Steve Jobs: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

This is the best college commencement address I’ve ever heard, given at Stanford in 2005. It’s all the more remarkable coming from a man who never graduated from college, Steve Jobs.

He recounts three brief stories of failure in his life: his decision to drop out of college, getting canned by the Apple board, and his near-death experience coping with a rare pancreatic tumor.

As he explains, each of these humbling experiences turned out to be a tremendous learning experience, altering his course in life and deepening his understanding of himself.

This is well worth 15 minutes of your time.

Last Day for Early-Bird Celtic Festival Tickets

Today is the last day to buy Early-Bird Tickets for the Celtic Festival in October.

Click image below to buy them now.

Here’s a group you can see firsthand at this year’s festival: Leahy.

Like many of the groups featured at the festival, they pass my “goose pimple” test.

Dave Comstock: “Ruminations of an Accidental Historian” (video)

Thanks to John Munro of jmDigitalStudio for sending me the links to the video (in 6 parts) which he recorded of Dave Comstock’s recent talk at the Nevada County Historical Society. Dave called his talk “Ruminations of an Accidental Historian.”

“Captain Reinette” Honored at Nevada City Council Meeting

A surprise, unscheduled event at tonight’s Nevada City Council meeting was the honoring of Reinette Senum for her zealous work as Mayor.

She is presented with a “Captain Reinette” cartoon by R.L. Crabb, here:

BOS: “We Need to Go Forward With This, Guys, Even Though … “

The most interesting unfinished sentence I’ve heard this year was spoken by Nate Beason at the June 22nd Board of Supervisor’s meeting after asking if anyone would like to second the motion to consider Blue Lead’s appeal of the May 27th Planning Commission decision to deny their application for vested right to mine.

After a long silence in which no one offered to second the motion, a brief exchange ensued in which the supervisors wondered what would happen if no second was forthcoming.

“The motion will just die,” someone offered.

Finally, Nate Beason said:

“I think we need to go forward with this, guys … for good legal reasons, even though … “

He didn’t finish that sentence, leaving us to wonder “even though”  …  what?

Was he thinking “even though the case is so weak on its merits.”

Finally, Nate himself seconded the motion to hear the appeal on August 10th at 1:30 PM, and a unanimous vote carried it.

If this is palpable hesitation, then it’s a sign of good, sound thinking on the part of the supervisors.

See the video of this brief exchange at Granicus here (select agenda item #48):

Michael Klare: “BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come”

Reprinted with permission from

Four Scenarios for the Next Energy Mega-Disaster

by Michael Klare
On June 15th, in their testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the chief executives of America’s leading oil companies argued that BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an aberration — something that would not have occurred with proper corporate oversight and will not happen again once proper safeguards are put in place.  This is fallacious, if not an outright lie.  The Deep Horizon explosion was the inevitable result of a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper and more hazardous locations.  In fact, as long as the industry continues its relentless, reckless pursuit of “extreme energy” — oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium obtained from geologically, environmentally, and politically unsafe areas — more such calamities are destined to occur.

At the onset of the modern industrial era, basic fuels were easy to obtain from large, near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and friendly locations.  The rise of the automobile and the spread of suburbia, for example, were made possible by the availability of cheap and abundant oil from large reservoirs in California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and from the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  But these and equivalent deposits of coal, gas, and uranium have been depleted.  This means the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly relies on supplies obtained from risky locations — deep underground, far at sea, north of the Arctic circle, in complex geological formations, or in unsafe political environments.  That guarantees the equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf-oil-spill-style disasters in our energy future.

Back in 2005, the CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, put the situation about as bluntly as an oil executive could. “One thing is clear,” he said, “the era of easy oil is over.  Demand is soaring like never before… At the same time, many of the world’s oil and gas fields are maturing.  And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”

O’Reilly promised then that his firm, like the other energy giants, would do whatever it took to secure this “difficult energy” to satisfy rising global demand.  And he proved a man of his word.  As a result, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and the rest of the energy giants launched a drive to obtain traditional fuels from hazardous locations, setting the stage for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and those sure to follow.  As long as the industry stays on this course, rather than undertaking the transition to an alternative energy future, more such catastrophes are inevitable, no matter how sophisticated the technology or scrupulous the oversight.

