Bay-Deltal Tribunal Puts State and National Legal System on Trial: California’s Proposed Delta Tunnels Case to be Heard

“What would the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem say?” is the question a panel of judges will consider when examining a case brought before them in the first-ever Bay Area Rights of Nature Tribunal based on an international rights of nature tribunal held in Paris during the climate talks last December. It’s a question gaining ground as dozens of U.S. and international communities and a handful of countries have begun recognizing rights and legal standing for ecosystems as a new framework for environmental protection.

The tribunal will be held on April 30 at the Nick Rodriguez Community Center in Antioch, CA 9:30 AM-2 PM. (RSVP on Facebook here)

The case being brought before the tribunal address nature’s, community, and human rights violations presented by Governor Brown’s water policies, and particularly his proposed Twin Tunnel plan, which would significantly reduce flows needed for Delta waterways and fish. The tribunal is being put on by the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance (BARONA)—a network of organizations seeking to explore how recognizing legal standing for ecosystems can put new governance tools in the hands of communities.

In addition to detailing rights violations, Tribunal witnesses and experts will also offer solutions to water flow and economic development challenges that protect, not injure, human and nature’s rights. “We are pleased to work with BARONA to make the case for the San Francisco Bay-Delta,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director for Restore the Delta, a group that has been working to fight the governor’s plan and support sound water alternatives.“The Delta is an imperiled national treasure — a home for wildlife, fisheries, and human culture. After 30 years of over-pumping, the Delta Tunnels proposal would complete the destruction of the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. Those who view the Delta as simply another water source to be drained are in for a fight. The people and wildlife of the Delta will not be erased.”

“The proposed project not only violate nature’s rights and human rights, but also illustrates that our laws legalize such harms,” adds Linda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center. “This Tribunal is about confronting a system of laws that places people and nature in harm’s way, and demonstrating a new way forward.”

Judges for the tribunal include: renowned eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, governmental liaison for the Winnemem Wintu tribe Gary Mulcahy, Movement Rights director, Shannon Biggs and others to be confirmed.

Rights of nature is a global movement that has been named one of the Top Ten Grassroots Movements Taking on the World by Shift Magazine. International Tribunals in Paris, Lima and Quito have recognized nature’s rights, as has the Pope and other leading figures. “Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that the ecosystem—in this case the Delta itself—is a rights-bearing entity,” concluded Shannon Biggs, Director of Movement Rights, a group that assists California communities pass laws that place the rights of communities and ecosystems above corporate interests. “Mendocino County and Santa Monica have already recognized these rights in order to ban fracking and develop sustainability initiatives.”

This event is free and open to the public, but will require an RSVP. Donations encouraged. Please mark your calendars and join the growing movement for nature’s rights.


The Last Breath


 Photograph by Kseniya Saberzhanova, 17, of Russia.

National Geographic, Your Choice Public Vote winner.

National Geographic sponsors a children’s photograph contest, whose goal is for children to share how they see the planet through photographs.

Salmon Estuary would be next to largest bottling plant operation in North America

Defending Water in the Skagit River Basin

By Sandra Spargo


  • Turners Bay Salmon Pocket Estuary

In 2009, a $671,000 grant was spent to restore the Turners Bay Salmon Pocket Estuary. Chinook salmon now have access to a nearly 60-acre tidal channel lagoon and marsh complex. The lagoon is located at the northeast end of Similk Bay, in the Whidbey Basin of Puget Sound, one of 12 pocket estuaries that had been identified as a high priority restoration site in the Chinook Recovery Plan, part of the Puget Sound Shared Strategy.

According to Skagit County Planning and Development Services,

“While the [Anacortes] petition application references the construction of [Tethys Enterprises, Inc.] beverage bottling plant, this specific project, or another, and their potential impacts or merits are not within the scope of the County’s review.”

Thus, citizens are forced to object to an urban growth area (UGA) petition that would eventually allow Anacortes to rezone the 11.15 acres to light manufacturing next to Turners Bay Salmon Pocket Estuary, because any manufacturing—especially North America’s largest bottling plant operation—could pollute the lagoon.

