‘A foundation of racism’: California’s antiquated water rights system faces new scrutiny

Read the full story in the Los Angeles Times.

It’s an arcane system of water law that dates back to the birth of California — an era when 49ers used sluice boxes and water cannons to scour gold from Sierra Nevada foothills and when the state government promoted the extermination of Native people to make way for white settlers.

Today, this antiquated system of water rights still governs the use of the state’s supplies, but it is now drawing scrutiny like never before.

In the face of global warming and worsening cycles of drought, a growing number of water experts, lawmakers, environmental groups and tribes say the time has finally come for change. Some are pushing for a variety of reforms, while others are calling for the outright dismantling of California’s contentious water rights system.

Calls for reform were heightened recently when the environmental group Restore the Delta released an analysis that concluded that the people who make decisions about California’s water are overwhelmingly white and male.

A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species

Read the full story in Science News.

A global analysis of 385 culturally important plant and animal species found that 68 percent were both biologically vulnerable and at risk of losing their cultural protections, researchers report January 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings clearly illustrate that biology shouldn’t be the primary factor in shaping conservation policy, says cultural anthropologist Victoria Reyes-García. When a culture dwindles, the species that are important to that culture are also under threat. To be effective, more conservation efforts need to consider the vulnerability of both the species and the people that have historically cared for them, she says.

Justice40 Initiative: Mapping Race and Ethnicity—Updated

Download the report.

In February 2022, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released the beta version of their Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), which identifies environmentally and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities eligible for federal resources under the Justice40 initiative. Notably, the tool did not explicitly consider race and ethnic demographics when determining if a community qualifies for the Justice40 initiative. Using 2019 census data, previous Rhodium analysis of the beta tool found that over 50% of Hispanic/Latino, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native individuals reside in census tracts considered disadvantaged under the screening tool criteria.

On November 22, 2022, the final version (V1.0) of the CEJST was released. This version includes several new environmental and socioeconomic criteria which could establish eligibility for the Justice40 initiative. In this note, we update our analysis to include the criteria in the final version of the tool, and find that the number of communities eligible for benefits under the Justice40 initiative has increased overall. Further, we show that the final criteria dataset highlights the increased burden of compounding environmental, health, and socioeconomic barriers on Black, Hispanic/Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native communities. These communities make up 30% of the US population and 49% of the population of communities eligible for the Justice40 program, but they make up 60% of the population exceeding at least five threshold screening criteria in the tool and 71% of the population exceeding 10+ screening criteria.

US neighborhoods with more people of color suffer worse air pollution

Read the full story in The Guardian.

The Guardian worked with academics to analyze air pollution in the contiguous US at a neighborhood level and created a top 10 ranking of local areas breathing the worst air. And a new interactive map allows Americans to see the estimated pollution levels in their neighborhoods at an unprecedented level of detail.

The analysis, based on a model created by a team of researchers at institutions including the University of Washington, shows that the more people of color who live in a neighborhood, the higher the fine particulate air pollution levels are likely to be…

The Guardian’s map is based on a cutting-edge model developed by Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions (CACES), a multi-university research center partnered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The model estimates fine particulate air pollution, or PM2.5, at a far more local level than would otherwise be possible.

Groups sue to halt expansion of lakeside dump on Southeast Side

Read the full story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

A pair of Chicago organizations are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court over plans to expand a lakeside dump that holds toxic dredged materials from the Calumet River.

How much will we sacrifice for plastics?

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

A miracle material. A scourge on the earth. An unfortunate, but necessary, part of modern life. Whatever your perception of plastics, few materials evoke more collective ire

That vitriol and venom is usually directed at the downstream consequences: Dismal recycling rates; alarming pollution pileups in our lands and ocean; or the proliferation of microplastics — now so pervasive they can be found in human blood, lungs, breast milk and placenta

As it turns out, it’s rarely understood just how harmful downstream plastics are to our health (although mounting evidence and common sense leads me to believe eating a credit card’s worth of plastic every week can’t be good for us). 