The only question is:  What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)?  The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities.  None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.

Scenario 1: Newfoundland — Hibernia Platform Destroyed by Iceberg

Approximately 190 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in what locals call “Iceberg Alley” sits the Hibernia oil platform, the world’s largest offshore drilling facility.  Built at a cost of some $5 billion, Hibernia consists of a 37,000-ton “topsides” facility mounted on a 600,000-ton steel-and-concrete gravity base structure (GBS) resting on the ocean floor, some 260 feet below the surface.  This mammoth facility, normally manned by 185 crew members, produces about 135,000 barrels of oil per day.  Four companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murphy Oil, and Statoil) plus the government of Canada participate in the joint venture established to operate the platform.

The Hibernia platform is reinforced to withstand a direct impact by one of the icebergs that regularly sail through this stretch of water, located just a few hundred miles from where the Titanic infamously hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.  Sixteen giant steel ribs protrude from the GBS, positioned in such a way as to absorb the blow of an iceberg and distribute it over the entire structure.  However, the GBS itself is hollow, and contains a storage container for 1.3 million barrels of crude oil — about five times the amount released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The owners of the Hibernia platform insist that the design will withstand a blow from even the largest iceberg.  As global warming advances and the Greenland glaciers melt, however, massive chunks of ice will be sent floating into the North Atlantic on a path past Hibernia.  Add increased storm activity (another effect of global warming) to an increase in iceberg frequency and you have a formula for overwhelming the Hibernia’s defenses.

Here’s the scenario:  It’s the stormy winter of 2018, not an uncommon situation in the North Atlantic at that time of year.  Winds exceed 80 miles per hour, visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter planes are grounded.  Towering waves rise to heights of 50 feet or more, leaving harbor-bound the giant tugs the Hibernia’s owners use to nudge icebergs from the platform’s path.  Evacuation of the crew by ship or helicopter is impossible.

Without warning, a gigantic, storm-propelled iceberg strikes the Hibernia, rupturing the GBS and spilling more than one million barrels of oil into rough waters.  The topside facility is severed from the base structure and plunges into the ocean, killing all 185 crew members.  Every connection to the undersea wells is ruptured, and 135,000 barrels of oil start flowing into the Atlantic every day (approximately twice the amount now coming from the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico).  The area is impossible to reach by plane or ship in the constant bad weather, meaning emergency repairs can’t be undertaken for weeks — not until at least five million additional barrels of oil have poured into the ocean.  As a result, one of the world’s most prolific fishing grounds — the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Cape Cod — is thoroughly poisoned.

Does this sound extreme?  Think again.  On February 15, 1982, a giant drillship, the Ocean Ranger (the “Ocean Danger” to its habitués), was operating in the very spot Hibernia now occupies when it was struck by 50-foot waves in a storm and sank, taking the lives of 84 crew members.  Because no drilling was under way at the time, there were no environmental consequences, but the loss of the Ocean Ranger — a vessel very much like the Deepwater Horizon — should be a reminder of just how vulnerable otherwise strong structures can be to the North Atlantic’s winter fury.

Scenario 2: Nigeria — America’s Oil Quagmire

Nigeria is now America’s fifth leading supplier of oil (after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela).  Long worried about the possibility that political turmoil in the Middle East might diminish the oil flow from Saudi Arabia just as Mexico’s major fields were reaching a state of depletion, American officials have worked hard to increase Nigerian imports.  However, most of that country’s oil comes from the troubled Niger Delta region, whose impoverished residents receive few benefits but all of the environmental damage from the oil extraction there.  As a result, they have taken up arms in a bid for a greater share of the revenues the Nigerian government collects from the foreign energy companies doing the drilling.  Leading this drive is the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), a ragtag guerrilla group that has demonstrated remarkable success in disrupting oil company operations.

Buy the Book

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) rates Nigeria’s innate oil-production capacity at about 2.7 million barrels per day.  Thanks to insurgent activity in the Delta, however, actual output has fallen significantly below this.  “Since December 2005, Nigeria has experienced increased pipeline vandalism, kidnappings, and militant takeovers of oil facilities in the Niger Delta,” the department reported in May 2009.  “[K]idnappings of oil workers for ransom are common and security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of the country.”

