Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Report Finds Huge Potential for Conservation to End California's Water Crisis

 A report released today by California's Pacific Institute estimates that reasonable water conservation improvements on the state's farms could save a huge amount of water--far more than what farmers have been forced to relinquish to protect fish habitat during the state's ongoing drought. The amount that could be saved, 1.8 trillion gallons annually, is more than 15 times the size of the municipal supply of San Francisco. 

The report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future, provides considerable ammunition to environmentalists in their fight with farmers over the West's dwindling water resources. In the midst of the third year of drought in California, growers are blaming endangered species laws for crimping their water supply and contributing to $1 billion in lost revenue this season. Though they've used their plight to call for weakening environmental regulations and building more dams and reservoirs, the report suggests their efforts are misplaced. Smarter conservation has allowed some growers "to increase their income, crop yields, and production, even during drought," says Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick. "Such success stories offer the state a vision of what a healthy agricultural future might look like."

The water conservation methods that the Gleick studied are already in use in the state, though many farmers cling to older practices. For example, 60 percent of crops in California are still irrigated by flooding the field, even though drip irrigation methods can easily halve water use. The report also suggests that farmers apply less water to crops during drought-tolerant growth stages and use sensors that can detect when soil is dry. 

These ideas can seem far-removed from our lives until we realize that the products we consume account for more than 90 percent of our daily water use, far more than what comes out of our taps. I explore this idea in "What's Your Water Footprint," a piece in the current issue.  The Pacific Institute and other environmental groups eventually hope the concept of a water footprint will catch on much as carbon footprints have. The idea could be used to reward farmers who do the right thing, either with tax breaks, loans, or a premium for the products they sell. 

The case for looking at carbon footprints and water footprints together is stronger than ever. A new study from the University of Colorado found that climate change creates a 50 percent chance that the reservoirs supplied by the Colorado River, the West's main water source, could run dry by 2057. And a study released today by UC Davis found that California's $10 billion fruit and nut industry is under threat from higher temperatues, which could make it impossible to grow walnuts, pistacios, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries almost everywhere in the Central Valley. If that happens, all the water conservation technology in the world probably won't save us.

Oh, the faded awesomeness of 1979, the year that Mother Jones ran a 12-page feature on America's "psychic renaissance," that string bikinis were in style, and that the California Parks and Recreation Department relaxed its policy on public nudity. It's the 30th anniversary of 1979 this year--a year that this writer turned three--and California has a message for you folks who are still livin' it: Hippie, put your clothes on.

Yesterday, a state appeals court ruled that California parks officials can prohibit nudity on any state beach. The state's laissez faire nudity policy had been challenged last year when Parks Director Ruth Coleman imposed a booty ban at Southern California's popular Onofre beach. Now of course, Onofre bathers will be using a little less suntan lotion.

Is the nudity fight a last gasp of California's hippie heyday? Public perceptions of naked bathers probably haven't changed much since the late '70s, but Gen Xers with kids might not be keen to share the beach with a bunch of proudly shriveled senior citizens. Still, the ruling doesn't apply to land owned by the National Park Service, which has preserved the freedom to bare it all. As the poet Emma Lazarous might say: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of hairy naked dudes, yearning to breathe free. . .

Above: Vintage Mojo cover. How sexy are these folks now?

 

As this blog was among the first to note, the EPA has a Most Wanted list. Posted in December, it includes rap sheets and mug shots for 21 environmental criminals, among them  Robert Wainwright, an Indianan convicted of child molesting and weapons violations whose personal hygiene seems as if it should be an environmental crime of its own. Accused by the EPA of dumping steel mill slag into a wetland, he was featured on this site in March. Behold the power of the press: On Friday, the EPA announced that federal and Mexican agents nabbed him in Zamora, Mexico. It's hard to say whether a Mother Jones reader turned him in (the tipoff was anonymous), but publicity from the list seems to be paying off. Since it debuted, the EPA has also caught two other fugitives.

Anyone seen this fellow? He's accused of discharging unnamed pollutants into San Diego harbor. Body hair, perhaps?

 

The Case for a Water Tax

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.

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