In the Anacortes American of Dec. 5, 2012, Tethys CEO Steve Winter stated, “We definitely plan to use the property in the UGA expansion. It could be used for anything. It could be used for rail transportation staging or it could be used for the [one million square foot] building.”

Cleared old railbed from road

  • The old rail-right-of-way behind the yellow fire hydrant. The Turners Bay Salmon Pocket Estuary is a stone’s throw from the old rail right-of-way that would be rebuilt.

An old rail-right-of-way would need rebuilding and is located at the intersection of Reservation Road and Stevenson Road. Its clearing has grown over, but the yellow hydrant marks the spot. How would storm water runoff and train and truck oil drippings be managed away from the close-by estuary?

Moreover, the rainy season couples with high tides to produce high water levels in the lagoon.  Data collection in the Whidbey Basin indicate that juvenile salmon displaced from Skagit River delta habitat as a result of flood events could reach the lagoon site in as little as five or six hours.


The Growth Management Act Steering Committee is comprised of representation as follows:

  • City of Anacortes
  • City of Burlington
  • City of Mount Vernon
  • City of Sedro Woolley
  • Port of Anacortes
  • Port of Skagit
  • Swinomish Tribal Community
  • Samish Indian Nation
  • Skagit County
  • Skagit Transit
  • Town of Concrete
  • Town of La Conner


Democracy School in Dover-Foxcroft

This democracy school by CELDF was brought to Dover-Foxcroft by members of Stop the East-West Corridor.  There will be another school on April 5 and 6th, followed by a rights-based-ordinance workshop on April 7th.  Visit our calendar for details.

Citizens and Activists Learn About U.S. Government System

by WABI-TV5 News Desk | March 8th 2013

View Original Article.

Dover-Foxcroft – Concerned citizens and activists had a chance to learn more about the United States government system.

The Daniel Pennock Democracy School was held at the Congregational Church in Dover-Foxcroft earlier this week.

This was the third time the course has been taught in the area by members of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

“Folks come here to learn about the legal structure. How it’s set up and what they can to do to actually take local democracy back and actually make those decisions for themselves”
“It’s about giving them an avenue to follow to be able to get that kind of community established and in place.”

Nat Pop: “So were going actually move now and take a look at the constitution of the United States of America.”

Participant Matthew Newman was paying close attention throughout the session.

“I came here specifically to learn how to write legislation or ordinances for towns along the route so that they can self govern”

In particular, he is concerned with the East West Corridor proposal.

“we should have the right as the community to to say as a community that we don’t want this”

But not everyone is here for the same reason as Matthew,

“We’ve had elected officials folks from all different political backgrounds. Folks come to this school when they either would like to say no to something coming into their community that they don’t want to see that’s going to harm…Or they would actually like to implement a positive policy ”
“I very rarely know what political leanings the people who participate in these democracy schools are. I seldom ask and I seldom find out. It’s really about those members of the communities who see that they perhaps are somehow being restricted from really obtaining the goals they have for their children or their grandchildren”

Caitlin Burchill. WABI TV 5 News. Dover-Foxcroft.

Senator Doug Thomas claims he was threatened

In this article Senator Doug Thomas claims he was threatened by environmental extremists, and that they put fish in his dooryard.  Since then, Thomas’s neighbor came forward to share that a fish truck had spilled fish for about a mile along the whole road, effecting all of them.  This appears to be another attempt by Thomas and EWC proponents to minimize and criminalize Corridor opponents, and create fear in the greater public.  That neighbor has contacted WGME to clarify the situation.  We expect a corrected news story soon.

State Senator Threatened For East-West Highway Support

Link to Video and Original Article.

AUGUSTA (WGME) — Threats and intimidation, that’s what one state senator claims he’s been subjected to, over his support for an east-west highway in Maine.

That project has been talked about for years, drawing support, opposition and controversy at every turn. But one of the most vocal supporters of the project claims the debate is taking a dark turn.

State Senator Doug Thomas: “It’s a great place to represent.  I’ve got Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park and Mount Khatadin and just wonderful people.”