Washington views the insurgency as a threat to America’s “energy security,” and so a reason for aiding the Nigerian military.  “Disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S. oil security,” the State Department noted in 2006.  In August 2009, on a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised even more military aid for oil protection purposes.

Here, then, is scenario #2:  It’s 2013.  The Delta insurgency has only grown, driving Nigeria’s oil output down to a third of its capacity.  Global oil demand is substantially higher and rising, while production slips everywhere.  Gasoline prices have reached $5 per gallon in the U.S. with no end in sight, and the economy seems headed toward yet another deep recession.

The barely functioning civilian government in Abuja, the capital, is overthrown by a Muslim-dominated military junta that promises to impose order and restore the oil flow in the Delta.  Some Christian elements of the military promptly defect, joining MEND.  Oil facilities across the country are suddenly under attack; oil pipelines are bombed, while foreign oil workers are kidnapped or killed in record numbers.  The foreign oil companies running the show begin to shut down operations.  Global oil prices go through the roof.

When a dozen American oil workers are executed and a like number held hostage by a newly announced rebel group, the president addresses the nation from the Oval Office, declares that U.S. energy security is at risk, and sends 20,000 Marines and Army troops into the Delta to join the Special Operations forces already there.  Major port facilities are quickly secured, but the American expeditionary force soon finds itself literally in an oil quagmire, an almostunimaginable landscape of oil spills in which they find themselves fighting a set of interlocked insurgencies that show no sign of fading.  Casualties rise as they attempt to protect far-flung pipelines in an impenetrable swamp not unlike the Mekong Delta of Vietnam War fame.

Sound implausible?  Consider this: in May 2008, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Command conducted a crisis simulation at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that involved precisely such a scenario, also set in 2013.  The simulation, “Unified Quest 2008,” was linked to the formation of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the new combat organization established by President Bush in February 2007 to oversee American military operations in Africa.  An oil-related crisis in Nigeria, it was suggested, represented one of the more likely scenarios for intervention by U.S. forces assigned to Africom.  Although the exercise did not explicitly endorse a military move of this sort, it left little doubt that such a response would be Washington’s only practical choice.

Scenario 3: Brazil — Cyclone Hits “Pre-Salt” Oil Rigs

In November 2007, Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras), announced a remarkable discovery: in a tract of the South Atlantic some 180 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, it had found a giant oil reservoir buried beneath a mile and a half of water and a thick layer of salt.  Called “pre-salt” oil because of its unique geological positioning, the deposit was estimated to hold 8 to 12 billion barrels of oil, making this the biggest discovery in the Western Hemisphere in 40 years.  Further test drilling by Petrobras and its partners revealed that the initial find — at a field called Tupi — was linked to other deepwater “pre-salt” reservoirs, bringing the total offshore potential to 50 billion barrels or more.  (To put that in perspective, Saudi Arabia is believed to possess reserves of 264 billion barrels and the United States, 30 billion.)

With this discovery, Brazil could “jump from an intermediate producer to among the world’s largest producers,” said Dilma Rousseff, chief cabinet official under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and thought to be his most likely successor.  To ensure that the Brazilian state exercises ultimate control over the development of these reservoirs, President da Silva — “Lula,” as he is widely known — and Rousseff have introduced legislation in the Brazilian Congress giving Petrobras control over all new fields in the basin.  In addition, Lula has proposed that profits from the pre-salt fields be channeled into a new social fund to alleviate poverty and underdevelopment in the country.  All this has given the government a huge stake in the accelerated development of the pre-salt fields.

Extracting oil a mile and half under the water and from beneath two-and-a-half miles of shifting sand and salt will, however, require the utilization of technology even more advanced than that employed on the Deepwater Horizon.  In addition, the pre-salt fields are interspersed with layers of high-pressure gas (as appears to have been the case in the Gulf), increasing the risk of a blow-out.  Brazil does not experience hurricanes as does the Gulf of Mexico, but in 2004, its coastline was ravaged by a surprise subtropical cyclone that achieved hurricane strength.  Some climatologists believe that hurricane-like storms of this sort, once largely unknown in the South Atlantic, will become more common as global warming only increases.

