Despite the summertime fun that ensues when a burst pipe transforms a neighborhood street into a water park, the problem has gotten a bit out of hand. Last year alone, America experienced 240,000 water main breaks, resulting in the loss of billions of gallons of water. And it's only going to get worse. In the next 20 years, the EPA predicts a shortfall of more than $500 billion in needed drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments. We're headed towards a future of sputtering faucets and overflowing sewage plants.
This week, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) proposed an interesting solution: funding the repair of America's water works with a tax on products that burden it. He'd extract funds from cosmetics, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals--they're often difficult to remove in wastewater plants and can harm the environment--and bottled beverages, which have a carbon and water footprint that goes far beyond the liquids that they contain.
The tax might be a tough sell in Congress (see the gas tax), but it begins to lay the groundwork for a more logical approach to regulating water. Scientists now have the tools to calculate the water footprints of a wide range of businesses and products. I explore how crunching those numbers could help solve the water crisis in our current issue.
Think of it as the Red Scare in reverse: Worrying whether the hipster at the cafe is secretly a communist is about to be replaced with worrying whether the hipster cafe is secretly a Starbucks. Yesterday, the chain revealed that it's dropping its name from a location in Seattle's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood and replacing it with "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea." That's right, the people's coffee provider is going underground.
At least two other local stores will follow suit, Kiera notes on the Riff, as the chain tests out marketing coffee with neighborhood-specific names rather than a slutty mermaid, who is getting blown towards the rocky shore of the recession by competition from the Golden Arches.
That Starbucks is making the name switch in Seattle's Capitol Hill rather than a truck stop in Alabama is telling. It suggests that the chain may be most concerned with countering the hipster and anti-corporate backlash, which has kept the store out of trendy neighborhoods in some cities. San Francisco, for example, has blocked Starbucks and even American Apparel stores over concerns about neighborhood character.
The new stores will also sell alcohol, and Starbucks may want to draw a firm line between "wet" and "dry" outlets. Yet sometimes that line is already blurred. In 2004, I interviewed John Winter Smith, a man on Sisyphean mission to visit every Starbucks in the world, who told me that a store in Plano, Texas served him cocktails from a secret mini bar. "They had a couple of bottles in a back room and were mixing up stuff," he said. Now that's what I call neighborhood character.
Over AAA's 107-year history, it has earned the goodwill of millions of drivers but also the acrimony of growing numbers of environmentalists. In recent years, prominent environmental groups have taken the club to task opposing funding for bike lanes and public transit, bashing the Clean Air Act, and pushing for ever more and bigger highways. So when the Oregon and Idaho chapter of AAA debuted a new bicycle roadside assistance program last week, many people were puzzled. Could the group formerly known as the American Automobile Association finally be going green?
"People wrongly assume that AAA only cares about cars," says Marie Dodds, the chapter's director of government and public affairs. "But for example, this year in the 2009 state legislature, we supported the transportation package, which had elements of mass transit, peds, and bicycles. We realized that whether it's because of the economy, the environment, or wanting to improve your fitness, bicycles are becoming a more popular option to get around. So basically we're just staying with the times."
Or with the competition. The chapter's home city, Portland, Oregon, is also HQ for the rival upstart, Better World Club, which launched in 2002 as "the nation's only environmentally-friendly auto club." Better World offers a carbon offset service (now also an option at the Oregon AAA), eco-travel services, discounts on hybrid car rental, and what was, until last week, the nation's only bicycle roadside assistance program. "We are nothing like AAA or other auto clubs," says the BWC's website, which links to a raft of stories on the AAA's lobbying record. "We have the same reliable roadside assistance, but we have a unique policy agenda."
Dodds of AAA says the club's environmental record has improved since the early '90s, when it opposed a law that allowed cities to use highway funds for public transit and bike paths. "That's something that happened 16 years ago," she says. Still, she has no qualms about the club's membership in the American Highway Users Alliance, a group that BWC opposes. "The reality is that the US is, for the most part, a car-based nation," she says. The Alliance's 2008 year-end report brags that it opposed "Smart Growth" development, the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate global warming, and an amendment to a global warming bill by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would have "included unprecedented anti-mobility provisions, increased fuel costs, and diverted funds from highways."
Are those efforts at odds with AAA's work in Oregon? Consider this: if you're on your bike alongside a busy freeway and you get sideswiped by a car, who's going to pick up the mangled two-wheeler while you're in the hospital? As the club's website says, "Wherever you drive, in the U.S. or Canada, 24 hours a day, AAA will help."
UPDATE: Talk about identity crisis. . .Treehugger reports that AAA is also planning to launch an "eco icon" in its tour book that will denote "green" hotels.
Who says the arcane job of rewriting the laws that govern hard-rock mining isn't of interest to Joe Sixpack? Certainly not Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who in testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources today, deftly linked the reform of the nation's mining laws to the production of better beer. "Relative to the water that was used for Coors beer," the former Colorado Senator said, "we know that Clear Creek comes off the headwaters. . .where we have thousands of abandoned mines."
Salazar was testifying in support of two senate bills that would end the giveaway of minerals on federal land--a federal law from 1872 still allows companies to extract gold and other minerals royalty-free--and use the money to finance the cleanup of mining sites. An estimated 500,000 abandoned mines have contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of the West's streams. Cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion.
For Salazar, citing Coors' iconic Clear Creek was a tip of the cowboy hat to Republican brewery scion Pete Coors, whom Salazar narrowly defeated in a 2004 Senate race. For decades, the Coors family has been a major donor to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and John Birch Society and target of environmentalists. On several occasions, the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado, dumped thousands of gallons of beer into Clear Creek, at one point killing up to 50,000 fish (perhaps they at least died happy). But starting in the early 1990s, Coors also began paying more attention to preserving its watershed. It joined forces with state agencies to clean up an abandoned mine along the creek and cap, grade, and replant the site.
The mining reform bill would bankroll those cleanups by requiring new mines to pay into a fund. But Salazar would like to see it go further by creating new incentives for companies such as Coors to clean up mines on their own. In 2006, he sponsored a "Good Samaritan" bill that would have allowed private interests to mop up contaminated sites without fear of being held liable for the pollutants found there. For example, in the 1990s, the State of Colorado and Coors had planned to stanch the flow from a mine tunnel that was leaching ten pounds of heavy metals into Clear Creek each day, but the state killed the project for fear of lawsuits.
Salazar's plea for better beer through mining reform was a big hit with freshman Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has replaced him on the committee. "Your comments about Coors are particularly relevant to me, since Colorado is the number one producer of beer on a state-to-state basis," he said. "It's an important industry in Colorado and it's important to all of us."
Then the microphone was passed to Senator James Risch (R-ID), who was none too impressed. "Colorado may brew it," he said, "but Idaho grows the barley and the hops."
From the San Francisco Chronicle today comes a great story about how major produce buyers are imposing secret scorched-earth measures on hundreds of thousands of acres where spinach and leafy greens are grown. Trees are being bulldozed, frogs and rodents are being killed, and farmers are creating wide crop buffers of bare dirt, all in a misguided attempt to prevent another outbreak of E. Coli. The changes are taking a heavy toll on the Salinas Valley, the nation's "salad bowl," which is incredibly biodiverse and traditionally a hotbed of sustainable agriculture. By eliminating the natural checks and balances on the agricultural ecosystem, the measures might be doing more harm than good. There has never been an E. Coli outbreak on small-scale farms---farms that are integrated with the local ecosystem and sell to the region's farmers markets.