State Senator Doug Thomas represents Piscataquis county.  His constituents are divided over the proposed East-West highway.  If built, it would cut through the southern end of the county.  Senator Thomas supports the highway because he thinks it will benefit people in northern Maine by linking them to Canada.

Thomas: “They’re our biggest trading partner.  And their economy is thriving while ours seems to be sinking.  And we need to take a look.  We need to be better connected to the Canadian economy.”

Senator Thomas believes radical environmental groups will do anything to stop this highway from being built.  The senator says he met with the head of a radical environmental group and two days later, someone placed dead fish, one every 50 feet or so, in either direction on the road outside his home.  The latest threat came in an email this week.

Thomas: “It said that I needed to be careful for my political future and my business’s future.  And that I should change my position and if I didn’t, it was going to cost me. This is a concealed weapons permit that I’m going after today.  I’m going to defend myself.”

There’s a lot of opposition to the East-West highway.  Environmental groups say it won’t bring in long term jobs, won’t help local economies, and won’t bring in tourists.  Instead, they say it will bring in pollution, and adversely impact Maine’s forests, waterways and wildlife.  Senator Thomas, though, doesn’t believe any of that’s true.”

The senator says it should be up to the people of Maine to decide if the highway should be built, not radical environmentalists.

Earth First is one of the environmental groups working in Maine to stop the east-west highway. We tried reaching them, but did not hear back. However, on its website, Earth First says, quote, “We believe in using all the tools in the tool box, including civil disobedience.”

Developing forestland quickly damages stream life, USGS study finds

By Scott Learn, The Oregonian
on November 15, 2012 at 3:16 PM, updated November 15, 2012 at 3:17 PM


Development in western Oregon and southwest Washington has largely swapped forests for homes, driving down water quality and quickly killing off some species of mayflies and other sensitive insects that rely on relatively pristine streams, a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey finds.

USGS researchers examined nine broad urban regions across the United States for their study, released today. In the Northwest, they tapped into 28 measuring stations from Cottage Grove, south of Eugene, to Battle Ground, north of Vancouver, covering the Willamette Valley and the Portland region.

Forests start off with a greater diversity of species and better water quality than agricultural lands, said USGS scientist and study co-author James F. Coles. So regions that focus development on former forest land, including western Oregon, saw the sharpest quality declines, Coles said.

Paving over forestland denudes streamsides and increases runoff from storms. More rainwater gushes into streams, carrying pesticides, fertilizer and sediment and increasing water temperatures, all threats to aquatic life.

“It’s not one thing or the other,” Coles said. “It’s temperature, flashing of streams and washing off of contaminants.”

The Oregon and Massachusetts study areas saw the biggest decline in “sensitive invertebrate species,” the study found, including mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, insects familiar to fishermen and long used as indicators of stream health. They decline sharply even in the initial stages of urban development, the researchers said.

The study highlights the need for forest conservation, the researchers said. Other solutions, many being pursued in the Northwest, include planting trees, installing pervious pavement and increasing buffer zones around streams.


Oregon to try rock salt for snow removal

The Associated Press
Posted:   10/26/2012 09:44:00 PM PDT

PORTLAND, Ore.—Oregon has long avoided the use of rock salt for snow removal but now it plans a five-year pilot project to use salt strategically on two routes typically hard-hit by winter storms.The Oregonian reported Friday that ( it obtained a state Transportation Department document that says the agency wants “another tool in the toolbox” to keep roads clear.

Transportation Department spokesman Dave Thompson acknowledges that rock salt is “stuff we said we wouldn’t use in the past.” However, he says occasional use would help make for “consistent highway conditions” between Oregon and neighboring states that use salt.

The plan calls for using solid rock salt on an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 5 where it crosses the Siskiyou Pass at the California border, and along 120 miles of U.S. Highway 95 between the Nevada and Idaho borders.

Thompson said there are no plans to use salt in the Portland area because of its corrosive effects on bridges.

Oregon Environmental Council clean water advocate Teresa Huntsinger said many other states are trying to reduce the use of road salt. Concerns include possible residue contamination of water supplies and damage to vegetation.