Which brings us to scenario #3: It’s 2020, by which time the pre-salt area off Rio will be host to hundreds of deepwater drilling rigs.  Imagine, then, a subtropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds and massive waves that suddenly strikes this area, toppling dozens of the rigs and damaging most of the others, wiping out in a matter of hours an investment of over $200 billion.  Given a few days warning, most of the crews of these platforms have been evacuated.  Freak winds, however, down several helicopters, killing some 50 oil workers and flight crew members.  Adding to the horror, attempts to seal so many undersea wells at such depths fail, and oil in historically unprecedented quantities begins gushing into the South Atlantic.  As the cyclone grows to full strength, giant waves carry the oil inexorably toward shore.

Since the storm-driven assault cannot be stopped, Rio de Janeiro’s famous snow-white beaches are soon blanketed in a layer of sticky black petroleum, and in a matter of weeks, parts of Brazil’s coastal waters have become a “dead ocean.”  Clean-up efforts, when finally initiated, prove exceedingly difficult and costly, adding immeasurably to the financial burden of the Brazilian state, now saddled with a broken and bankrupt Petrobras.  Meanwhile, the struggle to seal all the leaking pre-salt wells in the deep Atlantic proves a Herculean task as, month after month, oil continues to gush into the Atlantic.

Scenario 4: East China Sea — A Clash Over Subsea Gas

At one time, most wars between states were fought over disputed borders or contested pieces of land.  Today, most boundaries are fixed by international treaty and few wars are fought over territory.  But a new type of conflict is arising: contests over disputed maritime boundaries in areas that harbor valuable subsea resources, particularly oil and natural gas deposits.  Such disputes have already occurred in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the East and South China Seas, and other circumscribed bodies of water.  In each case, the surrounding states claim vast offshore tracts that overlap, producing — in a world that may be increasingly starved for energy — potentially explosive disputes.

One of them is between China and Japan over their mutual boundary in the East China Sea.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries have signed, each is allowed to exercise control over an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles (about 230 standard miles) from its coastline.  But the East China Sea is only about 360 miles across at its widest point between the two countries.  You see the problem.

In addition, the U.N. convention allows mainland states to claim an extended EEZ stretching to their outer continental shelf (OCS).  In China’s case, that means nearly all the way to Japan — or so say the Chinese.  Japan insists that the offshore boundary between the two countries should fall midway between them, or about 180 miles from either shore.  This means that there are now two competing boundaries in the East China Sea.  As fate would have it, in the gray area between them houses a promising natural gas field called Chunxiao by the Chinese and Shirakaba by the Japanese.  Both countries claim that the field lies within their EEZ, and is theirs alone to exploit.

For years, Chinese and Japanese officials have been meeting to resolve this dispute — to no avail.  In the meantime, each side has taken steps to begin the exploitation of the undersea gas field.  China has installed drilling rigs right up to the median line claimed by Japan as the boundary between them and is now drilling for gas there; Japan has conducted seismic surveys in the gray area between the two lines.  China claims that Japan’s actions represent an illegal infringement; Japan says that the Chinese rigs are sucking up gas from the Japanese side of the median line, and so stealing their property.  Each side sees this dispute through a highly nationalistic prism and appears unwilling to back down.  Both sides have deployed military forces in the contested area, seeking to demonstrate their resolve to prevail in the dispute.

Here, then, is Scenario #4:  It’s 2022.  Successive attempts to resolve the boundary dispute through negotiations have failed.  China has installed a string of drilling platforms along the median line claimed by Japan and, according to Japanese officials, has extended undersea drill pipes deep into Japanese territory.  An ultra-nationalistic, right-wing government has taken power in Japan, vowing finally to assert control over Japanese sovereign territory.  Japanese drill ships, accompanied by naval escorts and fighter planes, are sent into the area claimed by China.  The Chinese respond with their warships and order the Japanese to withdraw.  The two fleets converge and begin to target each other with guns, missiles, and torpedoes.

