, only a year ago we were having trouble getting McConnell to agree to sustain pensions and health care for mineworkers in his own state.

If we don't take more seriously our need to spread the benefits of the clean energy transition to every zip code and every demography, we will blow our best change to make America truly great — for the 21st century.

The climate crisis is worse than even scientists can imagine. Here’s what happened when one tried

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Peter Kalmus, out of his mind, stumbled back toward the car. It was all happening. All the stuff he'd been trying to get others to see, and failing to get others to see — it was all here. The day before, when his family started their Labor Day backpacking trip along the oak-lined dry creek bed in Romero Canyon, in the mountains east of Santa Barbara, the temperature had been 105 degrees. Now it was 110 degrees, and under his backpack, his “large mammalian self," as Peter called his body, was more than just overheating. He was melting down. Everything felt wrong. His brain felt wrong and the planet felt wrong, and everything that lived on the planet felt wrong, off-kilter, in the wrong place.

Nearing the trailhead, Peter's mind death-spiralled: What's next summer going to bring? How hot will it be in 10 years? Yes, the data showed that the temperature would only rise annually by a few tenths of a degree Celsius. But those tenths would add up and the extreme temperatures would rise even faster, and while Peter's big mammal body could handle 100 degrees, sort of, 110 drove him crazy. That was just not a friendly climate for a human. 110 degrees was hostile, an alien planet.

Lizards fried, right there on the rocks. Elsewhere, songbirds fell out of the sky. There was more human conflict, just as the researchers promised. Not outright violence, not here, not yet. But Peter's kids were pissed and his wife was pissed and the salience that he'd so desperately wanted others to feel — “salience" being the term of choice in the climate community for the gut-level understanding that climate change isn't going to be a problem in the future, it is a crisis now — that salience was here. The full catastrophe was here (both in the planetary and the Zorba the Greek sense: “Wife. Children. House. Everything. The full catastrophe"). To cool down, Peter, a climate scientist who studied coral reefs, had stood in a stream for an hour, like a man might stand at a morgue waiting to identify a loved one's body, irritated by his powerlessness, massively depressed. He found no thrill in the fact that he'd been right.

Sharon Kunde, Peter's wife, found no thrill in the situation either, though her body felt fine. It was just hot … OK, very hot. Her husband was decompensating. The trip sucked.

“I was losing it," Peter later recalled as we sat on their front porch on a far-too-warm November afternoon in Altadena, California, just below the San Gabriel Mountains.

“Yeah," Sharon said.

“Losing my grip."

“Yeah."

“Poor Sharon is the closest person to me, and I share everything with her."

Sometimes everything is both too much and not enough. George Marshall opened his book, “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change," with the parable of Jan Karski, a young Polish resistance fighter who, in 1943, met in person with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was both a Jew and widely regarded as one of the great minds of his generation. Karski briefed the justice on what he'd seen firsthand: the pillage of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Belzec death camp. Afterward, Frankfurter said, “I do not believe you."

The Polish ambassador, who had arranged the meeting on the recommendation of President Franklin Roosevelt, interrupted to defend Karski's account.

“I did not say that he is lying," Frankfurter explained. “I said that I didn't believe him. It's a different thing. My mind, my heart— they are made in such a way that I cannot accept. No no no."

Sharon, too, possessed a self-protective mind and heart. A high school English teacher and practiced stoic from her Midwestern German Lutheran childhood, she didn't believe in saying things you were not yet prepared to act upon. “We find it difficult to understand each other on this topic," Sharon, 46, said of her husband's climate fixation.

Yet while Sharon was preternaturally contained, Peter was a yard sale, whole self out in the open. At 47, he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, studying which reefs might survive the longest as the oceans warm. He had more twinkle in his eye that one might expect for a man possessed by planetary demise. But he often held his head in his hands like a 50-pound kettlebell. Every time he heard a plane fly overhead, he muttered, “Fossil fuel noise."

For years, in articles in Yes! magazine, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, on social media, Peter had been pleading, begging for people to pay attention to the global emergency. “Is this my personal hell?" he tweeted this past fall. “That I have to spend my entire life desperately trying to convince everyone NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?"