Still, with California, Nevada and Idaho using salt on roads during snowstorms, the contract can be dramatic: clear driving in those states, packed snow on the highway in Oregon, Thompson said. The need to chain


up vehicles in Oregon leads to traffic delays and, in some cases, crashes, he said.”We want to provide the safest possible roadway system,” says a seven-page, question and answer document outlining the plan. “These two pilot projects will help us determine if, in specific, limited situations, salt can help us do that.”

State transportation officials recognize the dangers posed by salting roads to remove snow. A separate “best practices” document, written by department engineers and downloaded from the Internet, calls salt, “the most mobile, the most corrosive and the most likely deicer chemical to negatively impact surface and groundwater resources.”

The plan did not go through the state Transportation Commission, which sets broad policy for the department, said Shelly Snow, an Oregon transportation spokeswoman.

“Our maintenance folks can make this kind of decision on their own,” Snow said. “They did in this case.”

Snow said department officials checked with the state Department of Environmental Quality and with the National Marine Fisheries Service, both of which approved the pilot project.

There’s still the question of explaining this to the public.

“We’re still trying to figure out how to word it,” Thompson said. “This is a major change.”


Hunt for water in eastern Oregon has farmers scrambling to tap Columbia River

By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian 

BUTTER CREEK — The crick, as it’s called, tumbles out of the Blue Mountains, carrying snowmelt and spring rain to the Umatilla River. Water is scarce here, eight to 12 inches of precipitation annually on the flats, but Butter Creek grows enough in its 57 mile run to become a rushing stream for a couple months a year. By high summer it is bone dry, a channeled low spot amid the sage.Early farmers claimed water rights and built seasonal dams to flood and saturate the rich bottom ground for the dry months. Later farmers built canals, tapped the Umatilla River, sank wells and pumped irrigation water, a practice that spread through the Umatilla Basin.

The basin blossomed with the combination of water, sunny days and a long growing season. Farmers say it’s the best place on the globe to grow irrigated vegetables, and it’s capable of producing even more food for a hungry world.

But it’s also a place where the finger-pointing over Oregon agriculture’s voracious water consumption hits home, and all sides recite the lessons of reckless water use from memory.

Heavy irrigation dropped aquifers by up to 500 feet in a matter of decades, among the steepest declines worldwide. A carbon-dating study showed wells had reached water that had been underground for 27,250 years.

Chinook and coho salmon runs in the Umatilla River were declared dead in 1926 and weren’t restored until 1994. Designation of four “critical groundwater” areas in the basin reduced irrigation rights basin-wide by 67 percent.

Farmers say the economic boom is stalled, and more water — say, 100,000 acre feet from the Columbia River — would allow them to grow more valuable crops. A 2006 study said recharging aquifers with river water would stimulate the basin’s economy by $344 million, create more than 2,000 jobs, increase labor income $72 million and add $5 million annually to state tax revenue.

Call it a push by Big Ag, but that’s not a pejorative out here. For all the glow of Willamette Valley farming, Umatilla and Morrow counties, 175 miles east of Portland, ranked second and third statewide in 2011 with $503 million and $477 million in gross farm and ranch sales, respectively. Agriculture provides more than 14,000 direct and secondary jobs in the basin, and its growers and food processors annually ship products worth more than $1 billion  to domestic and international markets.

Umatilla basin farmers have been seeking additional water for more than 20 years. They believe technology and mitigation will allow them to increase their draw from the Columbia, even during spring and summer, without harm to endangered salmon.

They say they’ve learned from past mistakes of over-pumping.

“Sins of our fathers,” acknowledges Craig Reeder, chief operating and financial officer of a large farm along Butter Creek.

Key conservation groups believe he’s sincere, in part because Reeder articulates their views even as he hammers home his own. But they are wary of pumping Columbia River water and the impact on salmon. And they question essentially rewarding the industry that caused the problems. You can see the thought bubble: “These guys drained an aquifer to grow watermelons in the desert, and now they want more?”