At this point, the “fog of war” (in strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous phrase) takes over.  As a Chinese vessel steams perilously close to a Japanese ship in an attempt to drive it off, the captain of that vessel panics, and orders his crew to open fire; other Japanese crews, disobeying orders from superior officers, do the same.  Before long, a full-scale naval battle ensues, with several sunken ships and hundreds of casualties.  Japanese aircraft then attack the nearby Chinese drill rigs, producing hundreds of additional casualties and yet another deep-sea environmental disaster.  At this point, with both sides bringing in reinforcements and girding for full-scale war, the U.S. president makes an emergency visit to the region in a desperate effort to negotiate a cease-fire.

Such a scenario is hardly implausible.  Since September 2005, China has deployed a naval squadron in the East China Sea, sending its ships right up to the median line — a boundary that exists in Japanese documents, but is not, of course, visible to the naked eye (and so can be easily overstepped).  On one occasion, Japanese naval aircraft flew close to a Chinese ship in what must have seemed a menacing fashion, leading the crew to train its antiaircraft guns on the approaching plane.  Fortunately, no shots were fired.  But what would have happened if the Japanese plane had come a little bit closer, or the Chinese captain was a bit more worried?  One of these days, as those gas supplies become even more valuable and the hair-trigger quality of the situation increases, the outcome may not be so benign.

These are, of course, only a few examples of why, in a world ever more reliant on energy supplies acquired from remote and hazardous locations, BP-like catastrophes are sure to occur.  While none of these specific calamities are guaranteed to happen, something like them surely will — unless we take dramatic steps now to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and speed the transition to a post-carbon world.  In such a world, most of our energy would come from renewable wind, solar, and geothermal sources that are commonplace and don’t have to be tracked down a mile or more under the water or in the icebound north.  Such resources generally would not be linked to the sort of disputed boundaries or borderlands that can produce future resource wars.

Until then, prepare yourselves.  The disaster in the Gulf is no anomaly.  It’s an arrow pointing toward future nightmares.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet.  A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.  To catch him discussing our dystopian energy future on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, click here.

Copyright 2010 Michael T. Klare

APPLE: Peak Oil in 30 Minutes Flat

Download a PDF (724kB – 32 slides) of the presentation by clicking the image below. Not included in the PDF, but shown here below it, is a seven minute video clip from “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”. We show the video clip as a part of the presentation – it’s one of the best short video explanations of Peak Oil, what it means, and why it’s important, that we’ve ever seen.

Can You Ignite Your Tapwater with a Match?


What is it?

Rush Limbaugh’s hometown?

No, it’s a new documentary film about America since the beginning of the natural gas drilling boom started in 2005.

Check this excerpt from the press release about the film:

When filmmaker Josh Fox discovers that Natural Gas drilling is coming to his area—the Catskills/Poconos region of Upstate New York and Pennsylvania — he sets off on a 24 state journey to uncover the deep consequences of the United States’ natural gas drilling boom. What he uncovers is truly shocking—water that can be lit on fire right out of the sink, chronically ill residents of drilling areas from disparate locations in the US all with the same mysterious symptoms, huge pools of toxic waste that kill cattle and vegetation well blowouts and huge gas explosions consistently covered up by state and federal regulatory agencies.

Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown, Josh and his banjo encounter EPA whistleblowers, congressmen, world recognized scientists, and some of the most incredibly inspiring and heart-wrenching stories of ordinary Americans fighting against fossil fuel giants for environmental justice.

A major upswing in production took place in 2005 when the Congress and the Bush Administration exempted the industry and its new process of drilling, “Hydraulic Fracturing” from the Safe Drinking Water Act and many of our primary environmental protection laws. While the PR campaign for the Natural Gas industry promotes its product as “clean burning” it hides the fact that the new form of drilling, pioneered by Halliburton, is incredibly harmful to our environment and threatens to permanently contaminate a huge amount of the country’s water supply, create drastic air pollution conditions, and despoil huge areas. Despite overwhelming evidence of contamination, mismanagement and corruption, the general public remains unaware of the extreme effect the drilling may have on their lives.

Here’s the trailer for the film, which is showing on HBO on June 21st:

My Letter to the BOS RE: Blue Lead’s Appeal

The following is the text of my letter today to all five members of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors:

Dear Supervisors:

I urge you to reject the appeal by Blue Lead Mine LLC asking you to reverse the unanimous May 27th Planning Commission decision to deny them the vested right to mine.