His pain was transfixing, a case study in a fundamental climate riddle: How do you confront the truth of climate change when the very act of letting it in risked toppling your sanity? There is too much grief, too much suffering to bear. So we intellectualize. We rationalize. And too often, without even allowing ourselves to know we're doing it, we turn away. At virtually every level — personal, political, policy, corporate — we repeat this pattern. We fail, or don't even try, to rise to the challenge. Yes, there are the behemoth forces of power and money reinforcing the status quo. But even those of us who firmly believe we care very often fail to translate that caring into much action. We make polite, perhaps even impassioned conversation. We say smart climate things in the boardroom or classroom or kitchen or on the campaign trail. And then … there's a gap, a great nothingness and inertia. What happens if a human — or to be precise, a climate scientist, both privileged and cursed to understand the depth of the problem — lets the full catastrophe in?

Once Peter, Sharon and their 12- and 14-year-old sons set their packs down at the car on that infernal Labor Day weekend, they blasted the air conditioning, then stopped for Gatorade and Flamin' Hot Doritos to try to recover from their trip. But the heat had descended not just on Peter's big mammal body but on millions of acres of dry cheatgrass and oak chaparral.

That same afternoon, around 1 p.m., the Bobcat fire started five miles from their house in the Los Angeles hills.

Peter's climate obsession started, as many obsessions do, with the cross-wiring of exuberance and fear. In late 2005, Sharon got pregnant with their first child, and in the throes of joy and panic that accompanied impending fatherhood, Peter attended the weekly physics colloquium at Columbia University, where he was working on an astrophysics Ph.D. The topic that day was the energy imbalance in the planet — how more energy was coming into earth's atmosphere from the sun than our atmosphere was radiating back out into space. Peter was rapt. He'd grown up a nerdy Catholic Boy Scout in suburban Chicago, and had always been, as his sister Audrey Kalmus said, someone who “jumped into things he believed in with three feet." He'd met Sharon at Harvard. They'd moved to New York so she could earn a teaching degree. For a while, before returning to school, Peter had made good money on Wall Street writing code. Now here he was hearing, really hearing for the first time, that the planet, his son's future home, was going to roast. Full stop.

This was a catastrophe — a physical, physics catastrophe, and here he was, a physicist about to have a son. He exited the lecture hall in a daze. “I was kind of like, 'Are we just going to pretend this is like a normal scientific talk?'" he told me, recalling his thoughts. “We're talking about the end of life on Earth as we know it."

For the next eight months, Peter walked around Manhattan, “freaking out in my brain," he said, like “one of those end-is-near people with the sandwich boards." He tried converting Columbia's undergraduate green groups to his cause. Did they care about the environment? Yes. Did they care about the planetary catastrophe? Well, yes, of course they did, but they were going to stick with their project of getting plastic bags out of dining halls, OK? He tried lobbying the university administrators to switch to wind power. Couldn't even get a meeting. Nothing made sense. Why was Al Gore spending a fortune to make a climate movie only to flinch at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth" and say, essentially, Just buy more efficient light bulbs? Almost nobody saw it — really saw it. WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY. There was only one possible endgame here if humans didn't stop burning fossil fuels, fast: global chaos, mass violence, miserable deaths.

Peter and Sharon's friends came over to meet and bless their baby, Braird, shortly after he was born in June 2006. All the guests went around the room offering wishes for the unborn child. When Peter's turn came, he said he hoped that his son didn't get shot at in climate-induced barbarity and that he did not starve.

Peter and Sharon rented a house with a big avocado tree when they moved to California, in 2008, for Peter's dream postdoc studying gravitational waves at CalTech. Braird was 2 and Sharon was nursing newborn Zane. Peter and Sharon had both come from families with four kids, and they didn't want Braird to be an only child — and having a child when you want one is also immeasurably wonderful, too wonderful, in this case, to give up. (They did later decide to forgo a third.) In Peter's first run at grassroots activism, he organized a climate protest with a friend. Only two people showed up. Peter joined Transition Pasadena, a community group dedicated to producing “a more resilient city and for living lighter on our Earth." He also said he tried pushing “to focus the group around global heating and climate breakdown," but the members, he said, wanted to talk about “gardening and city council meetings," not the apocalypse, so Peter and Transition Pasadena parted ways.