Reeder and others understand the concern about an agricultural “water grab.” Agriculture is the state’s largest water user, taking about 85 percent of the water diverted for out-of-stream use.

Gov. John Kitzhaber wants the problem fixed, and designated the basin an “Oregon Solutions” project in April. Recommendations from a 20-member committee of farmers, environmentalists and government regulators are expected by December.

Carefully scripted winter withdrawals from the Columbia — when fish don’t need it and there’s plenty to generate power — might be acceptable to all sides. Farmers hope for a solution that applies only to the Umatilla Basin — one that isn’t opposed by environmentalists because they see it as a troublesome precedent for the rest of the state.

By all accounts, the parties work hard to understand each other.

“We’ve been able to stay at the table,” says Joe Whitworth, president of Portland’s Freshwater Trust. “It hasn’t been the typical greens vs. browns debate.”

Fill it upJ.R. Cook, director of the Umatilla Basin Water Commission, leads the way to a shallow, 5-acre depression scooped from the sand and sage. Protruding from the center is the lip of a 18-foot diameter steel pipe, set vertically like the drain in a bathtub. This is the first test of artificially recharging the alluvial aquifer with Columbia River water.Its homemade look belies the serious nature of the question.Can the basin store some of the Columbia’s high winter flow and pump it back out during summer?

Using some of a $2.5 million state grant, Cook’s commission extended a pipeline from a poplar tree farm and last year pumped 2,000 acre feet of Columbia River water and 16,000 acre feet of Umatilla River water to the infiltration test site. An acre foot of water covers an acre of land one-foot deep.

Over months, the water settled and seeped. Fifty-two wells traced its path.

Cook talks about the unknowns. “Storage capacity, where it goes and how long it takes to get there, and the carryover question: If I leave it in the ground one year, will it be there the next?”

The early indication? The test area might be able to store 25,000 acre feet annually, a quarter of what farmers hope to pull from the Columbia. Not a silver bullet, Cook says, but helpful in combination with other projects.

On Butter Creek, to the south, farmers Kent Madison and Mike McCarty hold state permits to do their own, smaller recharges. When the creek runs high, they divert limited amounts of water to a series of laser-leveled fields set at grade, so each is saturated in turn. At an underground collection point, they pump some for irrigation, and also inject water into the deeper basalt aquifer.

The basin’s projects are miniscule compared to Eastern Washington, where farmers also want more Columbia water. In 2006, the Washington Legislature established a $200 million Columbia River Basin Development Account to “aggressively” seek new water sources.

Derek Sandison, state Department of Ecology’s regional point man, says 40 projects are in various stages. On the back burner is a proposal to dam Crab Creek and pump Columbia River water there for storage. It could hold one- to three-million acre feet, but it would likely cost billions and take decades.

Sandison says Eastern Washington’s water shortages also stem from heavy irrigation and over-appropriation of water rights, followed by groundwater declines and a reduction of irrigation rights.

“They put their money where their mouth is,” says J.R. Cook, of the Umatilla Basin.

Wait and see

The first irrigation well in the Butter Creek area was dug in 1925. The first reports of water table decline came in 1958. By 1972 the area had 72 irrigation wells, from 665 to 1,500 feet deep. Butter Creek’s critical groundwater designation came in 1986.

The search for more water has been on ever since.

Oregon administrative rule prohibits direct irrigation with Columbia River from April 15 to Sept. 30. Withdrawal for storage is allowed, but basin farmers say the Columbia often is going full-bore past April, and they believe water can be safely diverted after the cutoff date.

The state Water Resources Department says that’s possible, but the idea needs study.

Taking more water in summer is a different story. “We’d have to be convinced,” says department engineer Barry Norris.

But change may be afoot. The Oregon Solutions has Gov. John Kitzhaber’s support and the attention of Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The Legislature’s involvement may not be necessary, Dingfelder says, if the basin solutions group reaches consensus.

“It’s premature to speculate how it will turn out,” she says.

Numerous complications exist. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla steadfastly pursue a settlement of their treaty rights to Umatilla River water. The impact of climate change on precipitation patterns is unknown.