What’s becoming evident is the often overlooked, underreported and devastating effects that plastics have on human health upstream. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — which spilled and burned the carcinogen vinyl chloride, a critical ingredient for certain hard plastic resins — is a top-of-mind example. 

While the long-term health implications of this particular accident are concerning but unknown, one thing is clear: Many chemicals and manufacturing processes required to make plastics are toxic to life. 

A new strategy for western states to adapt to long-term drought: Customized water pricing

Prompts like this sign in Coalinga, California, may get people to use less water – but paying them could be more effective. Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

by Matthew E. Kahn, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Bhaskar Krishnamachari, University of Southern California

Even after heavy snow and rainfall in January, western states still face an ongoing drought risk that is likely to grow worse thanks to climate change. A whopping snowpack is good news, but it doesn’t reduce the need for long-term planning.

Confronted with a shrinking supply of water for agriculture, industry and residential uses, water agencies have pursued different strategies to encourage water conservation. They have nudged customers to reduce water use, limited outdoor watering and offered incentives to rip out lawns. On the supply side, there are innovative ideas about using heavy rains to recharge groundwater.

Basic economics teaches us that a higher price for water would encourage conservation. Up until now, however, concerns about harming low-income households have limited discussions about raising water prices to reduce demand.

We know that it’s hard to pay more for essential goods such as food, energy and water, especially for lower-income households. Rather than raising everyone’s water prices, we propose a customized approach that lets individual consumers decide whether to pay higher prices.

In August 2022, the federal government declared an unprecedented drought emergency on the Colorado River and ordered Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to sharply reduce their water usage.

Who is most able and willing to conserve?

One of the most common challenges involved in making markets work well is what economists call asymmetric information – when one party has more access to relevant information than the other party. Think about buying or selling a car before online tools like Carfax were available. Owners and dealers knew more about what each car was really worth, so they had greater bargaining power than buyers.

The West has millions of water users with a broad range of incomes who consume water at widely varying levels. These consumers, including urban households, businesses and farmers, know more than water agencies do about how readily they can conserve water.

For example, a person who owns a home with a large green lawn and who is conservation-minded may need only a small incentive to switch to native, low-water plants. Some farmers may need only a small incentive to replace water-intensive alfalfa production with a less water-intensive crop.

Water agencies could elicit this private information by making a “take it or leave it” offer to water consumers. Some of California’s electric utilities have already experimented with this opt-in approach to encourage energy conservation.

A large house with a pool, bordered by brown dirt
Water officials in the Las Vegas area want to cap the size of new swimming pools like this one at a home abutting desert land in Henderson, Nev. AP Photo/John Locher

Target the big users

Every western water district has access to customer-level big data on monthly and even daily water consumption. Agencies could use this information to identify the top 10% of water consumers in their territories, based on volume used – like the household in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles that used 11.8 million gallons of water in 2014.

Water agencies could randomly select customers among the largest water users in their service areas to participate in a small pilot study. Each invitee would receive an opt-in contract offering to pay them an annual fee for enrolling for three years in a water conservation program. In return, the price the consumer paid for each gallon of water would triple. This approach would give the consumer a guaranteed payment for participating and a clear incentive to use less water.

Data scientists would collect information on who accepted the offer and could survey invitees to learn how they decided whether or not to participate. Combining these two data sets would make it possible to test hypotheses about which factors determined willingness to accept the opt-in offer.

Using customer-level water consumption data over time, water agencies could track usage and compare customers who participated in the price increase program with others who turned down the offer. This would make it possible to estimate the water conservation benefits of introducing customized water prices.

There are many different ways in which water users could cut back, including swapping out old appliances or watering their gardens less often. Farmers could install more efficient irrigation systems. Customers who chose the payment in return for higher prices would decide which conservation strategies worked best for them.