Four years into climate awakening and action, Peter felt he had accomplished nearly zero. One night, frustrated with inaction and disgusted with fossil fuel use, he sat at his computer and calculated the sources of all his own emissions so he could go about reducing them.

In the morning he presented Sharon with a pie chart.

This was one of those moments that both distorted and crystalized the scale problems inherent in addressing climate change, the personal and the planetary, the insignificant and the enormous, warping and reverberating as if modulated by a wah-wah pedal. Peter himself believed that you can't fix climate change with individual virtue any more than you can fix systemic racism that way. But he also knew, at some point, “You have to burn your ships on the beach," as Richard Reiss, a climate educator and fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College, put it. You need to commit, perhaps even create drama, and make real changes in your life.

By far the biggest wedge of the pie chart was Peter flying to scientific meetings and conferences. For the family, if Peter quit flying, it meant he'd be home more to help with the kids. Sharon reserved the right to keep flying if she wanted. Win-win.

Peter's second-largest source of emissions was food. So he started growing artichokes, eggplant, kale and squash, plus tending fruit trees, and that was great. Then he started composting — OK, that's great, too. He also started keeping bees and raising chickens, and soon raccoons and possums discovered the chickens and Peter began running outside in his underwear in the middle of the night when he heard the chickens scream. Baby chicks lived in the house, which the boys loved. Braird got stung by bees while Sharon was at a meditation retreat and it turned out Braird was allergic and he went into shock.

Next came dumpster diving (which eventually — and thankfully — morphed into an arrangement with Trader Joe's to pick up their unsellable food every other Sunday night). Peter's haul — “seven or eight boxes," according to Sharon; “three boxes," according to Peter — included dozens of eggs with only one broken. Flats of (mostly not moldy) strawberries. Bread past its sell-by date. Peter did his best to put things away before he fell asleep because waking up to the mess drove Sharon nuts. But … it was a lot. Low-carbon living was a lot.

They stopped using the gas dryer. They stopped shitting in the flush toilet and started practicing “humanure," composting their own crap. Sharon had lived with an outhouse in Mongolia, “so that was something I was used to," she said. Plus, to be honest, she liked the local, organic anti-capitalist politics of it. “Marx writes about this in 'Capital, Volume 1' that one of the reasons Europeans started to use chemical fertilizers is because people started to move into the cities and off of the land, … and people stopped pooping out in the countryside, so it became less fertile." The main problem, for Sharon, was that their bathroom was small and the composting toilet was inside. They used eucalyptus leaves to try to cover up the smell, but then little bits of leaves got all over the bathroom, too. After a while Peter moved the composting toilet outdoors. He also built an outdoor shower that Sharon found quite lovely, “rustic and California."

Sharon commiserated with a friend who was married to a priest. How do you have an equal marriage with a man who's trying to save the world? The priest's wife, too, found “it impossible for her to have any space for herself," Sharon said. “Because he was called by God to minister to people. When she tried to do her own thing, it wasn't as important as his." Motherhood was hard enough. Sharon wanted to write a novel. She wanted to write poetry. She wanted to go for a run, or even a walk, in peace. “His dreams were so much more heroic and important that I had to sort of, I don't know," she said. “I had to go along with it."

The most trying component of the low-carbon experiment for Sharon was the 1985 Mercedes that Peter converted to biodiesel. Maeby, as Sharon hate-named the car — as in Maeby we'll get there, Maeby we won't — arrived in their lives in 2011, just as Sharon was starting an English Ph.D. at UC Irvine and commuting 50 miles each way. Yes, they took family summer road trips to go camping and visit friends. But on the winter trips to visit their families in the Midwest, the grease coagulated in the cold, which made Maeby break down more. Some nights Sharon cried in the motel room, but “when it's daytime it all seemed better," she said. She talked about renting a car or even flying home but never did. Still, late one night on a very cold, dark and lonely Utah highway when Peter was under the broken-down car, and Braird and Zane were in the back seat, screaming, and Sharon was revving the engine at Peter's request — she started to wonder if she had Stockholm syndrome.