Whitworth, of the Freshwater Trust, says the balance of fish and farm must be restored. Agriculture is “at once the most destructive and most necessary activity on the face of the earth,” he says.

But if technology and quantified conservation projects put the state in position to make tradeoffs and achieve environmental gain, “We’re all over this,” Whitworth says.

Numbers guy

Craig Reeder calls himself a numbers guy, and he lays out the value of water with PowerPoint efficiency.

Dryland wheat, grown without irrigation, produces about $100 an acre, he says. Adding one acre-foot increases that to $500 an acre. A second foot allows the farmer to grow hay and some vegetables at $1,500 an acre.

A third acre-foot of water allows production of potatoes, onions and carrots, which gain value to $5,000 an acre or more with processing and international shipment.

Umatilla Basin farms play in the big leagues. Bud Rich Potato is the national supplier of Wendy’s foil-wrapped baked potatoes. Riverpoint Farms supplies the red onions for Subway sandwiches. JSH Farms produces mint flavoring and spices for Colgate, Wrigley, Proctor & Gamble and McCormick. Madison Farms will supply canola oil to Whole Foods. The bag of frozen corn at Safeway in Hermiston was grown and processed within a 20-minute drive.

Hale Farms on Butter Creek, where Reeder is chief operating and financial officer, grows potatoes that go from harvest to McDonald’s french fries in two hours.

Reeder grew up in the Willamette Valley but spent his summers on an uncle’s farm on the eastern edge of the Umatilla Basin. He studied agriculture business management and finance at Oregon State University. In addition to working for Hale Farms, he grows 1,000 acres of unirrigated wheat and is piecing together ownership of farmland that’s been in the family for five generations.

More water ensures the basin’s arc of prosperity and a future for his son, Reeder says.

He fervently believes more water can be drawn from the Columbia without harm. High-tech pump screens, designed by Hermiston’s IRZ Consulting, prevent fish kill, he says. Irrigators could help pay to repair the Wallowa Lake Dam, increasing storage for release to the Columbia in summer and offsetting some of what basin farmers would draw, he says. Today’s center-pivot irrigation systems are far more efficient than sprinklers used decades ago.

The basin’s economic opportunity doesn’t require drying up the Columbia, Reeder says.

“It’s not about the traditional ‘Give us this water and we’ll put people to work,'” he says. “That’s not the only argument. It won’t work politically and it won’t work socially.

“We get it, now.”

California Makes History on the Right to Water

by Shiney Varghese | October 3, 2012

On Wednesday, September 26 Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the bill AB 685, into law, establishing the policy that every person in California has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water. This is a historic moment in the U.S. debate over the right to water.(Image: Creative Commons license from Happy Sleepy.)

The U.S. federal government has not recognized water as a human right, but this policy initiative at the state level could become a turning point as far as water policy and politics goes. It is indeed a step in the right direction, given the concerns about “right to water” violations in California which were raised by the U.N. Special Rapporteur Catalina de Albuquerque following her visit to the United States in 2010.

The bill was authored by assembly member Mike Eng (D-Alhambra) and was co-sponsored by Safe Water Alliance, a coalition which includes many of our allies, and has been advocating for right to water in California for several years. The reach of the bill is extensive, and would help address some of the issues raised in the U.N. report, which identified specific cases where people were denied access to water or had to spend a large percentage of their income to secure water for domestic use.

The bill would “require all relevant state agencies, including the Department of Water Resources, State Water Resources Control Board, and State Department of Public Health, to employ all reasonable means to implement this state policy. Those state agencies would be required to revise, adopt, or establish policies, regulations and grant criteria to further this state policy, to the extent that those actions do not affect eligibility for federal funds.”

Not surprisingly the bill was opposed by almost all established (and powerful) water interests in the state. These include groups such as Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which called on the Governor to veto the bill. They were concerned that the bill will prohibit water agencies from turning off the tap of a customer who does not pay the bill, irrespective of her or his ability to pay. Some farm and industrial interests also opposed the bill, fearing that it would add to the regulations with which they have to comply. However, these fears are misplaced, as pointed out by the Safe Water Alliance, “as AB 685 merely underscores what is already required by the” existing “policies and regulations to protect the State’s water resources relied upon as a source of drinking water.”