By rejecting Blue Lead’s absurdly weak application, you will be supporting reasonable standards for evidence and you will be affirming the integrity of the Planning Commission’s process. By rejecting Blue Lead, you will be supporting legitimate claims of vested rights.

Strict and consistent evidentiary standards balance individual property rights with community needs, and preserve the community’s faith in the integrity of the process.

When you reject this appeal, Blue Lead will still be entitled to seek standard county mining permits.

In other recent decisions of planning commissions affirming the vested right to mine (such as the Devil’s Corral case in Lassen County) two conditions were present that are not present in the case of Blue Lead: (1) the documentation for an ongoing enterprise was concrete and incontrovertible and (2) the county’s own staff research supported the case for vesting.

In the case of Blue Lead, on the other hand, the proffered “evidence” would be laughable if it hadn’t already seriously consumed so much of the county’s time and manpower resources. Second, the Planning Commission and its staff, after months spent considering Blue Lead’s application for vested rights, both unanimously opposed it.

The process has taken months primarily because Blue Lead’s attorney skillfully represented a very simple matter as complex.

The simple truth is that there’s no plausible evidence to support the claim of vesting. Undated photos of old equipment, dated photos not of the subject site, and undocumented speculation about the activities of non-property-owner Lyle White do not constitute actual evidence by any stretch of the imagination.

Blue Lead offers you speculation, and asks you to accept it as evidence.

It’s also the simple truth that Lyle White was working full-time as a typesetter at The Union in October of 1954 (when permits were first required) and spending his spare time (according to his own report) tending to the Red Dog Cemetery, precisely at the time that Blue Lead’s attorney now asks you to believe that White was conducting an ongoing mining enterprise on the subject property. White simply lived too far away and was too busy to have plausibly done any such thing.

Everything you need to know is contained in the Planning Commission staff analysis at:

… and in historian David Comstock’s six-minute video testimony to the Planning Commission about Lyle White, here:

You may also see my series of articles (seventeen so far) on Blue Lead’s vesting claim at:

I urge you to reject Blue Lead’s appeal, and by that action affirm Nevada County’s high standards for vesting, and the integrity of its process. To do otherwise would be an insult to all miners who have worked hard and sweated to develop and preserve their legitimate property rights.

Blue Lead will still be entitled to seek standard mining permits.


Don Pelton
Editor, “Sierra Voices” (

If you’d like to write to the supervisors and express your opinion on this matter, you may use the following email addresses:,,,,

Restoring California’s Wild Watersheds (Reprint from Yes!)

Published by Yes! Magazine May 27, 2010

Why more water for wildlife means more water for people.

by Jane Braxton Little

Jim Wilcox is sitting on a rock near a quarter-acre pond watching a pair of willow flycatchers flit in and out of the brush across the water. The 15-inch rainbow trout he spied a week ago does not flash on this summer morning, but Wilcox knows it’s down there somewhere beneath the surface.

He allows himself a small smile. Three years ago his pond-side perch was in the middle of a sagebrush field high in the headwaters of California’s Feather River, 170 miles northeast of Sacramento. Red Clover Creek trickled through in a braided network of rutted gullies.

A century of logging, road-building, and intensive overgrazing had reduced this and other meadows throughout the Sierra Nevada to baked and barren flats. Today the stream meanders through a meadow lush with native grasses and small ponds.

Photo by Jane Braxton Little (reprinted with permission)

Wilcox, a former logger, is part of a 25-year effort to restore all of the meadows within the upper Feather River basin, an area larger than Delaware. As program manager for the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management group, he works with ranchers, timber owners, anglers, and federal and state agency officials—anyone who shares an interest in improving the land and the water that cascades down to the Sacramento Valley and the delta that empties into San Francisco Bay. At a time when climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on water supplies, these mountain meadows may be a first step in preserving both the environment and the economy. Restoring them helps revitalize the watershed and wildlife, and it also helps sustain the downstream farms, ranches, towns, and cities that depend on the alpine water.