Children use an open-air shower at a public beach.
In 2015, California temporarily shut off showers at state beaches to conserve water, a strategy that mainly affected less affluent households. Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Big potential insights

Conducting a pilot study using a randomly chosen sample of high-usage customers is a low-stakes strategy. If it fails to promote water conservation at a low cost, then a valuable lesson has been learned. If it succeeds, the same opt-in offer could be made to more high-usage customers.

Water agencies would need funds to support the pilot study, possibly from state or federal sources. Since pumping, treating and heating water uses energy, and thus creates greenhouse gas emissions, funds from the Inflation Reduction Act might be an option. Successful water conservation would help to slow climate change.

A farmer in California’s Central Valley explains how he started directing floodwaters onto his fields in wet years to recharge groundwater and buffer his lands against dry years.

Today, most water agencies don’t know how responsive individual customers would be to higher prices. By conducting the type of pilot study that we have described, agencies could answer that question without raising prices for vulnerable households. If such initiatives succeeded, they could be replicated in other drought-prone areas of the West. Since farms consume the largest share of water in western states, it is especially important to learn more about farmers’ willingness to conserve.

Water is essential for life, but westerners have different abilities and willingness to conserve it. We recommend a strategy that rewards those who are most able to reduce their usage without punishing those who are least able.

Matthew E. Kahn, Provost Professor of Economics and Spatial Sciences, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Southern California

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

California keeps sending toxic soil to out-of-state landfills — Newsom and legislators are slow to change course

Read the full story at Cal Matters.

California sends toxic soil to landfills in Utah and Arizona, including sites near Native American reservations. Will lawmakers step in to keep the waste in state?

EPA Request for information: Inflation Reduction Act Environmental and Climate Justice Program

On February 9, 2023, EPA issued a Request for Information for public input on new and innovative strategies and approaches for competition design, community engagement, equitable distribution of financial resources, grantee eligibility for funding, capacity-building and outreach, and technical assistance.

EPA is seeking public input on multiple aspects of the ECJ Program including, but not limited to:

  • ECJ Program Design
  • Types of Projects to Fund
  • Reducing Application Barriers
  • Reporting and Oversight
  • Technical Assistance

Responses must be received by March 17, 2023.

Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program

Applications due by May 31st, 2023.
More information and to apply.

Approximately $550 million is available to select approximately 11 eligible entities to become Grantmakers. Grantmakers will design competitive application and submission processes, award environmental justice subgrants, implement a tracking and reporting system, provide resources and support to communities, all in collaboration with EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The EJ TCGM program was created to reduce barriers to the application process and increase the efficiency of the awards process for environmental justice grants. 

This competition is being launched in order to meet the goals and objectives of two Executive Orders (EO 14008 and EO 13985) issued by the Biden Administration that demonstrate the EPA’s and Administration’s commitment to achieving environmental justice and embedding environmental justice into Agency programs. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act created the Environmental and Climate Justice block grant program in section 138 of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and provided EPA with $2.8 billion in grant funding for the program for projects to benefit communities with environmental justice concerns.

Review the EJ TCGM Request for Applications for specific guidance and eligible project examples

This RFA is not for applicants to apply for an EJ Small Grant directly from EPA. This RFA is a competition to select the pass-through entities who will manage their own EJ Thriving Communities Subgrants program in collaboration with EPA over the next 3 years. Those applicants seeking funds to conduct a community project in a specific community may not apply to this competition.

To apply for this opportunity, view the RFA on Grants.gov.  Applications packages must be submitted on or before May 31st, 2023 at 11:59 PM (Eastern Time). 

For more information, please contact Jacob Burney and view the Informational Video on the Environmental and Climate Justice Communities Grants Program.

Applicants are invited to participate in a webinar with EPA to address questions about the EJ TCGM Program and this solicitation. A recording of the webinar will be posted in this section for those who cannot attend the live webinars and for reference purposes when preparing applications.

March 16, 2023
2:00 – 4:00 pm Eastern

Register and Join ZoomGov Meeting