On World Water Day earlier this year, reflecting on what is at stake in recognizing the right to water, I wrote that “in the absence of effective regulatory frameworks, safeguards and the clear recognition of water as a fundamental human right, corporate interests will continue to supersede marginalized, low-income communities and smallholder farmers.”  While the right to water is now enshrined in international law and in the constitution of several countries (including Bolivia, Congo, Ecuador, South Africa, Uganda and Uruguay), and national legislations of many others, we still have a long way to go globally. At the Food + Justice=Democracy conference last week in Minneapolis, local activists from around the country insisted that policies don’t always need to start at the federal level, they can follow a bottom up approach too.

California has created history by becoming the very first state in the U.S. to recognize human right to water; it need not remain the only state to do so. The way is now open for other states to follow suit.

© 2012 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Shiney Varghese

Shiney Varghese is Senior Policy Analyst with IATP. She leads IATP’s work on global water policy, focusing on the water crisis, its impact on water and food security, and possible local solutions that emphasize equity, environmental justice and sustainability.

Corrosive Waters Emerge as New Climate Threat

Sept. 30, 2012,
The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News

(c) 2012, The Washington Post.

HOMER, Alaska — Kris Holderied, who directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, says the ocean’s increasing acidity is “the reason fishermen stop me in the grocery store.”

“They say, ‘You’re with the NOAA lab, what are you doing on ocean acidification?’ ” Holderied said. “This is a coastal town that depends on this ocean, and this bay.”

This town in southwestern Alaska dubs itself the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. But worries about the changing chemical balance of the ocean and its impact on the fish has made an arcane scientific buzzword common parlance here, along with the phrase “corrosive waters.”

In the past five years, the fact that human-generated carbon emissions are making the ocean more acidic has become an urgent cause of concern to the fishing industry and scientists.

The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we put in the air through fossil fuel burning, and this triggers a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen, thereby lowering the water’s pH.

The sea today is 30 percent more acidic than pre-industrial levels, which is creating corrosive water that is washing over America’s coasts. At the current rate of global worldwide carbon emissions, the ocean’s acidity could double by 2100.

What impact it is having on marine life, how this might vary by geography and species, and what can be done about it if humans do not cut their carbon output significantly are some of the difficult questions scientists and policymakers are seeking to answer.

The decline in pH will likely disrupt the food web in many ways. It is making it harder for some animals, such as tiny pteropods and corals, to form their shells out of calcium carbonate, while other creatures whose blood chemistry is altered become disoriented and lose their ability to evade predators.

To study what is happening off the West Coast, Gretchen Hofmann, a professor of marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has recruited everyone from sea-urchin divers to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement officials.

She calls it “an all-hands-on-deck moment in our country, and it’s happening before our eyes.”

The NOAA has started tracking changes in the ocean’s pH over time in eight coastal and coral reef ecosystems, ranging from the Gulf of Maine to coastal Hawaii, and is evaluating its impact on more than two dozen commercially important species, such as red king crab, summer flounder and black sea bass.

“One of the primary questions is how is the chemistry of the water changing and how variable is that change across the water we’re responsible for, which is a lot of coastline,” said Libby Jewett, director of the program.

Federal and state authorities are searching for ways to cope with a problem whose obvious solution — slashing global carbon emissions — remains elusive. A blue-ribbon panel established by outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, D, which will issue its recommendations in November, is examining local contributors such as agricultural runoff. Federal officials and scientists, meanwhile, are trying to determine which species may be able to adapt to more acidic seas and explore what other protections could bolster fish populations under pressure.

In the 1970s, NOAA senior scientist Richard Feely and his colleagues began talking about measuring carbon concentrations in the ocean, the way Charles David Keeling had charted atmospheric carbon from a station in Hawaii’s Mauna Loa starting in 1958. Keeling pushed the oceanographer to refine his methods before taking any measurements, and Feely conducted his first transect of the Pacific Ocean in 1982.