Water, after all, delivers most of the effects of global warming: melting icebergs, rising sea levels, lower stream flows, reduced snowpacks, and increased tropical storms. Throughout the American West, communities, cities, and entire state economies have relied on mountain snowpacks, which replenish the streams that feed water supplies. Now, as climate change is altering historic snowfall patterns, land managers are turning to meadows to help reduce the effects of a warming planet.

Nature’s Reservoirs

Mountain meadows store water, acting as natural reservoirs that hold back floodwaters. By slowing the heavy spring flows and releasing them gradually over the dry summer months, healthy watersheds can increase the quantity of water available downstream.

In California, where agriculture is the economic mainstay, the impacts of climate change could be devastating. The Sierra Nevada snowpack supplies two-thirds of the state’s water needs. The Sierra’s 22 major river systems nourish farms and orchards in California’s Central Valley, which produces

Photo by Jane Braxton Little (reprinted with permission)

8 percent of the nation’s crops. Over the last century, however, late spring runoff has declined 25 percent. Scientists predict even more dramatic reductions over the next 90 years, as global warming restricts snowfall to the highest elevations. The timing of peak snowmelt throughout the range is already earlier and could occur a full two weeks sooner by the end of the century, according to climate scientists.

Scientists and land managers are launching innovative plans to maximize the storage capacity of meadows throughout the Sierras, which stretch 400 miles along the state border with Nevada. The most ambitious project involves nearly 300,000 acres of floodplains, an area about 20 times the size of Manhattan. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit created by Congress, is providing $15 million and coordination for work in as many as 20 Sierra Nevada watersheds over the next 10 years. Along with restoring fish and wildlife habitat, their goal is to continue delivering fresh water to the rest of the state.

“Everyone agrees that California will have less snow and more rain in coming decades. There is no doubt that water is the crisis here and now,” says Timothy Male, the foundation’s director of wildlife and habitat conservation.

The diminishing snowpack is likely to provoke more skirmishes in the statewide water wars that pit the north against the south, farmers against environmentalists, and rural interests against urban. The underlying problem is a demand for water that has outgrown today’s supplies, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Los Angeles Times. California, he said, is “sitting on a ticking time bomb, and you better get your act together, because otherwise the bomb’s going to go off.”

Making Up for Lost Snowpack

The Feather River watershed lies at the northern end of the Sierra range among its lower peaks. The impacts of diminishing snowpacks will take their toll here first, says Wilcox, who has lived in these mountains since the 1970s. The effects on the quantity and timing of the downstream flow will be dramatic, he says. That puts even more pressure on restoring meadows in the watershed that provides more than 5 percent of California’s freshwater supply.

Wilcox wasn’t thinking about climate change when he began working with the Feather River alliance 25 years ago. The group’s focus was on the erosion that was choking the river. Instead of conventional dredging of reservoirs and riverbeds, a handful of local entrepreneurs decided to try reducing the sediment buildup where it began: upstream in the tributary creeks and meadows.

In 1985, just before winter closed the roads, they built four small U-shaped rock and gravel dams in Red Clover Creek, 60 miles above a series of hydroelectric dams owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. The dams were designed to slow the water flow and trap in-stream sediment. That winter tested the experiment. The 20 inches of rain that fell in five days washed out century-old bridges and roads. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the dams not only survived; they also held back their share of sediment.

Emboldened by that success, the small coalition of county officials and businessmen expanded to include ranchers, environmentalists, and state and federal officials. Although many of them had been at odds over land management issues, they realized they could only heal the watershed if they cooperated. Wilcox had been a firsthand witness to stream dredging and other practices harmful to ranchlands and forests. A man more at home in a pickup truck than an office, he was eager to be a part of reversing the damage. “I believe in watershed restoration. It has always been in my bones,” he says. And that became the Feather River coalition’s goal: restoring entire meadows along with the creeks flowing through them.

Among the methods they have pioneered is a low-tech procedure known as “pond and plug.” Crews with heavy equipment dig several of the channels wider and deeper, creating small ponds. They use the excavated dirt to fill the remaining gullies back to the original ground level. Along Red Clover Creek, the groundwater began rising almost immediately after the crews finished plugging the channels. By the following spring the ponds were flush with the water that would otherwise have raced downstream in late winter. Above and below the pond where Wilcox sits, the creek has found its way across the meadow in a natural, meandering channel.