Sometimes, Sharon thought of Peter as being like “John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, crying out, 'Repent, repent!'" This was said with love but also annoyance. As Larissa MacFarquhar explored in her book “Strangers Drowning," extreme do-gooders often provoke us. We find them ridiculous, self-righteous, sometimes even perverse or narcissistic moralists for whom, MacFarquhar writes, “It is always wartime." Just figuring out how to raise children on the Earth, right now, presented so many existential questions. Peter often indulged in a half-joking zombie apocalypse mentality. He wanted to teach his boys to grow crops, to defend themselves, to fix things. “I do think we need to be talking about the collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions of people," he said.

When she was at her gloomiest, Sharon, too, felt scared to leave her sons on this planet, but she also called on her tight-lipped German upbringing to create a bubble of denialist peace. “Things you don't want to confront, just ignore it. Pretend it's not there," she said. Her “ethics of care," as she called it, involved encouraging the boys to take music lessons, read books and even meditate when she could persuade them to join her. She wanted to prepare her sons to be creative and resilient. If the planet was crumbling, they'd need rich interior lives.

Did Sharon want the boys to worry? “I don't know, I don't know," she said. That was the never-ending, urgent, timeless question. How much do we want our children to understand about the horrors of the world?

In 2012, Peter switched fields, from astrophysics to earth science, because he just couldn't stop obsessing. This meant backpedaling in his career, quitting the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, three founding members of which would go on to win the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Still, even his new job was a strange fit. Science itself — with its cultural terror of appearing biased — was a strange fit.

Peter had given up expecting emotional comfort. He'd given up on decorum. He had nightmares about being on planes. “The emissions, you know," he said. “It feels like the plane is flying on ground-up babies to me." Even the simplest decisions led him into deep philosophical rifts. The boys' music lessons, to Peter, seemed woefully, almost willfully anachronistic, a literal fiddling while Rome or Los Angeles burned.

Peter kept trying to figure out ways to make his voice heard. He organized climate cafes, modeled on death cafes, places for people to gather to share grief (Sharon did not attend). He started No Fly Climate Sci, a grassroots group of academic institutions and individual scientists committed to flying less. He kept writing, posting, organizing, talking. This was not always well received. Before the pandemic, Peter stood on the sidelines of Braird's soccer games when it was 113 degrees. “And I'd be telling the other parents: This is climate change," he said. “And, you know, they don't want to hear that during a soccer game. But I can't not do it. I can't."

WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY — Peter thought that all day, every day. “Here I am with a retirement account," Peter said. Did he need a retirement account? What was the world going to be like in 2060, when he was an old man? He'd been careful with himself not to become a doomer. Doomers, in his mind, were selfish. They'd given up on the greater good and retreated to their own bunkers, leaving the rest of us to burn. Still, despite Peter's commitment to keep working toward global change, Sharon found Peter's florid negativity distasteful at times. “There's almost like a pornographic fascination with 'Oh, I'm going to imagine just how bad everything is going to be,'" she said.

Sharon staged minor rebellions to maintain a sense of self — little stuff, like using lots of hot water when she did the dishes, and bigger stuff, like she stopped talking sometimes. Braird and Zane, too, each absorbed and reacted to Peter's passionate cri de coeur in their own ways. Zane, the younger one, started doing his own regular, Greta Thunberg-style climate strikes in front of city hall. Braird, the older, meanwhile, was entering his teens, differentiating and waxing nihilistic. When asked what he wanted to do with his future, Braird said, “What future?" When asked what he thought about climate change, he sunk a dagger into his father's heart like only a child can. Braird said, “I don't really think about it."

On the Tuesday evening after Labor Day, two days after the family returned from their infernal backpacking, Peter, still recovering from heat exhaustion, stood at the sink doing dishes. Braird played League of Legends on his bed. Sharon sat meditating, as she did from 7-8 p.m. each night. Then the emergency alerts blew up their phones. An evacuation warning, the Bobcat fire. The day before, in the ongoing horrible heat, they'd taped their windows shut against the smoke but they hadn't packed go bags. They never really believed their house would burn. The state was a climate warzone. Military helicopters had rescued 200 people trapped in a Sierra lake by the Creek fire, which had thrown up a plume of flames 50,000 feet. Cal Fire was predicting the Bobcat fire would not be contained for six weeks.

Sharon finished meditating. Then she started photographing all their stuff, including the insides of closets and drawers, because that's what insurance adjusters tell you to do: Document your property so you can make a stronger claim. Peter snapped. He didn't care about the pictures or the insurance. He just wanted to let the house incinerate. He felt done pretending that anything was normal, and he decided that now would be a good time to tell Sharon that he'd felt frustrated and gaslit by her all these years.