By the late 1990s, scientists such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Joan Kleypas were demonstrating that the sea’s declining pH posed a threat to marine life. At first, scientists assumed that the growing acidity of the ocean would dismantle ecosystems around the world in a uniform way, by dissolving the coral reefs that provide essential habitats and impeding the development of the smallest organisms that form the basis of the food web.

But now, scientists are beginning to tease out a more complex picture, in which some parts of the world could be more vulnerable and others may demonstrate resilience. Water from the deep ocean normally comes up and spills over the continental shelf in a process called upwelling; in the Pacific Northwest this water is increasingly acidic, killing oyster larvae that farmers are growing. Much of Alaska’s waters already have lower pH levels, because the water is colder and cold water can hold more carbon dioxide, and the water that reaches the Arctic has been circulating around the planet, absorbing CO2 along the way.

According to NOAA supervisory oceanographer Jeremy Mathis, “It doesn’t take much to push it past the thresholds we’re concerned about.”

And last year, a team of researchers led by Oregon State University professor George Waldbusser found that the pH in the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay is declining at a rate that’s three times faster than the open Pacific Ocean, partly because of increased nutrient runoff from farming and other activities. This stream of nutrients causes phytoplankton to take more carbon dioxide out of the upper Bay; as the plankton release CO2 as they move to the lower Bay, it increases carbon concentrations and lowers the overall pH.

A.J. Erskine, aquaculture manager for the Kinsale, Va.-based Bevans Oyster Co., and Cowart Seafood Corp. in Lottsburg, Va., said they started focusing on the issue when “two years ago we were seeing production losses, and we didn’t know where it was from.”

Six shellfish hatcheries in Virginia have used state funds to conduct their first year of water chemistry monitoring and hope to do more; Erskine said they suspect nutrient runoff from the land contributes to the problem.

Oyster farmers off the coasts of Washington and Oregon were the first to see how ocean acidification threatened their business. Alan Barton, an employee at Oregon’s Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, suspected that lower pH waters were killing off oyster larvae, or spat. Working with Oregon State University and NOAA researchers, they were able to prove it was the case, and now time their intakes to ensure that their oysters are exposed to less-acidic water.

“The scientists helped provide an adaptation strategy to help that industry, and it worked,” Feely said, adding that a $500,000 investment in pH-monitoring equipment “saved that industry $34 million in one year,” in 2011.

But Feely and Jewett acknowledged that tackling the problem in the open ocean will be harder. Jewett said that if they can identify which species are most vulnerable, “we can try to be even more protective of them for the future” by limiting their catch.

The die-off of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest has implications for oyster growers in places as far away as Homer, Alaska, since they traditionally buy their spat from Washington and Oregon farms. Out on the Homer spit, a slim strip of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay, the Kachemak Shellfish Growers cooperative office now boasts a small hatchery where it hopes to produce 3 million spat this year.

“We just can’t rely on the Lower 48 anymore,” said co-op manager Sean Crosby, whose group received $150,000 in federal funds over the past two years to start up and run the hatchery. “Even though we’re not seeing ocean acidification in Kachemak Bay, we’re feeling its effects.”

Alaska and the NOAA are jointly funding four buoys throughout the state to monitor pH levels, while other NOAA scientists are testing how species such as surf smelt would likely gain from a lower pH because they thrive under those conditions, while others, including dungeness crab, would lose.

These species interact with each other, which is why ocean acidification could have such large ripple effects. The highly vulnerable pteropods, for example, can make up as much as 40 percent of the diet of Alaska’s juvenile pink salmon.

“When you ask why does ocean acidification matter, often we’re interested because of the fish we eat and the things we make money off of,” said Shallin Busch, a research ecologist at the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Other species, such as purple sea urchins off California’s coast, have shown some genetic capacity to adapt to more acidic conditions, in part because they are periodically exposed to corrosive waters. Hofmann described her job as seeking an answer to the question, “Will there be sushi?”

“The question is, can they adapt quickly enough in this rapidly changing environment?” Hofmann asked. “And the answer, at least in the case of sea urchins, could be yes.”