The Feather River group has completed 66 restoration projects, which include 3,900 acres of meadow and

44 miles of stream. Since the work began, the data from a series of permanent monitoring stations show that the flow out of restored meadows is greater and lasts longer into the summer. Water temperatures have dropped despite an increase in average air temperatures, and stream turbidity, a measure of the amount of dirt and debris suspended in the water, has decreased to almost half pre-project levels. Groundwater, which never reached the surface before the restoration work, is now consistently at or above ground level for at least part of the year.

From Water to Wildlife

The Feather River projects have inspired the much larger Sierra-wide meadow restoration coordinated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Private landowners, universities, local and national resource organizations, and the U.S. Forest Service are working together to design strategies that will raise the water table and slow the flow out of mountain meadows. In an area from the Pit River in the north to the Kern River in the south, they are evaluating potential projects to determine which will yield the maximum benefits to fish and wildlife and the greatest quantities of water. Their goal is to restore at least 20,000 acres a year by 2014, says Male.

“Nationwide, we’re looking for tangible actions that address the realities of climate change. This is one of the best examples in America of a restoration initiative that can directly help people and wildlife adapt to our changing planet,” Male says.

Leave it to Beavers? Nature's water engineers can restore river channels.

The plan, over the first five years, calls for restoring 60,000 acres of meadow. As the water table rises and meadows soak up more water from melting snows, native habitat lost for decades should return. Among the endangered species expected to benefit are the yellow warbler, Yosemite toad, Lahontan cutthroat and golden trout, Townsend’s big-eared bat, and the Sierra Nevada red fox.

But the effects of widespread meadow restoration will also flow downstream to farmers and other water users. The Forest Service manages about half of the Sierra’s degraded meadowlands. The agency is determining which of the 11,700 separate meadows in 10 national forests need to be restored. All are located on streams important for water supply, says Barry Hill, a regional hydrologist. Using foundation funds, the Forest Service hopes to determine the amount of additional water available for downstream use once the meadows return to health.

The Sierra projects are unique among large-scale water restoration efforts in the United States because of their potential to increase the amount of water available in a river system, says Male. Comprehensive efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, focus on improving the quality of water flows throughout the 64,000-square-mile region. In the Everglades, a wide-ranging plan to revive a dying ecosystem aims to improve the distribution of flows throughout 18,000 square miles in southern Florida. Along the lower Mississippi River and coastal Louisiana, the largest wetlands restoration effort is designed to reverse the pattern of land erosion by buffering against floods and hurricanes and, like all of the major projects, improving wildlife habitat.

Just how much more water healthy Sierra Nevada meadows can deliver is a matter of debate. Some scientists believe the boosts in stream flow may be absorbed by increases in vegetation in the new, restoration-created habitats. Others believe restoration could contribute up to 6.5 billion gallons of additional water storage throughout the California range. Over time, says Male, these restored meadows could hold 16 to 160 billion gallons of fresh water. That’s equal to the size of one of the new dams state officials have proposed for construction to offset the state’s declining snowpack.

Restoring mountain meadows will not solve California’s water crisis. That will take a collective commitment from the agriculture industry, from municipalities, and from everyone who depends on the Sierra snowmelt for their livelihoods and their lives. It will also require more political will than elected officials have traditionally marshaled. Wilcox believes the public recognizes the value of healthy watersheds. He is optimistic that stream restoration will become routine as more people understand its importance upstream and downstream.

Meanwhile, the benefits to wildlife are unequivocal. In the wet meadow surrounding Red Clover Creek, the number of waterfowl species has doubled since Wilcox and his crews completed the pond-and-plug project. He has seen buffleheads, gadwalls, and two species of teal breeding in early spring. Sandhill cranes, willow flycatchers and 10 other species on state and federal watch lists have returned to the area. Walking through Red Clover Valley from the pond, Wilcox bends down to study a clump of dancing hairgrass, one of a handful of plant types that have regenerated from seeds dormant in the soil for decades. He has yet to see elk but he has found their tracks—the first in the area in decades.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Jane Braxton Little wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Jane covers natural resource issues from California’s northern Sierra Nevada. Her work has appeared in Scientific AmericanNature Conservancy, and Audubon, where she is a contributing editor.


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