“WE NEVER EVEN TALK ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE! DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE?" he said. This did not go well.

She threw a laundry basket. “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME," she shouted. “Our entire lives are about climate change."

There it was, that gap we build around knowing and integrating, to protect our own lives and minds. Yet after the fight, after finally saying aloud what he'd been thinking for almost 15 years, Peter felt better. Not because anything was different. Nothing was different. The situation remained unshakably, cosmically wrong. The only reason to care about insurance, books, paintings, the house, was if you believed that there would be a stable planet on which to enjoy those things in 20 or 40 or 80 years. If you believe there'd be a “planet with seasons, where you can grow food and have water, and you can go outside without dying from heatstroke," Peter said. “I don't have that anymore, that sense of stability."

But he also knew, deep down, that Sharon could not, and should not, give that up. She was a more anxious person than he was. They both knew that. “For me to stay sane, there's only so much I can take," Sharon said. Earlier on the night of their big fight they'd watched “The Handmaid's Tale," as they did each Tuesday. Sharon often thought about the main character, June. “You have to moderate how you think. You have to think in little chunks, so you can endure, just like June does," she told me. “You have to make sacrifices so you can survive. If you can survive to fight another day, then maybe the right opportunity will present itself. You can't kill yourself well, you can. But that's not the option I want to take."

Maeby is now gone. Peter drives an electric car. The composting toilet remains outside, though Peter admits, “The other three family members are not interested in contributing at all." Peter's current project is making climate ads. Is this how he can tell the story of what is happening to the world in a way that will make people not just hear and retreat but act? He thinks about this all the time. How do you describe an intolerable problem in a way that listeners — even you, dear reader will truly let in?

All through October and November, the Bobcat fire continued to burn. It grew to 115,000 acres. Its 300-foot-high flames licked up against Mount Wilson Observatory, where scientists first proved the existence of a universe outside the Milky Way. The fire continued to burn well into December, when UN Secretary-General Ant nio Guterres urged, with middling effect, the nations of the world to declare a climate emergency. So far, 38 have done so. The United States is not one of them. In January, a team of 19 climate scientists published a paper, “Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future," that said, “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts." The language of this sentence could not be more dire. It makes the mind go numb.

So how, with our limited human minds, do we attend enough to make real progress? How do we not flinch and look away? The truth of what is happening shakes the foundations of our sense of self. It asserts a distorting gravity, bending our priorities and warping our whole lives. The overt denialists are easy villains, the monsters who look like monsters. But the rest of us, much of the time, wear pretty green masks over our self-interest and denial, and then go about our days. Then each morning we wake to a new headline like: The planet is dying faster than we thought."

While I was trying (and failing) to process it all, Peter called to make sure I understood the importance of a comment he'd made: He's no longer embarrassed to tell people he would die to keep the planet from overheating. He's left behind the solace of denial. He's well aware of the cost. What a luxury to feel that the ground we walk on and this planet that is rotating around the sun is in some sense OK."

Why restoring US water systems should be a top priority for Biden

The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water—and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.

Public Health

Let's begin with COVID-19. More than 16 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically, more than 300,000 have died due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least 2 million Americans are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? More than 13 million U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills—and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance—desperately needed—will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been grossly underfunded for decades.

A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that Congress must invest at least $50 billion "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.

Economic Recovery

Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs, depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over $174 billion on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over 1.5 million jobs nationwide."

After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, an analysis of ARRA "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.

Today, when considering how to create work for the 10.7 million people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.

Racial Justice

American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate $500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years—not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.

The 23,000-75,000 sewer overflows that occur each year release up to 10 billion gallons of toxic sewage every day into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been relegated to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or combined sewer overflows has gone unmitigated for decades.

We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice—particularly those of people most directly impacted—must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.

Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which was undermined by the Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.

Climate Resilience

Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. More than 100 climate-related catastrophes have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than 50 million people globally.

Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "Climate change is water change." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.

By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.

Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help mitigate climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.

The more than 3 million miles of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.

This article first appeared on Truthout and was produced in partnership with Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Katy Neusteter is the marketing director for American Rivers.

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